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St. Vincent - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Composed Chaos

Apr 13, 2015 St. Vincent Photography by Tommy Kearns Bookmark and Share

Eight years into her solo career, Annie Clark says she still feels like a new artist. She might as well be, she says, since her fourth St. Vincent release is the first to resonate very far outside of the indie rock universe. No, she’s not selling millions of records or burning up Top 40 radio, but few artists have been as everywhere-at-once. There she was in February, trading jokes with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. By April she was standing in for Kurt Cobain with the surviving members of Nirvana at the band’s performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A few weeks later came her performance as the musical act on Saturday Night Live, complete with perspective-bending choreography and Clark teetering back and forth across the stage like a windup robot. There was an appearance as herself on Portlandia, an hour-long performance on David Letterman’s Live on Letterman webcast, and a stint standing in for Fred Armisen as leader of The 8G band on Late Night with Seth Meyers, not to mention the unveiling of her own signature coffee blend. She’s too humble to brag; she’s not particularly eager to talk about all of this, and she’s even less anxious to reflect on just what the year of her breakthrough has meant to her personally. “It’s hard to give a sound bite on it, to be honest,” she says. “I can’t really process it.”

If Clark can’t process it, it’s likely because she hasn’t had much time for reflection. Since finishing up 2011’s Strange Mercy, she has been a one-woman whirlwind of creativity, going directly from touring that album into writing and recording songs with David Byrne for their Love This Giant project, then back on the road to promote that release. With that tour over, she jumped right back into the writing and recording process again and produced St. Vincent, her conceptually rich blend of electro art-funk that reimagined her as the silver-haired “near-future cult leader” that peered out from the cover. Since then, her life has been a blur.

Today, in a hotel in Germany, Clark seems a bit dazed, drifting off into philosophical tangents that appear to serve the purpose of allowing her to avoid having to explain what it’s like to be in the middle of that blur. In the midst of the most ambitious tour of her careera performance complete with a light show, spoken word sections, and complex choreography—she is a study in composure and poise. But despite all of the accolades and sold-out venues, she still seems to be coming to terms with what it means to be suspended between two worlds, the rare artist whose audience has expanded at roughly the same pace at which her music has gotten stranger and more out-of-step with contemporary trends. Having lived on the margins for so long, there seems to be a part of her that can’t quite believe her work is connecting in this way.

“Obviously, I love that fans love it. Or like it,” she says, quickly correcting herself with characteristic humility. “But do I need to be loved by everybody? No. I remember doing SNL and being so excited, and it was something that I had been hoping for and gunning for since I was a little kid. But I remember seeing some people [on Twitter] who were really angry, like ‘What is this? What the hell?’ People were just hating it, and for a split second I was like, ‘Oh… they don’t like me? I don’t get it.’ This was for five minutes, being like ‘Wait!’ But then this other thought came to me: ‘That’s awesome that it made people mad.’ Personality-wise, I don’t walk into a room and tell people to fuck off, by any means, but it was so funny that it actually offended people. I was pretty thrilled by it after I got past the ‘Oh, no!’ Sally Field shit,” she says, referencing the actress’ legendary 1984 Oscar acceptance speech.

It’s easy to forget now, but it was never a given that St. Vincent would ever reach this point. In many ways, Clark seems like a different person than she was when 2007’s Marry Me introduced her as a singularly idiosyncratic talent. Clever, literate, and almost self-consciously cerebral, her early music matched the nervously polite persona she put forth in interviews. But while her songwriting was bold and uncompromising in its design, it never seemed particularly dangerous in its intent, murderous lyrical undercurrents aside. More Laurie Anderson than Courtney Love, Clark was the kind of artist who seemed more likely to end up writing scores for experimental ballet than stage-diving in high heels.

But somewhere along the wayperhaps when she performed a clamorous rendition of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Bowery Ballroom in May 2011something seems to have shifted inside her. By November, her concerts were becoming more and more unpredictable, with Clark losing herself every night in primal howls and peels of guitar feedback before recklessly hurling herself into the crowd when the fever broke. That Clark now would take such pleasure from becoming the target of trending Twitter hate says a lot about who she has become: she is utterly fearless.

“I spent my whole life having a certain amount of trepidation about random things, things I couldn’t control,” she says. “So once you’ve confronted a certain amount of fear, you go, ‘Well, this isn’t scary? What is scary about this? Am I scared someone is not going to like the show?’ Well, not exactly. I want people to enjoy it and be entertained and moved, but am I scared that someone is going to realize I’m a total weirdo? No, not really. I’ve sort of set the expectation for that and somehow turned it on its ear and I’m being celebrated for parts of myself that I thought wouldn’t be embraced. So what is scary? Nothing is scary. ISIS is scary. Shit that’s going on in Syria is scary. Iran is scary. Playing a rock show? I’m not going to be afraid of that.”

Boxer in the Ring

Though she’s exceedingly personable in conversation, Annie Clark nonetheless has gained a reputation for being frustratingly evasive in interviews. Ask her about the meanings of her songs or how they line up with her autobiographical details, and she’ll politely decline, suggesting the songs say everything her listener needs to know about her. The basic facts of her life story are known: the child of divorce, she grew up in Dallas bouncing back and forth between her parents and her eight siblings, spending her days as a music-obsessed teen who struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. Controlor the lack thereofloomed large in her fears, and she has labored to limit the unknown and unpredictable as much as possible. As a result, she has become legendary for her work ethic, for endless hours of rehearsals to make sure there’s not a note or moving part out of place. Never before has Clark had more moving parts to control.

Having collaborated with choreographer Annie-B Parson, Clark has created a dazzling visual spectacle, needing little more than her body and a fairly simple set of gestures and poses. All of this is meant to communicate what words can’t, she says, as gestures bypass the conscious mind and cut a straight path to the heart. It’s a lot to remember, she admits, especially considering the complexity of her music, but she takes no small degree of satisfaction in knowing she and her band can pull it all off onstage without the aid of any backing tracks. She has gained control over her environment, and when she is onstage she exemplifies precision. In fact, she’s now so self-assured that she embraces, even creates, the unknown while onstage. But her first leap into a crowd of outstretched arms wasn’t quite so confident.

“I think I was in New York at Webster Hall, and it was a very timid, dainty, lace-glove parasol stage dive,” she says, laughing. “Like the first time you’re trying to jump off the diving board or something. I remember reading this David Foster Wallace story [‘Forever Overhead’], and basically the whole story is the internal monologue of a kid who is walking up to the diving board at a public pool. I was thinking about it the other day, and it’s so resonant. I completely remember that feeling and then getting up to the board and looking back and going, ‘Oh, God. I can’t go back down, because that will be its own humiliation. I have to jump.’”

And jump she did, again and again, becoming more daring with each dive. Doing so invited its own kind of danger, of course, and Clark didn’t emerge unscathed, breaking her foot at The Fox Theater in Oakland. Clark doesn’t jump into crowds anymore, at least not on this tour. Instead, she has started climbing-scaffolding, balconiesand entering the crowd, taking swigs of their drinks and taking pictures of them with their own phones. And here is the clearest proof of Clark’s evolution as an artist and, dare I say, as a human being: the woman whose fears of the unknown once paralyzed her with panic now openly pursues situations where she cedes control to her environment. But why?

“I like adrenaline rushes,” she answers simply. “But there’s a certain amount of what happens onstage that I don’t remember. You kind of go into a different state if you’re really in the moment, and something else takes over. Instinct? I don’t know what you call it. But, yeah, I like it. I want to feel something, and it’s sort of like you’re a drug addict, and the drug is in your own brain. I want to feel my dopamine rush. I want to feel the adrenaline. And as the show goes on, you try different things to get that same rush.”

Having attended numerous Swans performances, Clark says establishing a sense of danger in a live show comes from creating an environment of single-minded commitment to an ideal, then pursuing it to the point where it becomes transcendent for both audience and performer. For Swans, the long-running masters of punishingly malevolent noise, this idea translates into playing for so long and at such an overwhelming volume that everyone in attendance is overcome with a certain transformative delirium. For Clark, that state seems to be reached largely through creating a dazzlingly precise visual and sonic spectacle, one that is equal parts communal celebration and escapist theater. For someone who spends much of her time in her own head, being onstage provides an opportunity to get outside of herself or to get inside a different self.

“It’s a strange act to go up on stage and perform,” she admits. “It’s an act I love, and one that I get so energized by, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. It’s hard to know if you become a different person or if you get closer to some essential version of yourself. I think personality and the performance itselfthat’s quite mutable and malleable. Put somebody in an extreme situation, and maybe you’ll see what’s lurking and bubbling underneath.”

So what is bubbling underneath the surface of Annie Clark’s stoic demeanor? The answer to that question, it would seem, is as difficult to ascertain as ever. Though she says St. Vincent was designed to be a more extroverted record, an album to “reach out its arms and grab ahold of people’s hearts,” it retains a certain amount of intellectual distance despite its plainspoken language and earworm hooks. Taking inspiration from author Lorrie Moore, Clark took the unusual step of writing songs from a second-person perspective, allowing her to further obscure herself as a character in her storytelling by making “you” the focus of the songs. The result is an album that feels both personal and illusive, with the relationship between audience and artist constantly shifting.

“What I find to be nice about second person is there is this sense of collective consciousness,” Clark says. “It’s unclear whether I’m telling you something very personal about myself or if I’m telling you about you, like a psychic, and if I land on something that is specific enough and that you relate to, suddenly we’re bonded like superglue. It’s nice to be able to talk about that universally strange human experience in a way that isn’t so cloying. It’s hard to know what to say on stage exactly sometimes, and I’ve found the ‘Hey, how are you guys doing tonight? Are you feeling good?’that’s a nonstarter. Of course, they’re feeling good. It’s your job to make them feel good, so don’t ask them for approval.”

Tying in ever so slightly with the “near-future cult leader” imagery on the album cover, Clark says such an approach creates an effect that is both “intimate and alien,” allowing the listener to feel as if they are being directly spoken tosome might say manipulatedby someone who knows them better than they know themselves. In the process, Clark is creating an entrancing contradiction on stage, an artist who is connecting deeply with audiences through obscuring herself in the process as much as possible. In those moments onstage, Clark is part performance artist, part inspirational guru, but she bristles at the suggestion that she’s essentially playing a character.

“The essential tenet of what I do and believe is that once you get onstage, no matter what you’re feeling or what your music is, you’re a performer,” she says. “You’re a song and dance person. So you can embrace that or you cannot. Because it’s all just a performance and it’s all entertainment, I balk at the idea that some things are more emotionally true than others, because of the way that they’re presented. I don’t think having a beard and a flannel and a guitar is any more an authentic presentation of self than something like what I’ve done, which is very stylized,” she says, her tone softening. “They’re two ways of getting at the same thing.”

What’s the Point of Even Sleeping?

Though it’s not obvious at whom it is directed, “Severed Crossed Fingers,” the closing track on St. Vincent, appears to be a conflicted love song of sorts. Seemingly about surveying the wreckage of dashed expectations, the song’s central character spends years spilling her guts over music industry gears only to be left empty, a barstool hero who is “humiliated by age, terrified of youth.” Though it’s possible to read too much into a St. Vincent songClark will only say it’s a song about losing hopeit’s tempting to wonder if she might be stretching herself too thin.

“Every once in a while I spend an entire day in a hotel room bed and never leave,” she laughs. “I listen to my history podcasts and watch my documentaries and just shut it out. Right now, I’m definitely in that realm where if I’m not at soundcheck or onstage at the show, I’ll be in bed with a little MIDI keyboard just writing and half-sleeping. I’m in that zone right now, but I’ll bounce back in a day or so. It’s a different kind of tired when you’re tired because you’ve been doing something that you love. It’s a different kind of tired when you’re coming home from a factory where you have no agency. It’s a different kind of strung out. I never would complain about it.”

Far from complaining, Clark seems far more troubled by the prospect of a clear calendar. She’d like to do more acting if the offer arises, maybe even score a film or two, and she’ll jump back into the studio as soon as she has a new batch of songs to record. She’ll collect sketches and scraps of ideas, and she’ll begin to figure out how to assemble them into her next grand statement. Having conquered so many of her fears already, one still remains: the fear of missed opportunities.

“I always want to err on the side of having experience, and part of that is just saying ‘yes,’” she explains. “Say ‘yes’ and then figure out how to do it later. Say ‘yes’ to the challenge and then rise to it. I remember seeing this a lot going to school [at the Berklee School of Music] before I dropped out: people could play and sing circles around mepeople who were so talented and so good-but would do something to self-sabotage. It’s so strange. [Music] is not a meritocracy. The best idea doesn’t always win, so there’s not a whole lot of sense to it in terms of who thrives and who doesn’t. I witnessed a couple instances of really talented people having somethingbe it a personality thing or some ticking time bomb of self-sabotageso that they could never got on their feet. And they really should have, because they had a lot to offer musically, but there was something in them that wouldn’t allow them to say ‘yes’ to life or whatever.”

Of course, even saying “yes” to life doesn’t guarantee that her well of ideas will continue to overflow. Though she’s still a new artist to many listeners, Clark is quickly reaching the stage in her career when even the greatest songwriters begin to struggle with creative stagnation, their skill sets hardening into an identity that makes surprises rare and reinvention difficult. This possibility doesn’t seem to have occurred to Clark, and she seems genuinely taken aback by the question, suggesting that she hasn’t yet defined herself well enough that she could repeat herself if she wanted. She recognizes she is an artist playing at the height of her abilities, but she doesn’t like to think of herself as being at her peak, she says, because if she accepts that point she might as well quit making music now. Given all she has accomplishedall those moments that are so profound that she hasn’t had time to process them yetshe has set the bar almost impossibly high. What can an artist in her position do for an encore?

“I feel like I just got started,” she says, followed by a long pause. “For me, that question is about finding the next sound or song that is inspiring to me. It’s not a question about record sales or profile and all that, because ultimately anything you do has to start with the music. It has to be about the music. You can try to start with all the marketing bucks and all that, but if you compromise the music in hopes of grabbing the brass ring and you fail, then you’ve really failed. If you succeed but you’re singing songs you don’t believe in in order to have that extra house in Malibuthat depends on your value system. I feel lucky to be making a living playing music, and I’d like to do this for my whole life. So you think about what matters to you, and what matters to me is making art and traveling the world with people I love and playing music for people I adore. That is deeply fulfilling to me. So I don’t feel particularly in danger of sliding off the coast of avarice,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve followed my instinct this far, so I’ll continue to do that.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s January/February 2015 print issue (Issue 52/Best of 2014). This is its debut online.]


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