St. Vincent Crawls Through the Fire

In our latest Digital Cover Story, Annie Clark discusses her decision to self-produce for the first time, how her relationship with the guitar has changed 17 years into her solo career, and what it means to surrender to a song’s survival on her seventh and latest album, All Born Screaming.

Music Features St. Vincent
St. Vincent Crawls Through the Fire

It was 2014 and Nirvana had just been elected to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was relatively new to their music, having discovered it on YouTube sometime the year before and, naturally, became obsessed with their three studio albums and various live concerts (many of which I would, eventually, procure on DVD). Though many—and I mean many—Nirvana fans had spent more than 20 years waiting for that moment, I found it endlessly cool and perfect that I got to jump on the bandwagon mere months before their musical genius was enshrined in rock ‘n’ roll history forever. Soon after came the Rock Hall’s induction ceremony, which featured the remaining members of Nirvana—Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear—performing a litany of their most iconic songs with the aid of various women anchoring the vocals (an ode to their late frontman Kurt Cobain, who routinely and vocally championed woman-fronted music during his time with us).

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon sang “Aneurysm,” Lorde sang “All Apologies” and Joan Jett sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But to me—nothing but a 16-year-old kid reveling in the magic of seeing their new favorite band’s reunion on live television—I still remember how transfixed I was by Annie Clark’s rendition of “Lithium,” a powerful performance that didn’t attempt to capture the raw-throated vocals of Cobain or the original convergence of Novoselic’s pop basslines with the former’s down-tuned riffs. Instead, it became its own momentous wonder—powered forward by Clark, whose fabled guitar playing and mercurial talent under the name St. Vincent has now anchored a beloved, crucial sector of rock ‘n’ roll for 17 years. In April 2014, when she took Barclays Center stage in her native borough of Brooklyn, she had recently released her self-titled fourth album—one of the best art-rock and pop albums of the last decade—and, though St. Vincent’s impending Best Alternative Music Album Grammy win wouldn’t come for another 10 months, Clark taking the stage with Nirvana was sublime punctuation on a seven-year run of bang-on, generational sonics.

“Full-circle” is a phrase that comes to mind often when exploring the palette of Clark’s seventh and latest St. Vincent album, All Born Screaming. Upon the release of lead single “Broken Man,” we are greeted by a mirage of industrialized, metallic drumming. Mark Guiliana and producer Cian Riordan lent their pounding to the mix, but the name at the center of the track’s percussion just so happens to be Dave Grohl. “I remember being nine years old and my best friend’s cool older brother played Nevermind on the tape deck, as we were on the home-built halfpipe trying to learn how to skate,” Clark says. “I remember that feeling. I remember just the world stopping when I heard Nirvana. Getting asked to help be a part of their legacy [in 2014], I thought that was a full-circle. But, then, it turned out there was another circle—which was asking Dave to play on my record. I think the point of it all is to be generative, and to make things generate that spark in other people and other artists for generations. And then, what they make does the same thing and you have this music—this art—that actually gives life forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. Amen.”

After her last album, Daddy’s Home, came out in May 2021, Clark did what any musician would: see their psychological thriller film (in Clark’s case, it was The Nowhere Inn, which she co-wrote with Sleater-Kinney‘s Carrie Brownstein) hit theaters and contribute to the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack. Clark, to my delight and likely that of many others, gave Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown”—a song that is championed for its all-time great bassline, revered for its impact on post-disco and, possibly, even reviled for its overuse in film and TV—a proper St. Vincent makeover. If any hate towards Lipps Inc. is sent their way, she won’t have any of that, either: “That is a great song. I would like to go to Funkytown. I’ll be the first in line,” she says.

The era of Daddy’s Home couldn’t feel farther away than it does right now. Ever the matriarch of chameleonic alt-rock, Clark, now 41, has all but ditched the Candy Darling-esque alter-ego she reveled in three years ago. When she did press back then, she would arrive on camera wearing a patterned headscarf and tinted aviator sunglasses; when she dropped Masseduction four years before that, journalists had to enter a neon pink-painted box if they wanted to ask her questions about the album. But this time around, there’s no performance involved in Clark’s presence on our Zoom call; no grandiose wardrobe to flaunt or skyscraping measure of method-acting to embolden. She walks around her house with her camera off, filling the spaces between her thoughts with various clatters. She even pauses our talk to answer a call from her sister, because she worries that “when anyone calls, it’s bad news.” It’s clear, quickly, that I am not speaking with St. Vincent. This is Annie Clark, and she’s left the vainglory and theatricality behind—for now.

The tapestry of All Born Screaming’s visual imagination, too, suggests that this is the most naked Clark has ever been on a record. Even from the title, there is a very deeply embedded conversation around the pain that we’re born into—or, even, the grief that comes with rebirth, how we come into this world with no language. On tracks like “Flea,” “Big Time Nothing” and “Violent Times,” there are sea-change tempests afoot. All at once, this era of St. Vincent sounds like the St. Vincent of old and the Annie Clark of now. These 10 songs catalyze a metamorphosis; out of the ashes of Daddy’s Home comes a pensive, egoless Clark—who is now walking into the fire, seeing what’s on the other side and trimming away the fat for the sake of a song’s survival. All Born Screaming is, at long last, a proper, career-spanning time capsule harboring the flourishes of her greatest eras. Lounge, noise rock, baroque, funk, chamber pop, electronica—it’s all here and orbiting each other.

All Born Screaming marks a unique turn in Clark’s career: It’s the first St. Vincent album she’s self-produced, graduating from collaborations with John Congleton and Jack Antonoff and rupturing into a phoenix of creative control. The move was inspired by, as Clark puts it, the realization that there “were sounds in my head that, really, only I could render, because they were part of the whole story.” There’s nothing arbitrary about All Born Screaming, and every component—from the doomy, mortally-wounded lyricism to the bone-rattling instrumental gospel—exists in such a deliberate way that Clark couldn’t have possibly imagined outsourcing it.

“Being a producer, to me, is like having your full sonic personality and sonic footprint on everything. One of the things we strive for as artists is to be singular,” she continues. “You can hear one note and know that it is Miles Davis. You know people by their voice as an artist, and I wanted people to know me as a producer and know my voice as a producer—in the same instinctive way as with other things. Also, there are just places emotionally you can only go alone, when you wander into the woods and you’re like ‘There’s nobody but me who’s going to tell me that this is real, good enough, bold enough. There’s no one but me who’s going to say that and be that kind of filter. And that takes a new level of instinct and trust and faith and courage.”

Pulling the strings herself is not a new horizon for Clark. She’s been recording herself since she was 14, first on a TASCAM 4-Track, then early digital software and, now, in Pro Tools. “Recording myself has always been the way that I hear what I sound like, how I figure out what I think and how I arrange and think about music,” Clark says. She mentions being in the studio while making “Reckless,” All Born Screaming’s second track that unfurls the entire album into a sonic paradox—where Rachel Eckroth’s sinister B3 organ meets the flora of Clark’s sprawling, untreated vocals that were performed over 100 times. Like much of the record, “Reckless” is an example of Clark chasing perfection—but not the kind of perfection that answers to pitch and time. “It has to be raw and it has to be real,” she continues. “When you’re not performing it, you are it. You don’t have to be it. You are it. The only way for me to get there was to do it over and over again until nothing about it was false, nothing was performed. It just was because it existed, because it was real. There was nothing put on nothing, no vanity about it.”

And likewise, album opener “Hell is Near” took a long time to get right. It’s one of Clark’s most ornate compositions in years, arriving as her voice morphs into a cathedral before slowly crawling into a vibrant 12-string guitar melody via the cobblestone of Eckroth’s acoustic piano. “Some songs you grab by the throat and wrestle them to the ground,” Clark contends, “but then, there are some songs that just truly won’t reveal themselves to you, won’t open their arms to you—unless you come at them with a righteous, pure heart. ‘Hell is Near’ was one where I sang it over and over again. You have to be bare, you have to emotionally be there to sing it. Anytime I tried to put any sauce on it, anytime the ego crept in, the song would just fall apart in your hands. The way you approach material, you have to come correct. I always think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where it’s like ‘only a penitent man shall pass.’ You have to just bow before it, sometimes.”

St. Vincent All Born Screaming

Clark recorded All Born Screaming at six studios in three cities, including Compound Fracture in Los Angeles, Electric Lady Studios in New York and Electrical Audio in Chicago. Most of the 10 songs came together in the same way, with Clark working through a modular synth, drum machine and effects mixer setup alone. She’s blunt about it: “I was making a kind of industrial dance music.” 97% of the music she’s made since the beginning of COVID, when she started taking engineering classes from Riordan, is material we will never hear, because it was, for Clark, about the exploration and the chaos and discovering fluttering within that microcosm of intrigue. That’s how you get vignettes of hydra and theremin in “So Many Planets,” or that thick, propulsive and alien bassline in “Big Time Nothing.” “The actual harnessing of electricity, your circuitry molded by your own hands like you’re the God of lightning, that starts with real fire,” Clark furthers. “It starts with chaos and you’re harnessing chaos and that is exciting.”

A familiar touch appears on four songs on All Born Screaming: the multi-dimensional brilliance of Cate Le Bon, whose penchant for making adroit fusions of terror and elegance could almost act like an all-encompassing blueprint for Clark’s own manifestations on the album. If you were to ask me who I think St. Vincent should be collaborating with, Cate Le Bon would be my #1 draft pick—and she is credited with bass-playing, background vocals and the peculiar designation of “additional production” on All Born Screaming. I ask Clark what “additional production” means, and whether it’s a tangible contribution or something much more energetical. “I called Cate in when I was at a point in making the record where I was just petulant like a child,” she says. “I was mad at myself, I was mad at music, I was mad at everything. And Cate, we’ve been friends for a long time. She’ll tell a joke that will just completely defuse the situation. I called her in to hold my trembling hand—at a certain point in making the record—and tell me that I wasn’t crazy. She was like, ‘You’re crazy, but you’re not crazy.’ Like, okay, great!”

When doing press runs about Daddy’s Home two years ago, Clark mentioned that she was able to make that record because she was, as a musician, finally ready to approach the heavy, colorful harmonics in a humble way. Given where we’re at now—where musicians are unabashedly attacking timeless ideas without yet having the nuance required to make the music feel like anything but a pastiche—All Born Screaming offers a welcomed sigh of relief. Clark’s embrace of the mangled, gross, industrial sonics that engross the album doesn’t register like she’s stepping into someone else’s clothes. This album, from beginning to end, feels like one of her most authentic statements yet. “I think that, as an artist, the best you can do is have your own voice and hone your own voice,” Clark explains. “On Daddy’s Home, I was touching this era and this genre of music that I really loved and that I grew up with. I was still putting it through my lens. On Daddy’s Home, I was trying to speak a language that I loved. On this record, it’s like I was trying to create a new language.”

Clark’s efforts to create a new language has been a 10-year affair, as she has slowly started making more and more music that is not so immediately keen on placing the guitar front-and-center. Gone are the days when bruised, distorted riffs made songs like “Cruel” and “Your Lips Are Red” weapons of soloing chaos. She’s not breaking down the door on Letterman with her tones now, opting for more transcendental, embroidered soundscapes that flirt with the cosmos of isolation and ingenuity. Her history of creating fantastical, out-of-body, flash-in-the-pan melodies hasn’t been this adventurous in who knows when—not since Masseduction at the very least. But, whenever a new St. Vincent album gets announced, posts about Clark’s music “getting worse ever since she put down her guitar” crop up again and again, as if an album like All Born Screaming features an instrumental ensemble that doesn’t include her six- and 12-strings (it does, for the record, and a song like “So Many Planets” features one of Clark’s grooviest solos yet).

Clark’s relationship to the guitar is much broader these days, largely because she considers her top interest in the hierarchy of her career labels to be “producer/record maker.” “If guitar is correct for a song, then guitar shall be all over that song,” she says. “But, sometimes, guitar is not—as an arranger—the thing that needs to happen. I put my guitar ego aside and go ‘Okay, well, the song needs something else.’ The guitar is one of the tools in my arsenal, and if it’s what a song needs then it’s there. Everything has to be intentional and everything has to have meaning.”

But Clark isn’t apprehensive or dismissive of the response her music gets, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. In fact, she’s vocal in our conversation about how having a fanbase—or listeners in general—that is energized enough by the music to have any opinion about it is a blessing she is more interested in nurturing than admonishing. “It’s a good thing, because it means people are listening. It means people care. I think that listeners are incredibly smart. Only bad things happen when we think that listeners are dumb. No great music happened because somebody thought people were fucking stupid. Thinking people are stupid is the reason why we get schlock sometimes,” Clark says.

“I do take it as a compliment that people are engaged and care,” she continues. “I’m always trying to make excellent records—stuff I think is excellent—and that’s my own personal calculus, that’s my own inner-compass. That’s all I can do, keep striving in that regard. I’m lucky to be seven records in and people are still checking in. That’s certainly not how it usually goes down in the music industry. Careers have a lot of shapes for people. Some people hit a home run their first time at-bat and then sit on the bench for the rest of it. I don’t know what music for everyone sounds like. I think it’s an artist’s job to be the psychic mirror of the society they live in, and take the internal and external violence and try to turn it into something that ends up, in some convoluted way, being liberating. It’s an artist’s job to be dangerous, especially in these times.”

Where Daddy’s Home was a delicate, glammy departure from the sexed-out, leather-embossed flash of Masseduction, All Born Screaming is this brittle and tortured museum of shapeshifting songcraft. No two songs sound the same, as Clark has abandoned the Sunset Strip-soaked Bowie-and-Lou topcoat of yesteryear in favor of interrogating whether or not love and brutality can cohabitate. “How can anybody have you and lose you?” Clark questioned seven years ago on “Los Ageless”; “You will be mine for eternity,” she sings now on “Flea,” before presenting us with an image of lovers in Pompeii holding each other in ash. But working with Antonoff on three years opened the door for Clark to return to the safety of the singers she grew up singing along with in her bedroom as a teenager, back when she was trying to find her own voice through that of Erykah Badu, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Fiona Apple. And those exercises are anything but telegraphed on All Born Screaming, as Clark takes tracks like “Reckless” and “The Power’s Out” and opens a pathway through the noise with the grandeur of her swaggering, nomadic lilt.

In Clark’s world, there is no such thing as doing the same thing twice. Since the days of Actor and Strange Mercy more than a decade ago, each LP has encouraged St. Vincent to change shape as a project. Every record is a challenge for Clark, and she doesn’t know why she would make anything otherwise. “Something’s got to feel just electric to you and you don’t know quite what it is,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re in one of those Halloween haunted houses, where you go in and you’re touching the thing with a blindfold. It could be grapes and mayonnaise, or it could be brains.” She pauses, letting out a warm, infectious chuckle. “That’s a good feeling. ‘I don’t know what this is, but I want to keep touching it.’”

Early on in the album cycle, Clark called All Born Screaming “post-plague pop music,” but, when she and I are talking, she elects to rescind the label completely. The idea originally came up in conversations around the record because, as she and creative director Alex Da Corte began working on visual reference points for the music, they were paying close attention to what the world looked like in New York City in the 1980s. And, too, Clark loved the alliteration of the wordage. But, like many of us, she holds disinterest in being reminded of the pandemic more than she already has to. On top of that, All Born Screaming—aside from the singable melodies and motifs worth latching onto—is not really a pop record (it’s not really a rock record, either, to be fair). There is no pithy summation to be had about it, only an ecstatic mantra. It’s a reckoning with loss and death.

“It’s like a fire and it’s an incredibly terrifying force,” Clark says. “You look at life and you go ‘This matters’ and ‘This doesn’t matter at all.’ For me, what I wanted to say, as an artist, became very urgent—because I know how short life is. I know how it can get ripped away from you in an instant and there’s no time to waste. I think loss is very clarifying—love is the only thing that matters. The people we love—that’s it, that’s the only thing. And all of the human condition is, of course, struggle and a dance with fire and a dance with destruction. But, at the end of [All Born Screaming], after you’ve crawled on your knees through some glass, it’s like ‘Yeah, but we’re all born screaming—it’s all of it.’ Truly, the sorrow and the joy and the romance and the brutality—that’s all of it. We get one life, depending on your belief system. We better live it.”

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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