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St. Vincent: Annie Clark's True Voice

February 20, 2014  |  10:41am
St. Vincent: Annie Clark's True Voice

“But okay, take somebody like Gauguin,” Annie Clark said to me, over the phone. “He was an asshole. He left his wife and kids and just went to Tahiti because he thought—because he was pursuing his art. And like, probably half of that was motivated by like, ‘I want some Tahitian pussy.’ That was probably half of it, right? But he goes and he happens to make beautiful art. He happens to. And so his character as a person is all forgiven because it’s like, ‘Oh, well, you know, you get a pass because you made something transcendent.’ But the flip side of that coin is like, if he had gone and made some shit like George Bush’s drawings, George Bush’s paintings, everyone would be like…no one would know who he was, he would’ve died in obscurity. Except his wife would be like, ‘fucking asshole!’ It’s wild, wild…”

We were talking about the concept of artistic forgiveness at the time, and—

Wait, let me revise. Annie Clark, 31, who makes music as St. Vincent, was talking about the concept of artistic forgiveness. For my part, I had asked her something very basic about the writing process, but basic questions asked of Annie Clark are like sparks for her associative brain and inevitably lead down paths so tangled and twisted that it’s impossible to remember their origin when you arrive at…well, Gauguin.

So if you happen to read an interesting quote in the text that follows—and you will, because almost everything she says is interesting, somehow—please don’t make the mistaken assumption that it had anything to do with my skills as an interviewer, or that we had an intimate conversation in which I coaxed out some deep truths. I was as awkward as usual over the phone (ranging between ‘very awkward’ and ‘super awkward’), and listening to my voice on the transcription was the same cringe-y process it’s always been, leading to several moments where I became overwhelmed by my incompetence and shouted, “Shut the fuck up, Shane!” at my computer. Typical stuff.

Luckily, Annie Clark is the wind-up toy of interviews. Give her the slightest twist, and bam! Watch her go. I asked questions, but I probably could have treated it like an improv comedy set or a shrink’s word-association game and just offered a one-word suggestion. “Album!” “Anxiety!” “Authenticity!”

That being said, it was a fun conversation, and what differentiates an anxious and talented person like Clark from a rambling schizophrenic is that the labyrinthine monologues were actual responses that managed to find their way back to the original question and allowed for a sort of invigorating give-and-take. It was like a talk you might have with a really smart, off-the-wall friend, and leave feeling like you could go write a novel in two weeks like Jack Kerouac. And then the next day you find out that the friend took a trip to Beijing on a whim.

Which I realize, as I’m typing, makes her sound like kind of manic pixie dream girl, and though that’s sort of 100 percent exactly what she looks like, especially in the music videos like “Cruel” that fetishize stillness, with the voyeuristic camera lingering for minutes on what Julie Klausner called, “enormous, anime-character-through-a-peephole eyes,” the reduction, aside from being annoying, isn’t accurate. The lasting impression isn’t of some quirky, flighty nymph who wears an inflatable epilepsy helmet and rides in sidecars, but of a person whose brain works really fast and is almost intimidatingly bright, but is also as down-to-earth as may be possible for someone who is overflowing with art.

And if we were chatting in person and you asked, “What’s Annie Clark like?” I’d probably say, “well, the 45 minutes flew by, and I mostly stuttered, but there were times—long stretches, even—where I completely forgot that she was being forced to talk to me by the All-Powerful Music-Media Industrial Complex.”

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Clark’s fifth album, the self-titled St. Vincent, comes out Feb. 25. on Loma Vista, a Republic Records label. This will be her major label debut, following three albums on the British independent record label 4AD. When we spoke, Clark was kind enough to tell me why she chose to take the self-titled route before I even asked.

“I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography,” she said, “and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself, and I was reading that, and I was like yeah, okay, that, yeah I agree with that statement and that’s why I decided to self-title this record because I feel like I sound like myself.”

Several minutes later, after detours into Dave Hickey and Gauguin and the quarterback Michael Vick and Nina Simone and Bill Evans and George Bush and Charlie Parker and Father John Misty (that one’s on me) and Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the NSA (“If you have nothing to hide,” she asked me, “what’s the big deal?” Just kidding. She didn’t say that.), I managed to ask what exactly that meant.

“It just doesn’t sound like anybody,” she said. “I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like oh, you’re kinda copping somebody’s thing here, it sounds like, it doesn’t sound like pastiche, it sounds like the synthesis of a lot of different kinds of…it’s its own…world.”

So was there an audible influence on everything that came before?

“I don’t know, I think, I’m not disparaging of any of the past work I’ve done, because I’m proud of it and I like it, but I don’t know, I have an odd sense of time, like, I’m I like moving forward and I don’t really, in some way or another I’m very concerned about the future but in other ways I’m only as concerned about the future as what do I have to do today…”

And that’s as close as we got on that one.

But I can tell you that while 2011’s Strange Mercy centered on a theme of loss (she told Klausner that it wasn’t about a breakup, but that’s as much as she’d reveal), St. Vincent is loosely about life in the digital age; both the inherent claustrophobia and the attendant desire for escape. It begins with the haunting “Rattlesnake,” which I interpreted as the kind of anxiety dream where pleasant surroundings are endowed with a Lynchian sort of terror because you just know, in the lizard part of your brain, that something awful is about to happen. It turns out, though, that it depicts a literal experience. Clark was taking a walk by herself at a friend’s cattle ranch in West Texas when she decided to strip naked because she “wanted to be a part of nature.” But nature isn’t a benign force waiting passively to be communed with by enlightened humans, and she saw its teeth in the form of a snake coiled up and rattling off the path. This answers her lyrical question, “Am I the only one in the world?”

Is that the wind finally picking up?
Is that a rattle sounding from the brush?
I’m the only one in the only world
running running running rattle behind me

She ran the mile and a half back to the house (naked, presumably? I didn’t follow up), and wrote the song. She sees it as a “creation myth for the new world,” leading both thematically and actually into the second track, “Birth in Reverse,” which is also the first single and starts off with the funniest line on the album:

Oh, what an ordinary day
take out the garbage, masturbate

We had a short discussion about which of these two activities is grosser (taking out the garbage, unless you’re a real perv), but when the discussion turned to a thematic link, her mind went to the music.

“Some songs just really work well together because in my mind they’re kind of the same color,” she said, explaining that the sevens and nines and thirteens on the major scale give them a similarity that she sees, in a sort of musical synesthesia, as pastels. This idea, synesthesia, a neurological intertwining of the senses, always fascinated me, because it seems like a lot of historical geniuses, Nabokov prime among them, were afflicted. And I wish I had it, too, but when I close my eyes, an ‘S’ or a ‘T’ are just an ‘S’ or a ‘T,’ black like the font on the screen I’m writing on now. To Clark, though, who’s not even sure if she has it, an ‘S’ is red. For Nabokov, it was “a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.”

Here’s a confession: I find music criticism—by which I mean actual descriptions and analyses and judgments of songs—to be useful only after the fact. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination (or synesthesia), but there’s nothing about reading a review that tells me anything about how a song or album will sound. You can learn something about the lyrics, but lyrics divorced from the accompanying audio are meaningless; really great poetry can be boring, and really mediocre poetry can be effective in context. Plus, like most music critics, I lack the vocabulary to discuss this stuff in-depth, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t bother going through the motions, wasting your time, and faking a knowledge I have never possessed. Because even that passage above, quoting Clark on “sevens and nines and thirteens,” is pushing the boundaries of my ignorance. Anything deeper, and I’ll be veering off into a forest of bullshit.

What I’ll say about St. Vincent, though, is that it’s urgent and beautiful and sexy and angry and, for me, Clark’s best work yet. I’ve listened multiple times (always on my computer since her people sent me a stream instead of a download), and there’s something essential about it, something vital and pulsing beneath the melodies that makes you think you’re listening to someone with something to say who is invested with thousands of references but also divorced from them; as though her life has been about accumulating a vast knowledge of art, all of which served to hone her instincts and lead to this moment where she could drop it all, completely abandon the pretensions, and operate fully on instinct.

I know that sounds vague and anecdotal, but we’re getting into subjective terrain here, and since vague and anecdotal is how you’ll relate to the music, rather than through a prose essay on the studio techniques employed by Clark and her band and her producer, vague and anecdotal is what you’ll get from me. I fucking loved it.

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One funny part of our conversation came when we talked about what separates a genius, either in sports or art or anywhere, from someone who succeeds because they have lots of talent and work very, very hard.

“I was listening to a Nina Simone live thing,” she said, “and you could hear her…they started the song and she’s like, “stop.” And she turned to the background singers and said, “you’re pushing, you’re pushing, let it be.” And there’s that kind of a parallel to like, making something that actually takes a lot of skill and a lot of effort look effortless.”

For her, that’s the crux of it—there’s no way around hard work, genius or not, but it’s the sense of effortlessness that distinguishes a genius. You can tell she’s thought a lot about this, and she broke down the artistic world for me into three types, as follows:

1. The Geniuses — “There are people who really just have IT…they have that kind of voice that others hear as authentic and go, yeah, that resonates with me, there’s something there that it’s another realm and that communicates with me on a subconscious level.”

2. The Talented — “I think it was Bill Evans the jazz piano player who was like, ‘I don’t have in any way, shape, or form the talent that Charlie Parker or Miles had, but I worked like a maniac and reached this other level of achieving that musical transcendence.’“

3. People With Talent Who Never Succeed Because They Think the World Owes Them Something.

4. Everyone Else — “There’s a notch below where you could explain to somebody a million times like, you know, why something is better than the other thing, or how to sing this song, but they’re just never going to get it. And that’s fine. There are other things for people to do.”

At that point, I knew the very last question in the world she wanted to hear, and the one for which there was no good answer, was, “which category do you fit in?” Before opening my mouth, I turned it over in my head, and came away with the very strong sense that it would be a really annoying thing to ask.

So I asked. And she laughed, knowing she had set herself up. And because she’s smart, she refused to answer.

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Let’s get back to that idea of instinct. What I learned of Clark made it clear that this wasn’t the type of person to embark on the songwriting process with an overarching plan. For one thing, her thinking process is too free-flowing to be hyper-organized; you can tell she’s the kind of person for whom the artistic sparks fly in the process of creation. So while she began writing St. Vincent 36 hours after she finished touring on the first leg of Love This Giant (her fourth album, a collaboration with David Byrne), synthesizing melodic snippets she had hummed or sang into a recorder on a night out in Berlin or a hotel room in Tokyo, she isn’t the kind of person who wears something like “Theme” as a suit of armor.

“The song will be what it wants to be,” she said in response to the theme question, and I can’t tell you how much this sounded like a quote from any of the hundreds of athletes I’ve spoken with who come up a little short when asked to verbalize what’s happening in their heads at the time of performance. This is the eternal conflict between artist/athlete and journalist—the thick, unbreachable wall. Because while we want an explanation for what’s happening, they have trained themselves to turn the vocalizing part of their brains off in service of reaching that higher plateau. They know how to get out of their own way. And in essence, we’re saying to them, “explain to me what happened on those inexplicable heights…tell me everything that went through your mind while you were hypnotized…describe the indescribable…”

“The simple answer,” Clark said, “is that I don’t know how things eventually come together. I just know that there’s something else at play that isn’t about a brain. It isn’t about the critical brain, and it is about instinct that comes into play when making music, and the more I’ve followed instinct instead of logic, the better off I’ve been as an artist.”

And later:

“I just started writing, rather than approaching it all with a lot of human hubris. Like, this is what it’s gonna be about, and here’s the zeitgeist, and I’m going to try to tap into the zeitgeist, whatever that is. I just wrote about my life, and the stories are obviously punched up and made slightly poetic because they have to fit into a song form, but so many songs are just, like, my life.”

So there’s very little agenda. Which is why I loved her quote about George W. Bush’s paintings. For someone as art-oriented as Clark, a person like George W. Bush becomes infinitely more interesting when he showcases a deformed artistic impulse. Which isn’t to say she’s apolitical; she may be deeply concerned with politics. I have no idea. But she’s not overtly political, and it’s hard to imagine George W. Bush entering her conversational lexicon when he was merely a shitty president. But when he became a shitty artist?

Oh yeah, her eyes opened then.

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On the other hand, she’s not always agenda-free in her songs. “Digital Witness,” the second single and the first video showcasing her brand new gray-tinged-with-violet sideways-disorderly-female-pompadour hairdo, contains the most overt lyrics of all about that burgeoning—wait, no, I think we’ve passed burgeoning into omnipresence—cliche: Life In The Digital World.

If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me
What’s the point doing anything?
What’s the point of even sleeping?
So I stopped sleeping, yeah I stopped sleeping
Won’t somebody sell me back to me?

“I think I was going macro on those songs a little bit,” she said. “‘Digital Witness’ was a song that kinda came about from a little bit of technological fatigue, and I was just wondering how we’ve always had this sense, I think, or at least in the past decade, that we’re being watched. Like, whether or not we’re taking those pictures ourselves or we just kinda have a sense that like, the NSA is doing a little bit more than they they’re doing. Now we know, okay, the government is watching us, and is also watching everyone else in the world. But we’re very obsessed with documenting our own lives and every aspect of it from the minutiae to the amazing and I just wondered if we weren’t intuiting that we were being watched, and were making ourselves transparent as a defense mechanism. And the embarrassing things even take on a point of pride, like you’re bragging about how humiliating something was. Because you get schadenfreude points for it.”

This, to me, was intensely interesting, because it’s a thought I’ve always harbored about the new, confessional style of many Internet writers. With more information available, and human weakness being exposed all the time, I think she’s right in that younger people there’s a sixth sense that the minute we show any kind of public face, we’re doomed to have our innermost secrets and desires and perversions broadcast to the world, and the only way to fight it is to say, “I’m an open book” and feed ourselves to the sharks on our own terms. Which is sad, because it’s a step toward losing autonomy over our brains, which is frankly the only thing we’ve ever been able to control anyway. And only some of the time.

But as a theme, it’d be a mistake to extrapolate the question at the heart of “Digital Witness” and project it onto the entire album. Critics will do this, of course, because critics want a message. And they’ll be wrong. That’s not what St. Vincent is “about,” which is something I can say definitively because if there’s one thing I learned from a 45-minute conversation, it’s that Clark abhors the idea of controlling something as effervescent as creation. In the same way that you can’t really pin her down on a certain topic because her brain darts off on its associative pathways to a different destination, the music is never going to stand still for long.

So you’ll take the topical philosophy of “Digital Witness” and the creation myth of “Rattlesnake” and the gorgeous character study of “Prince Johnny,” and you’ll want to synthesize and unify it all under one intellectual banner. But if you’re being honest, you’ll circle back and reach the simple conclusion implied by the title. The end, as always, was in the beginning. Nabokov famously said that true artistic genius has only itself to imitate, and if we forget the heavy implications of the G-Word and reduce that sentiment to “true artist,” the best compliment we can pay Annie Clark is to agree with her: She sounds like herself.

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