Jun 3, 2014
Everything is Ubiquitous: St. Vincent Takes Control
Annie Clark has a face—elegant, still, precise—that betrays nothing. It suits her.
In the eight years she’s been making music as St. Vincent, Clark has developed a sometimes shrill, often spastic brand of guitar-rock that’s also singular: she’s a virtuosic guitarist (she studied at the Berklee College of Music, that high temple of chops), but her technical aptitude is tempered by her oddball taste and ear for sticky melodies. St. Vincent, her fourth and newest record, feels like the realization of an aesthetic she’s been building her whole life. It also feels like grabbing a live wire with your bare hands.
Early on a Monday morning, at a loft-turned-studio in north Williamsburg, I watch Clark get prepped for a photo shoot by a trio of young women who are responsible, respectively, for her hair, makeup, and clothes; they fuss over Clark with quiet reverence. With her shock of teased, dyed-gray curls and big, green eyes, Clark is striking, and when she’s finally led in front of the camera, she doesn’t have to do much to facilitate a compelling shot: she squares her shoulders and stares straight ahead, her face steady and nearly blank. Her pose is so careful—so measured and immovable—I imagine that, for the photographer, it must be like shooting a still life. She doesn’t do any of the inane, clumsy stuff I’d do (she doesn’t seem embarrassed by the attention, or uncomfortable with the implications of the exchange, or unsure of what to do with her elbows), and I appreciate (if not covet) her unwillingness to adopt self-deprecation as a habitual pose. It is one of several ways in which she (inadvertently or not) defies stereotypes of how girls should be: she won’t stretch her face into a bogus smile, or be nervous, or pout her lips. If you want to look at her, she’s going to look straight back. She’s going to wear an expression that says: This is all you get.
In the last year, Clark has performed at Diane Von Furstenberg’s runway show, fronted a version of Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, chided Stephen Colbert in a tiny leather skirt, adapted a signature blend of coffee (Intelligentsia’s “Bring Me Your Mugs”), and been booked for the season finale of Saturday Night Live. She has a creative director and a choreographer in her employ now, and the scope of her work has changed: if her last solo release, 2011’s Strange Mercy, was an expression of some private turmoil, St. Vincent is an extroverted, aggressive indictment, a futuristic squall that’s almost wary of itself.
Before she’s called on set, Clark and I talk for a little while about fame—it seems like the proper thing to bring up when someone is seated in front of one of those bulb-flanked, Miss Piggy-mirrors, having layers of blue eye-shadow dusted onto her lids—and Clark is modest, if not dismissive of the whole goofy idea. “It doesn’t have the same currency that it did 30 years ago,” she says with a shrug. “Everything is ubiquitous. A cat with a grumpy expression will reach more people than I ever will with music, which is fine. I’m not saying that I need to dominate the world or the airwaves by any means; I recognize that part of what I do is a little bit niche. But now people get 12-to-18-month careers.”
Clark, for her part, is interested in something more than that, even if it means circumventing the default channels, all the quick routes, to mass notoriety. Reporter after reporter has described her careful, measured way of speaking; it’s clear, even chatting casually with Clark, that she’s long mastered the art of gracefully withholding. And in an era of maximized exposure—in which confessionalism has become our default mode of communication; in which we are all constantly broadcasting our sins and virtues—Clark’s reluctance to unmask herself feels nearly political.
It also makes it tempting to wonder how much of her mythology has been guided into being—where one art ends and the other begins. The story she often tells about “Rattlesnake,” the track that opens St. Vincent (while on a morning stroll, she was overwhelmed by the tranquility of the desert landscape and stripped off all her clothes; minutes later, she accidentally unsettled a trailside serpent—the titular rattlesnake—and booked it back to the house at full-speed, where she emptied a nerve-soothing shot of tequila), is so comprehensive in its spectrum (Humility! Sex! Danger! Tequila!) it feels nearly scripted. Every time I read it, I find myself questioning not its veracity, exactly, but—I don’t know. Something. The symbolism is so heavy, so ancient: a naked woman, a hissing snake, a panicked retreat. Which came first, the song or the anecdote? Does it matter? I suspect that if there are extrapolations to be made from her work, Clark wants in on those, too.
This is a particularly modern concern, controlling a cross-platform persona, which makes sense, because modernity is paramount to St. Vincent, a record that worries about just how performative life is getting. “We re-create ourselves in this digital medium, and it’s an aspirational version [of ourselves],” she says. “Make sure, if you’re going to take a selfie, that you know the exact angle and pitch and expression that you should do on your face in order to look the sexiest and the thinnest and the blah, blah, blah. It’s very self-aware in that way. And people are expected to share their lives, big and small, on Facebook and Instagram.
And I don’t have a problem with that—obviously, people should do whatever they want—but when the tail starts to wag the dog and people try to become these idealized versions of themselves, and they’re living life purely for the ability to say, ‘I was there,’ and to show their friends—that doesn’t interest me.”
Clark’s describing a practice she also lampoons on the single “Digital Witness,” in which she robotically announces “I want all of your mind!” over honking synths and a nervous backbeat. “Digital witnesses / What’s the point of even sleeping? / If I can’t show it, you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” This isn’t a new grievance—we’ve been lamenting the isolating after-effects of technology since long before the first pinkish sunset was posted to Instagram (“So pretty!!!!!”)—but Clark’s articulation of it is still sharp. It’s an argument against life-as-nonstop-broadcast, an endorsement of the private experience of pleasure; if we can’t find a way to value our experiences without quantifying them—without calculating approval—we have lost ownership of our own lives.
Or, as Clark sings: “Won’t somebody sell me back to me?”
A few days later, Clark calls me from just outside Amsterdam, where she’s doing some press events and television bookings in support of the new record. She’s in Europe for a few days before she has to jet back to New York to rehearse for SNL. She is comfortable, she says, working all the time.
Clark began writing the songs that would comprise St. Vincent almost immediately after the tour for Love This Giant—her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne—ended. “I got a good night’s sleep and laid around on the couch, and then the next day I was writing again,” she says. “I didn’t have a big plan. I started just taking things out of my little idea-chest and without any judgment going, ‘Oh, what’s this? What’s this? Can these go together?’ and just writing pretty furiously.”
Clark doesn’t separate well from the work—it sustains her; it’s a source of nourishment—and she tells me that she spent her first few weeks back trying to ease into a more banal existence by “partying—just going crazy to feel anything.” The transition was challenging. “I was going a little crazy because I didn’t have the adrenaline and release of a show every night,” she says. “I’ve spent my whole adult life on the road, and in my mind I thought that someday I’d want to take a big break. But what I realized is that’s not who I am at all. I love working. I love being creative. I think I’ve just made peace with the idea that there’s not some other way I ought to be living.”
If Clark is an inscrutable presence, her songs, at least, offer a little more insight. “I think you can’t write about things you don’t know, or don’t [at least] know on some kind of intuitive, emotional level,” she says. For St. Vincent, Clark says she mined her most formative relationships for fodder— “I was looking around, looking at my friends and my family and myself, and being like, ‘What are we doing?’”—but her presence in these songs is still tough, self-assured, and nearly anonymous. If anything, Clark’s reluctance to perform a certain kind of intimacy—to sound vulnerable, to equate emotion with weakness—is a subtle condemnation of our expectations of her.
Still, there are glimpses of a very raw place. “I Prefer Your Love,” a stark, loping ballad in which Clark insists “All the good in me is because of you,” was written shortly after her mother recovered from some unnamed but grave illness. Even now, listening to Clark talk about it, I can hear the tiniest shift in her voice, a crack—then a hardening, a recomposition. “She’s doing great now, but she almost died, which was the scariest thing ever,” she says.
Clark was born in Tulsa but raised in Dallas—her parents split when she was young and her mom remarried; with all the attending step- and half-siblings, she grew up as one of nine children—and she still spends some of her downtime in Texas. “My mom is a really sweet person to bring out [on tour] because she thinks everything is great. I’ll come into a hotel room or a city and be like, ‘Ugh, I’ve been here seven times and it’s cool, but I’m gonna take a nap.’ And she’ll go and find the smallest thing that she just thinks is so interesting and fascinating,” she says. “You know, I’ll never forget being on the Byrne tour and bringing her along to Louisville. We were walking downtown, which is fine and cute, and she saw this green painted wall, and she was like, ‘That is the most beautiful color.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I wish I had your brain.’ I never would have noticed that in a million years.”
Her mother’s illness is present on St. Vincent, if never explicitly addressed. “I started writing this record right after the coast was clear, so in that way I was really checked in with myself and my senses of empathy and compassion,” Clark says. “I don’t mean it arrogantly, but the music part is very easy for me. I could write music all day, but having a song where it feels like a ghost is walking through the room…” She pauses. “I sang it in one take and just cried a lot and then it was done. I wasn’t in such dire straits, by any means, making this record. But I wanted to make sure everything had heart. Making music’s easy. I could come up with some crazy arrangement for you in five minutes, but that doesn’t make a song. A song is something else.”
We talk for a while about aspirational jams, all the songs and genres (gangsta rap, arena rock, commercial country) that are rarely relatable in a literal way but become anthems nonetheless. By the time we get to Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”— “Is that a pedophile song?” Clark asks—we’re both snickering. “I’ve never felt like that,” she says. “I’ve never felt that whole rocky strut. I can’t even meet you halfway. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Or even the stuff that’s like, ‘We’ll be together forever!’ I’m like, ‘Really? You won’t! That’s not how life works. I hate to break it to you and I wish you all the best, but—you know what I mean?’”
Clark, for her part, isn’t one to indulge romantic fantasies, and she’s adopted a similarly hard line about her career. “If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in this position, you better play till your hands bleed and just give it all you have,” she says. Ultimately, work is the only thing she’s willing to submit to, and she’s made her peace with that. “It’s so liberating to be in a place where you don’t really give a fuck,” she says. “Where you can look back and say, ok, my instincts got me to here, so why in the world would I second-guess my instincts now?”
St. Vincent performs at Prospect Park on 8/9 as part of BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn! festival.
Photographs by Winnie Au
Stylist: Haley Lowenthal
Hairstylist: Jillian Halouska with Bryan Bantry Agency
Makeup Artist: Allie Smith
Location: Brooklyn Photo, Williamsburg
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