St. Vincent's Ever Changing Moods
In the decade or so since she released her first album, St. Vincent has explored the territory between wild abandon and gloomy introspection. The problem is, sometimes she brings that work home with her
Photos by Maarten de Boer. Shot on location at Kim Sing Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.
It’s a Monday afternoon at Scarfes, the jazz bar at London’s Rosewood Hotel, and the room is quiet. Too quiet. I am sitting at a corner table, across from Annie Clark, the Grammy Award-winning musician who goes by the stage name St. Vincent. Neither of us has spoken for a minute or so, and Clark seems to have found something interesting to look at over my left shoulder. If it weren’t for the digital recording device between us, we could be a couple dealing with the aftermath of a failed marriage proposal.
“Ah, um,” she says finally. “Er.”
With hindsight, it probably wasn’t a great idea to begin the interview by reminding Clark of the ones that have gone wrong. But then the singer, who recently turned 36, has earned a reputation for being a tough subject at times—largely because she doesn’t like doing these things. She mockingly describes herself as “the CEO of a small company”—meaning St. Vincent—who is wound up in “the celebrity-industrial complex.” “I wish I was writing music all the time,” she says, “but that’s not the reality.” After another pause, I make a joke about having come up with a completely new line of questions and she looks at me: “I kind of wish you would try.”
Media coverage of Clark falls into three basic categories. The first kind, the best kind, focuses on her music: She is “breathtakingly audacious,” “a generational talent on guitar,” “one of the most celebrated musicians on the planet.” The British newspaper The Guardian, in naming her 2017 release Masseductionthe best album of the year, described her as “a singular rock star: able to continue the thrilling and transgressive glam traditions while also making her music a channel for deep emotional connection.”
Her work is difficult to pin down—guitar-driven alt-rock, avant-garde electro-pop, political-confessional performance art—and journalists sometimes trip over themselves trying to do so, as in this description from theIrish Times: “Clark’s music is a greasy slice of her soul that’s served up in pretty packaging.” She laughs at this line—a low, slightly wicked heh-heh-heh—and says, “That just made me kind of hungry.”
The second kind of coverage, less welcome, springs from clamorous tabloids, who glommed onto Clark’s relationship with the model Cara Delevingne a few years ago, then helped her lament their subsequent breakup, then joyfully announced that she was dating the actress Kristen Stewart, possibly. There was a moment when spotting Clark and Stewart kissing in public, or enjoying a candlelit dinner, became a media industry unto itself. “I don’t think they care about me anymore,” she says, “which is great.”
Then there’s the celebrity chit-chat, the kind that requires Clark’s active participation. This is where things get tricky. In some interviews, she comes across as witty and thoughtful. But if she’s not in the mood, she can seem aloof, defensive, a bit snide. The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten, who profiled her for the magazine last year, observed that he’d sometimes walk away from a conversation with Clark “feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs.”
Meanwhile, for the rollout of Masseduction, Clark made a video in which she sat before a lurid green backdrop in a pink plastic mini-skirt, tended to by a female crew clad in full bondage gear, responding to made-up media questions that scrolled by on a teleprompter. Q: Which does she prefer, New York or Los Angeles? A: “First, I’d like to compliment you on that really interesting question.” [Cut] Q: What’s the album she’d take with her if stranded on a desert island? A: “A flare gun, a first-aid kit, a cellphone and a boat.” [Cut]
It’s a funny skit, but not something you want to watch in the hours before you sit down to talk to her. “Yeah,” Clark says, “it was pointed out to me later that it probably wasn’t the best tactic to do a meta-commentary on the press right before I was going to be doing a bunch of press.” So why do it? “Well, the original intent was: I’m going to save everyone a bit of time by interviewing myself in front of a green screen, anticipating the questions people might ask, then if they need an interview in Malaysia they can put their own graphics in.”
She pauses, deadpan. “Then we started writing it, and it turned out a little differently.”
Fans will recognize the mock sincerity here, but they will also recognize the pink miniskirt. In the 11 years since she released her first album, St. Vincent’s mystique has derived in part from her outlandish costumes, which range from the surreal (she has appeared onstage dressed as a toilet) to the satirically sexy (the leopard-print catsuit, the thigh-high boots). Her hair, too, is a matter of interest, whether sprouting from her head in a spray of platinum curls, or swept back, blue-gray, in the manner of a vampire. She has a habit of giving her various looks spoofy names, such as “Audrey Hepburn With an Anger Problem”.
“I’m working on the precipice of what is known and unknown. Often I don’t know what’s going on with me until I start playing, and then I find out.”
Today, as Annie Clark, she is dressed simply: tan jacket, black jumpsuit (“with holes in it”), black Celine pumps and a pair of yellowy Stella McCartney sunglasses. Her hair is in a dark bob and the makeup is minimal. She is a slight woman, with pale skin, pronounced cheekbones and wide green eyes. She can go from elfin to severe at the drop of a hat, and sometimes it can seem as if she’s simply drifting away. At one such moment, I ask Clark a question and she snaps to: “I thought you just said Marquis de Sade.” She smiles. “We can go there.” What I’d actually said was MassEducation, the name of the album she released last month, and the reason we’re sitting here today.
The album is a redux of Masseduction, the tracks on that record pared back to vocals and piano accompaniment, provided by Clark’s friend Thomas Bartlett. It is a remarkable project, a soulful, even spiritual rendition of songs that have previously been characterized by a fizzing, sparkling cascade of sounds—distorted guitars, layered synths, kinetic vocals and high-octane electronic beats. Here, stripped of the “pretty packaging,” the dark themes underlying so many of Clark’s lyrics—substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, domestic strife—are revealed in their raw, naked form, borne by the singer’s flawless voice. It is a beautiful record, but also a risk—although Clark would argue otherwise.
“If a song can’t be performed in its simplest form, I don’t know if it’s that much of a song,” she says. “This is one of the things I’m most proud of. I just found it so incredibly freeing. The emotional resonance is so different.” Anyway, she adds, the record does not represent a career turnaround. “This isn’t the start of my lounge act. That’ll come later in life, when I’m singing at the Holiday Inn in Tucson.”
She’s joking, of course—MassEducationis no lounge routine—but there’s no denying that much of the power of Clark’s music relies on its raucous jumble of contradictory elements, the push-pull of gloss and gloom, energy and enervation, epitomized by the sing-along, head-bobbing refrain of her 2011 hit “Cruel,” performed in the video as St. Vincent is being buried alive by a fictional husband and two kids. At another point, she plays a guitar solo while bound and hooded in the trunk of a car, into which she has been bundled by father and son.
This ghastly-funny visual points to a recurring theme in Clark’s videos. She favors bright colors and tacky-retro props, which she intersperses with creepy hypnagogic imagery—a twerking alien, say, or writhing sushi rolls. In “Los Ageless,” a love song, she sits in a surgeon’s chair, her cheeks being tugged and stretched in grotesque fashion, while “Pills” presents a terrifying vision of pop-eyed glam-zombies flailing robotically to the song’s nursery-rhyme chorus. Where does all this stuff even come from?
The short answer to this question is: Who knows? “So much of music is trying to cull these things that are just beyond conscious thought,” Clark says, “and I’m writing on the precipice of that, what is known and unknown, I’m trying to straddle that. Often, I don’t know what’s going on with me until I start playing, and then I find out.” As for whether her audiences will get it, Clark is similarly agnostic. “I have no idea what people like and I have no idea what people want. The only filter I have is myself.”
Up to now, Clark has been affable but also guarded. She spends a lot more time pondering questions than she does answering them. On the subject of preconscious creativity, though, she is unstoppable. “I mean, there are so many decisions I make creatively because I really don’t know what to think of them,” she says. “So it’s like, OK, I’m going to put on Fellini clown makeup and stare at a jar of flies around a rotting still life—great! I’m going to get punched in the face in slow motion because it looks cool—great! It’s like chemistry, seeing what happens when we combine this and that. Who knows? Let’s find out!”
A much-asked question about Masseductionis how much of it was gleaned from real life—one track has St. Vincent finding a lover unconscious in the bath, another has her contemplating jumping off of a rooftop—and she has tended to take this in her stride. “When people ask about the record being autobiographical, what they’re really asking is, ‘Do you feel OK being so vulnerable?’” she says. “The answer is, I think there is tremendous strength in vulnerability. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in telling the truth. The culture we live in, we’re supposed to have shame about having dark thoughts. But that’s honest, that’s real.”
“I have no idea what people like and I have no idea what people want. The only filter I have with my music is myself.”
It feels odd to hear Clark talk about what’s honest and real, given the fact that she has made an art form out of irony and obfuscation—as with the upbeat expression of emotional turmoil in her music, or the fake interview videos mentioned earlier (and the perfectly earnest assertion that she’d made them for practical reasons). There is a sense, in fact, that Clark often says and does things for effect, that she is more interested in observing the responses she gets than in genuine interaction. It’s entirely possible that the conversation we’re having now, which at times has assumed the kind of jittery dissonance that characterizes much of her work, is a kind of performance.
I put this idea to Clark and she frowns. “No,” she says. “This is purely natural. Honestly, this is totally natural. Being weird is completely natural for me.”
I get less joy from exploring the singer’s background. Here, the weary detachment returns, and my questions are mostly met with either nods or mmhmms. Clark’s reticence doesn’t seem to come from a desire to protect her privacy. Rather, she just doesn’t seem that interested in talking about this stuff. I’m boring her.
Clark was born in Oklahoma but moved to Dallas when she was seven. She has eight siblings. Her mother was a social worker and her father a stockbroker. In 2010, he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 years in prison—a subject Clark definitely doesn’t like to talk about. She does, though, recall being a bit of an egghead as a kid, and the role her dad played in that. “He was always giving me books. I remember reading the essays of George Bernard Shaw. He gave me Evelyn Waugh to read when I was 10.”
After high school, Clark attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, but quit after a few years. “I guess I got to a point where I just thought the only way to do this is to do it,” she says. “So that’s what I did.” In 2004, she moved to New York (where she still lives), and three years later released her first album, Marry Me, under the name St. Vincent, thereby launching a career that, a decade on, would have her performing live on Ellen, wearing an eye-poppingly risqué outfit, with Ellen DeGeneres rocking out in the wings.
For a connoisseur of incongruity, that appearance might even trump the Grammy Award (in 2015, for St. Vincent), or the fact that she now has her own signature line of guitars. Did she ever imagine she would hit such heights? “In music, you have to have an insane amount of optimism, so yeah,” she says. “Since I was a kid, music was it for me. I never had a plan B. And at every step, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m doing it! This is so exciting! I’m touring in a minivan!’”
More recently, Clark has applied her unorthodox view of life to other media. At the Sundance Film Festival last year, they premiered a short horror film she made—The Birthday Party: The Memory Lucy Suppressed from Her Seventh Birthday That Wasn’t Really Her Mom’s Fault (Even Though Her Therapist Says It’s Probably Why She Fears Intimacy)—and she is now lined up to direct a film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
While she had mixed feelings about The Birthday Party—“I don’t like horror films, they’re too scary”—Clark is thrilled by the prospect of making a full-length feature film, though she does have one or two concerns. “If I want to make a song, I can go into the studio and do it from start to finish,” she says. “But a film involves so many people, so many variables. It’s strange to work on something that is more out of my control.”
In truth, you do wonder, as an artist who often seems most at ease inside her own head, how Clark will fare in the give-and-take, hurly-burly world of a movie set. She could, of course, play it safe and stick to what she knows, the single medium in which she is guaranteed a wide and appreciative audience. “I wouldn’t even know what to do to play it safe,” she says. “I don’t know how.”