St. Vincent: a witness to a digital age

When I arranged to interview St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), her new album was just about to be released. She’s been touring for months, last year taking to the stage with indie icon David Byrne (Talking Heads) to tour the album they’d made together, Love This Giant. She started writing the solo album released this month during her tour with David, so she really hasn’t stopped in a very long time. When I asked her if she’d been doing a lot of interviews, she said “I have done so many”, succinct yet idiosyncratic, which would be good words to describe the whole interview

“At my funeral, I would like someone to make a jello mould of my body and serve it to the guests.” Annie Clark, sporting a white mad-scientist haircut, doesn’t shy away from the ‘quirky’, but as many critics have pointed out, she’s got more than just a few witty turns-of-phrase. Her music is highly personal and unusual, and she cites influences from Sonic Youth and Pavement to Charles Mingus, Yes, and Kanye West. When I ask her about them, she’s reticent – “Well, y’know, influences are one thing, and influences are great, and you have to have listened to so much music in your life to be able to make your own music, but ultimately it’s about having your own voice – it’s not about referencing this, that and the other and checking off some cool boxes or something, it’s about ‘what do you wanna say and how do you say it?’ And is your voice unmistakable, or do you sound like a million other things out there? The goal is to just sound like yourself.” Despite that, Annie’s willing to admit that “everything I hear anywhere somehow makes its way into my work”.

The new album doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there today. “I wanted to make a record that had the feel of human beings but the sound of machines. So everything is a real instrument, it’s just been distorted to the point where it sounds inorganic.” Nevertheless, I point out that the move to a digital sound has been quite popular recently, but Annie doesn’t seem to consider herself part of any wider movements in pop culture right now. It’s true that Annie’s projects seem to make a splash regardless of fashion recently – she and David Byrne worked with almost solely brass instruments on Love This Giant, and yet they still managed to court the critics – the Independent called it a “skewed and funky instant classic”. Annie and I talked about her time with David Byrne. “I’d worked with woodwinds and things before, and strings, but never with a full brass band.” Would she consider working with him again? “Well, we certainly had a wonderful time, and never say never, but I don’t think either of us are people who look back, so I think maybe it’s done.”

One era over, another era beginning – St. Vincent’s new self-titled release has already been lauded by hundreds of critics. It’s a bold and experimental record, and I asked how she went about writing it. “I come from the Nick Cave school of songwriting, where, if it’s time to write a record I just put on a suit and tie and go to work every day and write a record, and treat it like I have a day job… With a song like ‘Prince Johnny’, I wrote the lyrics first. I don’t usually work like that, I just had this fully formed short story. And then there are songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, which grew from a jam I was working on, and then I got bitten by a rattlesnake and had something to actually write about.” I asked Annie about her favourite lyrics on the album. “I like “Remember the time we went and snorted that piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted and we had such a laugh of it?” and that’s because ‘snorted’ and ‘extorted’ are such ugly words. They’re ugly words in a pretty song. It’s just a challenge. How do you put the word ‘snorted’ in a song? How does that not sound just like a glaring mistake?”

St. Vincent seems like a more personal record than her others, partly because she looks particularly stately and individual on the cover art and partly because the lyrics give the album a confessional atmosphere. “Well, every record I’ve made has been in some cases really about my life, so I wouldn’t call this more confessional than others, but I would say that this is a more extroverted record than other records I’ve made.” Does she think that this approach to songwriting is a symptom of the culture she highlights on ‘Digital Witness’? “I think that we are obsessed with documenting our lives, and sometimes at the expense of actually experiencing our lives. But I’m also a fish swimming in the sea, and I have a Twitter account and I have Instagram and everything. My main rule for myself is just not do anything on social media that makes me feel empty inside. Like taking a selfie.”

Being a “fish swimming in the sea” in this internet age can be really beneficial for artist and fans, and Annie recognises that. “To me it’s all about the fans, and my fans are awesome, and I meet people after the shows, and everybody’s super-sweet, and that’s my favourite part of it. That’s the whole point of having all the social media stuff, it’s not just being a voice of propaganda for your interests, but to actually get that feedback, to be able to reach out.” Since Annie’s rise to prominence, she’s collected a fanbase which is increasingly diverse. “I feel lucky that it seems somewhat diverse. Y’know, it’s diverse in age, gender and race, and all that. That makes me very happy. I’m glad I’m making music that appeals to more than one kind of person.”