St Vincent: 'Without music, I'd be dead'

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

Published
image copyrightZackery Michael
image captionSt Vincent: "I don't think the artist's autobiography ought to be relevant"

At some point during the making of her latest album, St Vincent came up with a tune so tuneful that she couldn't get it out of her head.

"For about 12 hours I thought, 'I've just written the best melody there ever was,'" says the musician, whose real name is Annie Clark.

"I kept singing it and I was like, 'It's as if this song already existed, and it came to me like manna from heaven.'"

You've probably guessed already where this story is going... and you're right. Within hours, Clark realised why the melody seemed so familiar. It was, in fact, the 1980s pop smash 9 To 5 (Morning Train).

"I was like, 'Oh no it's Sheena Easton!'" she laughs.

Weirdly, however, the reference worked as an ironic counterpoint to Clark's lyrics. Easton's original is a dated fantasy of the "angel-wife" who waits all day at home for her husband to return from work. Clark's song, My Baby Wants A Baby, pulls in the opposite direction, listing all the ways she'll fail as a partner and a parent.

"I just want to play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves / Only get dressed up when I get paid."

"So actually, [9 To 5's melody] really worked for the song. I feel like it was kismet."

In the past, Clark might have scrapped a song after realising its debt to another writer.

By her own admission, her first five albums as St Vincent were "constructivist" pieces of art - every note and every word intentionally placed with meticulous precision.

By the time of her last record, Masseduction, the music was so tightly coiled it seemed ready to pounce. Written after her break-up from British model Cara Delevingne - a relationship which attracted intrusive tabloid attention - it was by turns devastating, manic, heartbroken and brittle.

While making the album, Clark posted a photo from the studio, where she'd pinned up the phrase: "dead meat". In her videos, she was squeezed into constrictive latex catsuits and disfigured by plastic surgeons. It was almost as though she was trying to erase herself from existence.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionClark won the best rock song Grammy for the title track to Masseduction

At the time, she said the album was about exploring power and who wields it - emotionally, sexually and financially. More recently, she described the music as "a lifeboat for me to get out of a bananas emotional space".

Her new record couldn't be more different. The sharp angles and jagged lines of Masseduction have become sinuous and malleable. Backed by humming Wurlitzer organs and loping, elastic bass lines, Clark sounds relaxed, loose, even soulful.

"This record is very carefully written and composed - but as far as playing goes, we did the dreaded 'J' word. We jammed and it was really fun," she says.

The result is a record with a unique "colour palette" compared to its predecessors.

"It's more like, 'Hey, come sit down in this beaten leather armchair and let's have a tequila and chat.' It's just a completely different kind of underpinning logic."

Prison songs

The album is called Daddy's Home, a reference to the decade her father spent in prison for his involvement in a stock manipulation scheme that defrauded 17,000 investors out of $43m.

It's a subject she's never discussed publicly, and only made cryptic reference to in her music (2011's Strange Mercy contains a lyric about a "father in exile" who can only "wave through double pane" glass).

Her reluctance was mostly about protecting her younger siblings - she has eight in total - but now, two years after her father's early release from prison, she feels ready to share, to a certain extent, her side of the story.

image copyrightLoma Vista
image captionThe star has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney and David Byrne to Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa

The title track is set in a prison visitation room, where she's asked to sign autographs and contrasts her "fine Italian shoes" with her father's "government-green suit".

"Sometimes you really have to use your imagination for the tiny details in order to tell a story - but this one was right there," she says, confirming that she did, in fact, sign autographs for prison guards on till receipts and scraps of paper.

The song is shot through with humour, but Clark didn't emerge from the experience unscathed.

"Yeah, you did some time/ Well, I did some time too," she sings, hinting at the emotional impact of having a loved one incarcerated.

When her father was eventually released in 2019, "it was a real, palpable sense of relief", she says.

"You don't realise how permanently constricted your chest is. How there's a ceiling on any kind of joy. For a lot of years."

She carefully emphasises that the song wasn't written to elicit sympathy or make a broader political point.

"I don't think the artist's intention or autobiography actually, frankly, ought to be relevant," she says, politely but firmly shutting down any further questions.

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Her father's influence is felt elsewhere on the record, however, through the music he introduced her to as a child in Dallas, Texas.

The warm, analogue sounds of Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd and Sly Stone which permeate the music are "some of my earliest memories", says Clark.

"I realised I was obsessed with music when I was really young. It did something to me - and for me - that nothing else in the world did. I knew I wanted to be in it, a part of it, by the time I was nine or 10."

"It's funny now, when I look at other 10-year-olds, I think, 'Oh wow, they might know exactly what they want.' Isn't that wild?

"In one way, it makes perfect sense to me in my own narrative, and then I see it from the outside, how young a 10-year-old is, I'm like, 'Whoa.'"

'Everyone is flawed'

The first music Clark claimed as her own was Nirvana's Nevermind, which inspired her to pick up a guitar, "although I probably had some kind of preternatural draw to it anyway, genetically".

As a teenager, she got her formal education on the road, touring with her uncle's jazz band. She later studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and played with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens before striking out on her own with 2007's Marry Me.

A virtuoso guitarist and multi-instrumental songwriting force, she's since written for Taylor Swift, remixed Paul McCartney, fronted Nirvana at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and even directed a horror movie, 2017's The Birthday Party.

Her music has always dealt in duality. In the characters she creates, good and bad qualities exist side-by-side. And Daddy's Home is no exception, populated by party girls who get "red wine-lipped a little early" or the high-heeled woman who's thrown out of a playground by disapproving mothers.

But Clark never criticises or admonishes her heroines. "I'm not really interested in moralising about anything," she explains. "That's maybe a little out of step with the times but, hell, everyone is a flawed person doing their best to get by.

"No matter what your struggles and circumstances, people try to love, try to be loved, succeed, fail. All those human paradoxes is where I'm at."

image copyrightZakery Michael
image caption"I'm just trying to write human stories without judgement"

Another major inspiration was Candy Darling, the New York City socialite, actress and transgender icon, who inspired Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side and became a muse for Andy Warhol.

The album's last song is dedicated to the "Queen of South Queens", who died tragically young, aged 29, while Clark is wearing a cropped blonde Candy Darling wig in the artwork.

"I found out a friend of mine was at her deathbed and I thought, what a perfect Manhattan story," says Clark of her fascination with the star.

"She's from Queens, and she travels to Manhattan, which is culturally, a world away. She no longer has to hide who she is, and she's celebrated for being who she is. And she's glamorous in a way where you feel like she would stick you with a shiv if you messed with her.

"I just kind of became obsessed with her version of grace. And yeah, Candy Darling was the last song I wrote for the record and it came out in 20 minutes."

Hang on. Twenty minutes?

"Yeah," she says. "But the longer I do this, the less I feel as though I have any sort of control or ownership of music and its origin... which is the most supernatural thing you'll ever hear me say."

The voice notes app on her phone is constantly filling up with ideas, she says, and the quality ratio is surprisingly high.

"I would say about 75% of them are usable in some way, and then about 25% of them are a fragment. Sometimes when you listen back, you're not sure where the [beat] is supposed to be - but that can be kind of cool."

Perhaps after six albums the songs are coming to her so easily because she's worked so hard to build up her songwriting muscles?

"Yeah, that's true but still I feel grateful that it comes to me," she says.

If she'd never found that outlet, how would her life have been different?

"I'd probably be dead," she says. "Dead literally or dead inside."

A pause. She reconsiders.

"I mean, no. I'm sure I would have had more fortitude and figured something out. But let me just say I'm very glad. I'm very lucky that I get to play music for a living."

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