“Give me that good-time jazz feel. A real swing. Swing!”
Annie Clark is in full 1920’s jazz lounge mode, spinning on a heel towards pianist and collaborator Thomas Bartlett, a man fully capable of giving good-time jazz feel. This is ‘An Intimate Evening With St Vincent’ at London’s Cadogan Hall, and tonight, Annie – aka St Vincent – is flexing a new set of muscles in the third live incarnation in St Vincent’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’ era, following a controversial solo tour and a full band, fully electric outing.
A tequila-fuelled show comprising just her just her voice, Bartlett’s ivory-tinkling and some rarely outed playful banter, Clark is revelling in the role of master of ceremonies as this former church becomes a cocktail lounge – the perfect home for the salon music reinvention of her yet-to-be-announced, fully re-worked album ‘MASSEDUCATION’. “Let’s do an uptempo number now,” she later jokes, amid the elegies. “How would Sinatra do it?”
A week earlier, we find Clark is in a completely different mode. On stage at Cambridge Corn Exchange a few days after her blistering headline set at End Of The Road festival, this show is all about the spectacle. St Vincent’s celebrated summer 2018 tour saw the sci-fi fever dream of ‘MASSEDUCTION’ brought to life in full technicolour. Clad in bright PVC, stood atop LED plinths and backed by surreal imagery of dystopian fantasy, she rips at her guitar while her masked bandmates jerk through robotic choreography. It followed 2017’s divisive ‘Fear The Future’ tour, which saw Clark, alone, performing with a backing track. Some slammed it as “amped up karaoke” (Clash); others heralded her ingenuitive bravery as “Bowie’s spiritual second coming” (yours truly). Either way, it gave people plenty to talk about.
I meet Clark backstage in Cambridge before the show. Full disclosure: I was shitting myself. Clark admits taking a dark pleasure in journalists being afraid of her. She launched her latest album campaign with a mock press online conference, tearing down the cliched questions she’s grown exhausted from answering. In subsequent interviews (held inside a giant cube) she would play pre-recorded answers from a dictaphone should a hack dare ask them. A journalist from The New Statesman would famously later print an apology she received from Clark after a defensive and fatigued exchange left her feeling as if she’d been “a cock”. In Cambridge, Clark is welcoming and open, but admittedly fried from the tail-end of a gruelling festival season. “I keep waking up in hotel rooms, truly not knowing where I am,” she laughs from behind from her thick-rimmed shades.
As meticulous in conversation as she is with her stagecraft and songwriting, Clark considers each answer deeply, often with seemingly endless pauses. This isn’t helped by her analysis of her own performance being played back to her from a ‘virtual’ soundcheck on the stage behind us. Each show is recorded, played back and fine-tuned. “Shit, a little flat there,” she curses at one point mid-sentence. “Not too quick,” she mouths as a synth line gathers momentum. I ask if she feels self-conscious hearing herself perform. “No,” she slowly replies. “I’m just critiquing with an ever-shifting context.”
Forever in flux, how does she feel about the reaction to her ‘Fear The Future’ tour a year down the line? “For me, I was going for ‘what constitutes a live show in 2018? What’s going to be moving and entertaining?’” says Clark. “I just do what I always do and follow my instinct on what seems like the right thing to do at the time.”
“As far of the show being polarising, of course at first you go ‘What?! I’ve made this beautiful thing – it sucks that some people hated it’. But then I thought more about it and I was like ‘That’s great, because love it or hate it, they won’t forget it’.”
Amen. Equally as unforgettable was that full band tour that followed. With visuals set to what Clark describes as “the colour pallette of a nuclear bruise”, costumes made of “nude-coloured latex”, everything was made with precision to look “tactile and gross”. “A lot of the imagery is pretty deeply bizarre and it’s not vain,” says Clark. “To make the backing videos I got punched in the face, I had bugs on me, I was wearing fake breasts. They’re inspired by things that are just out of the realm of conscious thought. There’s more room for chaos in a show with other people playing music on stage. Chaos can translate to energy too, which can be cool.”
Chaos, the grotesque and fantasy were all integral to the language of translating ‘MASSEDUCTION’ to the stage. On her third record, ‘Strange Mercy’, Clark played the “housewife on barbiturates and white wine”. A collaboration with like-minded soul David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’, followed, then she returned with her self-titled 2014 breakthrough as a “near future’ cult leader”. On her latest album, she set herself up as the “dominatrix at the mental institution”. With everything fluid and “so much of identity a performance”, Clark presents a stark and surreal reflection of the absurdity of the modern age and puts the interplay of power and seduction under the microscope. As she says, “‘Sexy’ should be defined by agency and empowerment”.
Also put under the microscope, but not by Clark herself, was her personal life. Many a column inch was dedicated to analysing the lyrics of the vulnerable break-up ballad ‘New York’, for example – thanks to interest from tabloids and celeb glossies in her her relationship and split from actor and supermodel Cara Delevigne. Many poured over the likelihood of Delevigne being the aforementioned “only motherfucker in the city that can handle me,” during her dalliance at a “home run with some blue bloods”. Clark has remained reticent to spell anything out, however. As high concept as her work may be, ‘MASSEDUCTION’ is her most confessional, raw and devastating to date.
“It’s not my job to tell you what the truth is, unfortunately, but a lot of the time artists are the worst people to explain what they’re doing,” says Clark. “You’re following an intuition and just trying to make something that feel right in your core. When you’re so busy making these things you don’t really have time to stop and go, ‘What is this?’”
She continues: “My heart is in these songs completely. My whole life is in these songs. It’s not literal because then it wouldn’t be art necessarily. I also feel that once the song is written it’s not about me anymore. It’s not for me. It’s flattering that people would want to know about what inspired them from my life, but really the point of music is that it’s really supposed to be about the music at that point.”
And so we cut to the core of the stories, stripping away the bells and whistles to focus on the opulence of the songwriting itself. With just her voice and piano, ‘MASSEDUCATION’ gives her most personal album a much more intimate feel. No, that isn’t the same typo in the title that you’ve seen so much over the last year. “That’s what I get for being too clever!” she laughs. “I wasn’t even bothered when people would call it that. This is just a joke about it.”
So is ‘MASSEDUCATION’ a way of wiping the sword clean?
“Oh, that’s a nice way to put it,” she replies. “I recorded it less than a month after I finished ‘MASSEDUCTION’, which was obviously a lot of blood, sweat and tears. After working around the songs so much, I just wanted to live in them in a very pure way, and just live in the words and the melodies.
“It was something I felt like I had to do to let the songs go, in a way. It was like taking a warm bath with the songs.”
While ‘MASSEDUCTION’ saw Clark team up with alt-pop’s King Midas Jack Antonoff (not for his pop sensibility but due to their “emotional connection”), for the acoustic sister-record she partnered with old friend Bartlett (aka Doveman). As well as being a celebrated solo artist and film score composer, you’ve almost certainly heard him performing, producing and arranging on work by The National, David Byrne, Father John Misty, Sufjan Stevens, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Yoko Ono, Florence & The Machine and Ed Sheeran. Having met 10 years ago on a New York night so fun she can’t remember it, he was the go-to guy for his romantic musical flourishes – and a love of a certain Mexican spirit.
“Thomas and I are like best friends,” she says of her collaborator and drinking buddy. “We didn’t talk about what we were going to do, how we were going to play things. I’m picturing someone going into a midtown Broadway studio and like, scat singing. We didn’t talk it about it. He’d just listen to the song and learn it because he’s a genius. We just went in and did it. I was pouring my heart out.
“No song took more than two or three takes. You find those bruises in various songs to push on more. There are places for air and space. It was obviously the fastest record I’ve ever made across the course of two days. I really love it. I love Thomas. It’s a real extension of our friendship.”
Looking ahead to the ‘intimate piano’ gigs to showcase the record, Clark promises that “It will just be me, Thomas and some tequila, just feeling the songs. People might be expecting a theatricality, but that will just come from the music.”
No latex at all?
“Nope, no latex! Thomas is the one who introduced me to so many New York weirdos. These are brilliant people whose work I love. I love this idea of going and just being the boozy lounge act. It’s so heartening.”
St Vincent’s latest shows are a rare opportunity to see Clark laid bare and free of the “dominatrix-at-the-mental-institution”. With so much of her public persona seen through the prism of performance, does it play on her mind that people might get caught up in myth? Are there any great misconceptions about St Vincent?
“I… don’t… care,” she winces with a slow release. “I mean that with respect. It’s not ‘the lady doth protest too much’ or whatever, I just don’t think I care. If someone’s like ‘Oh, she’s writing songs for the alt-right’ I’d be like ‘OH HELL NO!’, but I don’t really mind. You have to make peace with the idea that there’s a grounded you with a core, and then there’s a projection of you on the wall.”
“Every single person in the modern world has that now with social media. I have that too, just with making work. Although I am *dying* to be an influencer!”
While you’re unlikely to see Clark draped across Instagram in cosy, staged photos of herself at home to sell mouthwash, she will be tending to her other polymath activities once this chapter is over. As well as producing for a couple of other bands and some film work, she’s also working on a movie adaptation of ‘A Picture Of Dorian Gray. That’s not to say that she’ll be shying away from music for any amount of time. She’s writing constantly, and chasing her muse down ever more curious hallways. Now a festival headliner with albums destined to crash into the Top 10, she’s continued to challenge listeners among an ever-growing audience, refusing to see the process as a “cat and mouse manipulation game”.
Will the ‘stripped back’ acoustic route be a bridge to the next incarnation? Is there any sonic ground she really needs to cover? Is there anywhere she’s desperately itching to take St Vincent?
“Just, really heavy. Go really hard.”
Wow. So will we see a St Vincent thrash record next?
“I don’t know what the next thing is. I always have really rad ideas like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be Skinny Puppy meets Dillinger Escape Plan!’ But you just get in there and the music tells you what it wants to be.”
While she has “pages and pages” of notes for lyrics, she’s currently unable to pinpoint any kind of theme or thread that runs throughout the songs she’s working on. However, one thing she remains certain of is that she won’t be directly addressing the political situation we find ourselves living in. If there is a target painted on Trump’s puffed out chest or a mirror held up to the grotesque arbitrators of patriarchy, it won’t be as black as white and some might assume.
“I feel like I addressed that on ‘MASSEDUCTION’ even though it wasn’t fully happening when I was writing it,” says Clark. “It was in the air, there was a storm coming. At the end of the day, songs are people and stories. What’s interesting to me about human nature is how complex it is. I don’t really think I’ll wade into the water of finger-wagging political rock.”
“We’re all sensitive people and have our antennas up. I’m an artist and I can’t help but be affected by the world so it will filter through. A lot of the best protest songs don’t sound like protest songs. I don’t know. It feels a little reductive to go, ‘Oh, this is really bad. Don’t we all agree? Doesn’t it feel good being right?’ That’s great for people who want to make music like that, but it feels like you’re not respecting your audience enough to know that they’re discerning and varied people with a multitude of experiences.”
Anyone who saw St Vincent’s ‘Fear The Future’ tour roll into Brixton Academy may remember the support act being a screening of her own short horror movie ‘The Birthday Party’ – a tale of a kid’s birthday in suburbia that descends into death and deceit, with a corpse hidden inside a giant panda costume. Alien yet human, it has Clark’s DNA all over it. When I ask her about her visual language, she describes it, “The same way I would describe my musical language: coming from so many different places and influences. That film was like Guy Bourdin, Edward Scissorhands and ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf’.”
Clark adds: “I know that I’m onto something if it makes me laugh. When I don’t know what to think of something and I’m like ‘alright, let’s go’. That’s the real test of if something’s exciting to me.”
The one word that reoccurs most throughout our conversation is ‘instinct’. Everything is fluid, identity is up for grabs, and power comes from doing what’s right on your own terms. Whatever St Vincent does next, you can bet that it will be driven by that. That hunger for the hilarious and absurd unknown. That rush from comes from following your gut and running on risk. That ‘good time jazz feel’.
‘MASSEDUCATION’ by St Vincent is out now