By Peter Larsen
Annie Clark, the quirky talent who performs as St. Vincent, knows the exact time and place she first met David Byrne, the offbeat genius from Talking Heads and countless solo projects and collaborations: May 3, 2009, Radio City Music Hall, at a benefit concert for the Red Hot Organization featuring its "Dark Was the Night" album.
"We were at the after-party, and David came up to me and said he liked my new video for 'Actor out of Work,'" Clark said by phone the day after she and Byrne played a show in Dallas, her hometown. "He said it was very creepy, and I took that as a big compliment coming from him. And that's when the friendship was born."
A few nights later, they ran into each other at a Soho bookstore where the Housing Works AIDS advocacy group had organized a benefit featuring a collaboration between Bjork and the Dirty Projectors, Clark says.
"And the Housing Works people approached us and asked us if we'd want to do a similar night," she says. "And then it just became a process, a long process at first, trying to figure out how to write together. We had a small but manageable goal, to maybe write 30 minutes of music for this small space for a night of charity. But it kept growing and growing."
Three years later Clark and Byrne have an album, "Love This Giant," and a tour that brings them to the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on Friday and the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Getting to this point, though, while creatively invigorating, was never a sure thing, she says.
"I think neither of us knew where it was going to end up," Clark says. "If three years ago someone had said, 'OK, this is what you're going to do: You're going to start writing an entire album, you're going to put it out, and right after you tour your more most recent (St. Vincent) album you're going to go and tour this,' I might have been a little spooked.
"But the fact is that it kind of works, that there was this natural evolution. It was, 'OK, we've got six songs, that's a little more than for an EP, we might as well put a record out.' And once we put the record out, we might as well tour."
Working together made sense to both musicians from the start, Clark says.
"I think that David's music fits nicely at that intersection between accessible and very artful," she says. "And I think that is something I strive to do as well, to find that balance between the two.
"And we make good collaborators because we tend to not be just operating from a place of ego all the time. We tend to be reasonable and there's a very nice give and take."
The first song they wrote together was "Who," which also ended up the first song on the album and the first single, and it set a course for how their long-distance songwriting would continue to go.
"I think you'll hear actors talk about doing improv theater and how the first rule of that is to say yes," Clark says. "Say yes to a situation. If someone has an idea, say yes, OK, and incorporate it into the scene. This was a similar exercise in saying yes.
"Obviously I trust his ears and his artistic vision, so if he'd send me an idea I'd go, 'Yes, OK, how can I honor this and also add to it?' And he did the same with what I would send to him."
Early on, Clark suggested they work with a brass band on the album, using instruments such as baritone saxophone and tuba in lieu of bass guitar and adding all kinds of accents and textures that a traditional rock lineup wouldn't provide.
"If anything I feel we approached working with a brass band as outsider artists," she says. "Learning how different instruments can speak, what their tonal ranges are. We were just writing songs that were interesting and then thought, 'OK, let's transfer this to brass band and see what we can get.'"
The eight-piece band on tour with Byrne and Clark also plays an important role in the look of the show, which has them performing movements designed by choreographer Annie-B Parson, a frequent Byrne collaborator, onstage as the songs unfold.
"I think that having the horn players move and be such a part of it gives the whole show a shape and a drama," Clark says of the physical aspects of the performance.
After the tour wraps later this month, Clark says, she'll probably take only a little time off before starting work on her next St. Vincent album and heading back out on the road with that. And who knows – she says this experience has been so good that she'd be open to working more with Byrne in the future.
We started this piece by mentioning when and where Clark first met Byrne. We'll close with an anecdote about where the 30-year-old first remembers hearing a song by Byrne and the Talking Heads.
"My earliest memory was watching a movie called 'Revenge of the Nerds,' which came out in 1984 and was a staple in my house," Clark says. "We just wore out that VHS. And there's a great scene where one of the oafish frat boys throws a fireball and burns down the frat house.
"And the Talking Heads song, 'Burning Down the House,' is one of the most perfect uses of music ever in a movie there. We just wore out that VHS. That and 'Remain in Light' and 'Fear of Music' were staples in our house."