St. Vincent: "I have this sound in my head. How do I get it here in my fingers?"

Talking Bob Dylan, the nature of pop music and that new album and gray hair with the always brilliant Annie Clark

Published February 16, 2014 7:30PM (EST)

 St. Vincent
St. Vincent

I have conducted some rather terrifying interviews in my day, among them artists as commanding (and intimidating) as Neil Young and David Bowie. I have sat in rooms full of movie stars. I have met politicians and religious leaders. I once had dinner with Don DeLillo. Why was I so uncomfortable around Annie Clark, better known by her musical moniker, St. Vincent?

She’s delightful, easy to talk to, unpretentious, doesn’t stand on ceremony. I think it was something about the great variety of her output, the odyssey of her journey, the poise, the artistic confidence, the apparently unconflicted purity of her intent. I often feel these days like a mid-career artist and critic, with all that that implies — a sweaty sheen of desperation adheres to my practice, and all that I was certain about in my 30s now seems easily reconsidered in the most unsettling ways. I know more about the past than I know about the present. Faced with an artist so startlingly of the moment, so at ease in the present, with conviction about where we are now, it is hard not to feel fossilized.

And then there is her new record, "St. Vincent," without a doubt her best, a gesamtkunstwerk, full of great songwriting, full of — subtle, unpredictable lyrics; great, strange bursts of guitar noise that stop certain songs in their tracks; winsome thoughtful moods; and, no matter what she says, real humor, of a sly, witty, world-weary kind. It’s a very accomplished record, an early candidate for one of the year’s best.

What could I bring to this conversation? Anything at all? What I have attempted, in the absence of confidence, is to goad the artist into considering the meaning of her most recent moves, her manipulations of persona, and to see in them, if possible, the context of popular music made by women going back 40 or 50 years, in which, just maybe, it appears that Annie Clark might be a sort of a shiny and admirable feminist icon for these degraded times. Successful? You be the judge.

I wanted to start by talking about your recent piece for The Talk House (on Arcade Fire’s "Reflektor"), which generated a lot of chatter. I am among the many who were excited and delighted to find that you had a writing side. How did that piece come about? Is there more prose secreted away somewhere in your apartment?

It's funny because in this day and age, it's almost like anybody can be a musician. Or anybody can be a writer. So I almost felt a little guilty stepping into writing knowing that there are actual writers like yourself who have a craft and make a living at doing it. It almost felt like kind of a sweet, sweet justice when I think about all the dabbling musicianship that happens. Oh, jeez, I don't want to contribute to a culture of mediocrity, but it is fun to scribble a piece every once and a while.

So it is more than just a one-off publication.

Before I spent 18 hours a day on music, I wrote short stories and I did all that. And I obviously like to write.

What I found delightful about the review is that your writing voice is great.  That's all that I require for anybody's writing. Did you read Lou Reed’s review of Kanye?

I did.

I mean, that's an astute and thoroughly entertaining piece.  He was a great writer, I think.  Frequently, on The Talk House, there are musicians who I think are really great writers. Dean Wareham, for example, is a totally great writer.

I haven't read him on there, but I read his book.

His book is really great. I'm all for people writing outside of the Academy, because that way we get new voices and new ideas about form.  So I loved your piece because I thought it was really warm, but also extremely adroit. Kind of pitch perfect in that way.

Well, thank you!  It's one of those things that did not take a whole lot of premeditation. I just wrote my stream-of-consciousness thoughts as I was listening through. It happened it got to be meta, because obviously the record deals with like fractured in the age of the Internet, and I was illustrating that because I was Google searching the whole time, you know. Because that's how we listen to music these days.  It's weird. It's weird.

Well, the reason I wanted to start with The Talk House piece is because I wanted to ask if writing prose is related to the lyric writing for you. Are the activities kin to one another at all?

I think I write both prose and lyrics in just the way I think. I mean, the truth is I haven't had time in a lot of years, nor made time, to write something outside of the context of music. But thinking about this in terms of lyrics -- there are a lot of ways to think about lyrics. I used to be more on the prose side of it. For example, I wrote this down and it means something to me in this written form and I'll just sing it, because obviously if it looks good on paper it is going to sound good. But in the new realm of artistry that I’m exploring now, the trick is not for some words just to mean something but for the words to sound good too. So that's another whole dimension. It has to feel good coming out my mouth. That's a weird challenge, because it also has to say what I want it to say. It's like a Rubik’s Cube.

If I were to ask you to try and take me through a lyric, would you be able to do it?


So why don't we just use “Birth In Reverse,” because it's the song from the album on people’s minds today. How was it generated? Lyrics before the melody? Or the other way around? Melody first or lyrics first?

I wrote it maybe 48 hours after I got back from a year and a half of touring. So I did my solo record "Strange Mercy" and that led literally right into the production rehearsals and tour with David Byrne. I flew from Japan, finished the Strange Mercy tour, got in at midnight, started production rehearsals the next day. Whatever, I'm not complaining. It was very non-stop is what I'm trying to say. And I wrote “Birth In Reverse” in my apartment in New York. Music first, but I had mouthed  -- certain syllables and sounds were suggesting themselves when I was singing gibberish to the melody. And then I was reading Lorrie Moore's "Birds of America" --

A work of great genius.

I loved it, and she used this phrase “birth in reverse” to described the way a room opened up. And so I wrote it down.  I didn't have designs on it but I just, you know, kept it there tucked in my back pocket, and then I went back to revisit that song, that music, and I started singing "It's like a birth in reverse all along." That's how the chorus got started.

Chorus before the verses?

Yeah the chorus, that chorus came.

So are the verses retrofitted to fit the chorus?

Every song is very different in terms of the process. A song like “Prince Johnny,” that was basically a short story, and then I had to go back and go, "If I were to sing this and put a melody to it what would that sound like?" And I know that it's more wordy and more specific and visual than some other songs, so I knew that music had to be kind of simple. I didn't want to overwhelm. Like here's this story, relate to it or don't. I have found that sounds, sounds have meaning, and if you're singing gibberish over something and there's some kind of emotional reaction to it then you kind of have to honor that and figure out what words could possibly support that original emotional kernel.

In the case of “Birth In Reverse,” I have struggled in the last few days thinking about the chorus, trying to figure out if it means more than it manifestly appears to mean.

What does it appear to mean?

A death.

Yeah . . .

Does it mean other than that? Because then I decided this interpretation was too simple and I was trying to think if a birth in reverse could be like some apposite Buddhist spiritual journey, or...

I wrote the chorus, and I took it in to the studio and I actually even, I sang it — I laid down the whole track — with the sense that it was right, it was right for the song. Without the sense that I had every nook and cranny of this figured out. And John Congleton, my producer, was like, "Wow this is -- so a birth in reverse is death right?" And I said, "Oh my god!  You're right." For some reason -- that's exactly what death is -- that never occurred to me.

So let's return to words as sounds . . .

Yeah, there was something in there, in the phrase “birth in reverse.” I don't know if' it's internal rhyme, what do you call that?

Internal rhyme, or I guess you could say assonance.

Assonance, yeah.

I've been thinking a lot about two-beat choruses because of “Hot Pants” by James Brown. In a way choruses can be just a couple of syllables and that's all you need. And “birth in reverse” is two stressed beats, because the “in” and the “re” are thrown away, unstressed syllables. It’s a variation on a pulsed James Brown-style chorus.


And of course all of those choruses are about how they sound. “Hot Pants” is only incidentally about “Hot Pants.” It’s more about hitting the “hot” on the one.

And how the H and the T sound, right in between those two beats. It's great.

Meanwhile, the music on that song is incredible, fascinating. Many of the songs on the album, “Birth In Reverse” being an example, don't have conventional verse/chorus orientation. They're modular — in the Brian Wilson sense, or the "Odelay" sense — where the song can be interrupted at any moment by a fuzzed-out beautiful guitar figure, or a bass solo. Is that something that evolves in the studio or do you actually sit at home with a guitar and construct in that way?

I really spent a lot of time demo-ing the songs just by myself. Put a drum loop down. And obviously, “Birth in Reverse” sounds much better now that it has been properly recorded by a good engineer. But in terms of the guitar parts and contents of that song, even the tempo, I could play you the demo and you'd go That's the same thing. One is recorded by a professional, but otherwise . . . On "Strange Mercy," for example, I was writing these choruses that were phrases that would just get repeated. One sentence that would just get repeated. Almost mantra-esque. But on this album I wanted it to open it up and have longer choruses. Like the chorus for “Digital Witness.” I'm trying to think of some of the other songs on the record.

Doesn't “Huey Newton” also have a weird eruption thing at the end?

Yeah, "Huey Newton" does.

Am I wrong to think that there’s a tendency of a modular approach to song construction?

No. I think that I sometimes feel like a stone soup approach to songwriting. Like there's this one good idea, and this one good motif, well how can we invert that and repurpose it and use it again later. Because in my mind that makes the whole thing have almost a stitching, like a good stitch of continuity. I'm thinking about shape and layer.

But it's different from a pop song structure . . .

I think a lot of these songs are pop songs.

Do you?

I mean, I do. [Laughs]

I mean, I think they're very accessible, but I don't think they're conventional pop songs. Maybe some of the ballad-y ones like “I Prefer Your Love,” which I really admire. But even there, to me, what's doing the string sound? Some kind of synth that's doing the string sound is so artful and hilarious in a way.

I think it's a Juno.

It’s violating this perfect soul ballad notion by being aware of the perfect soul ballad structure.

Whenever you go toward something that could be like a genre study you just have to put on your white gloves and and yank it away from anything like parody. Believe it or not, I'm interested in music that has humor, maybe not so far as, like, Frank Zappa where you as an audience member are being laughed at or mocked, but music that has humor but not to the extent that it becomes ironic or sarcastic, when somebody's not willing to step up and own their actual emotional content and their truth, whatever the truth is in that song. So it's a delicate balance. Referencing something like a soul song and knowing that I'm not a soul singer, I'm not going to embellish this melody any more than I possibly  can -- could just be a tiny flavor crystal -- because I don't want this to come across as funky white girl Christina Aguilera-land. Not against it, but that lends itself to the kind of parody of music. I want to honor music and not abuse it in any way.

I agree except that the chorus (“I prefer your love to Jesus”) of the song in question is using a soul form and precisely reversing the normal thematic material of soul music in the chorus. The chorus is about repelling the whole gospel idea. Am I wrong about that? You’re substituting earthly human love for godly love? That's the substance of the song. So it's sort of in the anti-gospel in the lyrics.

That's a way to look at it. I wrote that song for my mom who who had a brush with dying last year. She didn't, thank god, but I wrote it for her. I guess I was thinking about it in a very sincere way.

For me what makes the song stick is its emotional complexity. In some way a really good song has to have a kernel of inaccessibility, so that I have to work at it. Or else I use it up too quickly. For example, “Visions of Johanna” is a beautiful song because you can't use it up.

Although it has one too many verses.

Not an infrequent Bob Dylan problem! Are you a fan of "On the Beach" by Neil Young?

What's on that record?

“Ambulance Blues,” “For the Turnstiles,” “Motion Pictures.” You have a great Neil Young album to look forward to. It's the densest, densest Neil Young album. And it's lyrically impenetrable, at least when compared to his later output, and thus you have to work with the lyrics. Your line, "I prefer your love to Jesus," needs to be wrestled with in a similar way. It’s ambiguous.

Yeah, yeah. I mean I could have just said, "I love you."

"I love you, Mom."

"I love you, Mom." But that doesn't.

Though that’s how Mavis Staples would do it. (Although it might be “Pops,” in that case.)

I think the public perception is that you're one of the most interesting guitar players around.


I observe that it's infrequently the case that a woman gets to be one of the most interesting guitar players around. Do you feel a sense of responsibility in that sense? Or are you just picking up the guitar and whatever happens, happens Do you feel like you're pushing the envelope with the instrument?

My instinct used to be to say, "Oh, well, I intended this, and I meant to do that and all of this was pre-planned." But I'm realizing now that — to be honest — music is a mystery to me. My own instincts, though I very much trust them now, are mysterious in their origin and ultimately I'm only ever trying to get at the sound that is here. And I’m going to try to bridge that gap between the theoretical and the actual. In the same way that I think that I really make pop music, I don't think of it as pushing the guitar lexicon. I'm thinking, "How do I make something that's interesting to my ears." And I have some restless ears, and I now have a fractured attention span because I'm like living in the modern world. I have a more fractured attention span than ever, so I'm, like, how do I make this sound interesting to myself. I have to trust that if this sounds cool to me, it might sound cool to somebody else.

So no need for you to represent as a great guitar player.

Don’t mistake what I'm saying. It absolutely is an impulse, but I'm not thinking of it in terms of, "I'm a pioneer." I have this sound in my head. How do I get it here in my fingers? Then there's the flip side of that, which is that the same way that the music is more mysterious to me than ever there are things that come out my unconscious mind and my fingers that I couldn't have imagined. They just exist and they're there. And I go, "Oh that was cool!" And so there's always that -- it's nice to have a certain level of skill, but not so much that you can always presuppose the outcome. When I put my fingers down on the guitar I don't know what it's going to sound like and I'm somehow willfully ignorant in those microseconds.

What about timbre? You find extremely interesting sounds for your guitar.

I'm using pedals. Again, it kind of comes naturally. You know sometimes it seems like a guitar sound should just be really rubbery. You know? There shouldn't be sharp edges on it? So I work with that, and I've worked with John on the records and we've talked about that guitar tone and, you know, there’s “Rattlesnake” where there's a guitar part that comes in --

Love that guitar part!

I was listening to Selda who is this Turkish artist from the '70s. In Turkey they use an instrument called the saz (I'm telling you what I'm sure you already know, so just humor me). In that case you play the melodies on one string. So this is probably getting too much in the technical nerd world, but I knew that the guitar part on “Rattlesnake” had to sound rubbery so I had to find out how to play it all on one string, so it felt like it was a little ahead of the beat, so it sounds more anxious than is comfortable. Again, these are things that I realize after the fact. They just happen.

So the jacket for this new album is incredibly striking. And partly it’s striking because of the new hair and the new look. There’s sort of a David Bowie-ish style reinvention moment happening here, it seems. How did that come about? And I assume that's going to reflect this production for the tour that you're doing. Can you explain what's driving the change?

I just wanted to play with my visual identity more than I had before, because when I look at the artists who I think are really fascinating, and often there's been a different archetype per record. Like Bowie or someone like Grace Jones who is very like classically beautiful but makes herself look like a freak. What an awesome subversion. And how powerful that can be, and so, very much on a whim, I dyed my hair blond. I intended for it to be blond, but then it was orange, and then it was yellow and it was a lot of really bad colors, but I finally got it to this Daphne Guinness grey.

And does this relate to the production aspect of what you're doing with the shows?

For the cover, I was inspired by the Memphis design movement. I just love how the most simple shapes can be  turned on their ear slightly and recontextualized. And I was thinking kind of analogous to what I'm trying to do musically. I worked with this guy Willo Perron on the conceiving on the cover and he helped me execute the idea. An archetype of, like, a near-future cult leader started to emerge. I just kept thinking this phrase, "The power's in the pose." I knew I wanted to self-title the record, and I thought, "Okay, it should appear bold." So what does bold mean? And so we built this crazy Memphis chair and we took a lot of photos in it. And it was interesting to look at the little micro-movements and how they translated to powerful or not powerful. I had my legs to the side in the throne and it looked like, a demented Hollywood starlet from the '40s like, golden age of Hollywood, I guess. And then various micro-movements translated so much energetically. Eventually, we ended on what just looked the most powerful and intentional. There was nothing unconsidered about this photograph. There was nothing sloppy or just a blown out. It was clean and symmetrical and very, very considered. And I'm taking that kind of aesthetic into the live show with the stage design and the set design. I'm boring you.

No, you're not boring me at all!  I find it very interesting.

Really? I'm boring myself.

Actually, I know well myself this problem of being bored during the interviews, of boring oneself. (I have lived that problem.) Maybe the issue here is the interviewer. I will try to ask a few better questions. For example, have you thought about the semiotics of dying your hair grey?

I think I was intending on blue. Blue faded into grey. I was really just trying to get the yellow out.

It has a certain kind of middle-aged gravitas.

[Laughs] Susan Sontag . . . Maybe there's something subconscious going on there.

Because we were talking about how the pose on the jacket conveys power. Which I think it does. But maybe the grey hair in combination with this pose of power -- for a lack of a better way of terming it -- is conveying a certain idea about what the work is doing and who you are as an artist.  Great seriousness of intent, and ambition. In a feminist context, that’s what I mean.

That's a really awesome read on it. I hadn't thought about it specifically in those terms altogether. Certainly I'm incredibly ambitious, in terms of the art.  

Not the units.

Not the units. I mean to worry about units in this day and age that would be just shocking. It’s a funny thing because I'm 31; I'm not 61. In pop music we are used to putting people out to pasture by the time they're like 35 or whatever. But I was listening to the new Beyoncé record and she basically made a sexy record about being married and having a baby. She didn't come out in like pigtails with a lollypop talking about going to the club. There's a song on there called “Grown Woman.” In some ways, I live somewhat in a state of perpetual adolescence because I'm on the road all the time. I have no domestic skills, and I don't mean that in a sexist way -- I just mean that like, I feel like I live in the ether half of the time. Kids and marriage and having a house, whatever, I don't have any of those things. That hasn't entered my thought process. The way people usually track time, milestones. My milestones are different. So I don't feel old, I guess is what I'm saying, but . . . This is the tricky question . . .

If you don’t mind my saying so, for the purposes of the interview, to me it looks like this: Here you are, an incredibly talented, strikingly beautiful young woman, a force of musical nature, at the peak of her skills, making, I think, a very interesting, artistically ambitious album and dying her hair grey for the cover of it. I think it’s a feminist statement. And, in this regard, the last question for the interview is: What do you think about the fortieth  anniversary of "Court and Spark"?

"Court and Spark" is a great record. But no!

You don't want to be an artist in that way?

I do want to be an artist who has a long career and continues to surprise and continues to do things that are interesting to me and stay vital, but I don't -- I think you might be reading too much into the grey hair. I'll be honest, it's sort of a lack of vanity. My hair was so many terrible colors before it settled in here. So I'm like how about no pigment because every other thing I tried is wrong.

Well you could have gone with brown.

Yeah I could have. I know, but I was bored of that. I wanted to change it up. But I do love "Court and Spark." That has “Free Man in Paris"?

And “Raised on Robbery.” And it has "Help Me."

No no! “Help Me,” is the pop song on that one.

I used to think "Blue" was the masterpiece, but lately I've thought that "Court and Spark" is the masterpiece.

I think "Hejira." It's a very deep record. I really haven't listened to her in a little while. But I should go listen. And I don't know about the grey. I'm going to think about that, because to be honest with you I didn't really occur to me.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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