On the Fourth of July, Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, retweeted a nugget of wisdom from fellow indie mainstay John Darnielle of the band Mountain Goats. "On your deathbed, you will not say: 'I wish I'd spent more time talking about social media,'" Darnielle posted to his account (@mountain_goats) and Clark reposted on hers (@st_vincent). And yet, social media is the driving force behind the rollout of St. Vincent's new album, "Strange Mercy," due Sept. 13 on 4AD Records.
In mid-July, Clark began promoting the coming release, her third, almost exclusively through the Twitter hashtag #strangemercy. During the campaign's first three days, more than 5,000 fans put the hashtag in their tweets, fueled by the promise that once a certain threshold of tweets containing the tag was reached, a new St. Vincent single would be "unlocked" and released to the Web. On July 22, that threshold was met, and the synthy song "Surgeon" was made available on St. Vincent's dedicated "Strange Mercy" site.
"Although Annie has 400,000 Twitter followers, you [didn't] really know if they're going to be onboard with it, because Twitter hasn't really been used in this way before," Beggars Group Web developer Naomi Scott says. "[But] fans went crazy -- it was almost like people were tweeting in shifts. We had no idea what our target number of tweets should be [to unlock "Surgeon"], and we set it tentatively at 1,000. They would have unlocked everything in a matter of hours had we kept it there."
Video: "Cruel," St. Vincent
Scott predicts that the digital strategy, which continues to create a viral event around "Strange Mercy," will catch on with other artists. Clark agrees, but sees a limit to its shelf life. "In a year, that sort of campaign will be irritating," she says. "It's one of those things you kind of have to get in on the ground floor with, kind of like having celebrities in your music videos. It's cool but it'll be a little too commonplace in a little bit, so better get in there while you can."
Celebrities in videos? Been there, done that. St. Vincent's 2010 video for "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood," off her 2009 album "Actor," which also appeared on Beggars' 4AD, centered on "Saturday Night Live" comedian Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney singer Carrie Brownstein. In fact, it was the latter two's domination of the parody clip that, in part, spawned the duo's IFC series, "Portlandia."
St. Vincent and the Beggars team have taken a decidedly mysterious approach to video for "Strange Mercy." A series of teaser clips directed by Alan Del Rio Ortiz (Sundance Channel, Vice magazine) -- depicting everything from mother felines eating their kittens for protection to declarations of tough love from attractive young females -- have also been "unlocked" on StrangeMercy.com.
"I like the idea of doing videos that tie into the record that are not themselves musical," Clark says. "So we thought, 'OK, let's do some riffs on this idea of "strange mercy." Some of them should be funny, some of them will be quite dark, some should be touching and beautiful' -- all these different ways you can view this idea of 'strange mercy.'"
Video: "Strange Mercy" Teaser 3, St. Vincent
In the third clip, Clark coyly coos, "I just need to be alone right now... maybe with somebody else," a line that evokes the black humor that colors so many of her lyrics. But while there's a darkness to her art, Clark lights up when talking about touring. She started her career as a touring member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' band, and in early October she'll set off on a two-month tour of North America and Europe.
"I've been touring basically all my 20s -- almost my entire adult professional life -- so touring is a major, major part of it for me," says Clark, who performed "Strange Mercy's" second single, "Cruel," on "Late Show With David Letterman" on Aug. 29. "I'm sure that there are big plus sides to living a stationary life, but the crowd... that's the big payoff, to get to play music for people every night."