St Vincent: ‘I did my genealogy test, I’m 80% Irish’
Annie Clark's new album, ‘Masseduction’, is her most personal yet, but don’t ask her who it’s about
St Vincent: “I think that art is a weapon against fascism . . . anything that values humanity and speaks to it and respects the listener is anti-oppressive”
“I feel like, this is my truth, I’m not just f**king up, I’ll do anything for Ireland. Give me the Irish any day,” purrs Annie Clark in flamboyant Hollywood style. She’s in the middle of a media day (“You know what, baby, they’re all my big media days these days”) promoting Masseduction, her sixth album as St Vincent.
She’s been known to shut down journalists if they ask bland questions but, completely unprompted, she answers the most thoroughly exhausted question before I even get to it. Thank God.
“I did my genealogy test and I’m 80 per cent Irish,” she says proudly. “80 per cent Irish and I’m 20 per cent Ashkenazi Jew, so between those things . . . I worry with the best of them.”
Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1982 and moved to Dallas, Texas, when she was seven. She studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston but dropped out after three years and began recording under the St Vincent moniker in 2006, following stints in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’s band.
She began writing material for Masseduction when she was touring her 2014 self-titled album. On a bus somewhere between the Czech Republic and Latvia, she crafted what would become the album’s final track. “Sometimes I go to the edge of my roof and I think I’ll jump just to punish you,” her voice grates over a sinister drum beat on Smoking Section, before trailing to a finish with a hushed “it’s not the end”.
Masseduction is a deeply personal album and if you want to know anything about Clark, it’s all there in her lyrics. “Yeah. What can I say? I wrote my heart.”
'I’m making fun of the idea that I’m a super self-serious, pretentious jerk'
Having spilled her guts on record, she doesn’t feel the need to answer personal questions. And since she’s taken a firmer stance on what’s up for discussion, she’s noticed that some members of the press are now afraid of her.
“Which I’m not mad at, you know . . . I’ve put out six records in 10 years, so five of my years have been spent in conference rooms like this, talking to press. So I was happy to weed out some of the more asinine questions, but at the same time, I am making fun of myself too. I’m making fun of the idea that I’m a super self-serious, pretentious jerk.”
There is so much talk around album releases, where an artist has to re-evaluate their art up to 10 times a day, with bonus photo shoots. Is she over the chatting? “I compare putting out a record to, like, having a bridezilla-style wedding every two years, and there’s so much circumstance and there’s so much talking about talking about talking about talking about talking. The thing is, I love this record and I am excited for people to hear it and it’s just sort of shocking to me that it hasn’t come out yet.”
As she pours her own truths out into the world, does she think that artists need to be more honest to counteract the headaches that the last political year has brought on?
“I think that art is a weapon against fascism,” she states. “I think that anything that values humanity and speaks to it and respects the listener is anti-oppressive. So, I think in that way, yeah, I think that it humanises us and when we’re more humanised, we’re more empathetic and when we’re more empathetic, the general ecosystem goes up.”
She speaks slowly and carefully, allowing the pregnant pauses to add extra gravity to her words. Does she think that truth is a form of power? “Well, I think that the – I want to say administration but that almost seems too organised and it sounds like too competent of a word to call whatever is going on in America. But I think that the Trump administration has made odiousness more obvious. And I think that in general, when you’re just like, ‘Oh! That’s so clearly injustice’. Like they’re not taking pains to hide it.
“They’re not even trying to sugarcoat it. They just want anybody who’s not a rich, white man to be under their thumb. So that makes it easier to call things out and be generally more outspoken about things that are unjust. Sexist or racist, the list goes on. They’ve made it more obvious when things are deeply horrible.”
Taking that into consideration, along with the huge number of men and women in Hollywood who have come forward and spoken out against Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, does she think that truth gives people the strength to fight?
“I think so . . . I think people are fed up. Fed up of the status quo.”
Clark uses charming, dark humour as a defence mechanism, which is evident in the video for the album’s first single, Los Ageless: bazookas pop colours at the viewer, while women pull and tear at their bodies to adhere to a specific LA beauty standard. She sees the colours and the irony as necessary to lighten the load of the heavier subjects she addresses.
“I had to. I think if the visual world of this album exactly replicated the emotional tone, then it would be like Metallica’s black album, you know . . . paint it all black,” she says, cracking herself up.
“It’s necessary to kind of dig in through the dominatrix of the mental institution, the sexy Pee Wee Playhouse vibe, in order to make the thing generally more buoyant. And, frankly, have more depth in an odd way by the juxtaposition.”
Clark has been romantically linked to women such as model Cara Delevingne and actress Kristen Stewart, with her love life splashed across gossip sites and magazines. Some newspapers refer to her as a “gal pal”, rather than admitting that two famous women could be in a serious, adult relationship. So she has a right to remain silent on who’s who in her music.
On Young Lover, she rescues a noncommittal, socialite partner from overdosing, only to distance herself from that role on Saviour: “Honey, I can’t be your saviour/ Love you to the grave and farther/Honey, I am not your martyr.”
On the title track, she sings: “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” picking up from where the selfie-obsessed culture of Digital Witness left off on her last album, and Prince Johnny makes a reappearance on the devastating Happy Birthday, Johnny, a lament for an old friend who has lost their way.
Self-medication, overindulgence and dependency – either with pharmaceuticals, love and sex – are key themes on Masseduction. “Pills to wake/Pills to sleep/Pills pills pills every day of the week,” she sings on the choppy and playful Pills, with Jenny Lewis and Delevingne providing backing vocals and Kamasi Washington working the sax.
How does she factor in elements of self-care when she’s on tour for months on end? “I try to build it into the schedule ahead of time so that I’m not, like, under duress and cancelling things that I already planned and fans are depending on,” she says, before realising that she has only ever cancelled one gig in her life.
'I am a bit like a greyhound or something. I will run myself into the ground if I’m not careful'
“I was trying to play a show but the club had just been renovated from being a sex club and they didn’t usually have music there . . . the dressing-room had like . . .” She stops to find the appropriate wording. “The dressing-room was like a torture dungeon with a hummus plate on, like, on a sex swing.”
Did you eat the hummus? “Absolutely. I just licked it off! The restraint . . .” she says, before remembering to get back to the point. “I had to cancel that show because the sound system didn’t work.”
Having just one cancelled gig to her name could be the sign of a true professional, but she says that she can sometimes work herself too hard by pushing the finishing line further and further away.
“I am a bit like a greyhound or something. I will run myself into the ground if I’m not careful but generally, I factor that in ahead of time now. I’ll pre-emptively strike my breaking point.”
- Masseduction is out now on Loma Vista
ST VINCENT: ESSENTIAL LISTENING
Taken from 2011’s Strange Mercy, Cruel is all about how we’re a bit worthless and disposable. One day we’re on top of the world but by the time morning comes around, we’ve been abandoned and everyone has moved onto something bigger and better. With Clark’s airy, swirling vocals and the jaunty bop, it’s like a warm, summer breeze manipulating you into thinking that everyone hates you. Lovely.
Strange Mercy deals with the ways in which society treats women and Cheerleader is a gently defiant song wherein Clark choose to quit supporting the non-gender specific bad guys. She refuses to play the dumb girl just to make other people feel better about themselves so she’s done changing and she’s not going to stand on the sidelines anymore.
Who (with David Byrne)
In 2012, St. Vincent and Talking Heads’ David Byrne released the phenomenally jarring and bizarre Face This Giant. With brass horns akimbo and some philosophical questions to ponder , Who is the lead single and opening track from their album. Throwing verses and choruses back and forth, theirs is a match made in heaven, with their artistic visions complementing the other beautifully.
Birth in Reverse
‘Oh, what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate.’ Sometimes surviving the mundane is the toughest challenge but Clark makes it all worthwhile on Birth In Reverse, from her 2014 self-titled album. With scratchy guitars, urgent percussion and droll humour throughout, she seeks comfort in the ordinary, twitching behind her curtains, rather than venturing outside at all.
Another little number from her 2014 album, Prince Johnny is a delicate and sensitive song. It’s all about the support and time we have to give to pals in need, even if they’re on a self-destructive path. Johnny features again on 2017’s Masseduction, on Happy Birthday, Johnny as someone who has completely lost their way and Clark mourns the distance that’s grown between them, with her own celebrity partly to blame.
If the title isn’t a dead give away, Los Ageless is all about our fascination with youth and beauty but when it comes down to it, these things can mean very little when the one you love doesn’t love you back. ‘I try to write you a love song but it comes out a lament’, she whispers like a confession as the track ends, leaving us with a delightful feeling that we’re all doomed.