St Vincent’s close encounters
Annie Clark on meeting rattlesnakes, picking up cow dung, football, David Byrne, the NSA, and, yes, the new album too
Until recently, few knew that Annie Clark had some decent football skills. A video on the Rookie website now means that everyone can see Clark carrying off a very slick rainbow kick.
The teen website asked her to demonstrate some non-musical skill and that’s what came to mind. “I love Rookie, they have a really great vibe. When they approached me, I was wracking my brains for a very long time about what to do. I saw Neko Case made borscht for them and that was really cool. I can’t show the teenagers on Rookie how to hold their liquor so I guess I could show them how to play soccer.”
It turns out that she could also have shown the Rookie kids how to throw a punch. “My sisters and I learned how to box at a young age,” Clark says. “We can all land a punch because our father showed us how to box, but I didn’t want to show that.”
But that was then, she points out. “I realised there’s this pre- and post-guitar division in my mind. I did what most suburban kids do and I played every sport growing up, but once I started playing guitar, that was all I cared about.”
Sport’s loss. Clark is on the phone from her home in New York today to talk about the new, self-titled St Vincent album. A different beast to her last album, Strange Mercy , this is full of splashes of colour and great vigour, all pivoting and pirouetting round a premier league range of grooves.
It might be trite to say that Clark got happy this time out, but it certainly sounds as though she went to work with a different mindset. “ Strange Mercy is a record that was made under a lot of personal duress,” Clark explains, “and I didn’t have that kind of duress in my life this time. Of course, there are always scary moments in life, but I was very grateful to have what I have, to be alive and to have some of the ones I love be alive. I was just approaching it with a little bit more happiness.”
She was also coming off a gleeful couple of months touring the Love this Giant collaboration with David Byrne and their merry bunch of players. That’s the band who wowed the big tent at the Electric Picnic last September and it seems that the tour had a huge effect on Clark’s approach to making music.
“I was feeling very inspired after the Love This Giant tour. The shows were uplifting and people were dancing and it was a very wholesome, delightful thing to be a part of, which was different from the Strange Mercy tour. As that tour went on, the shows got darker and more aggressive and more about exploring the outer edges of your brain. So Love this Giant was a complete 180.”
Clark went straight into the new album with the applause from Love This Giant still ringing in her ears. “I think there was a whole 36-hour break between ending the Love this Giant tour and starting the new album. I had no idea what I was thinking except ‘somebody bring me coffee’”.
The tour influenced what she wanted to do on her fourth St Vincent album. “I said I wanted to make a dance record you could play at a funeral, which is a bit winky and tongue-in-cheek. What I meant was that I wanted to make something that you could move to, that has a heavy, solid groove foundation, but is more emotionally rich than your average dance record.”
It’s certainly the first dance record to feature a song, Rattlesnake , about encountering snakes while walking around naked in west Texas. “Did I think about what I was doing? No, not for a moment. I was born in the suburbs and moved to a big city so I’m more afraid of remote places than I am of Hong Kong. The idea of being in a house in the wilderness by myself far away from people is not a comfortable thought to me. That terrifies me, compared to being in a sketchy part of New York.
“So when I found myself naked on a nature walk in west Texas, I was coming at it with a total lack of knowledge about nature. I saw the holes in the dirt but I didn’t put it together to go ‘oh, that’s a perfectly snake-sized hole so maybe there are snakes’.”
There could have been a song entitled Cow Dung from that walk too. “I did some other really dumb things that day. I came across this herd of cattle and I didn’t know if they were going to stampede and attack me. I picked up cow dung and went ‘oh, neat, cow dung’. All this shit and I was picking it up. Man, I’d no idea. No idea.”
Another track on the new album, Digital Wit ness looks at the effect on people of having their lives constantly on show via social networks and online activities.
Clark is ambivalent about whether these self-portraits are good or harmful. “I think it’s multi-faceted. What we do as human beings is perform our identity. The T-shirt we pick up and put on, whether we know it or not, communicates something about us to others. Then, we have this vast canvas or portal to express selfhood, which is the internet with its blogs, Facebook, Twitter and everything else.”
She looks at teenagers today and is amazed by their self-confidence. “I remember being a teenager and being hideous. It’s self-evident that all teenagers are hideous because everybody is fumbling around and being awkward and trying to figure things out.
“But I see teenagers today and they’ve got the look down, they’ve got it together. They tend to be self-aware in a way that many of us aren’t or weren’t. I think it’s because they’re constantly confronted with their own image in a way that we weren’t when we were growing up. Your mom would take a picture at the high school dance and, in your mind, you’d think you looked like one thing and then, you’d get the photo back and, oh no, you looked nothing like that. You didn’t have that sense of selfpossession that teens have now.
“That said, I’m glad I didn’t have to grow up having to think about having the right picture face for a selfie. I’m well into my career and getting photographed regularly and I still don’t have that together.”
Our online existence has also, Clarke believes, brought about a much different view on privacy. “Now that we know what we have always suspected – that the US government is constantly watching me and you and everyone else – the concept of privacy has become laughable to many.
“I wonder – and this is an unprovable and untested theory – if we aren’t making ourselves more transparent as a reflex reaction. We know we’re being watched so why pretend otherwise? A few weeks ago, I went to see Janelle Monae with David Byrne – she was wonderful, by the way, a total delight – but we were emailing back and forth afterwards and David was all like ‘hi NSA, how are you doing?’.”
Clark’s own immersion in a rock’n’roll lifestyle came when her family sent the then 16-year-old on tour in Europe and Japan with her uncle Tuck Andress, who was in jazz duo Tuck & Patti. Did this cure her of any idea that touring was glamorous?
“I think it did the opposite,” she laughs. “It’s very sexy to say ‘oh, I can’t come to dinner, they need me in Milan.’ There’s a certain one-upmanship to that. Going on the road with my uncle at an early age didn’t demystify that for me. There were plenty of trappings of rock stardom, though they were a different genre altogether, like nice hotel suites and room service that maybe another person would consider high-faluting.
“There were things about it that were kind of glamorous, but I never saw any city we were in for more than four hours. I think it opened my mind that this was work and better than working at something else, especially because you were doing something that you loved. And I still love it now.”
After touring, Clark enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “It’s a funny school to go to and especially in the early 2000s when you had the beginning of the dismantling of the music industry as we knew it. I’d go to classes and learn about stuff which had to do with a dinosaur of a business model and which had no bearing on the real world. It was all about an industry which was backsliding into obsolescence. The non-music stuff was really irrelevant in many ways.
“A music school is supposed to give one marketable music skills but it’s tricky because there’s only Charlie Parker and not everyone is going to thrive. Not everyone who graduates from music school will get to be tangentially involved in music as a career.
“I remember I worked as a telemarketer to make extra money in college and for a brief time I made calls to fundraise for the school. I was terrible at it and would start off apologising for ruining their dinner.
“But a huge amount of people I’d call went ‘you got to be kidding me, I’m still playing off my loans from that place and I haven’t picked up the trombone in years’ or ‘I don’t have a lot to give on a high school band director’s salary’. There were also a lot of people who were deeply resentful that they were being called and asked for more money from a for-profit institute like that. It really made me rethink the whole thing.”
That meant leaving college and heading off into the big bad world to do her own thing. It’s obvious that she has few regrets. “My main concern is music and staying true to that. I want people to connect with what I do and not me bend to make something I think they will like. The artists I admire can make both pop music and edgy music. I want to do that and make music that can move people’s hearts and souls.”
yyy St Vincent is out now. St Vincent
plays Dublin’s Olympia tomorrow night.
See Ilovestvincent. com.