Three years ago, I found myself on the sidelines of a local baseball game in Marfa, Texas.
Some players arrived wearing cowboy boots, a handful in cowboy hats, and then St. Vincent rose to sing the national anthem. While it sounds like a bizarre dream, it actually happened. “That was so nerve racking,” she says, when I remind her of the occasion over tea and banana bread at the Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale, Sydney. It’s a cherished memory of mine, watching St. Vincent—AKA Annie Clark—strut onto the field in this tiny remote town in Texas and belt out ‘The Star-Spangled Banner‘. It was late 2014, and I realised two things that day. One was how lucky I was to be in the crowd, and the other was that Annie was what you might call a “true original”—the genuine real deal, someone totally authentic to herself. She walked onto the field sporting an 80’s suit jacket with massive shoulder pads engulfing her slender frame, huge hooped earrings, and her dyed gray hair tucked into a silk scarf. “It was very Grey Gardens,” she laughs.
Annie is here for two days of press, to talk about her upcoming album, MASSEDUCTION. She flew to Sydney from Japan after playing Tokyo’s Summer Sonic festival. “I thought it was a lot closer, but nope, it’s not,” she says of her plane ride over. I admit that only minutes before our interview, I’d read the lengthy New Yorker piece just published on her, and needed clarification on a few things. Firstly, she mentions having to move out of her Manhattan apartment and into a hotel during the writing and recording of her new record, to get away from her ‘trinkets’. Annie, a celebrated fundamentalist minimalist, with trinkets? It didn’t make sense. “Oddly, there was just like, an insane amount of art that I stopped being able to have on my walls. One, because I didn’t have that much space on my walls to begin with, and two, because it just was like, you know, self-portraits of people who were in extreme mental distress. So, to have all of them kind of looking at you, in an enclosed space, was just a little much,” she explains. “Also, a fair amount of that Japanese fake food.”
In theory, it’s easy to connect minimalism with a lack of sentimentality. But listening to St. Vincent’s music, minimalism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, and if you read her lyrics, it sounds like she’s sentimental as hell. “I don’t have a very good memory, and it runs in my family. My mom doesn’t have a very good memory, and neither of my sisters do. In some ways I think it serves me, because I’m able to just continue moving through space without feeling bogged down by the weight of my past, or something. But I also feel the same way about making things, like, so much of the joy for me in making things is the making of it, and then when it’s done, it’s for other people. I didn’t go back and listen to my first record until I had to go learn a song that I’d forgotten. I’m just like, ready to move onto stuff. In attachment theory, you’d call it avoidant attachment,” she laughs.
But people are attached to her. She has a solid fan base of diehard followers, who obsess over her music, her wardrobe, and her cultural influences. In the New Yorker article, she recalls the importance of a guy who worked at the local record store where she grew up, who introduced her to new music like Nirvana. Now, it’s as if she has become that same mentor to legions of her fans, both as a musician and also as the host of her wildly successful Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music, Mixtape Delivery Service. “That’s a nice way to think of it, but I have never thought of it that way,” she says.
As she does with every question, she thinks long and hard before she continues. She also wears her heart on her face. Her expressions are dramatic and obvious. Basically, she’d make a terrible liar. And the expression she wears right now is one of genuine fear. “It’s not that I don’t want to [be a mentor], I just can’t conceive of it. It’s easy for me to conceive of things that I can control—making things, where I tour, or what the show is, that kind of stuff. But as far as, and excuse this term, but I just listened to a podcast on the butterfly effect, so I’m gonna use the term butterfly effect even though it’s the name of a really bad 90’s movie—but it’s hard for me to conceive of the butterfly effect of those actions. I almost just don’t, ‘cause I can’t. I don’t have a place to put them. I don’t know how it factors into my self-conception in any sort of constructive way. And it’s very scary to me,” she says, before another pause. “Those are such cute shoes. What are they?” she asks. We both look down at my feet and marvel at the embroidered gold and black boots covering them. Then, just as quickly, she looks up and asks, “Did that make sense, what I was saying?”
The new album, MASSEDUCTION, is to me, her best album yet. It’s experimental yet refined—extravagant without a trace of self-indulgence. There’s the guitar shredding she’s famous for, but this is not a rock album. It’s electronic pop, peppered with reflection, like album highlight ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’, a piano ballad about a now homeless friend hitting her up for money. But other songs, like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Pills’ and ‘Masseduction’ are straight up futuristic dancefloor hits. The stage show is gonna be bonkers. “I’m figuring out what to do with it. I don’t want to go full post-modern choreography this round, but also, I shouldn’t be left to my own devices to just like, feel the rhythm,” she says. Why on earth not? “Cause I can’t dance,” she says. “And I just wouldn’t want to be in a position where I’m inadvertently doing some sort of like, pelvic thrust, and didn’t know it, and then have to find out about it on YouTube, you know?”
With the upcoming release and busy press schedule, you’d think Clark has enough on her plate. Instead, she’s agreed to direct an adaptation of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde’s timeless tale of a man selling his soul for eternal youth. After a high profile romance that began in 2015, Annie found herself somewhat in the thick of celebrity culture—for the first time, she was in magazines because of her private life, not her music—often photographed at fashion events with models and celebrities. Perhaps, subconsciously, it was these experiences that influenced her decision to get involved in a project like Dorian Grey. “Probably! It’s kind of everything you want all in one story, too: transgression, queerness, narcissism, beauty worship, Satanism,” she says.
Though I loathe to admit it, I found myself scouring the credits and thank yous of her new album for recognisable names. But instead, it just left me wondering, how the hell do you decide who makes the cut? Album thank yous are like a Myspace Top 8, but permanent. “Well, I had to amend the ‘thank yous’ because I was dictating them to Megan at my office while I was getting makeup done for a photo shoot, and the first thing out of my mouth for thank yous was New York Pilates.”
If there’s one misconception about St. Vincent, it’s that she takes herself too seriously. In fact, she can’t wait to take the piss out of herself. Sure, she’s smart, talented, and unnervingly articulate, but she also wore a fucking power suit to sing the national anthem to no more than 100 people in Marfa, a few months before taking home a Grammy for her 2014 self-titled album. As personable as she is humble, I don’t doubt that she’d do it again. But with the current political situation in the US, would it mean the same thing to her? “Unfortunately what we’re seeing in America is the culmination of things that were set in place a long time ago, and it’s somewhat of a natural progression of like, total wealth worship, celebrity culture, narcissism and lack of education. Trump is the symptom of a deep imbalance of culture. To sing it again, I’d have to study the words to make sure there isn’t something that like, exults in racism and slavery. There probably is.”
MASSEDUCTION OUT OCTOBER 13 via LOMA VISTA RECORDINGS / CAROLINE AUSTRALIA