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St Vincent: ‘I recently did an thing, and it was all Irish Catholics. That’s my rascal side’

Annie Clark’s ever-morphing, visionary pop has won her consistent acclaim. She’s now inspiring young artists from The Last Dinner Party to Olivia Rodrigo

Annie Clark is laughing through the jet lag. “The Brit Awards are such a scene. I was very glad to have microdosed on mushrooms,” hoots Clark, aka the critically acclaimed pop shape-shifter, multiple Grammy-winner and occasional style icon St Vincent. “That made it worthwhile. I presented The Last Dinner Party with their award and sat back and drank Champagne.”

Clark has just arrived home in Los Angeles after a flying visit to London to attend the Brits at the O2 arena – one final weekend away before she gets into the heavy business of promoting her dark and stormy new album, All Born Screaming.

She confirms that the awards night was a typically chaotic showing by the British music industry. Kylie Minogue glugged vodka from her shoe. There was an elaborate skit involving the stars of reality series The Traitors. Clark watched in giddy astonishment from her seat in the back, handed the rising-star award to Abigail Morris and her all-conquering bandmates and then let the mushrooms work their mischief.

This wasn’t Clark’s first Brits, so she knew the vibe would be different from that of the more buttoned-down Grammys. “I went one time about 10 years ago,” she says. “I was nominated for best international female. I didn’t know what the Brits were then. We got stuck in traffic and showed up late – missed the whole red carpet. Which could have been a real feather in my cap at the time. It didn’t matter anyway, as I was up against Taylor Swift.”


That night’s friendly struggle for awards supremacy was one of the first occasions she and Swift crossed paths. It would not be the last. Last year they put their definitive stamp on pop culture when the song they cowrote, an obscure ditty called Cruel Summer, went to number one across the world. Having dated a supermodel, sung with two-thirds of Nirvana and become an unlikely celebrity cheerleader for the video game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild during the pandemic, Clark knows all too well that life is full of surprises. Yet Cruel Sumer’s explosion in the popular consciousness four years after its initial release was a twist she didn’t see coming.

“It was truly amazing and astounding to see. Cruel Summer, I always knew, was a great song. [But] it was a song from a lot of records ago. It wasn’t a single,” says Clark. “It was this amazing showing of Taylor’s fans, who decided ‘No, no – that’s the hit.’ And they chose it. And they made it a global worldwide hit.”

Clark is credited on Cruel Summer alongside Swift and the producer Jack Antonoff. But while she was delighted to be part of a mega-smash, she has no desire to follow Swift to interstellar ubiquity. To be recognised wherever she goes is not something she has ever coveted. She is content with her status as a huge cult artist – a singer who can headline a festival stage (as she did at Electric Picnic in 2018) but won’t draw swarms of selfie-seekers when she leaves the house.

“I like to be able to walk in a room and not be seen. I like that: for me personally, it means I can watch people. My idea of an amazing night would be to work all day at the studio and then go have a drink at the bar and sit next to someone who I don’t know and who doesn’t know me and doesn’t know what I do – and have a conversation with a stranger. I think I would lose that ability to get to watch people without being watched. I would miss that.”

All Born Screaming is the disturbing mirror image of the effervescent Cruel Summer. Having recently turned 40, Clark is at an age when life comes at you full speed. On the evidence of pummelling new songs such as Hell Is Near and Reckless, she has been at the sharp end of a lot of difficult experiences. “I watched you all night till the dawn had come / the angels came down and picked you up,” she sings on Reckless. There is no need to read between the lines: she’s showing you her scars, her yet-to-heal wounds.

Clark would rather not delve into specifics. She is, however, upfront about the record being, among other things, a digression on life and death. That dark sensibility comes rattling through on Broken Man, her recent single. Here, against a collage of Tori Amos-fronts-Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock, she seems to be singing from the perspective of the Grim Reaper, howling, “I can make your kingdom come / On my feet, I’m an earthquake shakin’.”

Contemplating All Born Screaming’s themes, all the brightness vanishes from her voice. “It’s stark – it’s binary,” she says. “You’re alive or you’re dead.”

Ever since David Bowie, it has been a cliche to describe musicians as chameleon-like. Yet it’s hard to think of a more apt description for Clark, whose early albums radiated what she has described as a “Pollyannaish asexual vibe” only to be followed by her rebirth as a pop dominatrix with Strange Mercy, from 2011, and Massseduction, from 2017. Then, in 2021, came another swerve into swampy 1970s funk, with Daddy’s Home – the cover of which featured Clark in a stylish blond wig, a nod to the Andy Warhol muse Candy Darling.

Her adventures as an ever-morphing pop visionary have won consistent acclaim: her fans include David Byrne, with whom she made the 2012 album Love This Giant, Olivia Rodrigo, and David Grohl, who asked her to fill in for Kurt Cobain when Nirvana performed Lithium at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, in 2014. In 2017 the New Yorker magazine heralded her songwriting and her molten guitar playing as “singular, dense, modern, yet catchy and at times soulful, in an odd kind of way”.

She has never been dodge-the-paparazzi famous – and, as she says, would hate to lose her anonymity – but she has had a ringside seat on the A-list, having briefly dated the actor and model Cara Delevingne. This made her a person of interest to the tabloid press, and in 2017 the Daily Mail, digging into her life, discovered Clark’s father was a convicted fraudster serving a 12-year jail term for his part in a €40 million stock-manipulation scheme.

Tabloid attention was a steep learning curve for an artist who grew up in the anonymous Dallas suburb of Lake Highlands. She did her best to keep her private life off limits: in a 2017 New Yorker profile, her discomfort at being prodded like a bug on a dissection table is obvious. Ultimately, though, she concluded that her family situation needed to be confronted. Daddy’s Home is a sophisticated attempt to take ownership of her father’s infamy rather than become a victim of it.

The album, which won the Grammy for best alternative LP, was a complex piece of art. It landed like a Valentine to Young Americans-era David Bowie, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder: Clark has described it as a tribute to downtown New York music from the first half of the 1970s. But under the wide-lapelled licks and sleazed-up production, Daddy’s Home had a nightmarish, roiling quality that came out fully when she took it on the road for a tour that included a tumultuous date in Dublin in 2022. “The Daddy’s Home shows I did, I had so much fun. And I do think the shows reminded people of the manic art damage that was boiling underneath.”

Daddy’s Home featured production by Jack Antonoff, with whom she also worked on Masseduction. With All Born Screaming, by contrast, she’s flying solo: it’s the first album she has produced entirely on her own. Given the personal subject matter, she concluded it was best to steer the ship herself. She has a clear idea of the arc she wanted to trace – from darkness to light, hopelessness to optimism.

“In some ways the first half of the record is your season in hell, walking on glass,” she says. “The second half goes into, ‘Yes, of course life is impossible – but we get to live it.’ The only thing worth living for is love. The album ends with an ecstatic mantra: we’re all born screaming. It’s all of it. I can write it all – because I’ve lived it. It’s close to the bone.

“In records past I’ve maybe been more interested in the idea of a postmodern way of dissecting identity or persona or playing with that. I’m not that interested in that right now. It’s just me – it’s the inside of my head.”

Clark’s family is Irish-American, and she goes out of her way to praise All Born Screaming’s engineer, Cian Riordan, who was born in Ireland and grew up in northern California. “I know Americans love to claim the Irish thing, but I did recently do, like, an thing, and it was Clarks and Flynns and Gallaghers,” she says. “All Irish Catholics. That’s my rascal side.”

Clark’s family was nominally Catholic, and she vividly recalls her shock watching Sinéad O’Connor’s controversial appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. “I still remember seeing SNL when she tore a picture of the pope. I didn’t understand any of the context, because I was too young. I did see, ‘Wow, this is an incredibly powerful woman standing up for something.’ I understood it was deeply punk and transgressive. They don’t make voices like that ... They don’t grow on trees. I think of her both as an iconoclast but also as an artist.”

Clark has to raise her voice slightly over the sound of a vacuum cleaner. She has family visiting, and a cleaner is giving her apartment a makeover. She sounds chipper but says that she has been getting up at 5am because of her jet lag. That isn’t to suggest she regrets going to the Brits – she was delighted to meet The Last Dinner Party and thrilled to find that Emily Roberts of the band uses one of Clark’s signature six-string guitars, which she designed with the manufacturer Ernie Ball Music Man. (A keen runner, Clark has also created an athleisure line with the trendy Outdoor Voices company.)

The Last Dinner Party aren’t the only ones who see Clark as a role model. When Olivia Rodrigo kicks off her European tour in Dublin this month, she too will rock a St Vincent guitar. It fills Clark with pride to know she has influenced a wave of young female guitar shredders.

“I’m so excited to see it. Excited to see like a generation of girls just picking up guitars – because of course they should pick up guitars. And whether it’s The Last Dinner Party or Olivia Rodrigo ... I’ve seen my guitar played in so many different contexts. I’ve seen metalheads play it. I’ve seen country musicians play it. So, to me, to have made a tool for musicians to be inspired by, and to see everything that they’re creating with it, that’s the best thing.”

All Born Screaming is released on Friday, April 26th