About a year ago, Annie Clark was wandering around a friend's ranch in a remote part of West Texas when she decided to take off all her clothes. "It's really beautiful out there," says the 31-year-old singer-guitarist, better known as St. Vincent. "I thought I'd up the ante." It seemed like a great idea, until she heard a strange noise and turned to see a poisonous snake in striking distance. "It was fucking terrifying," she says. "I ran all the way back to the house and had a shot of tequila."
"Rattlesnake," the song that recounts those events at the start of Clark's fourth album, St. Vincent, has all the hallmarks of her best work: a tense, spooky atmosphere, an alluringly catchy tune and a surprise twist – in this case, a violent, fuzzed-out guitar solo played by Clark. This is the fiercely unique sound that has made her the most thrilling solo artist in indie rock right now. Her devoted fan base includes David Byrne, her partner on 2012's Love This Giant. "I hear an acceptance of melody without any fear in Annie's work," Byrne has said. "But these beautiful melodies are often undercut by very creepy or disturbing subject matter. When I met Annie, I complimented her on how disturbing [one of her videos] was."
She and the former Talking Head remain good friends – the weekend before Clark meets me for a drink at a cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she drove to Atlantic City with him and his daughter so they could catch a Janelle Monáe concert. It was a fun way for her to blow off some steam after five grueling weeks of production rehearsals for the tour she will launch this month. "It's going to be heavy," she says as a waitress brings two flutes of Prosecco. "Like a bizarre fever dream."
Growing up with eight siblings in a middle-class Dallas suburb, Clark was a full-on music obsessive who started playing guitar at age 12. Her uncle and aunt, the jazz duo Tuck and Patti, turned her on to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and brought her on tour as a teenage roadie. Back home, her friends and siblings fed her their own tastes for Pink Floyd and Pavement. "With that many older brothers and sisters," she says, "you definitely end up smoking weed when you're 14, feeling like you really know what it means to be 'Comfortably Numb.'" Today, her music draws on decades of rock history, from Led Zeppelin's thunderous roar to Yes' prog fantasies to Sonic Youth's feedback attack and beyond. "I'm always pushing myself," she says. "Not just trying to imitate the old rock lexicon, which I love dearly and know intimately, but trying to chase down what I imagine."
Clark says she gets many of her best ideas for songs while she's trying to fall asleep. The lyrics for one highlight of the new album, the beautifully zonked ballad "Huey Newton," came to her during an Ambien-induced hallucination in Helsinki involving the slain Black Panther leader. "My subconscious is smarter than I am," she says. "It puts things together in ways I don't always understand." She wrote the social-media-roasting single "Digital Witness" on another restless night. "If I can't show it, you can't see me/What's the point of anything?" she sings sarcastically over what sounds like a robotic brass band. "People feel so compelled to document their every tiny, mundane moment that you start to lose track of what's actually meaningful," she says. "I wonder if, in the future, privacy will be something that only the one percent can afford."
Sipping her sparkling wine, Clark circles back to her encounter with the rattlesnake in Texas. Her friend's ranch was 20 miles from town; if she'd been bitten, she doubts she would have survived. "That would be a bummer," she says thoughtfully. "I guess it's not the worst way to go out, though. At least there's a dramatic arc to it." She laughs and raises her glass. "Cheers! To life!"
This story is from the February 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.