Annie Clark, known professionally as St Vincent, picked up a guitar aged 12 after being inspired by Jimi Hendrix. During her teens she worked as a roadie and later tour manager for her aunt and uncle, the jazz duo Tuck & Patti. Originally from Oklahoma, she moved to Dallas, Texas when she was seven and later attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts for three years, before dropping out.
Clark worked as a touring musician with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, before releasing Marry Me, her first album as St Vincent, in 2007. By her fifth album, 2017’s Masseduction, she had become one of the most celebrated artists in music, the first solo female artist to win a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album in 20 years.
She became unlikely Daily Mail-fodder around the same time, thanks to an 18-month relationship with Cara Delevingne, and later Kristen Stewart. Her ever-changing music, dressing up-box image and head-spinning well of ideas have seen her compared to David Bowie, Kate Bush and Prince. To complete the notion of her being the "artist's artist", in 2012 she collaborated with David Byrne on the album Love This Giant.
Indeed, she is surely one of few performers today who could stand in for Kurt Cobain with what’s-left-of-Nirvana, performing “Lithium” at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, as well as cover “Controversy” at a Prince tribute concert in 2020, with such guitar-playing fireworks its author would surely have approved.
Following the glam-influenced pop of Masseduction, St Vincent has performed another stylistic handbrake turn. Complete with a new image – part-Warhol Superstar, part-Cassavetes heroine – she has mined the textures of the music she loved most as a kid: the virtuoso rock of Steely Dan, the clipped funk of Stevie Wonder and blue-eyed soul of mid-Seventies' David Bowie, on her upcoming album, Daddy’s Home.
The title refers to Clark's own father, locked up in Texas for 12 years in 2010, for money laundering in a stock manipulation scheme, one in which he and his co-conspirators cheated 17,000 investors out of £35m. It is also, in typical Clark style, a bit of saucy slang.
Back on the promotional trail, Clark Zoomed in from Los Angeles one morning recently – fully caffeinated and raring to go. “My vices?” she pondered. “Too much coffee, man…”
What question are you already bored of being asked?
There’s not one that’s popping out. There’s no question where I’m like “Oh God, if I ever hear that again, I’ll jump off a building.” I’m chill.
I mention it because prior to releasing your last record you put out a pre-recorded “press conference”, seemingly to pre-empt every inane question the media would throw at you.
It’s so funny. It didn’t really occur like that. Originally that was supposed to be a legit green screen conference. Like, “I’ll just answer these questions ‘cos when they need to have me on ‘The Morning Show’ in Belarus they can have this and put their own graphics behind it”. But then when my friend Carrie Brownstein [collaborator and Sleater-Kinney vocalist-guitarist] and I started writing it and it became very snarky. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that “Oh, that might be off-putting or intimidating to journalists” I just thought "This is silly”. So anyway… I understand.
We're curious about your dad and the American legal system.
I have had a lot of questions about that. For some reason it didn’t occur to me how much I would be answering questions about… my hilarious father!
How do you view his time in prison?
Just that life is long and people are complicated. And that, luckily, there’s a chance for redemption or reconciliation, even after a really crazy traumatic time. And also anybody that has any experience with the American justice system will know this... nobody comes out unscathed.
You recently presented an online MasterClass: "St. Vincent Teaches Creativity & Songwriting". One of the takeaways: “All you need are ears and ideas, and you can make anything happen”. Who’s had the best ideas in music?
Well, you’ve got to give credit to people who were genuinely creating a new style – like if you think of Charlie Parker, arguably he created a new style. This hard bop that was just absolutely impossible to play. It was, like, “Check me out – try to copy me!” So, that’s interesting. I think Brian Eno, for sure, has some great ideas about music – and obviously has made some of the best music. Joni Mitchell – completely singular. I mean: think about that. There are some people who are actually inimitable – like, you couldn’t possibly even try to imitate them.
It’s a brave soul who covers a Joni Mitchell song. Although, apologies if you actually have.
No, I have not. And there’s a reason why not. Come on – Bowie. Bowie never repeated himself. David Byrne also didn’t repeat himself. He took all of his influences of classic songs and the disco that was happening at the time, and the potpourri of downtown New York music from the mid- to late Seventies… and synthesised it into this completely new, other thing. I mean, that’s impressive. Those are the ones we remember.
How hard is it not to repeat yourself?
It’s whether people have the Narcissus thing or not. Like, it’s always got to be a balance where you’re, like, “Well, I need to believe in myself to make something and be liberated. But I can’t look at that pond of my previous work and go ‘Oh you! You’re gorgeous!’” So I don’t go back and listen to things I’ve done. I finished Daddy’s Home in the fall and it was, like, “This is done” and it felt great. I loved the record and it was so fun to make. But what I did immediately afterwards was to write something completely different. But then I don’t know, ‘cos there are people who do the thing that they do just great. And you just want to hear more songs, in the style of the thing that they do great.
Right. No one wants an experimental Ramones album.
Exactly. Or, like, or a Tom Petty record. I don’t want a tone poem from Tom Petty! I want a perfectly constructed, perfectly written completely singalongable three-chord song.
The new album has a very “live” Seventies feel. I’d read that some of the tracks are first takes. Can that be right? It all sounds very complicated.
That’s not right. I should say [rock voice] "Yeah, that’s right, we just jammed…" But, you know, I’ll be honest. There are some vocal takes in there that are first takes. But it really is just the sound of people playing. We get good drum takes. And good bass takes. And I play a bunch of guitar and sitar-guitar. And it’s the sound of a moment in time, certainly. And way more about looseness and groove and feel and vibe than anything else [I’ve done before].
Amazing live albums, virtuoso playing, jamming – those were staples of Seventies music. Have we lost some of that?
I mean, I can wax poetic on that idea for a minute. In the Seventies you had this tremendous sophistication in popular music. Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan and funk and soul and jazz and rock…. and all of the things rolled into one. That was tremendously sophisticated. It just was. There was harmony, there were chord progressions.
What else from that decade appealed to you for Daddy’s Home?
It reminds me of where we are now, I think. So, 1971-1976 in downtown New York, you’ve got the Summer of Love thing and flower children and all the hippy stuff and it’s, like, “Oh yeah, that didn’t work out that well. We’re still in Vietnam. There’s a crazy economic crisis, all kinds of social unrest”. People stood in the proverbial burned-out building. And it reminds me a lot of where we are today, in terms of social unrest, economic uncertainty. A groundswell wanting change... but where that’s headed is yet to be seen. We haven’t fully figured that out. We’re all picking up pieces of the rubble and going “Okay, what do we do with this one? Where do we go with that one?” Being a student of history, that was one of the reasons why I was drawn to that period in history.
Also: that’s the music I’ve listened to more than anything in my entire life. I mean, I was probably the youngest Steely Dan fan. It didn’t make me that popular at sleepovers. People were, like, “I want to listen to C+C Music Factory” and I was, like, “Yeah, but have you heard this solo on [Steely Dan’s] ‘Kid Charlemagne’”? That music is so in me. It’s so in my ears and I feel like I never really went there [making music before]. And I didn’t want to be a tourist about it. It’s just that particular style had a whole lot to teach me. So I wanted to just dig in and find out. Just play with it.
Is there a style of music you don’t like?
That I don’t like?
You're a jazz fan...
I love jazz. Are you kidding me? I was that annoying 14-year-old who was, like, “Yeah, but have you listened to Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth?”
That does sound quite precocious for a 14-year-old.
It’s annoying. Just insufferable. [Thinking aloud] What music don’t I like….? Here’s what can happen. And I feel like it’s similar to when an actor has some lines in a script and they’re not very good – not very well-written – so they overcompensate by making it very dramatic and really overplaying it. I would say that is a style of music that I don’t really like. Where somebody has to really oversell it and it all feels… athletic. Instead of musical or touching.
Did you put your lockdown time to constructive use?
If you need any mediocre home renovations done, I’m your girl. It was fun. I did – let’s see now – plumbing, electrical, painting. Luckily there’s YouTube, so you can more or less figure it all out. I did a lot of that stuff and I have to say it was such a nice contrast to working on music all day. Because when you’re working on music you have to create the construct of everything. You’re, like, “I need to make this song. But what is this song?” Everything is this kind of elusive castle in the sky thing. But then, if you go and sand a deck, you’ve done something. It feels really good. And it’s not, like, “What is a deck? And who am I?” You’re just, like, “This is a task and I get to do it and I can see how the mechanism works I understand it it’s not esoteric – it’s simply mechanical". I can do something mechanical. I loved it.
Which bit of DIY are you most pleased with?
Painting the kitchen cabinets. That’s a real job. We’re talking sanding. We’re talking taking things off hinges. We’re talking multiple coats. The whole lacquer-y thing at the end. That. I’m, like, “That looks pretty pro”.
What colour did you go for?
Oh, you know, it’s just a sort of… teal. But classy teal.
Yeah. The wallpapering wasn’t as successful. But, you know, that’s fine. So that was really fun. And then I also went down a history rabbit hole. I realised I had some gaps in my knowledge about the Russian Revolution and life under the Iron Curtain and the gulags and Stalin and Lenin. So, I went down that hole. And then I was like “Oh I forgot – I haven’t read any Dostoevsky”. So I have been working on his short stories – which are great. And then Solzhenitsyn I really liked – I mean liked is a strange word to use for The Gulag Archipelago. I read Cancer Ward… All of them. I recommend all of it. And then, before that, it was a big Stasi kick. I can’t remember the last time I had time to brush up on the Russian Revolution.
There’s a lyric on “The Laughing Man”, “If life’s a joke… then I’m dying laughing”. It’s also on your new merchandise. What do you think happens when we die?
This is it?
Yeah. I mean, I understand that it would be comforting to think otherwise. That there might be a special place. It would be nice! The thought’s never really been able to stick for me. I would say that we are made of carbon and then we get subsumed back into the Earth and then eventually we become life again – in the carbon part of our makeup.
Well, that sounds better than an endless void.
I don’t think it would be an endless void.
In what ways are you like your mum and dad?
Let’s see. Well, my mother is a precious angel who has unwavering optimism. She is incredibly intelligent and also very nonjudgmental and able and happy to explore all kinds of possibilities. Saying that, though… it’s sounding not like me at all. I’m like my father in that I think we have very similar tastes in books, films, music and a very similar sense of humour. My mother’s so kind that it’s hard for me to… Her level of kindness and decency is aspirational to me.
How famous are you, on a scale of one to 10?
God, I mean, like, “TikTok Famous” probably a one, right? I’m gonna say – I don’t know about the number system – but I’m going to say I-occasionally-get-a-free-appetiser-sent-over famous. Which is a great place to be.
What do you look for in a date?
It’s been so long since I’ve been on a date. You know, I once read something, it might have been something cheesy on a card, but [it was]: if you don’t like someone, then the way they hold their fork will bother you. But, if you like someone – or love someone – they could spill an entire plate of spaghetti on your lap and you wouldn’t mind.
You play a zillion instruments. What’s the hardest instrument to play?
Well, I can’t play horns or anything like that. The French horn is supposed to be really hard. I don’t like to blag… but I’m an incredible whistler. Like, I can whistle Bach.
Is Bach a particularly tough whistle?
I think… yeah. It’s fast. And noodly.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we're out of lockdown?
I’m gonna get a manicure and a pedicure and a massage. Massage from a stranger. Any stranger.
What about a night on the tiles?
I will probably attend a dinner party.
That sounds quite restrained.
It sounds hella boring. Sorry.
No, I don’t really go to clubs. I think in order to go to clubs you have to be a person who likes to publicly dance. And I don’t publicly dance. I mean I would feel too shy to dance at a wedding. But for some reason I will dance on stage in front of 10,000 people.
That’s why alcohol was invented.
Exactly! But I swear I would reach the point of alcohol sickness before I would be drunk enough to dance.
The effects of drugs on creativity: discuss.
Unreliable. Really unreliable. Sometimes after a day’s work in the studio you’re like, "I’m gonna have shot of tequila and then sing this a few more times, and then play". It’s okay but you peak sort-of quickly. You can’t sustain the level without getting tired. And then I would say that weed just makes me paranoid and useless. Every once in a while some combo of psychedelics can get you someplace. But, for the most part, you either come back to [the work] the next day and you’re, like, “This is garbage” or you get sleepy or hungry or distracted and you’re not really doing anything. I’ve never had opiates. Or coke or whatever. So I don’t know. I can’t speak to that. But with the slightly more G-Rated [American movie classification: All Ages Permitted] thing, it doesn’t really help.
What do you have too many of in your wardrobe?
I’m not a hoarder. I tend to have one thing that I get really obsessed with and then I wear it every day. Some people, having a whole lot of things gives them a sense of safety and security. It gives me anxiety. I can’t think if there’s too much visual noise. If there was a uniform that I could wear every day I would absolutely do that. And at certain times I have.
Like Steve Jobs?
Or, oh God, what’s her name? The Theranos lady… Elizabeth Holmes!
The blood-test-scam lady?
Well, I guess it was unclear how much of it was self-delusion and how much of it was, you know, actual fraud.
Another black turtleneck fan.
And – again, this is unconfirmed – she also adopted a very low voice like this in order to be taken seriously as a CEO.
Like Margaret Thatcher.
Did she have a low voice?
She made hers “less shrill”.
Oh yes. Yes!
What movie makes you cry?
The Lives of Others
That’s a good one.
Right. I rewatched that during my Stasi kick.
I’ll be honest, your lockdown sounds even less fun than everyone else’s.
I mean… Look, I had to educate myself. I went to a music college [Berklee College of Music] where I tried to take the philosophy class and the way that they would talk about it… it was taught by this professor who was from one of the neighbouring colleges in Boston. And it was very clear that he really disliked having to talk Kierkegaard to a bunch of music school kids. He was just so bummed by it. I’m trying to learn, “What’s the deal with Kant?” and he felt he had to explain everything only in musical terms [because he assumed it would be the only thing music students could relate to]. Like, “Well, you know, it’s like when Bob Marley…" I’m, like, “No, no, no! I don’t want that!” So I had to educate myself. This is where its led me.
Where should we ideally listen to Daddy’s Home?
Put it on a turntable. Pour yourself a glass of tequila or bourbon – whatever your favourite hooch is – and smoke a joint and listen to it. I think that’s the vibe.
Daddy’s Home is released on May 14
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