Interview - St Vincent
Posted on Tuesday, 5 August 2014 | No Comments
A digital witness to Annie Clark.
"It all happened pretty intuitively. I like pop music, I like big beats…so I was just drawn to that this time.”
On the face of it, that sounds like something most bands could come out. How many times have you heard a musician talk about a disingenuous love of pop music, about how this set of chords is somehow more honest than another, or – horror of horrors, insist that, actually, there’s always been a dance element to their music.
For anyone who’s encountered the work of Annie Clark, you’ll already know though that she isn’t just any musician. Combining stunning technical ability, a line in sly and strange lyricism and a gift for sculpting a fine pop hook out of chaos, she’s gone from a guitarist for hire with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens to, over the course of four increasingly ambitious and raucous albums, one of the most admired and singular figures working in rock today.
This year’s self-titled St Vincent album is her best to date, a thrilling and smart mixture of violent, savage guitar bursts, deceptively clean production and bold song writing that has seen Annie Clark more in demand than ever. The regal, alien pose she strikes on the front would be an arrogant pose for most musicians: for her though, it seems only fitting.
Unsurprisingly then, media time for her has become more and more scarce, with potential slots falling through repeatedly before a rare moment of free time with Ms. Clark was finally found though. As hectic as her schedule is though, she was a polite and thoughtful interviewee – even as she consciously chooses to keep much of the magic behind St Vincent hidden.
As we spoke, she’s just returned from a majestic performance at Glastonbury. Asked about the experience, she observes, “I played Glastonbury in 2008, but it was at like seven am, on some different stage, so it wasn’t exactly high profile. This time was really fun, it was a little wild out there!”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she now has a more expansive catalogue to draw from, as well as a new album that’s far more direct and aggressive than her earlier work. She’s coy about the sonic overhaul, but admits that “I saw people dancing at the Love This Giant shows [her collaborative tour and album with David Byrne] and that was something I hadn’t really experienced before, and it was really joyful, so I wanted to incorporate some of that and make something that might make people want to dance.”
A range of enquiries about her songs find her more tight-lipped, but she does agree that the dramatic Huey Newton (surely one of the best songs about the digital age out there) is ““about a kind of free association and about how your brain works through a Wikipedia page”, while she describes album closer Severed Crossed Fingers as “a very straight ahead, very traditional sounding song, it’s a country song almost. But one of the challenges of making a record is making sure that things have heart, and aren’t just there to sound cool, so that song was there to have a lot of heart. People have been telling me it’s like a Pink Floyd song…”
To keep pace with her albums, her live show has received a dramatic overhaul, with her current set-up mixing stripped-down performances with offbeat choreography and design. Talking me through the thinking behind the current live show, she notes, “Well, I think there’s a lot of freedom as well as structure. It’s constructed and pre-tested, so you know that in the moment you don’t have to think about what you’re doing next, you’re past the point of expectation and you get to be in the moment with the audience, so that’s the reason why I decided to do something more constructed. - really it’s to be more free. I’ve put thought into the visual side of things more so than ever, and it’s referencing things like Jim Hodges and artists like that. Honestly, it was just intuitive and fun to play around with.”
It’s not just as St Vincent that Annie Clark has found herself in demand for. She’s also made an appearance on one of the year’s other major releases, the titanic double album To Be Kind from the renewed Swans, adding sweet backing vocals as a foil to the fierce baritone of band leader Michael Gira. “My producer John Congleton was also producing the Swans record, so when they needed a female vocalist on some tracks, he suggested me to Michael and he was into the idea. I flew in and spent around four hours laying down tracks for three or four songs – it was a really interesting experience.”
Others of you may have also noticed her appearance as part of the Nirvana induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, playing Lithium and joining fellow stars Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Lorde with the remaining members of Nirvana to pay tribute. Asked about it, even she seems slightly in awe of the scale of the event. Pausing a second to gather her thoughts, she replies, “Yeah…I mean, I wish that Kurt Cobain was still alive and that nobody was ever singing those songs but him, but unfortunately that’s not the case. But I was really pleased to be asked alongside everyone else, and I thought it was a really nice way of highlighting what feminists Nirvana were.”
If this isn’t enough for you though, then don’t fret. A solution is at hand. St Vincent will be making an appearance at the Sage Gateshead on Wednesday 27th August, bringing an imaginative and spectacular show to the north east. Maybe that’s the best way to really understand St Vincent.
Originally for NARC 98 (August 2014).