St. Vincent: “I wanted to tell my story with humour and compassion”

On her spectacular new album, ‘Daddy’s Home’, shape-shifting Annie Clark sifts through a painful personal narrative with lightness, wit and ‘70s funk. In doing so, she’s more herself than ever

It turns out that, over the past year, not even rock stars have been spared from the churn of incredibly wholesome pandemic hobbies. Forced away from the stage, Annie Clark, who makes and releases music as St. Vincent, has recently been unearthing some unlikely outlets for her creativity – with a newfound knack for home improvement that could give Changing Rooms a run for its money.

Now back in Los Angeles, with spectacular new album ‘Daddy’s Home’ on the way, Annie Clark is taking a well-earned break after remodelling her mum’s house to keep busy, and has been carefully cultivating a growing collection of power tools featuring “really legit drills and sanders and saws to do landscaping”. Tearing down interior walls and grouting tiles helped her to connect with her inner DIY daddy, she tells NME over the phone: “Once I turned those breakers off and started moving sconces around, I was like, I don’t need to call an electrician! I’m an expert after 15 minutes and a YouTube video.”

She adds, cheerfully: “If you need any plumbing done, or – God – a wall poorly painted, give me a call. I’m your girl.”

St. Vincent’s phone has been ringing off the hook recently – in 2019 Taylor Swift got in touch. Presumably, she wasn’t after a quote for some double glazing, because Clark ended up co-writing ‘Cruel Summer’, a standout from Swift’s album ‘Lover’. “Gosh, it was really casual,” she remarks, of the session, “just some people in a room jammin’.” Earlier this year, too, she got a phone call from Saturday Night Live, and is set to appear on the US show tomorrow night (April 3). “I’m going to play two new songs,” she says, “‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ and then another new song from the record. It’s gonna be fun!”

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
St. Vincent on the cover of NME

The performance will be a small glimpse of what it might feel like when gigs are finally back on the cards. “I’ll probably break down in tears the first time I walk onstage after this,” she says. “I’ll get to feel that feeling again. It’s been so long.”

Joining the growing addressbook, a certain Sir Paul McCartney also picked up the blower and invited St. Vincent to contribute to his forthcoming covers album ‘McCartney III Imagined’ alongside the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Josh Homme and Beck. Clark has reworked his 2020 track ‘Women And Wives’.

“After it was all done and everything, Paul called me to thank me and tell me that he liked it!” she recalls. “It was the best moment of my life… maybe? I mean, I don’t… I don’t know where to put that. One thing that occurred to me was, think about how many hours of enjoyment in the world have happened as a result of Paul McCartney’s music. Lifetimes and lifetimes of hours that people have spent listening to his work.

“At the end of the conversation he said, ‘It’s a great thing that we get to do, this music thing, right?’” she adds. “I was like, ‘Yes Paul – yes it is.’”

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
Credit: Zackery Michael

Since 2003, ‘this music thing’ has led 38-year-old Clark in a variety of directions – from playing in American choral rock band the Polyphonic Spree and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ live bands early on to her 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’, and her own storied solo career. Her previous record, 2017’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’, saw St. Vincent push her harsh, angular sonics to their glam-rock conclusion. This was a precise and severe-sounding web of tousling power dynamics; a leopard print-clad ass peeked out of its neon-hued cover.

Oozing with lust, desire and selfishness, it often returned to the unspoken gulf between what people say they want, and what people truly want at their core. A whirlwind of unidentified pharmaceuticals, ‘Pills’ depicted a narrator gobbling down prescriptions and rushing home “to give head to the money I made,” while ‘Los Ageless’ painted the city as a sleazy and seductive trap of a place. Like the burned-out, barbiturate-sipping housewife at the heart of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, St. Vincent’s protagonist also tries to escape it by compulsively racing her car down the freeways in search of yet more self-destruction.

The tour for ‘MASSEDUCTION’, meanwhile, was one of the more divisive live shows in recent memory. Clad in bright pink PVC and teetering stilettos, a lone St. Vincent shredded guitar at the centre of the stage, robotically switching positions with each song. A pair of velvet curtains dramatically unfurled, revealing a screaming clown pasted across a second curtain. Having caught her at Brixton Academy, I was gripped by the admittedly peculiar show for weeks afterwards: Clark withholding everything that was expected of her felt like a perfectly engineered power move for a record about consumption and power dynamics. Others were left baffled by a retina-searing blast of absurdist videos on enormous screens and cranked up backing tracks.

“Find me the person who has lived a flawless life – I don’t think that’s possible”

“It felt kind of like a production arms race for the live show,” Clark says today. “How can you have a multimedia experience that absolutely overwhelms the senses?”

Inadvertently, all of this swung the St. Vincent pendulum violently in the other direction – towards a looser musical sound inspired by the ’70s records Clark was raised on. Her new, sixth album ‘Daddy’s Home’ draws particularly from Sly & The Family Stone, Funkadelic and Steely Dan – “the music,” she says, “that I’ve listened to most in my entire life.” The plastic soul sound of lead single ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ brings to mind David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, while ‘Live Your Dream’ finds St. Vincent putting her own psychedelic spin on ‘Dark Side of the Moon’-era Pink Floyd.

“The whole vibe of this – maybe accidentally, maybe subconsciously on purpose – is just about people playing music,” she explains. “It’s not about big razzle-dazzle video screens and high concept technology, it’s actually the opposite. Can you play, and can you perform, and can you let people into that space? Can we all go somewhere together, just on the soundwaves.” Clark catches herself. “I know it sounds very stonery…”

St. Vincent also sees “parallels between what was happening in the early ’70s, and what’s happening now”, referring to the recession that afflicted much of the Western world: “They were singing from the burned-out building, then, and so are we. In terms of economic instability, some of the idealism is smouldering – people are trying to figure out where we go next after all this.”

David Bowie, in particular, has always felt like a major touchstone for St. Vincent, who seems to build a distinct persona around each album she releases. Her debut album, 2007’s ‘Marry Me’ was a barbed bite at neatly bundled up ideas of romance – with a blank face and slightly raised eyebrow, it poked fun at the dullness of domesticity. ‘Actor’, released two years later, was her warped Disney nightmare, while 2011’s ‘Strange Mercy’ depicted her bored and tranquilised California housewife. On 2014’s ‘St. Vincent’, she wore a crown of harsh grey hair and ruled over a tech-fried dystopia; ‘MASSEDUCTION’ was helmed by a fuchsia-pink latex dominatrix overseeing the absurd apocalypse. Does she see each album as reflecting a different persona – a bit like Bowie?

“Who?!” Clark exclaims and, when I repeat the name, again tersely barks, “Who!”, before bursting into a satisfied guffaw. “I really do,” she says. “I want it to be such that you could look at one photo, and go: ‘Oh that’s that era – that was that time.’ I really get such a thrill getting to be a different person every two or three years. All this stuff is within me and it’s a question of what you turn up and what you turn down in your personality. It just feels free.”

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
Credit: Zackery Michael

For ‘Daddy’s Home’, St. Vincent has transformed herself again – this time, into a ’70s singer-songwriter type crusading around New York City with a tumbler of bourbon permanently in hand, expensive perfume and cigarette smoke in her hair. “Imagery-wise, there’s this one side which is the really coquettish daddy’s girl, which is really just so pervy,” Clark says, “and the other side is wearing the suits and the more daddy vibe. I think it might be my funniest album title?” she muses aloud. “My funniest since ‘Marry Me’.”

Another major inspiration was Candy Darling, an American actor and trans woman who later became a muse for The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. As Clark puts it, she “lived within and presided over it all”, becoming a fixture in fashionable Manhattan. The closing song of St. Vincent’s record is named after Darling, who died in 1974 aged just 29, and imagines waving her off on the “latest uptown train” with armfuls of bodega roses.

“I just got pretty obsessed with her,” she continues. “I had a friend who was friends with her, and was at her bedside when she died, and I just started thinking about her. She was from Queens, which was not geographically far, but may as well have been a lifetime away from Manhattan. She invented herself there, and got to become herself in Manhattan,” Clark says. “I just kept picturing that we were all on the platform seeing her off and she was taking that last uptown train to heaven, slow motion waving with the tiniest bit of subway wind in her hair.”

“I’ll probably break down in tears the first time I walk onstage again. It’s been so long”

Beyond merely writing about her, why did St. Vincent also want to pull aspects of Candy Darling’s appearance into her own look for ‘Daddy’s Home’? The resemblance is plain to see. “I want everything about the visual world of the album to continue to tell the story, and everything about how I look tells the story.” Clark says. “It’s like this glamour that hasn’t slept for three days. Shooting for Hollywood glamour but takes a right turn on Houston [Street in Lower Manhattan] and ends up smudged and a little dirty.”

Does she see Candy Darling as her muse? “You know, I think I have a little bit of a problem with the word ‘muse’,” Clark replies, “because muse is usually so passive. It says that the real artist is someone else, but you just happened to catch their fancy. I’d say more than muse, but I’m not sure what the right word would be.”

St. Vincent has long since pushed against received wisdom. St. Vincent has continually rejected the idea that great art must be built on great autobiographical suffering; on ‘Actor’ track ‘The Strangers’, she sang, “What do I share? What do I keep?”, alongside uneasy, flitting strings. Her 2011 album ‘Strange Mercy’ took these ideas further still, its album sleeve fronted by anonymous bared teeth straining against white latex. On ‘Cheerleader’, her protagonist wonders “what good it serves, pouring my purse in the dirt”.

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
Credit: Zackery Michael

Around the release of 2017’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’, the musician conducted a number of her interviews in a retina-burning, highlighter pink box. Next to her she kept a dictaphone, pre-loaded with stock responses for questions she deemed too predictable or clichéd. She took great joy (and perhaps some relief) in pointing out that her music is impossible to fact-check. “It’s not my job to tell you what the truth is, unfortunately,” she told NME in her last cover story three years ago.

This is where ‘Daddy’s Home’ differs. Kinkier connotations aside, the title is also entirely literal. In 2010, Clark’s father was jailed for his role in a $43m ‘pump-and-dump’ stock manipulation scheme. According to evidence presented at the trial, he bought shares in a series of low-priced penny stocks and artificially pushed up their prices using coordinated trading and mass promotion campaigns, some of which touted new business opportunities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was freed in 2019. “My dad came home from the clink, which is its own experience,” she says, “and then in the intervening years – Good god, I’ve become daddy. It’s a whole lot; it’s the whole fluid gamut.”

Look carefully, and you’ll find this chapter of Clark’s life already detailed in her music: on ‘Cheerleader’, she spoke of knowing “honest thieves I call family”. The title track of ‘Strange Mercy’ appears to address a younger relative: “Our father in exile – for God only knows how many years,” she sings. His imprisonment has previously lingered in her work, and yet ‘Daddy’s Home’ marks the first time that she has readily spoken about the true context behind some of her music. Why?

“I get such a thrill getting to be a different person every two or three years”

“I wanted to tell my story with a level of humour and compassion,” she explains. In 2016, she began dating the supermodel Cara Delevingne and found herself splashed across the tabloids, experiencing the slightly surreal tabloid era of her career. The Mail On Sunday found the court records about her father and door-stepped her family. “The story was sort of told against my will. I’d addressed it in art, but I was always very opaque about the autobiographical part,“ Clark says. “I wanted to tell stories of flawed people doing their best to survive, and write about the human condition with humour, compassion, and a lack of judgement. Nobody’s perfect and people make mistakes and people can transform and people can change. If we don’t think that’s possible, then I don’t know what we’re doing.”

Clark has refrained from casting much judgement on the finer details of her father’s imprisonment – speaking previously to Rolling Stone, she breezily described his crimes as “white collar nonsense”. From her point of view, humanity as a whole is inherently flawed and imperfect. “I don’t know who among us has lived a flawless life,” Clark challenges. “Find me the person who has lived a flawless life, or a life without struggle. I don’t think that’s possible.”

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
Credit: Zackery Michael

Clark was born in Oklahoma in 1982, but moved to a suburb of Dallas, Texas when she was seven. She says that growing up in the South has contributed to what she calls her own “moral plurality”, adding: “Probably in some of the ways I address it with humour that has a poison-tip dart… Growing up in Texas, [religion] is the predominant mythology of the place. I do think I still have a lot of anger toward the particular brand of it that was ambient where I was growing up. It seemed to me that a lot of people were disguising cruelty as piety. I have a real knee-jerk reaction to that.”

Alluding to the current climate’s penchant for online ‘shaming’, she says: “When I see that in our modern world – our modern social media – I’m like, ‘Urgh, I’ve seen this before.’ This smells funny to me.” Does she believe that being flawed is being human? “Absolutely – that’s the whole game. We’re in a strange time where there’s a lot of new information and we need to be able to integrate it in a way that causes less human suffering, [rather] than more.”

St. Vincent laughs, catching herself again. “Sorry, I just took a big bong rip there,” she says, “a real bong rip of an answer!”

“When I see [shaming] on social media – I’m like, ‘This smells funny to me’”

She takes aim with this same poison-tip dart across ‘Daddy’s Home’ – frequently twisting religious iconography into impure shapes. The album is filled with troubled characters who haven’t slept for days – fallen angels roam the streets of New York City, trying to get by as menace lurks in the background. On ‘The Laughing Man’, chirping bird-song turns sinister and falling love plunges its narrator into a sleepy stupor: “If life’s a joke, then I’m dying laughing,” they quip, darkly. ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’ explores the vicious cycle of sin and shame, as its largely-ignored protagonist ricochets around in search of connection, only to be shunned by the gatekeepers of acceptability. “I went to the park just to watch the little children,” they say, “The mothers saw my heels and they said I wasn’t welcome”.

Often ‘Daddy’s Home’ returns to the image of a fallen angel or the myth of Icarus: tragic figures killed after flying too close to the sun. The title track, meanwhile, is autobiographical, recalling Clark signing makeshift autographs in the visitation room before her father left jail. “We’re all born innocent but some good saints get screwed,” she sings, “Hell where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you?

NME Cover 2021 St Vincent
Credit: Zackery Michael

And though ‘Daddy’s Home’ is more patently autobiographical than anything the musician has done before, it still stems from a fantastical world populated by down-and-out characters – and despite shedding light on some of the experiences that led here, Clark is opaque as ever when it comes to defining the meaning of her music. Though she’s said that this is partly an album about her self-discovery in the decade during which her father was incarcerated, she won’t elaborate on what exactly she’s learned – nifty DIY skills aside.

“I mean this with love,” she starts. “I just… don’t… care. What I mean is I don’t care about the things I can’t control. I want to just make great work, and I want to have a glass of tequila and that’s kind of… it. All I really care about is making great work and just kinda chillin’. The other stuff – play it as lays.”

In some respects, it seems, St. Vincent will never change.

St. Vincent’s ‘Daddy’s Home’ is out May 14 via Loma Vista. She will also be 6 Music’s next Artist in Residence, presenting a weekly show for six weeks from Wednesday April 14 – which will also be available on BBC Sounds

CREDITS

Styling by Avigail Collins
Hair by Pamela Neal
Makeup by Hinako Nishiguchi