“I Could Be Anybody Today…” St Vincent Interviewed

As part of MOJO’s Glastonbury 2022 Collection, read our St Vincent interview in full

St Vincent by Zackery Michael

by Victoria Segal |

Sidewoman, shredder, superstar – St. Vincent is the 21st century transformer whose new album throws funky ’70s shapes while singing of her jailbird dad. But what else lies behind her many masks? Last year, Victoria Segal sat down with Annie Clark to find out. Ahead of St Vincent’s appearance at Glastonbury this weekend, read the interview in full…

Portraits by Zackery Michael

Annie Clark has slipped into something more comfortable. The pink latex bodysuits and thigh-high boots she wore for St. Vincent’s last album, 2017’s Masseduction, have been mothballed: new photographs show maroon flares, a robe, tousled blonde hair, all shot against the beaux-arts-meets-Skid-Row backdrop of downtown Los Angeles’ Barclay Hotel. “Gena Rowlands in a John Cassavetes movie or Candy Darling,” says Clark, explaining the inspirations behind the rebrand that heralds St. Vincent’s sixth album, Daddy’s Home. “Glamour that’s been awake for two days.”

Where its predecessor was high in sheen and concept, Daddy’s Home is rich in oil-crisis style, morning-after experience; love and its compromises; what it takes to hang on as the world falls apart. Family and its legacies also feature: the album’s title partly refers to her father’s decade in prison for “white-collar crime”. The “down and out” mood she sought was hardly a reach, given the times: “I was just watching a lot of institutions that people formerly trusted crumble,” Clark says. “In America, seeing the veneer fall off a lot of things, just watching a lot of pillars fall, brick by brick.”

Since her 2007 debut Marry Me, she has displayed a gift for transformation; prosthetically-altered David Byrne collaborator on 2012’s Love This Giant; smoke-haired cult leader on 2014’s St. Vincent; Masseduction’s AI dominatrix. “I think that all this stuff is inside of me so it doesn’t feel like a character,” she says. “It just feels like you have a big mixing board on your personality and you turn some things up and turn other things down. I like reinventing myself. It feels thrilling to me, really. Like, I could be anybody today.”

Right now, working on a bass line in her LA studio, she’s very much the modern musician. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1982 to a social worker mother and “lapsed Catholic” father, Clark moved to Dallas, Texas with her mother and sisters (she has eight siblings across her blended family) after her parents divorced. She studied at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music, served with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band before her own debut. Since then, she’s established herself as both polymath and polymorph, a virtuoso guitarist who can sing with Swans and write for Taylor Swift, front Nirvana at their 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and play at 2020’s Grammy Salute To Prince. She produced Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 album The Center Won’t Hold (drawing criticism from some of the band’s fans over the extent of her influence), directed 2017 horror short The Birthday Party and co-wrote forthcoming mockumentary The Nowhere Inn with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein.

Between 2014 and 2016, Clark even skirted tabloid celebrity when she dated actress/model Cara Delevingne, yet her mystery remains unhacked and even her rawest, most emotional songs refuse to give much away. “Me I never cried,” she sings on a new one, The Melting Of The Sun. “To tell the truth I lied.”

So then, asks MOJO, who is Annie Clark today?

With Masseduction, the title track’s lyric – “I can’t turn off what turns me on” – set the record’s agenda. Did you have a similar mission statement for this album?

Yeah, I did. I was talking to my friend Jack Antonoff who I co-produced the record with. 
I remember being at Electric Lady studios in downtown New York and I just wanted to feel down and out downtown. Down and out. I could picture the colour palette. I wanted to tell real dirty romantic stories. Crazy romantic stories.

Where did that desire come from?

I think part of it was that in the [autumn] of 2019 my dad got out of prison after 10 years. That’s why I called the record Daddy’s Home and I got to write about it in the song Daddy’s Home. I was just going back to a lot of the music that he loved and that he showed me as a kid. Probably the music I have listened to more in my entire life is stuff from ’71 to ’75. It’s wavy and it’s loose and very much about the performance; if you get the moment, great – it’s not about perfection and high-gloss. I was, “Oh I love this stuff. I think I could tell my story in this way, through this lens.” I can tell stories that are dark and sad and funny, and darkly funny, and about imperfect people living imperfect lives.

So the line in Daddy’s Home – “I signed autographs in the visitation room” – is true?

Yes. And when you go to visit, you can’t bring cell phones in and do selfies or anything like that, but I would sign a Target receipt or something. Obviously, it was very dark but I also thought it was hilarious. And I would brag to my sisters that I was the real belle of the ball at this particular prison.

Is it a tribute to your dad?

Oh, I wouldn’t go that far (laughs). I don’t think people should get tributes unless they die. When we die, we’re all saints. We’re all pillars of the community after we die. But no.

Your third album, 2011’s Strange Mercy, dealt with your father’s imprisonment more obliquely – what allowed you to write about it explicitly now?

So much has changed in 10 years. When you become parent to your parent or your roles have reversed, it’s like, I’m kind of Daddy now. I feel very like that particular title is applicable to how I feel personally and also the nod to my dad actually coming out of the clink. So it’s a lot of things for me. I think I feel OK talking about it because the children – his kids, of which there are many – everyone’s of age and in a place with it. I have a good relationship with him. A very funny relationship but a good one. He’s a big music fan, so yeah – I think he’s thrilled to have a record at least in some ways named in reference to him.

“I saw Jethro Tull three times. I was never cool.”

One of the first things you wanted to learn to play on the guitar was Jethro Tull’s Aqualung – where did that come from?

I think that was my dad’s CD. I saw Jethro Tull three times. Tull – three times! My first concert was Steely Dan. I was never cool. But a lot of that – Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young, Neil Young, The Doors, Zeppelin, Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Herbie Hancock, Traffic – all that stuff would have been my dad’s influence, I guess. How many times have you seen Tull, hmm?

Were they not a bit alarming for a child?

If I’m honest, I don’t love the flute – it ranks as one of my least favourite instruments. 
I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t understand the novelty of just how brave he [Ian Anderson] was to bring the flute into prog rock. When you’re going back and raiding the boomer record collection you don’t have the same concepts as they do. “Oh, so-and-so was just a so-and-so rip off, these people are corny” – it’s all just exploration for you. It’s nice with virgin ears.

You’ve said there’s a Stevie Wonder influence on Daddy’s Home – was that from your father too?

I knew the sort of young Stevie Wonder era but actually it was right after 9/11 – which was my first or second day at college – and my friend was like, “Just go deep on Innervisions.” And I was like, “Woah, OK.” So it was music that helped me deal with the depth of what was going on. That was when I really got into InnervisionsTalking BookSongs In The Key Of Life, that particular era of Stevie Wonder that was super-heavy.

How about Sly Stone?

I knew the hits growing up and then dug in around the same time and went back and revisited it recently. Checked out the Long Beach sound and bands like War. Super groove-based but with other influences whether Latin or, like, wiggly stuff. No straight lines. No right angles at all. Groove and feel are like a house of cards. It’s like this elusive magic trick.

You were into theatre at high school – is that where you learned to become a performer?

It was something that really scared me but I got such a thrill out of it. Let me make a distinction: I wasn’t into musical theatre. I was, like, reading Ibsen. I wasn’t trying to be the lead in Hello, Dolly! Musical theatre, I didn’t understand – I was like, “Why would you break into song right now?” I loved David Mamet.

What were your signature roles?

I had a progressive theatre teacher who changed one of the roles in Our Town to a female role so I could have a part. I think I had about four lines and most of it was to look forlorn, which wasn’t that hard as a teen. And then I was Helen Keller’s mother in The Miracle Worker.

You went on to study at Berklee College Of Music but did you ever play in a guitar-bass-drums school band?

I did a bit. I played in bands in high school and we’d do Jewel covers and such. Then I begrudgingly played in a jam band in high school. And then in college I played in a noise band that was very Polvo, all those Sonic Youth kind of noise bands with detuned guitars. It was really fun. I was doing my own solo stuff in the midst of all this. Writing at least.

Can you remember the first songs you wrote?

One of the first things I wrote I ended up using on the song Saviour [on Masseduction] – I’m picturing pressing play and record at the same time on the Tascam 4-track. I don’t remember exactly the first thing I wrote, but I do remember that I would learn other people’s songs and then about three-quarters of the way through I would immediately start trying to write my own things. I’ve never been that great a student, I guess. I think instinct can take you a lot of great places but at a certain point, if you want to keep trying to get better, you do just have to go back and figure out: “OK, this song is great. Why is it great?” Take it apart like a frog in biology. It’s not the sexiest part, but I just find it crazy, endlessly fascinating.

Do you think you’ve written a standard?

A song like What Me Worry? [on Marry Me] was literally inspired by the Great American Songbook. Maybe my song New York [on Masseduction] can go into the canon of songs about New York. It’s a little bit of a hard sell with the word “motherfucker” in it, but who knows? Maybe that would play in 2040, 2050. The obscenity won’t matter. Nobody will care.

There’s a song on the new album named after Warhol Superstar Candy Darling. When you moved to New York after college, were you in thrall to that Warhol idea of the city?

Yeah, I think New York is full of people who have escaped from wherever they’ve come from, unless they were born there. It’s still my favourite city and I still have so much more of 
a romantic relationship with New York than any other place. I moved there just after college. When I was in college, I would escape Boston and go on the Chinatown bus for $15 and go to the city for the weekend. Hoped I’d find a place to stay and run around and be drunk and see shows. Every single block of downtown has memories – good, bad, ugly, fuzzy – and you’re alive in that place more than other places. That’s my experience and I know I’m not alone. [Candy Darling] was just so beautiful and singular and funny and I feel kind of a perfect heroine.

On returning to Texas, you were invited to join The Polyphonic Spree – how was that as a learning experience?

I always wanted to be essentially doing what I am doing now but it was so exciting to go from playing little clubs to – I think my first gig with them was at a Spanish festival called Benicàssim. It was like, the elevator doors opened and there were like 40,000 people. The chaos, it’s hot and sweaty, and there’s just that unpredictable ‘What’s going to happen next? Am I going to hop on top of a road case and be wheeled all over the stage?’ We were mostly on the bill with Sonic Youth and the stuff that was big in those days. Franz Ferdinand was really big, Kaiser Chiefs, The Bravery – are all these things ringing bells? Jet was one of the big headliners.

Beyond music, what did you learn from watching other bands on the festival circuit? Any cautionary tales?

One thing that I think of is when I see people with really massive entourages. I know it maybe seems sexy from the outside but you’re paying for all that. I mean, don’t go bankrupt ’cos you’re bringing your entourage around.

David Byrne, whom you collaborated with on 2012’s Love This Giant, has spoken of you having ‘mystery’ – “not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman (or man) to embrace.” Has ‘mystery’ been useful to you?

I don’t think it’s something that I actively, calculatedly set out to cultivate. I like being able to go creatively any place that I want. And I like that fans seem comfortable with that as well and that they’ve given me the leeway. I appreciate that vote of confidence and that secret pact that we make.

What did you take from working with Byrne?

One of the things I loved about David when we were writing that record is that whatever he did there was a full commitment – even if he was mumbling, didn’t have concrete lyrics, was just trying out a melody or a feeling. And I think that’s why he can channel that manic ecstatic better than any- one else. But I got to see the sketches of that and it’s just full commitment, no judgement, try it out, throw it out and then refine, refine, refine. And knowing when to step away. Like, making sure your refinement doesn’t turn into neutering.

Love This Giant looks like a dividing line in your career; it seemed to shake something loose. Did you feel like a different kind of artist after that?

I think it’s sort of hard to know. I think that he record I made just after David [2014’s St. Vincent] was a record written on the high of those shows and that tour and kind of touching that ecstasy a little bit. But as for the rest, I don’t even know. I have no idea.

You said that around St. Vincent you wanted to look like an alien because you felt like an alien. Where did that come from?

I don’t know, I think I maybe felt a bit misunderstood in life. I just felt a little ill at ease, I felt confrontational, I felt just probably a bit angry. I don’t walk around feeling misunderstood, but I think in some ways I was coming from a very humble ‘Let’s grab a guitar and throw it in the back of the minivan’ – this very DIY, kinda scrappy thing. I’d never really played physically with the idea of identity – I’d played with it lyrically, I’d played with it in music, 
but I’d never gone, “I want to do a physical transformation, I’m tired of being this. I don’t want to be this any more. I don’t want to be a sweet, curly-headed ingénue. Fuck that. I want to be a space alien. I want to be on some other planet.” So I just kind of went there. I don’t know exactly why I was there but I felt I wanted my outside to look like what my inside looked like which was, like, other. Freak, queer, other.

Did it achieve what you wanted?

Even just walking down the street with grey hair and bleached eyebrows looking strung out – like yeah, that person is going to be received differently than whatever I had been previously. I do think I wanted to be more confrontational.

“I was in a very low place. I had this incredibly rigid life so that I could hold on.”

Your live shows for St. Vincent were extremely physical – was there ever a moment where you came round on-stage and thought, “I don’t know how to get out of this, I’ve gone too far”?

I put myself in peril before when I was doing the Strange Mercy tour. I would crowdsurf – which was the biggest rush in the world. With the St. Vincent show it started off pretty composed but as we did more and more and I was just touring so much, I was truly out of my mind. Those shows became more outlandish. Climbing scaffolding, 20, 30 feet up in the air. I was climbing speakers – I almost seriously hurt myself a couple of times. I mean, I was 
out of my mind. (LaughsOf my mind. That was a wild time of life. I was crispy from the road. I was absolutely feral.

How do you view that period now?

I don’t look back on it with regret. I do look back on it and go, “Oh man, I wonder why the people who were helping me with my career at that time didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s slow down.’” You know, “Let’s take these couple weeks off.” I didn’t have support in that regard. I do wonder why people who could have, didn’t – but I don’t have those people in my life any more. I do look back at pictures, like, “Oh man, I look almost dead. Who’s that person?”

So the rigidity of Masseduction was a specific response to that?

Yes. I was in a very low place, late 2016, early 2017. I was in a very low place and I got physically sick. It was a stomach issue which was sort of elusive, I never did find out exactly what it was. I’m sure it was just stress but it became hard to eat. It was like my body just said, ‘OK, you’re going to go on a complete reset.’ I was sick, so I stopped eating certain things that seemed to exacerbate the sickness and I stopped drinking anything and I had this incredibly rigid life so that I could hold on. And the thing that was keeping me holding on was making the record, making the show, seeing the fans, just… doing the thing. In a way, I was incredibly strict with my mind. I was strict with my body. I was strict in a lot of ways with the music – that’s why I think it’s angular, it’s jagged, it’s angry, it’s abrasive. I was holding on for dear life. Part of the outfits were like ‘stress position’ [ie. a stance inflicted on prisoners as a type of torture] – everything about it was, how free can you be in this confined outfit and these shoes that hurt? And if it doesn’t hurt, you’re doing something wrong. Which is just very… Catholic (laughs).

Are there people you see as role models?

The people who I really love and admire are people who have been writers for a long time and who are still continuing to get better as writers and are pushing and never get complacent. That’s Nick [Cave]. Bowie made one of his best records ever the year that he was dying. Lana Del Rey has always been a great writer but gets better and better. A lot of times, the trajectory for people can be that they do something really great that’s popular and then maybe they do something that’s less great but even more popular. The something great and the amount of exposure it gets is not necessarily correlated.

You took your name from a line in Nick Cave’s There She Goes, My Beautiful World – have you met him?

Yeah, a little bit. Nick and Susie Cave are, in my experience, just lovely. Absolutely. And Warren Ellis I know a little bit and he’s just a dream. I was at the same studio working with Jack [Antonoff] and Warren and Nick were mixing their last record [Ghosteen]. Warren came in and played a couple of mixes. He played me that fantastical song about the ponies with fiery manes running down the mountainside [Bright Horses]. I just silently wept because it’s so beautiful.

How about kindred spirits, community?

I didn’t know Sophie [Scottish musician/producer who died in January] but I was a fan. And even if I didn’t know Sophie, you feel a kinship with musicians who are all just kind of fighting the good fight and it’s really sad when somebody goes down. You feel sort of 
a kinship and a camaraderie, I think.

In The Melting Of The Sun on Daddy’s Home, you namecheck a string of female musicians: Tori Amos, Nina Simone, “St Joni”…

They’re all women whose work I love and the song is about the way in which the world failed them at these particular times. Joni’s a genius and I don’t know if enough people say that about her and I suspect that that’s because she’s a woman. To me, the Joni records that really just shatter me are definitely Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – my God. And Court And Spark.

Would you like to do more production? You produced Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold in 2019, the last record drummer Janet Weiss made with the group before leaving amid controversy over their change of direction.

I would like to do more of it. That’s a great record. I’m really proud of it. A couple of unfortunate events coloured its reception and added up to a very skewed narrative about that particular record but the work itself I am super-proud of. And I loved them – I loved that band. I think again with the drummer leaving at a specific time it created a whole lot of hubbub or chaos or perceived acrimony when there was none. People were pretty happy to jump on to the dramatic part of it. But for the people who actually lived it… People love to couch things in really moralistic terms and that doesn’t really allow for how complex the world actually is. We’re living in The Crucible.

Did you feel personally attacked?

I mean – who cares? It’s a record that we’re all proud of and I think time will be kind to it.

Are you in a good place now?

It’s like my best friend says, I will always find something to be sad about. But yeeeaah… yeah. It’s good enough. The people I love are still alive. I don’t know, a good place sounds boring, doesn’t it? I kind of have to push over the applecart every few years.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 331.

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