St. Vincent on Her New Album, Running Naked in the Desert, and Why She’s Addicted to Work
Rattled by the Rush
Annie Clark struggles to explain why she decided to go the eponymous route for her fourth St. Vincent album, acknowledging that self-titling a record is usually reserved for either definitive statements or debuts. She's too humble to suggest that St. Vincent is the former—and that would be quite a potent claim, since her last release, 2011's wildly idiosyncratic Strange Mercy, was a critical smash. Curiously, she's claiming St. Vincent is actually the latter. "I thought that in some ways this feels like a debut," she explains. "It feels like pressing 'restart' on the Nintendo."
Listening to St. Vincent, however, one gets the impression that it just might end up being her definitive release. Building on the same foundation of slashing guitar lines, twitchy art-funk, and ethereal pop balladry that made Strange Mercy a creative triumph, St. Vincent features many of the same stylistic nods but wraps them in even sharper hooks and more biting lyrical turns. Since her last release, Clark has stayed busy, touring the world and recording a collaborative album, Love This Giant, with the legendary David Byrne. But she sounds most at home in the studio, something that comes through in the album's giddy energy and frenetic spirit. Here Clark explains why she can't allow herself to take a break, explores the conceptual inspirations for the album, and recites the tale of her naked encounter with a rattlesnake. [Note: There is a separate article on St. Vincent in Under the Radar's next print and digital issue. These are extra portions of our interview with Annie Clark, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on her. Pick up or download our next issue to read more from this interview.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Did you have any particular goals for this record?
Annie Clark: This one, I wanted to make it a little funkier, like it would have aspects of what my version of what a party record would be. I was thinking about what that is, because it's not your typical idea of a party record. I was thinking of a party record you could play at a funeral, something that has emotional weight that also had a great groove to it. So I called up Homer Steinweiss from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and he played on Amy Winehouse records and is a hell of a drummer. And Bobby Sparks, who played a Moog on the last record and plays with Prince and a lot of other great artists, and my live touring guy Daniel McFerrin, who played keys. And I called in McKenzie Smith from Midlake to play on a few songs, as well. And then it's me. So it's a pretty small group of people.
When did you officially start working on this new batch of songs?
What happened was that I wasn't really intending to write a record. I finished up the Strange Mercy tour in Japan, and then flew back and started the Love This Giant rehearsals immediately—and I mean immediately, like the next day. So we did that for three weeks, and then straight from rehearsals into a long North American tour. So by the time I was done with what amounted to about a year and a half of touring straight, touring two totally different projects, I thought, "Okay, I'm just going to go into seclusion for a while and learn how to live life off the road." So I sent an email out to the people that I work with and friends and family and said, "Hey, listen. It's really important. Just don't talk to me. I'm going to go off the grid for a minute." And about 36 hours later, I sent another email saying, "Okay, guys. I'm ready to go again. What's next?" And I started writing music again immediately. I wasn't really intending to not stop, but it just happened that I started to get really excited about the music that I was writing, but not really putting any pressure on it. I put out this record with David Byrne in 2012, and I put out Strange Mercy in 2011, so I could take a little breather. But that just didn't end up happening.
Was there some epiphany moment when you realized that you didn't actually want to take a break?
I think the epiphany moment is that I love working. I love music. For whatever reason, I'm very suited to the on-the-go lifestyle, and now it feels like if I'm not creating something potentially creative, if it has been a week since I played or sung or had music to really ground me, I start to go a little nutty. I think I feel incredibly lucky to get to play music in the first place, so I think about that. So I spend my time daydreaming about music, and I thought it's best to not squander any opportunity. Things don't last forever, especially in this day and age.
Do you think not taking any time off influenced the mood on the record? It seems like there's a frenzied, disorienting quality to these tracks, as if you were exhausted but just powered through it.
There was probably a fair amount of mania in it.
The song "Rattlesnake" seems to have that frantic quality, in particular. What's the story behind that one?
The song "Rattlesnake," I started writing in October and was more or less home. But then I went down to Austin in February, March, and a friend of mine has a place out in far West Texas, many miles from anything you'd call civilization. The song "Rattlesnake" sounds like it would be this imagined creation myth, except that it actually happened. I was in west Texas, staying at my friend's cattle ranch and there's not much to do except write a little music and look at the stars and take walks during the day, so I was walking around this massive mass of land, and one of the things that happens when you're in the wide world that's so big, this Cormac McCarthy west Texas, is that you can't tell how far you've gone. You lose any sense of distance. And it was quite hot, and I just decided, "You know what, I'm alone in this massive world, and I'm going to take my clothes off, because when will I ever get to feel this connected to the earth?" You feel very small in this grand landscape, so I took off my clothes and was walking, and there was no wind. So what happens when there is no wind is your sense of hearing gets a little heightened, because you can hear something that happens miles away, and it will eventually reach you but not in a way where you'll be hearing the sound. It's like [makes a wind sound] coming over this mass of land.
So I was walking and just enjoying this, and I saw holes beside this little road. I wouldn't call it a road, actually. The ranch hands drive the trucks around the land, so it's not necessarily a road, but it's a little pathway. But I saw holes, and I didn't quite think anything of it, because the other aspect of being that far out there is that there's no cell service. So I learned very quickly that I know nothing about nature. So I was walking, and I hear something, and I think, "Okay. Maybe that was just the wind." And then I realized there is no wind. And then I heard it again, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a rattlesnake. And I just took off running as fast as I could. It was some Olympic shit. And I finally got back to the house and processed what happened, and I thought, "Oh, my God." I remember being a kid and thinking, "Okay, if I was going to live in the wilderness on my own, I would make a treehouse there, and I would eat those berries and I would do this and do that." And I realized that, actually, I don't have any hunter-gatherer survival skills. [Laughs] I just don't. I'm a person of the modern world. And as I was telling my friends the story later it dawned on me that it sounds like a new creation myth. You're alone in the garden; you're alone in the world. You go out alone. I didn't come from anybody's rib or anything, but I saw a snake and took off running. I didn't stop to listen to what he had to say. It just struck me as an interesting way to start the record in a proper way.
So even when you think you can go somewhere to get away from everything, there's still a rattlesnake in the bush.
Exactly! There is. [Laughs]
How about the song "Birth in Reverse"? That's a very arresting phrase.
I was reading this book of short stories called Birds of America. It's by this author called Lorrie Moore, who is one of my favorites. And I read that phrase "birth in reverse," and in the book she was referring to the way that a particular room started small, or maybe started big and then had a small entryway—something like that. But the way the room was described was as a birth in reverse. But I thought that a birth in reverse is also death, and that's a colorful way to think about life. And the song just took shape from there.
Is that song about a person wasting his or her life? Is it about desperation?
No. I wouldn't say that. What is always interesting to me is the idea of how human beings actually are and how there's squalor mixed with beauty mixed with the totally mundane, all in the same breath and on the same day. The first line of it always makes me giggle. I played it for a couple friends—my best friend, actually. "Oh, what an ordinary day/take out the garbage, masturbate." That first line, he just laughed, because he said, "The funny thing about it was that the only thing you wouldn't actually do is take out the garbage. That's the line I don't believe."
How about "I Prefer Your Love"?
That song's very near and dear to my heart. I love that one.
That song sounds like someone addressing her mother.
It could be. People could hear it like a romantic song or as a song to your actual mother. You could hear as a song to whatever maternal force you imagined.
The line "I prefer your love to Jesus" is a pretty powerful line, especially when you contrast a parent's love with God's love, or unconditional and conditional love...
I think there's a lot of ways to read into it. It still interests me to include the lexicon of mythology and modernize it. I think there's a lot of that, starting with "Rattlesnake." There's a lot of humanity, like what is human nature and who are we and where are we now? Those are the questions that I'm always interested in. The big stuff—like what does it all mean?
Along those lines, "Digital Witness" seems to be a very timely song.
I wanted to just be a mouthpiece of propaganda in the Gil Scott-Heron way.
What inspired the imagery of the song? It seems to be very much a social critique.
My friend Carrie Brownstein sent me this speech, this presentation that she gave, and it was really fascinating. It was talking about the idea that all of our senses now are mediated by screens, and all the information is essentially flat and non-curated for the most part. So there will be really important information that is incredibly mundane, and we're losing our ability to differentiate between [what is] meaningful and worthless. And I thought that was really inspiring. Then I was reading a book by David Carr, The Night of the Gun, and it's really fascinating because he's writing about memory. The whole premise of the beginning of that book—it's a memoir—is that he was a total drug addict and a bad guy. He was a bad dude. And he always held a grudge against a friend, because in his memory he had gone to his friend's house and there was some sort of drug discrepancy or money issue—something dumb—and he remembered that his friend pulled a gun on him. And he got sober and gets a lovely wife and becomes a standup guy and a writer for The New York Times, so he went back and interviewed some of the people he had hurt 20 years prior and comes to find out that it was him who had the gun, and he pulled the gun on his friend. There's always a difference between the myth that you create about yourself and who you actually are. It's similar to music in that you can have an idea about how you sound, and then you can hear it back and go, "Oh, shoot. That's how I actually sound?" But if those two things sync up, then the distance between your perception and the reality can be closer, and you're living more fully and on a better track. So "Digital Witness" was inspired by those things—just the question of "Where are we now?"
Just curious, was there anything you took from working with David Byrne that influenced the way you wrote this record?
I don't know that David and I really sat down and had conversations about writing per se, but we did get to know each other's process while working together. Rather than some technical idea or concept or anything, the thing I learned from watching him is that he's fearless about everything he does. So, for me, it's in some ways a fearless record that talks a lot about fear. That's an interesting dichotomy, but it's a much more fearless record.
That sounds like a very modern dichotomy—fearlessly talking about your fear.
Just don't post it on Facebook! [Laughs] Don't make it a status update.