St. Vincent was only in Ireland for a flying visit to play two shows at the Olympia Theatre, but Paul Nolan was on the ground to catch the art-rock legend for a revealing interview in October.
Having endured a dark time following her breakthrough year in 2014, St. Vincent has bounced back with her finest album yet, the stunning Masseduction. In a highly revealing interview, she talks about her hugely ambitious live show, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Donald Trump and her Irish roots. Plus her reflections on David Bowie, fronting Nirvana, and life in the tabloid spotlight with her supermodel ex, Cara Delevingne. Interview PAUL NOLAN
With several brilliant albums already to her credit – including this year’s art-pop extravaganza Masseduction – as well as a unique sense of style and megawatt charisma, 35-year-old Dallas native Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is one of her generation’s most important artists. But as is always the case with iconic rock figures, it’s about more than just the music.
Having had a high-profile relationship with the supermodel and actress Cara Delevingne (more of which anon) and having also been linked to Twilight star Kristen Stewart, Clark’s embodiment of gender and sexual fluidity further marks her out as an artist for the times. In the manner of Prince and David Bowie – the latter in particular one of her great musical heroes – she has also that ineffable element lusted after by record labels and talent scouts the world over: star quality.
That much is obvious when I’m ushered into a meeting room in Dublin’s Morrison Hotel to meet the singer on a Saturday lunch-time in mid-October. Wearing a black overcoat and sunglasses (which stay on for the duration of the interview), and sporting a jet-black bob offset by bright red lipstick, Clark has a striking, magnetic presence. Indeed, she could have walked straight out of the pages of Vogue – with whom she partook in a high-profile interview around the time of Masseduction’s release.
Of course, if a winning sense of style is a hardy perennial of A-list rockers, so too is circumspection with journalists. I’d attended St. Vincent’s stunning show the previous evening at the Olympia (the first of a two-night stand at the venue), and she responds warmly when she learns that the occasion coincided with my birthday. Nonetheless, there is a briskness to our early chat that lets me know I’d better have some interesting questions for her.
And on that note, it’s down to business. There had been some carping on social media following the UK leg of St. Vincent’s tour, with some punters apparently unhappy that Clark performed the show solo. My main thought during the first song – which found her spotlit and singing from the side of the stage – was that she seemed more exposed than performers normally are during rock shows.
Was that how it felt to her?
“No, it didn’t,” replies Clark in her soft Southern tones, while Storm Brian lashes down on the quays outside. “Keep in mind that all the reworked versions of old material, those are tracks that I made with the help of my touring keyboard player; I MIDI mapped the songs and ran them through synths. I did all the programming, the J Dilla drum sounds and so on, and I had so much fun. It was basically remaking an album’s worth of old material.
“I was thinking about it, and if you went to a hip-hop show, it’s a different dynamic. Like, I saw Kendrick Lamar at the Barclays Centre, and there wasn’t a band onstage. I mean, I’d already conceived of my show, so it wasn’t as if I was ripping off Kendrick – although he’s a great person to rip off – but at his gig, aside from a dancer or two who came in at random points, it was just him onstage. And it was unclear to me whether there was a live band. I don’t think so; it didn’t sound like it. “But I wasn’t, you know, bummed about it. And there was no one in the crowd going, ‘Wait a minute – where’s the gospel chops drummer?’ I was thinking a lot about, ‘What do you want when you go see a show? What are you hoping to see?’”
Well, psychologically, it’s definitely different to what people normally expect at a rock gig.
“Yeah, some people had a hard time with the idea that there was no band onstage,” shrugs Clark. “I don’t care – I have a great time playing the show, I really do.”
Do particular gigs stay with you?
“This is only the third or fourth show that we’ve done,” replies Annie. “Obviously, I’m finding new areas to energise, but I had such a great time. The gigs kind of get more and more emotional as they go.”
It was notable the extent to which St. Vincent threw herself into the set. Only a few numbers in, she performed a full track lying on the ground, and injected incredible emotion into each line she sang. Is it draining playing at that intensity night after night?
“Yeah, I think if you didn’t feel drained, you wouldn’t be giving it up,” she nods. “But it’s also energising too.”
As Annie has alluded to, the first half of her current show is comprised of a mini-greatest hits set, of which her zeitgeist defining single ‘Digital Witness’ (“What’s the point in even sleeping/If I can’t show it?”) remains a huge highlight. Showing her grasp of the art of live performance, a curtain is gradually drawn back to reveal a big screen at the back of the stage, which shows a trippy array of cool visuals during the second half – which consists of Masseduction played it in its entirety.
Why has she chosen to play the whole album?
“It’s my live Lemonade,” says Clark. “It’s early on, the record’s only been out a week. Some people haven’t even heard it; maybe they’ve only heard a couple of songs, maybe they haven’t heard anything. Why not have their introduction to the record be this bonkers multi-media experience?”
During the gig, St. Vincent also talked warmly about her roots in Ireland, saying that perhaps for the first time, it really made her feel like she belonged somewhere (needless to say, we all cheered raucously). Apparently, a recent DNA test revealed the singer to be of 80 percent Irish stock.
“It’s the truth,” she beams. “I got the results a few months ago and I was so excited. I was hoping for a little bit of sub-Saharan Africa, but no luck! Just Jewish and Irish, that’s what I am. In terms of whereabouts in Ireland, they didn’t get that far into it – I think you have to pay extra for that!”
Later in the show, St. Vincent also talked about the importance of communal events such as gigs in these fraught times. While successive generations have felt an apocalyptic tenor to the period they lived through, there’s no doubt that the presence of Donald Trump in the White House has led to a stark mood internationally.
“Yeah, I guess every generation in human history has been like, ‘The end is near’, of course. I don’t think the end is actually coming, but I feel like we’re living through such an overgrowth imbalance of ego. (Pause) Yeah – human ego has reached a toxic tipping point.”
Were you in New York when the election happened?
“No, I was in Texas,” reflects Annie. “I’m a Texas resident and I vote in Texas.”
What was it like there?
“It’s unfortunate, I was watching it with my family,” she says. “No one in my family voted for Trump except for my stepdad, who’s a Fox News Republican. I hate to say it, but it kind of got… a little ugly.”
In the political debate in your house?
“Yeah. The rest of my family is way too polite, they had their tempers under control. But I was drinking a little bit of tequila and watching this, and the second the tide started to turn, it was like, ‘Oh shit, Trump’s gonna win this thing.’ My stepdad started gloating, and I was like, ‘Hell no, old white man. Oh hell no.’ It was like, ‘You have four daughters. How could you stand behind someone who thinks of women this way?’
“On that alone, how could you throw yourself in with that lot? I mean, I talk to various therapists – my own and also just random mental health professionals – and they’re like, ‘We have never seen so many divorces, because the husband voted for Trump and the wife voted for Hillary.’ It’s like, this is untenable; people’s marriages and families are breaking apart because of this. It’s wild.”
In the week prior to our interview, the Harvey Weinstein scandal had taken off internationally on the back of a series of incendiary reports in the New York Times and the New Yorker. The ramifications have been truly staggering; in the time since, it has kickstarted a wave of brave accounts of sexual harassment and abuse around the world, ranging from Westminster – some reports even suggesting the stories could bring down Theresa May’s government – to the avalanche of allegations against Kevin Spacey.
Among the scores of women to talk about being harassed by Weinstein was St. Vincent’s ex, Cara Delevingne. The model and actress said the disgraced producer had invited her to his hotel room, where he first attempted to get her to participate in a threesome with another woman, then tried to kiss her himself, before she finally fled.
Does St. Vincent feel that the sexual harassment engaged in by Weinstein is endemic in American society?
“I would say it’s probably endemic in the world,” she responds. “As far as the entertainment industry, clearly all these stories are coming out, and it’s a culture that allowed Harvey Weinstein, and men like Harvey Weinstein, to go unchecked for decades. It was part of the inception of the movie industry; the casting couch and the Louis B. Mayers and that kind of thing.
“But before the studio system, when film was a little bit more of a wild west, there were lots of female directors. Then money got involved, and sexist people with money said, ‘No no no – we’re not gonna wager these big sums on female directors.’ And that was the start of the imbalance and the abuse of power.
“But as far as Trump, there’s a certain level of… (long pause). I mean, that’s just a very toxic masculinity. It’s a very zero sum, idiotic way of walking through the world.”
Have you encountered it in the music industry?
“I haven’t, but I’m deeply in the minority.”
Going back to Masseduction, as well as being an album of the year contender, the record also boasts a striking cover. Showing a woman in a leopardskin leotard, pink leggings and red high heel shoes, the image – and the title – seem to be poking fun at the idea of sex being used to sell everything.
“Yeah, kind of,” considers Clark. “That’s part of it; it definitely straddles the line of being sexy and totally goofy, which is a hard balance to strike. But it’s also, like, a great ass. (Laughs) What do you want from me?! It’s not my ass though.”
Elsewhere, the song ‘Los Ageless’ seems to explore LA’s obsession with eternal youth.
“Well, LA’s a great place and that’s obviously not all of LA. But yeah, it’s a bit of a sad satire on a certain aspect of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, which is the Peter Pan, Never Never Land element. Nobody’s grows old, waves never break, seasons never change – that kind of sentiment.”
Let’s rewind a few years. At the outset of 2014, St. Vincent was a cult performer with a string of acclaimed records to her name, including a fine 2012 collaboration with Talking Heads legend David Byrne, Love This Giant. However, the ensuing 12 months were to prove Annie Clark’s annus mirabilis.
First, in February, she released her stunning, eponymously titled fourth album, which duly cracked the Billboard Top 20 in the States. Next, on April 10, Clark had what will always be one of the most significant evenings of her career; she was one of four women – along with Lorde, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett – handpicked by the surviving members of Nirvana to front the group for their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Among those in the crowd was Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels, who immediately booked St. Vincent to appear on the show.
Collectively, these events propelled Clark into the cultural stratosphere. But first things first. Along with Blur, Nirvana are my favourite ever band, and it was St. Vincent’s performance with the group – she delivered a scalding version of ‘Lithium’ – that first turned me into a fan of hers.
The idea of getting four women to front the band was inspired; it nicely paid tribute to both the subversive spirit of the band and Kurt Cobain’s anti-macho stance.
“It did,” agrees Annie. “You can see Kurt’s manifesto or treatise; if you’re a sexist, racist homophobe, don’t buy our records.”
He was ahead of his time.
“Yeah, I would say the same thing – if you’re alt.right, go buy a Nickelback record. Don’t buy my fucking records. (Pause) I’m sure Nickelback are really nice guys. They are the butt of jokes, but I don’t think I could name you a Nickelback song – I have no personal beef with them. That’s just a name I plucked from the ether; truly, no offence to them. But yeah, it was a big year – that period of time, the late spring of 2014.”
Still, you have also said it was a stressful time too, which led to you suffering from anxiety…
“I mean, fronting the most seminal punk band of all time?” asks Annie rhetorically. “It’s a little stressful. I would also just say that along with the incredible honour it was to be asked, it’s also so deeply sad. Because everybody, myself included, just wishes that Kurt was there doing that. So it’s hard to be gleeful exactly.”
Interviewing Nevermind producer Butch Vig recently and reflecting on Nirvana, I was struck once again by what an extraordinary character Cobain was; so incredibly gifted, but also so thrillingly anarchic. It was a remarkably potent combination.
“Yeah, he wrote the great songs,” says Annie, simply.
Turning to other iconic artists, she is also a massive David Bowie fan. (“I mean, who isn’t?” she notes). Is it true that she listens to one song of his a day?
“At a certain time, yeah,” affirms Annie. “I remember there was a certain period when for whatever reason, I was going back and forth to Berlin a lot. I was doing promo and press and so on, and I was listening to the second half of Low pretty much every day. It was November, Berlin, side two of that album… It was kind of a dark time, frankly. It would have been around 2014, 2015. But I remember flying back from doing promo or something in Berlin, and I hadn’t taken a sleeping pill or anything – I was just asleep.
“I’d fallen asleep and not moved the entire flight, ’cos I was so tired. (Laughs) The stewardesses thought I was dead! But it was Berlin to New York, with Low in my ear on a loop – I might as well have been!”
Around about that time, St. Vincent also had perhaps the most unlikely detour in her career to date – her relationship with Cara Delevingne saw her become a fixture in the tabloids for a brief period. There was more of the same when the singer started hanging out with Kristen Stewart, with Clark finding herself smack bang in the middle of the celebrity industrial complex (some have narrowed the co-ordinates specifically to the showbiz section of the Daily Mail).
For a performer like St. Vincent, who is clearly an artist to her fingertips and lives for the next creative challenge, the effects of finding herself in such a bizarre environment can only be guessed at. Certainly, rock history is filled with characters who chafed at life in the maelstrom of the gossip sheets and scandal rags.
Hearteningly, Clark’s latest album and tour show that her creative powers have not dimmed one iota; in fact, they’re stronger than ever. And with top ten placings for Masseduction in the US and UK, and a top five slot in Ireland – its highest international placing – her commercial appeal continues to grow.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder what she made of the whole experience. So what does appearing in the tabloids do to your psyche?
“I mean, that world is so foreign to me,” considers Clark. “I didn’t fully understand it, which sounds sort of naïve. But then I wrapped my head around what it was – it’s a machinery that purports to keep people entertained, but really makes them feel bad about their own lives. And it aims to treat certain people as commodities, and make those commodities profitable. They could be selling people, or Coca-Cola, or weapons of mass destruction. It’s kind of all the same machinery.
“But, you know, I’m just glad that I didn’t have more pictures of me wolfing down burgers or having a camel-toe.”
And with that, it’s time for us to bid adieu. Before I go, I give Clark a copy of Hot Press’s special tribute issue to David Bowie from last year. Pointing to the outsize black and white suit he’s wearing on the cover – devised by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto – she talks about seeing the costume as part of the David Bowie Is exhibition.
Throughout out interview, St. Vincent has demonstrated an ability to riff compellingly on different subjects in a manner Bowie himself would have been proud of. And excitingly, one gets the feeling that her best work is still yet to come.
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