St. Vincent’s new album is a rare beast: Full to the brim with massive pop hits and astute social commentary.
On an average-looking grey London street, there’s something very strange on the wall: a plaster of Paris nose protrudes out of the brickwork. Through an inconspicuous doorway and a rabbit-warren of corridors, St Vincent sits in an upstairs room. She’s here to talk about her new self-titled album. It’s not just any old record, either.
For her fourth full length, Annie Clark has created something almost unbelievably exciting and unique. After all, who else could possibly dream up a fully functioning, massively infectious song solely about a rattlesnake? Who else could write pop songs that casually reference modern American authors like Joan Didion and Lorrie Moore, and historical, divisive social figures like political activist and Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton? This is clever, witty, pop music; both without fear and immediately accessible.
“I love pop music,” Clark enthuses. “Stevie Wonder is pop, Michael Jackson is pop, Talking Heads,” she laughs, name checking recent collaborator David Byrne’s band, “is pop. To me it’s about living in that place where accessibility and weirdo meet. That’s where all my heroes have lived. It’s cool to try and push pop music forward, to see what it could be. It’s important for me for things to be accessible. That’s the kind of music I like.”
Fearless is a descriptor Annie returns to time and time again when she talks about the process of making ‘St Vincent’. There’s a certain wriggling exposure that comes with writing, and while her previous album ‘Strange Mercy’ was a dark record, written during what Annie admits was “a really sad time in my life,” the follow-up seems to strike a balance between ugly truths and a joyful pop abandon.
“I think that it takes courage to be ugly, and to admit that you have misanthropic or self-loathing thoughts. It takes courage to be a narrator that is maybe not that likeable,” she explains. “If you can admit to your flaws then it’s just freeing. Being able to admit your ugly parts is one thing, but this is a less self-lacerating record. It’s sort of come out the other side into really wanting to connect with other people, and not just be insular, on your own, in your own cesspool of anxiety and self-loathing.”
Part of her move towards connection, Annie agrees, stems from her work with the previously mentioned David Byrne last year, on their mighty brass monolith ‘Love This Giant’. “People would dance at the shows,” she says, “like, dance! At St Vincent shows people move, but not with that kind of collective consciousness. That was really interesting, because I think a lack of self-consciousness from the performers meant a lack of self-consciousness from the crowd. There’s something really communal about it that I liked, so I wanted to make sure the new record had a groove.”
Following the ‘Love This Giant’ tour, she had previously planned to take some time off, “to learn how to be normal.” That plan, like the television in the lyrics of standout track ‘Digital Witness’, quickly went out the window. “It was kind of like being let down at the end of a tornado,” she says, “and I started writing the record about 36 hours after I got back, just because I realised it was the way to get through the strange, brackish waters of tour and sedentary.”
Admittedly it’s hard to imagine Annie, perched upright on the sofa today, slumped like a coach potato in front of Netflix, but that’s apparently just what she did in her 36 hour break. “There was just a dial-tone in my brain, like static,” she laughs.
She approached the album with a similar level of discipline – to her, St Vincent is like having a day job. “The way that I like to write,” she explains, “is where I’ll wake up in the morning, work from 10 til 7 or something, and then go drink tequila with my friends at night.” It’s a similar practice to another American author that Annie admires - Philip Roth. He once said that if you sit there for long enough, for two or three years, you will eventually make something worthwhile, and Annie agrees with this ethos. “I think the more that I do music, the more mysterious it is to me. There’s probably a mythology about creativity that involves a tinkerbell muse coming down, and that does happen, but you have to be in a place where you can catch it.”
One such muse descended whilst Annie was staying at a friend’s ranch in far-west Texas. “I went out walking on the property one day, and I was feeling very free and existential. I decided I would take my clothes off and wander, because when do you get to be that free? I was having a great time, and then I heard something. My brain went to rationalise it very quickly, like, oh maybe it was the wind. Then I realised that there wasn’t any wind.” She places down her tea cup with a clink, which unexpectedly provides an extra dramatic effect to the tale. “There hadn’t been any wind. And then,” she goes on, allowing her voice to quiver, “I heard the rattle. Out the corner of my eye I saw a fucking snake! I took off running, my clothes were dropping out of my hands, and it felt like I was running for a very long time.”
She laughs. “I think about Timothy Treadwell the Grizzly Man [and documentary-maker], and I know you should do something if you see a bear, but I don’t remember if you should make yourself as big as possible, and scare it, or make yourself small and harmless. One will get you killed, and one won’t. I realised that I didn’t know anything about nature. I would see cows, and I would think, do they attack? What do cows do? Are they going to trample me, or should I go and pet the cow? I had no idea about these things.”
“I did have a moment where I was eating a burger and looking at a cow, actually,” laughs Annie, suddenly moving off on another of her weird, loosely connected tangents. She doesn’t elaborate, but the grisly metaphor speaks for itself. If ever there was a trademark St Vincent image – darkly funny, and ever so slightly uncomfortable – then it’s that.
The real question is, would St Vincent stand more of a chance against a grizzly bear or a rattlesnake? “The rattlesnake!” exclaims Annie with no hesitation. “I think about dying all the time, and I would rather die from poison, than, like, a hippo or a bear biting my face off. I think the poison would go,” she clicks her fingers, “quicker.” The fact that she has an answer ready is maybe part of the same reason that Clark calls herself a ‘not that likeable’ a narrator. She and her music are interested in dissecting things in a surgeon-like fashion – even if the contents are not that pleasant or comfortable.
Returning to that nose mounted on the wall outside today’s meeting place; the internet, as always, holds the answer to the mysterious nasal-shaped appendage. Seventeen years ago, amid a debate over the growing number of London’s all-seeing CCTV cameras, a sculptor called Rick Buckley didn’t much fancy the prospect of the city being transformed into a real-life version of 1984. In response, he stuck noses on walls around the city, right underneath the peering eye of the camera lens. If those faceless people tucked away in hidden spires with fingerprint entry pads are going to insist on watching us, they may as well know that we can see them, too.
It’s an idea that takes precedence on ‘St Vincent’. Technology and privacy, alienation and connection are all recurring threads that wire their way through. “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” Annie sings on ‘Digital Witness’ – an ambivalent tug-of-war between embracing the new world order or throwing the television straight out of the window. It’s a modern day catch 22 – if a meal is eaten but nobody instagrams it, did anybody really taste it?
“It’s a scientific law that something that is watched is different from something that no eyes are on,” Clark ponders, taking a contemplative sip from her cup of tea. “We live in a time where we’re aware that we’re being watched. Look at the NSA scandal – which I don’t think anyone was that surprised by – it’s horrifying! It’s almost as if we’re making ourselves transparent as a means of protection. I think in the future, the real commodity when we talk about the 1% is that they will have privacy and nobody spying on them.”
“I’m not casting judgment on it,” she adds, “so much as I’m noticing that I’m in it. I think that people start to do more and more extreme things to get noticed, to get the validation that they’re seeking from other people. If we’re all performers, none of us know how to self-soothe.” We’re all projections of ourselves on the internet, then, in a sense? “Absolutely!” she agrees. “I was with my friend who downloaded that app, Tinder. We were scrolling through, and it was… it felt bad! You have one to three pictures of someone, and you’re kind of like, next, next, ooh, not good enough for me. It’s like who the fuck are we?! We’ve created this other place where there are no real life consequences for being an asshole.”
Clark has an uncanny knack for observing things from an odd, detached, intrigued perspective. She might be useless in a fight against a grizzly bear, but St Vincent is like a David Attenborough equivalent armed with distortion and “swampy evil shit” instead of a dulcet soothing commentator’s voice. She narrates on humans, in the most acerbic, forthright way possible.
“I’m not interested in the romanticised version of people, but what they actually are,” she explains, selecting her words with the careful precision of a bibliophile scanning across the shelves of a piled-high second-hand book shop. “Not because that’s all dark, but because it’s a lot of things. It’s generous and empathetic, and it’s also vile and crass. We’re all these conflicting things melted into one. I feel like a student of human nature. I like to explore what it actually is, because that’s more interesting than rainbows and butterflies.”
The freaky stuff humans get up to is a pretty endless topic to write about, after all. “People are weird!” laughs Annie, “there’s nothing as weird as a person.”
“I’ve been thinking…” she drifts, “I think there’s a particular kind of Texas freak, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly breeds one. John Congleton [St Vincent’s long-time producer] and I, we’re both from the suburbs of Dallas, both just kind of weirdo. I think there’s something about the religiosity in the air, and the big tough Texas thing. I think the freaks are even freakier because they have more to rebel against.”
Flannery O’Connor, another American writer, wrote a piece speaking about the grotesque in Southern literature, saying that Southern writers have a penchant for writing about freaks because they are still about to recognise one. Annie giggles with knowing agreement. “I feel that way too. I know that freaks exist everywhere – and I mean ‘freak’ in the best possible way, it’s a compliment for sure. I mean, who’s going to be a freak in New York? Everyone’s a fucking freak. But in Texas you kind of have to work for it, because everyone’s a good ol’ boy.”
If Annie’s aim was to write an album of freaky, rebellious slightly grotesque, and completely infectious pop music, that breaks the mould of normality, then she has certainly succeeded. Step inside, join the freak show, and dance. ‘St Vincent’ lives in its own bizarre universe, but this time, Annie Clark seems to have left the door wide open.
St Vincent’s self-titled new album is out now via Loma Vista / Caroline International.
Taken from the March 2014 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.