Cover Feature

Walking On The Wild Side: St. Vincent

Reinventing herself again with a new Warholian muse, a ‘70s obsession and the most revealing glimpse into her personal history yet, ‘Daddy’s Home’ finds St. Vincent revelling in life’s multiplicities.

If Annie Clark has a motto by this point it’s probably, “It just is”. Over the course of our hour together she utters the phrase almost half a dozen times - often accompanied by a shrug and a wry smirk - displaying all the composure of someone long accustomed to rolling with the punches. And let’s be real, she’s had enough practise in the near-decade-and-a-half since ‘Marry Me’, her first full-length as St. Vincent.

As Annie would no doubt be the first to admit, few of the challenges she’s faced have been particularly unique. In fact, many come with the territory of being a success in her field, be that navigating the nomadic nature of life as a touring musician, or managing the sudden scrutiny that increased exposure and widespread critical acclaim attracts. Nor does she expect any sympathy for the fact that, pre-pandemic, she had scarcely spent more than a fortnight in one place her entire adult life - or for the fact her love life became tabloid fodder for a short time in 2016. But as the inspiration behind her superb new album ‘Daddy’s Home’ attests, some of her personal stresses have been a little less run of the mill.

In 2010 - when Annie’s star was in its early ascendency - her father was given a 12-year jail sentence for his involvement in a $43 million stock fraud scheme. Understandably shocked and very much focused on protecting her younger siblings back in Texas, she chose not to discuss this turn of events publicly at the time, despite press speculation. Look back at her 2011 LP ‘Strange Mercy’ now, however, and you’ll find covert clues as to the events’ impact, most memorably in the cryptic reference to a “father in exile”, who is only viewable “through double pane” glass. It’s taken ‘til now - two years after his early release from prison, and a further three albums on - for Annie to finally share her perspective on the experience.

“This story was halfway told against my will a few years ago, when I was briefly the subject of the tabloids,” she says today, speaking over Zoom from her home studio in LA. “And that wasn’t anything I wanted to talk about [at the time]. But now, there is a bit of a silver lining - he’s out [of prison]. But it’s also like, now I get to tell MY story. And I get to tell it with humour, and compassion, and cynicism, because it’s MINE.”

You can trace all of these traits in her new record’s title track alone. A slice of sleazy, ‘70s-inspired funk, flecked with filthy organ chords and the occasional swell of saxophone, ‘Daddy’s Home’ finds Annie reliving her experiences visiting her father in the facility, from the startling contrast between his “government green suit” and her “fine Italian shoes,” to the surreal moments she spent signing autographs for the other inmates’ families.

“I’m sorry, that’s hilarious,” she grins of the latter. “It’s wonderful, AND it’s hilarious.” When we joke that perhaps that was the moment she knew she’d become a household name, she laughs. “Well, I mean, I suppose it was a good barometer of popular culture in a certain way. But also, when people are in there, it’s like they just need bright spots outside [of jail] to focus on.”

Walking On The Wild Side: St. Vincent
It’s fun for me to get to be pretty much a different person every three years.

St Vincent: The Story So Far…

‘Daddy’s Home’ marks St. Vincent’s sixth studio LP over a storied career. Here’s a potted primer to get you up to date.

‘Marry Me’ (2007)
Following stints playing in The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ band, ‘Marry Me’ marked Clark’s first real opportunity to focus on her own creative vision unfettered. Cue a cornucopia of complex arrangements that hinted temptingly at the career to come.

‘Actor’ (2009)
An effervescent blend of baroque pop and art-rock that put Clark’s virtuosic guitar skills front and centre, and possibly the first album ever to incorporate a Jenny Holzer aphorism, in ‘Save Me From What I Want’.

‘Strange Mercy’ (2011)
From the Disney strings and distorted guitar of ‘Cruel’, to ‘Surgeon’’s blend of G-funk and hypnagogic pop, ‘Strange Mercy’ was the album that cemented Clark’s status as an alt-pop pioneer.

‘St. Vincent’ (2014)
Featuring tales of communing naked with rattlesnakes, hotel room hallucinations and society’s addiction to social media, this self-titled effort also found Clark hitting the sweet spot between leftfield experimentation and radio-friendly hooks.

‘Masseduction’ (2017)
As implied in its brilliantly garish artwork, ‘Masseduction’ contemplated the tensions between sex and power, and did so over arrangements that extended from extroverted industrial-rock and glam synth-pop, to string-flecked balladry.

Though Annie’s default mode discussing that time often errs on the side of gallows humour, her intention isn’t to downplay the severity of the situation. “It was terrible to see someone I love incarcerated,” she says, matter-of-factly. “But also, I didn’t tell this story for sympathy. It just is, you know? And it’s not intended necessarily to be emblematic of the entire story of the US prison system, which is - of course - incredibly varied, and racist, and lots of things. But this is my little story about it. And while it’s not the totality of the album, it certainly is an entry point.”

It’s an intriguing entry point for listeners too: a rare window into the world of an artist whose high-concept creative approach has always made the woman behind the work feel strangely elusive. Discussing her parents today - who divorced when she was three - Annie credits her mother’s side of the family as her emotional support network, while ascribing many of her cultural interests to her father.

“I’m glad that he introduced me to [The Catcher In The Rye’s protagonist] Holden Caulfield when I was 10. I probably wouldn’t be cursing like I do now if he hadn’t. And I’m glad he made sure I saw French New Wave films when I was 13. He showed me a lot of things in terms of books and music and film. But like everyone, he’s a complicated person. No one’s life is painless, and no one is guiltless.”

She admits to sharing personality traits with him too - most notably her ability to remain stoic in the face of adversity. “He taught us all to be tough, you know? If we were on the soccer field or something, it was like, ‘Don’t cry unless you’re bleeding’. And I appreciate that, even if I’m sure that other people would have some thoughts on it.”

The reasoning behind Annie’s choice of musical palette feels especially personal too. Recorded once more at New York’s Electric Lady Studios with Jack Antonoff, and performed by what she describes as “a tight little wrecking crew,” ‘Daddy’s Home’ represents something of a volte face from the throbbing electronics and taut glamour of 2017’s ‘Masseduction’. Variously paying tribute to Lou Reed, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, and Harry Nilsson, it’s a love letter to early ‘70s New York, full of warm Wurlitzer chords, languid lap steel, soulful vocal harmonies and sporadic flourishes of sitar.

Though Annie herself wasn’t born til the early ‘80s and grew up in the Deep South rather than the East Coast, many of her formative musical tastes emanated from this period of musical history. “I started listening to Steely Dan when I was like, eight. I had the box set of tapes called ‘Citizen Steely Dan’, and I would listen to it every single morning before school when I was in fourth grade. And my first concert ever was Steely Dan in 1994, at Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas. None of my friends wanted to go with me. Weird, that…”

Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ was another key record in her musical education. “9/11 was my second day of college, and in the days and weeks following that everything was just really up in the air,” she recalls. “I remember talking to my Aunt Patty, who’s a jazz singer, and she said, ‘You need to go back and listen to ‘Songs In The Key of Life’. Like, this record is going to heal you.’ I’d heard it a bunch growing up, but I went in and did a deep, deep dive again, and so now I always associate that record with a combination of outer calamity and inner peace.”

She specifically cites ‘Ordinary Pain’ from the same collection as a direct influence on the revenge-fantasy funk of ‘Down’, while the fantastically seedy ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ appears to channel Prince and the plastic soul of ‘Young Americans’-era David Bowie. Released as ‘Daddy’s Home’’s lead single, the latter arrived accompanied by a brilliantly ‘70s video, featuring soft focus visuals introducing Annie’s latest character, Candy Darling: a brazen figure who boasts about being banished from the children’s playground by the local mothers for wearing heels.

Sashaying around the screen wearing a blunted blonde bob and an olive green trouser suit with wide lapels, her latest look is quite a contrast from the wipe-clean kink of the ‘Masseduction’ era, a period that involved wearing a succession of latex leotards so unforgiving that she took a personal trainer on tour to remain in shape. “There was not a whole lot of wiggle room to be a total wreck,” she laughs.

Notoriously immortalised by Lou Reed in ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, the real Candy Darling was a transgender icon, a muse of The Velvet Underground, and an actor who appeared in several of Andy Warhol’s films. The artwork for Antony and the Johnsons’ 2005 album ‘I Am A Bird Now’ features Peter Hujar’s famous portrait of her on her deathbed, an image that also inspired Annie, as she explains. “She has roses festooning her breast, and she’s looking impossibly glamorous. You just can just imagine her ascent into heaven - catching that last train uptown, waving in slow motion.”

Annie’s interpretation of the character on ‘Daddy’s Gone’ is a little grittier. “To me, she has the perfect combo of prim glamour and deep toughness. She’s beautiful and elegant on one hand, but on the other could cut somebody. It’s about glamour that’s been up for three days; people that are down on their luck. And I think part of that atmosphere feels kind of similar to where we are right now as a society, in that we’re in the rubble of old ideas, and we’re trying to assemble what the future looks like, but we haven’t totally rebuilt the new paradigm yet.”

Walking On The Wild Side: St. Vincent Walking On The Wild Side: St. Vincent
We’re in the rubble of old ideas, and we’re trying to assemble what the future looks like.

She Does Know Jack

Jack Antonoff is music’s most wanted producer, working with everyone from Taylor to Lorde to, of course, St. Vincent herself. Annie spills on the magic of Antonoff…

“Jack and I were just texting today, and we were just like, this whole thing was so fun. I don’t remember a single moment of stress - and we’re better friends now. [Making an album] you share your strengths and your vulnerabilities and your fears, so that has to be with somebody you trust. This time around we’ve developed a great, unspoken flow. There’s that thing that’s talked about in improv theatre, where the rule is ‘Yes, and…’. That’s what working with Jack is: it’s a ‘yes, and?’ and there’s nothing fear-based in the process at all.”

Candy Darling is just the latest in a long succession of creative alter-egos, which has included “Judy Garland on barbiturates” (‘Strange Mercy’), “a near-future cult leader” (‘St. Vincent’) and “dominatrix at the mental institution” (‘Masseduction’), not to mention the blank canvas that is the pseudonym of St Vincent itself. To what extent is Annie creating these characters to keep control of the conversation around each project, and where is the line between honesty and artifice?

“It’s interesting,” she muses. “I think of things theatrically, so I want to make sure that the artwork and my clothes and my imaging and everything tells the story of the album. I want it so that if people look back on the project, they go, ‘Oh yeah, that was that era’. Also it’s fun for me to get to be pretty much a different person every three years. And it’s not as if any of these traits aren’t in me - it’s just sort of a question of what you turn up and what you turn down.”

But one helpful by-product of creating an alter-ego is that you allow yourself more privacy by diverting attention away from your real identity, right? “I mean, not really, because I’ve always just written about my life,” she bats back. “I don’t see a big distinction any more, I really don’t. With this project I wanted to write a record about flawed people doing the best they can, and just being people - which is to say complicated. And I can write about it because I’ve been every person on the record. You know, I’ve been the girl on ‘At The Holiday Party’, just trying to hold it together. I’ve been the girl in ‘Down And Out Downtown’, wearing last night’s clothes with her heels in her hand at nine in the morning. Like, I’ve been all of these people, so I can write about it.”

This idea of fallibility feeds back into the album’s central premise: the complicated relationship between morality and redemption. In light of her father’s experiences, to what extent has Annie’s own perspective changed on morality? Is she less judgemental or more nuanced in her thought now? She thinks quietly for a few seconds before replying, slowly and carefully.

“We live in uncertain times, right? Like economically, socially, culturally. And one of the things that happens in times that are really uncertain is that people want certainty somewhere. And so I feel like - in some ways - that’s taking the form of people insisting on moral purity. And I absolutely understand why people would want that. But I also think that human beings are really, really complicated.

“If we are just binary in our thinking or only going, ‘OK, here are the three acceptable narratives, and if you don’t slot into these, then you’ve done something wrong’, then I think we’re opting out of the fullness of the human experience. We should be able to talk about that without so much pressure or judgement. So part of that is that people can fuck up and then they can have a redemption story: there can be reconciliation, there can be forgiveness. Because life, it just is, you know? And we live by the stories we tell ourselves.”

Walking On The Wild Side: St. Vincent
Paul McCartney said, ‘It’s great, this thing we get to do, right?’ meaning music. And I said, ‘Yes, Paul, it is’.

As uncertain as the world surrounding it is, the quality of songwriting on ‘Daddy’s Home’ suggests that St Vincent’s continued ascent is all-but assured. Certainly, she’s already fraternising with music’s top tier, taking part in the Grammys’ tribute to Prince, leading a Nirvana tribute with original members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, and taking part in Nine Inch Nails’ inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Her latest hat tip comes from Paul McCartney, who personally selected Annie to reimagine a track from his latest album ‘McCartney III’, as part of a star-studded remix project also featuring Damon Albarn and Beck. “Paul called me to thank me,” she says, still visibly amazed. “And to say he really, really liked my version. And at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘It’s great, this thing we get to do, right?’ meaning music. And I said, ‘Yes, Paul, it is’. I hung up and was like, I can die happy now.”

Surely getting the seal of approval from her musical heroes must have started to feel normal by this stage? “It never feels normal,” she insists. “And in fact, what it does for me is it just makes me want to redouble my efforts in making things to earn that respect.” It’s an idea she explores on ‘The Melting Of The Sun’, which finds her name-checking some of her spiritual forebears, including Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Tori Amos.

“It’s a thank you to these women who came forth and were often met with hostility and who - many years later - have made my life easier as a woman. It’s a thank you, and also an ‘I hope I didn’t let down your legacy in some way’. And I’m not putting myself in their echelon, I’m just saying that I hope that whatever I’ve done gets to make it easier for the next generation. And that I hope I didn’t slack in that respect. Because I just want to make great work. Knock on wood, my life is that simple at the moment: it just is.”

‘Daddy’s Home’ is out 14th May via Loma Vista.

Stylist: Avigail Collins
Hair: Pamela Neal
Make up: Hinako Nishiguchi

Tags: St. Vincent, Features, Interviews

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