St. Vincent Dives Headfirst Into the Darkness

Equipo
By Equipo
17 Min Read

On a recent Tuesday night in a dressing room of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, Annie Clark, the 41-year-old musician who records as St. Vincent, thumbed through a shelf of secondhand records and sipped a glass of pink champagne. Clark, invited to D.J. the venue’s grand reopening party, was the room’s first inhabitant since a major renovation restored the former movie palace; a pristine, new-car smell lingered.

Holding court among a few members of her team and her 23-year-old sister, Clark was an attentive host in this antiseptic space, ready with a witty remark (the carefully curated LPs were probably “someone’s deceased grandma’s record collection”) or a topped-off beverage. She wore a cream-colored silk blouse, black kitten-heeled shoes and a gauzy black bow tied artfully around her neck.

Even in a moment of relative repose, Clark possessed a feline hyper-awareness of her surroundings. Dave Grohl, who plays drums on two tracks off St. Vincent’s blistering new album “All Born Screaming,” later told me in a phone interview, “When you’re talking to her and you’re looking in those eyes, you can only wonder what reels are whirring in her brain, every second.” He added, amused, “I’ve never seen her with her eyelids half closed.”

Clark is a gifted and nimble guitarist with a dexterously spiky playing style that contrasts with the moony smoothness of her voice. She is also known for the absolute commitment of her live performances. “What she does is so transformative,” said the musician Cate Le Bon, Clark’s close friend of over a decade, in a video interview. “When I see her play, it freaks me out sometimes. I can be even helping her get ready for a show, and it’s like I know nothing of the woman who’s onstage.”

Seven albums and 17 years into an acclaimed solo career, Clark has eked out a singular space in music, occasionally intersecting with the mainstream but for the most part staying uncompromisingly countercultural. She has collaborated with both David Byrne and Dua Lipa; the riot grrrl pioneers Sleater-Kinney and the post-post-riot-grrrl pop star Olivia Rodrigo. She was one of four female musicians asked to front Nirvana for a night in 2014 when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “She’s obviously outrageously talented,” Grohl said. “For her to play a Nirvana song was, maybe, a lot less complicated than her own music.”

I first met up with Clark in March, when we drank iced coffee beneath the shady pergola outside her manager’s Hollywood office. She carried a black Loewe handbag and wore a white T-shirt bearing the name of the Swedish punk band Viagra Boys. Clark has, in the past, embodied various characters and donned costumes — a gray-haired cult leader on the cover of her 2014 self-titled album; a louche ’70s glamour girl on her 2021 release “Daddy’s Home” — but these days she’s more or less dressing as herself.

“I’ve certainly played with persona, because I’m queer,” Clark said from behind large sunglasses. “That’s how I play and make sense of my life. All of that just seems absolutely natural to me, to play with persona and identity and to put it in the work.”

But adopting an over-the-top persona, she said, is not something she finds particularly compelling right now. “I’m more interested in that which is raw and essential,” she said. “You’re alive or you’re dead. And if you’re alive, you’d better live it, because it’s short.”

In some sense, Clark is coming off the greatest commercial success of her career, and one that is decidedly more sunshiny than the work she’s known for: During a session with the ubiquitous producer Jack Antonoff, who collaborated on her two previous albums, Clark helped write “Cruel Summer,” the sugar-rush pop song that Taylor Swift released on her 2019 album “Lover.”

“It was something Jack and I worked on and made its way to Taylor and made it back, as those things go,” Clark said. Though it was not initially released as a single, Swift’s formidable fan base has, in the past year, willed it into becoming the unofficial anthem of her Eras Tour and a No. 1 hit four years after its initial release. Clark attended a show in Los Angeles last year and found it surreal to witness 90,000 people singing along. “I’ve never seen anything like it, much less been a part of anything like it,” she said.

And yet, she has no interest in replicating that formula in her own music. In fact, “All Born Screaming,” due April 26, contains some of the heaviest, darkest and weirdest St. Vincent music to date. “That’s what I want from music right now, personally,” Clark said, safe in the shade of the California sun. “I would like a pummeling. I want something to feel dangerous.”

CLARK HAS A reputation for being guarded with journalists, in part because she does not like talking about her personal life. Unsurprisingly, she did not want to specify why themes of grief and loss permeate her new album, because she does not think it would make much difference to the listener. In one of our later conversations, she said that she believed a performer’s duty is simply “to shock and console” ad infinitum. Explaining oneself is superfluous to that job description.

“Generally everyone is misunderstood, and you realize it’s not your job to make people understand you,” Le Bon said. “It’s your job to work and align yourself with your own integrity. I think that’s even harder to harness when you’re an artist as big as Annie. But she does.”

“She’s almost certainly wildly misunderstood by people,” she added, “but there’s a perverse joy in that.”

Le Bon, who is from Wales, met Clark when she was opening for a St. Vincent tour in 2011. She said that at first she found it difficult to get to know Clark: “She was very mysterious, doing yoga a lot of the time,” Le Bon said. Eventually, however, Le Bon found a way into a “really rewarding” friendship. “She’s so honest without agenda, and that’s a rare thing in the world we both exist in,” Le Bon said. “She asks the tough questions, she gives you the real answers.”

Clark was born in Tulsa, Okla., and raised mostly in the Dallas suburbs. She picked up the guitar at 12 and showed a precocious talent; in her early teens, she sat in with her music teacher’s band and chose a song with a high level of difficulty, Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” Her aunt and uncle play as the jazz duo Tuck and Patti, and they brought her on tour one summer as a roadie to show her the realities of touring life. She loved it. “Some of my fondest memories of touring are from those really early days,” she said.

Le Bon said she sees a stark demarcation between the somewhat severe and imperious musical figure “St. Vincent,” and, as she put it, “Annie Clark from Dallas.” Annie Clark from Dallas slowly emerged, in our conversations, as a funny, genial and lightly self-deprecating person who enjoys modern comedy (she quoted “30 Rock” from memory and referenced both “Veep” and “Waiting for Guffman”), is close with her many siblings, and on at least one occasion has drunk too much pink champagne at a party celebrating the reopening of an old Brooklyn theater to make it to Pilates the next morning.

But I witnessed something switch over in her when we met one afternoon at Electric Lady Studios in the West Village, where Clark worked on parts of her last several albums. “This is the room where I recorded the vocals for ‘Violent Times,’ ‘Broken Man’ and ‘Sweetest Fruit,’” she said, referring to songs on the new album. She jumped up from a couch to demonstrate how she’d sung into a particular microphone. Then she got distracted by the studio’s wall of consoles and patch bays.

“Where is this 67 patched at the moment?” she asked herself with sudden ease, like an expat shifting into her native tongue. “Oh yeah, through the 1073. But where’s the 1176?”

“All Born Screaming” began with a sonic puzzle: “How do I render the sound inside my head?” After “hours and hours and hours basically making postindustrial dance music in my studio by myself,” Clark said she realized that the sound in her head was something she would not be able to explain to anyone else. So, although she has been a very involved co-producer on each of her other albums, she decided “All Born Screaming” was something she would have to produce herself.

She approached the task with characteristic zeal. She asked her friend and collaborator Cian Riordan to give her engineering lessons, and he found her an impressively apt pupil. “She would show up, there would be coffee, she’d have a notepad ready,” Riordan said in a phone interview. “She’s extremely focused. There was so much intention with everything.”

She mastered compression, mic shootouts, signal flow. To his dismay, Riordan eventually found Clark starting down a path that he had seen trip up many musicians in the digital age: analog synthesizers.

“Any time someone brings modular synths into the studio, that’s usually my cue to be like, ‘I’m going to go somewhere else, because this is going to be a giant waste of time,’” Riordan said. “But with her, it was really incredible to watch. She would buy all these esoteric things that I didn’t even know about, and I’d come back and they were all synced up and she’d be making music on them. It was fun to see her take it so far.”

Clark said those synths allowed her to build a new sonic world. “You’re actually harnessing electricity,” she explained. Her enthusiasm was palpable; her speech kicked up its tempo. “It’s going through unique circuitry, and you are at the helm, so you’re like a god of lightning.”

CLARK HAS LONG been someone who gets a thrill out of testing her limits and rising to challenges, but around the time of her brightly barbed 2017 album “Masseduction” she was beginning to hit a wall. “It would be like, ‘Sure you can go from Memphis to Beijing to Champaign, Ill., in a weekend,” she said. “Sure you can. See if you can pull this off.” But suddenly, after years of “going, going, going,” she noted, “my body just kind of shut down. My stomach — everything about my stomach hurt.” She stopped drinking and went into what she calls “nun mode,” throwing herself headfirst into studio work.

It wasn’t until the pandemic, though, that she was truly forced to slow down and stay put. She got very good at D.I.Y. projects and installed a lot of light fixtures. She also finished building her home studio and worked on a record that had been gestating for a while. During the pandemic, “Some artists went very interior and quiet, understandably,” she said. “Then, you know,” she laughed. “Some people put on wigs.”

She was referring to “Daddy’s Home,” the heavily stylized ’70s-inspired album she made in response to her father’s release from prison, after he served eight years for conspiracy, fraud and money laundering. “Daddy’s Home” won a Grammy for best alternative album and featured some imaginative experiments, but it was a polarizing release that generated some criticism online.

Clark is aware of this and thinks the album was in part a casualty of bad timing. “The story sort of became, not that I made a record about a difficult familial time, but that, like, ‘OK, good, we have someone to blame for the prison-industrial complex,’” she said. “It’s like, oh wait — that’s not quite what I was going for. But those were the times. Everyone’s lives upturned and everyone was increasingly online and there was a lot of fervor in general.”

For “All Born Screaming,” Clark went back to basics and drew inspiration from “that sort of rock that is the first music that felt like it was mine, and not music from another generation.” She was talking about Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos and, yes, even that band she helped induct into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While working on the bracing head banger “Flea,” she realized she needed some enormously forceful percussion. The only person she could imagine playing on it was Grohl. So she wrote to him saying as much, and a few days later he was in her home studio, laying down drum tracks for that and the back half of “Broken Man.”

“He’s a great drummer because he’s a great songwriter, right?” Clark said. “He adds so much power and electricity and vibrance, but he’s always supporting the song. He takes a song from a nine to, like, a hundred.”

“All Born Screaming” is sequenced like a journey from darkness into light; its brooding first track is titled, appropriately, “Hell Is Near.” The title-track finale ends up somewhere more comfortably earthbound, but while she was making the song, it was torturing Clark, who just “couldn’t crack the feel of it.” She called Le Bon and played her what she had. Le Bon told her, “Give me a beer, a bass and two hours.”

It worked. The song is bouncy and delightfully off-kilter, strange in St. Vincent’s inimitable, specific way. Clark said the song sprung from the realization that, as she put it, “Joy and suffering are equal, necessary parts of the whole thing. And the only reason to live is for love and the people we love and that’s kind of it.”

“It’s not easy,» she added. “But it’s simple.”

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