St. Vincent interview feature

INTERVIEW: St. Vincent’s Annie Clark on writing her life through performance

Annie Clark talks about her ambivalent relationship with technology, projecting an archetype, and what it means to be "crushworthy."

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- Mar 19, 2014

St. Vincent, Annie Clark's self-titled, fourth release, is a rebirth. It's her own version of Prince's Sign o' the Times, a new identity cast as an expression of power and confidence. Gone are the twee, cabaret tendencies of Marry Me. Clark's instead dug in on the inertia of Strange Mercy and her David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant: electronic, funky, freewheeling and skronky.

Now that we've had some time to simmer with St. Vincent — we've read the reviews, we've seen the press — some questions remain unanswered. Clark knows a little something about the old-fashioned power of mystery, it seems. But mystery isn't meant to shield or distance the "real" Annie Clark from her St. Vincent persona; even as she's subsuming herself deeper into her self-defined "near-future cult leader" archetype, she's revealing herself through it. As her music becomes more mannered, it also becomes more instinctual and, yes, personal.

Speaking to Clark on the phone a few dates into her current tour clarified her slippery, multi-dimensional relationship with "authenticity" (forever in scare quotes). Among other things our conversation touches on a culture obsessed with "a million tiny, digital rounds of applause," no wave legend Glenn Branca's guitar dictatorship, ambisexual heartthrobs, and how she's just generally "psyched by all of it" (that's "it" in the existential sense).

Chart Attack: You told one reporter that you self-titled this fourth album because, like Miles Davis noted, it’s a hard thing to “sound like yourself.” What did it take to sound like yourself here? What’s more "you" here than on Marry Me or Actor or Strange Mercy?

Annie Clark: I mean, it’s not as if I didn’t sound like myself on other records. I just think as an artist you work to be at a place where you're singular and not mistaken for seven other things. And I just thought that I got to that place where I had trusted my instincts. I’ve had a chance to grow. I’ve made five records in seven years. And it just felt bold and confident.

The images around this album are really striking. What was the purpose of transforming yourself into this near-future cult leader? What’s her story? Were there specific things you were channeling?

It gets funny when you start talking about character because a lot of people would take the idea of “character” to mean something that’s inauthentic. I just recognize that a performance is a performance and I dig into that.

I’m not sure that it was guided by purpose so much as by instinct, just wanting to change things up for fun, for myself. I dyed my hair about a year ago and finally got it to be a not inappropriate colour for my skin tone through trial and error. With all of the images, I just wanted to convey a sense of power, and in order to convey a sense of power I had to explore what power means to me. And so, in this instance, it was something that was very intentional, symmetrical, unwavering. And that’s what I went for with all of the photos.

Some people have written that this latest outing is a fuller turn towards performance art, but hasn’t St. Vincent always been a constructed character? I remember you telling Jian Ghomeshi one or two albums back about affecting this Joan Didionesque character.

It gets funny when you start talking about character because a lot of people would take the idea of “character” to mean something that’s inauthentic. A lot of these songs, I just had to write my life and so, in that way, they’re very personal while still being somewhat universal. I think of it more in terms of every record that I make, an archetype tends to emerge. Strange Mercy was definitely the housewife on white wine and barbiturates. But it’s not as if I’m constructing a character to be inauthentic. It’s just that I recognize that a performance is a performance and I dig into that. I try to make sure the audience has an experience instead of seeing a couple schlubs up there, jamming out on a couple chords. It’s more planned than that.

There’s a chord you’ve hit on a few times now: the lyrics in "Digital Witness," "I Should Watch TV" with Byrne, the story of the self-imposed digital exile while writing Strange Mercy in Seattle. What’s your interest in disconnecting and getting away from this omni-mediated way of life.

I Should Watch TV by St.Vincent and David Byrne

I feel like I’m curious about what the influx of technology is doing to our short term and long term evolution. And I’m not really critiquing it exactly, because I have a career because of technology. Because I was able to make my first record largely on my own, you know, on a laptop or whatever and then get it out by means of social networks and stuff like that. So it’s multi-dimensional. But I’ve caught myself and also caught others losing how to actually experience something, becoming more obsessed with documenting it and showing it and then getting the validation one would get from a million tiny, digital rounds of applause. And I just wonder about that.

That’s like that Louis C.K. bit that made the rounds on the internet, that people don’t know how to be alone anymore.

St. Vincent - Digital Witness

Yeah. It’s been so long since I’ve been really alone. Getting chased by a snake in the desert is one of the last times that I was really alone.

Maybe that’s why it was such a revelatory experience?  

Well, that was part of it. Also, there was some real danger involved. I don’t know, it’s a strange world.

I heard you played in Glenn Branca’s 100-guitar orchestra when he tried to record in Queens in 2004. What was that like? How’d you get involved?

My friend from college was going to do it and he invited me to go. I was a fan of Glenn Branca and I thought it would be really cool, so I showed up with a guitar and a crappy amp. I don’t think that session ever saw the light of day. Yeah, they scrapped it.

I’ve heard that he goes through and listens to the tone of everyone’s amp. Did he do all that?

I had to explore what power means to me... something very intentional, symmetrical, unwavering.

I had pretty crappy amp at the time and I remember feeling particularly embarrassed because he was like, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ I definitely remember him being a very wild... you know, he’d gesture very wildly when he conducts. He looked more like a dictator than a conductor.

What’s it feel like to be called a guitar hero or god or goddess yourself now? Does that make you cringe?

I’m psyched if people are connecting with music, that’s the whole point. I don’t pay too much attention to stuff like that. I’m not sure how to take that, but it doesn’t bum me out.

On all of the music message boards I frequent, your image is used as stand-in for every music nerd’s crush, male and female. What does it feel like to be claimed as a heartthrob by both your gay and straight fans? Are you conscious of it at all?

Oh man, well I’m psyched by all of it. If I think about my heroes, David Bowie or Mick Jones, people who were ambigendered, ambisexual, I’m psyched. I’m very psyched to be crushworthy to people of every persuasion.

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