St Vincent: ‘I feel the 1970s are very similar to where we are now’

'When you get to a certain level, you cease to be a person to people… You’re an avatar covered in puke' Annie Clark on her new album and Fame

Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, has been thinking a lot about Britney Spears recently. “Most people don’t escape from that kind of stardom unscathed,” says Clark over video from Los Angeles. “I dare you to find somebody who did. When you get to a certain level, you cease to be a person to people. You start being an object of projection. You’re a symbol. A friend of mine said you’re an avatar covered in puke.”

Clark, a star in the world of indie pop, and one of the world’s greatest living guitarists, is obviously not at Spears’s level of celebrity. She has, though, served her time in the public eye. She performed with Dua Lipa at the 2020 Grammys (they were done up as creepy Doppelgänger in matching PVC), has written a song with Taylor Swift and in 2017 featured in an advertising campaign by jeweller Tiffany and Co.

So she’s been there and has opinions about the bullying and misogyny directed at Spears, as chronicled in the documentary Framing Britney Spears. It’s only when you’ve stood in the spotlight that you can truly appreciate the darkness that comes with it. This, as it happens, is also a subject with which Clark wrestles at length on her new album, the 1970s-influenced, funk-adjacent Daddy’s Home.

The daddy of the title is her father. In 2010 he was jailed for his part in a stock manipulation scheme that defrauded 17,000 investors out of €35 million. Six years later she was dating actor and model Cara Delevingne (“She’s a rock star,” Clark says of her ex). Which was when a British red-top gained access to her father’s court documentation and splashed the story.

Clark had actually touched on her up-and-down relationship with her dad and her feelings about his incarceration on her third LP, 2011’s Strange Mercy. The references were, however, deeply oblique – if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t have picked up on them. Now, thanks to the tabloids, the whole world felt it had the inside track.

She could have tried to distance herself from her father – or simply to have refused to speak to the press. Instead, with Daddy’s Home, she’s taking ownership of the story. It’s right there, in the album’s name – in 2019 she collected her dad from prison and drove him home – and in the lyrics to the title track. “I signed autographs in the visitation room,” she sings. “Yeah, you did some time/Well, I did some time too.”

'Do I look at what people say about me on social media? I don’t seek it out. Because no good comes of it'

“I write about the situation with a lot of humour,” she says. “And with compassion and absurdity. I don’t mention it to elicit sympathy or to get credit as someone who has suffered or anything like that.

“It’s just simply that it was a story told without my consent. That I then had to answer for. And it’s like, ‘No, I get to tell my story’. And I get to tell it in a way I want to tell it. Which is, again, with humour and, you know, humanity. Instead of it being some salacious whatever.”

Clark (38) has a reputation as a “challenging” interviewee. Promoting her 2017 album, Masseduction, in the UK, she insisted, for instance, that the press meet her in a pink “psychic womb” smelling of fumes.

Next to her was a dictaphone containing pre-recorded answers to questions she regarded as predictable. On other occasions journalists have described Clark shutting down and staring at her phone. This happened when conversation turned to a topic she felt already done to death (“what’s it like being a woman in music?) or which she simply didn’t fancy (queries about her decision to tour Masseduction without a band landed with a profound thud).

That supposed prickliness will become a talking point all over again a few weeks after she speaks to me. In a story that sets indie Twitter ablaze for 24 hours in late April, British writer Emma Madden self-publishes an interview she says St Vincent and/or her team had spiked. That was seemingly after Clark objected to a line of questioning about US prison reform.

Clark hasn’t commented publicly and it would be foolhardy to wade in without knowing the facts. She can certainly be intimidating and could never accused of faking it for the cameras. But this evening she is chipper and chatty. She is also under few illusions regarding the toxicity of Twitter (where the latest controversy has played out).

“Do I look at what people say about me on social media?” She shakes her head. “I don’t seek it out. Because no good comes of it. No good comes of it ever. I’ll post stuff on Twitter and Instagram. But you can’t do those deep dives. It’s terrible. It makes you feel really bad.”

Clark believes we have become too eager to pile in and rush to judgment. “We’re trying a lot of people in the court of public opinion,” she says. “If that’s the way, then it does leave everybody vulnerable. We live in uncertain times in a lot of ways. I understand why people want moral purity. But what I don’t think is helpful is this arms race to absolute moral purity at the expense of empathy, compassion and forgiveness.”

Pile-ons aren’t acts of virtue, she says. They’re about the dopamine hit we get when we put somebody in the stocks. “A lot of times cruelty is dressed up as piety. And that I can’t abide. It’s schadenfreude. I get it. I have indulged in it too. We’ve got to make sure we are allowing for the fact that stories are complex, human beings are complex, life is complex. But we also live in a situation where our rage is commodified.”

Was their argument that it’s disrespectful to smash a guitar? …If you’re going to smash a guitar, smash a guitar.”

Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and moved with her mother to Dallas when she was three, after her parents divorced. She received her first guitar at five and, in her early teens, worked as a roadie for her uncle and aunt’s jazz combo, Tuck and Patti. By high-school she was a virtuoso.

She dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston after three years and moved back to Texas and joined robe-wearing “choral rock band” The Polyphonic Spree (a cult group that actually looked like a cult) before going on to tour with Sufjan Stevens. And she had soon embarked on a solo career, choosing “St Vincent” from a Nick Cave lyric referring to the Manhattan hospital where Dylan Thomas died.

Her first Irish gig, at the Sugar Club in November 2007, drew a curious though modest crowd. Touring Masseduction, she filled the Olympia twice and later headlined an Electric Picnic stage. That journey from indie obscurity to something bordering on fame was a wild ride, she says.

“You can see a different kind of machinery – the star-maker machinery, as Joni Mitchell would say. You kind of see the inside of that. And see it for what it is. Which is a system intended to monetise attention by commodifying people. I don’t say that with judgment. It is what it is.

She pays tribute to trailblazers such as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos. These are the artists on whose shoulder she stands.

“But also, you start to see how feeble that system is in a lot of ways. When people are suffering and don’t have food or money or are losing their shelter and all this stuff – and you’re talking to me about an Instagram influencer or whatever? You know – eugh, it just doesn’t resonate.

She pauses, reflecting on what she’s just said. “By the way, as an aside, I wasn’t referring to Cara when I said Instagram influencer.”

St Vincent aka Annie Clark
St Vincent aka Annie Clark

Daddy’s Home marks a radical gear-shift. The preceding two records, St Vincent and Masseduction, were imperious and icy. On the cover of the former Clark had her hair bunched up, Bride of Frankenstein style. Touring the latter, she wore terrifying knee-high boots that looked like New York Fashion Week’s take on A Clockwork Orange. Accompanying a record about domination and armour-plating your vulnerabilities, it was the perfect visual motif.

Her new album, by contrast, feels like a 1970s shag carpet in musical form. It’s lush, a bit sleazy, with an undercarriage of seductive retro-funk. If Daddy’s Home were a colour, it would be cigarette-stained brown. If it were a car, it would be a Ford Cortina rocking the world’s biggest fluffy dice.

It’s a gripping listen. But more than that, it is powerfully evocative. You could imagine it playing over the end credits to The Rockford Files or soundtracking a documentary about how much of a no-go zone Times Square had become by 1973. Clark has gone all in too, with a Watergate-era wardrobe and hairstyle.

“I feel the 1970s are very similar to where we are now,” she says. “There is a lot of economic uncertainty. We are kind of in the burned-out building of the old power structures. And we are playing around in the smouldering bricks trying to figure out what we are going to be doing next.”

One thing Daddy’s Home isn’t is a dewy eyed-homage to the past. St Vincent understands that as a woman in rock things have progressed hugely. She touches on this on The Melting of the Sun, in which she pays tribute to trailblazers such as Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos. These are the artists on whose shoulder she stands.

In that context, and as one of modern rock’s most acclaimed guitarists, what did she think of the recent controversy over Phoebe Bridgers smashing her instrument on Saturday Night Live? It was a sublime piece of theatre by Bridgers. However, it brought on a deluge of online hate, mostly from middle-aged men believing a Gen Z woman had no right to take up the six-string-busting baton from Pete Townshend, The Clash and Kurt Cobain.

“I don’t understand the crux of their argument,” says Clark. “Was their argument that it’s disrespectful to smash a guitar? Well that’s silly. I don’t think that much about it. If you’re going to smash a guitar, smash a guitar.”

Clark is ready for the next chapter of her life and her career. And it is obvious that no longer having to tiptoe around her father’s incarceration has lifted a weight from her shoulders. But how does he feel about her naming the project after him?

“I think he’s thrilled. He likes the music. I think he got calls from old inmates congratulating him on the album he inspired. It’s all good,” she says. Clark pauses, her voice dipping an octave. “It’s all good.”

Daddy’s Home is released May 14th