Cover feature: Laughing with fangs: St Vincent

Laughing with fangs: St Vincent

With her fourth record, St Vincent stepped up her pink staircase to a whole new realm. New album ‘MASSEDUCTION’ - a dissection of life’s paradoxes - cements her as a once in a generation artist.

St Vincent’s self-titled album took her to some downright bizarre places. Purple toilet costumes, dates with movie stars, front rows at fashion shows, and water pistol paparazzi stand-offs; they’re all images of the musician that appeared splashed across the whispering pages of celebrity gossip magazines. Probably the last place she thought she’d end up. It’s an astronomical rise to fame that would be more than enough to test most artists. St Vincent? She turned it all into an album.

Removing herself from the daily obligations of her New York apartment, Annie Clark set up temporary shop at the Marlton Hotel on 8th (oddly enough the uncannily named poet Edna St Vincent Millay once had the same idea) and set about trying to follow up her best record to date. “It was about holing up and having all of the small needs met,” she reasons, speaking over the phone from LA. “If I need food, I can get food – it’s right there. If I need coffee, it’s right here.” She also took up pilates, which provided a few indirect benefits, too. “I don’t know if they advertise this, but pilates made me sing better, and it made me come harder,” Annie announces gleefully, ever the master of throwing a clanger into general conversation with zero notice. “Seriously.”

Earlier on, though, it’s St Vincent’s turn to be taken by surprise, which, it must be said, is something of a rarity. “Oh… GOD!” she exclaims - with mild mortification - when asked to ponder a world populated by endless clones of herself. “Um. It would be very clean, like, super fastidious and tidy,” she starts. “All the buses and trains would be five minutes late. Five minutes late. Everyone would make plans to go out, and then it would be fine…” she laughs. “All of me would cancel, because they all started working on a song.” she laughs. “So no-one would ever go out.”

St Vincent’s hypothetical dystopia might not sound like an immediate winner (at the very least, shifting all the world’s time zones back to accommodate her promptness sounds like a logistical nightmare) but for just the one, lone, Annie Clark, her relentless artistic ethic and unwavering attention to the finest of details has proved her forte. St Vincent has always been a true chameleon between records, painting vivid archetypes to head up each of her creative eras. Masking sinister menace beneath a blankly innocent grin on her debut album ‘Marry Me’ set the precedent back in 2007, while its follow-up, ‘Actor’, was fairytale lightness charged by a surging undercurrent of violence. Sparse pop refinement, gaping teeth straining against latex, and housewives slipping sedatives into their ice-cold Chardonnay coloured the bleak ‘Strange Mercy’ four years on. And then her self-titled album – released three years ago – seemed to elevate things to a whole other level.

Sternly watching from her pink utilitarian throne, ‘St Vincent’ looked on as the digital and analogue collided in battle, mocking the endless mundanity of cosy everyday life (“take out the garbage, masturbate,” quipped ‘Birth in Reverse’) and yearning for a truer, rawer kind of connection that knocks down all the barriers we build around ourselves each minute for self-preservation. At times, she adopted the persona of a cult ringleader, and when she hit the road to tour the record, her physical presence – the analogue side of proceedings, so to speak - was placed in the firing line. She took a chunk out of her thigh when she slammed into a bannister during one show; at another, she returned to the dressing room with a blood-streaked face. Security guards were given hickies, and audience members had everything from hats to crutches stolen. All of the aggression that typically sits at the centre of St Vincent’s music, dormant or malignant, was exorcised right there on the stage, her body wielded as a weapon.

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“It’s very rare that a great artist makes their best record after they’ve bought the yacht.”

‘MASSEDUCTION’, though equally as bold, is a different beast. Fronted by a leopard-print clad ass poking in humorous isolation through a sheet of gaudy day-glo paper, the rear end in question belongs to St Vincent’s research assistant Carlotta Kohl. In her own right a prolific artist, Carlotta’s photography – centred on women’s bodies - cuts out the creepy old trope of a male artist objectifying others and makes a playful power-play out of sexualisation. It’s not quite clear whose idea it was, either, so her butt being on this brilliantly subversive album’s cover, then, seems quite fitting. “We’re laughing with fangs,” is how Annie puts it. “It’s aggressive, it’s sexy, but also totally absurd and silly.”

Sonically, Annie Clark’s fifth veers between ‘Savior’’s ‘70s porno sleaze, and the drug-gobbling lullaby of ‘Pills’ – at once completely overblown, and tapping into some of her most vulnerable moments to date. Though it’s impossible to fact-check this album – a point she continually makes in interviews, with a palpable degree of relief – the parallels between ‘MASSEDUCTION’’s major temptations, and St Vincent’s own growing celebrity profile are inescapable. The pressures to retain artistic integrity under the camera glare of the tabloid churn rears its head; sex, power and money all looming as seductive influencers of the masses, on the teetering edge of self-destruction. Her most personal record yet, here St Vincent is wielding emotions as a weapon instead.

“I think that’s a very good way to put it,” she retorts, wryly. “I would almost suggest you write that in an article.”

As absurd as ‘MASSEDUCTION’ can be – the record was announced by way of a rolling news conference which veered off on a variety of surreal tangents ranging from her musings on macrophilia (a fetish involving giants) to the album’s supposed working title of ‘Ass Education’ – St Vincent’s in-jokes feel like warm jibes rather than an impenetrable ‘1989’-style clique of cool. Some of the time, she’s also poking fun at herself. In one such move – in a moment of boredom between albums - she started up an informal series on her Instagram account which saw her obnoxiously taking an “important call,” in the manner of an ego-inflated Artist (with a capital A) flanked by a hundred-strong entourage and far too much hot air. “Someone putting their finger up to silence you is so aggressive and such a douchey thing to do,” she says, with a brief cackle. “I guess I was doing a parody of being a douche. I hope,” she sidenotes, quickly.

“We’re living in absurd times.”

As a consequence of her relationship with supermodel Cara Delevingne in the years following the release of ‘St Vincent’ (the pair publicly split up but remain friends), Annie Clark inadvertently found herself at star-studded parties, inevitably filled with the kind of celebrities she was satirising. She also ended up in the disorientating position of being pursued by a flock of paparazzi when she tried to leave the house. “It’s a very unnatural thing to be walking down the street and have photographers chasing you,” she says. “That’s just very weird as an experience. It’s part and parcel of this celebrity industrial complex. You gotta keep the magazines stocked with pictures of x y z person in order to sell magazines, to sell movies, to sell a can of soda, to sell.. sell. It’s…” she sighs, “yeah.”

Though Annie largely dismisses her glimpses into the A-List in exactly this way – with a weary laugh – there’s no doubt that the pressures she faces as a artist increasingly in the public eye hover in the background of ‘MASSEDUCTION’. One of the forms of seduction dissected, here, is invariably fame. ‘Pills’ – featuring vocals from Cara Delevingne – warns against being “defanged by fame,” before racing ecstatically off to bed “to give head to the money I made”. ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ meanwhile sees a frequent character who has appeared before in St Vincent’s music (first on ‘Marry Me’, then in ‘Prince Johnny’) phoning up to give her right earful for selling out. “You yelled through your teeth, accused me of acting like all royalty…” she recounts on the song, “Annie, how could you do this to me?”

“There were traps I was wary of falling into,” Annie admits. “It’s a complicated thing to be making music in these times. With the exception of Bowie,” she quips, “it’s very rare that a great artist makes their best record after they’ve bought the yacht.”

“Staring into the void is dangerous. Danger is sexy.”

By St Vincent’s reckoning, anyway, fame often comes at the expense of artistic integrity, just one paradox in ‘MASSEDUCTION’’s dark swirl of power-exchanges. Fixated on the ways in which humans exploit one another to get what they want – often through seduction – the album takes it all on with characteristic black humour. “You put me in a teacher’s denim skirt,” teases ‘Savior’, fulfilling someone else’s kink, but only when it’s begged for, “ruler and desk, so i can make it hurt”. And in ‘Los Ageless’ meanwhile, having comes at the cost of losing: “how can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their mind too?” It’s a darker side of humanity that’s not especially pleasant to confront; making it prime subject matter for St Vincent.

“There’s often a gap between what people want, and what people say they want,” Annie details. “Exploring that kind of power, the seduction that it - be it love, sex, drugs – poses. Staring into the void, staring at the black hole, and wondering how close you can get to it before it sucks you in… It’s dangerous, and danger is sexy.”

For all its shadowy explorations into people at their most selfish and self-pleasuring, and all its dark dissection of power and manipulation, though, this is also a strangely funny record. Operating using the same bizarrely droll strain of wit as its creator in conversation, as her creative director Willo Perron put it to the New Yorker, ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is “absurd but hot”. Filled with retina-searing colour even in its saddest moments, the hurt and pain on this record is a new strain. “There’s a certain seriousness and austerity to the last record,” Annie says, looking back on ‘St Vincent’. “This record is oddly filled with more sorrow, but its melancholy is a lot brighter sounding.”

“I think that horror movies and comedies share a very similar trait,” she adds, “which is build up, build up, build up, tension, release. Fear and laughter are entwined in that way. I feel like the world is a bit of a tragic comedy,” she goes on. “The human race has so much potential and has done so many incredible things, and then it’s capable of the utmost stupidity. We’re capable of the best and worst, and that’s absurd. We’re living in absurd times. All of this is just a coping mechanism, I guess.”

St Vincent’s new album ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is out 13th October via Loma Vista / Caroline International.

Photos: Catalina Kulczar.

Taken from the October 2017 issue of DIY. Subscribe and read online below.