As she gets ready for a storming set at Electric Picnic, St. Vincent chats to Lisa Connell about the influence of religion on her life, queer identity and selfies.
This interview originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of GCN.
I’m feeling tense. The build up to my finally getting to talk to St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, has been a long one, with many false starts and now I’m nervously humming along to hold-music as I wait for her to come on the phone.
St. Vincent, for those not in the know, is one of the most exciting live performers in music right now. Vice magazine recently dubbed her “the best rock band in the world”, while NME called her latest album “magic”. She returns to Electric Picnic this year, on the back of that, critically acclaimed album, after a star turn in Stradbally last year alongside Talking Heads’ alumni, David Byrne (with whom she also released an album in 2012). Their set went down as one of the highpoints of last year’s Picnic and having been lucky enough to see her rock the Olympia Theatre in February of this year, I suspect Clark is set to once again take the mantle of the not-to-be-missed act of 2014.
The current self-titled album, St. Vincent, is her fourth solo collection since 2007, her first after signing a new major label deal, and it’s her most exciting and self-assured release to date. It’s worth mentioning that Clark is one of the most innovative guitarists of the past decade and the album boasts this fact to marvelous effect.
Clark has previously spoken about being inspired to self-title the album after reading Miles Davis’ biography, in which he says: “the hardest thing for a musician to do is sound like yourself.” When the hold-music stops and we finally get talking, and I find myself immediately relaxing in the warm glow of Clark’s engaging charm, I want to know if she felt that she had arrived at that point yet.
“I think if you’re lucky, you never settle,” she tells me. “You never just sort of arrive at who or what you’re supposed to be. I mean, that’s the fun part. If I thought that’s the best record I’ll ever make, how could I pick myself up and write again? So, there’s always that artistic carrot that’s on a stick, dangling just in front of you.
“This record was the right recipe of and distillation of things I’ve been exploring for a little while and I thought it was the most elegant, recipe of concepts between having enough heart and having groove and all that, that I have done up until this point.”
One of the overarching themes of St. Vincent is that of technology and connectivity, with tracks like Digital Witness and lyrics like: “entombed in a shrine of zeroes and ones”. Is this a cautionary tale about our current obsessive relationship with technology and social media? “Yes,” Clark answers quickly. “I mean it’s just this modern phenomenon where we have one version of ourselves which is analog, flesh and blood and gristle and then we have this whole other realm where we can create an idealised version of ourselves, which is what we sort of do every day. Like when we have that perfect pose for the selfie, we’re creating this ideal person that exists in the ether and in some cases it’s like the snake is eating its own tail – we’re trying to become that idealised version.
“It’s an interesting place to be in history and we also have this realm where we assume sort of impunity. Like there’s an assumed tacit understanding that everything is of dire consequence on the internet and yet nothing has any effect. It’s very bizarre. You see people getting outraged about a band not releasing a song they like as if it’s a personal affront,or you see that phenomenon where some horrible tragedy will be happening on the other side of the planet like it does every single day and people who feel themselves quite victimised but have nothing to do with the actual conflict will co-opt it as their struggle. It’s a very narcissistic use of resources. You are not doing anything. Are you going to Africa to volunteer to help the Ebola outbreak? No, but you’ve co-opted the struggle to say something about it on the Internet. It’s so impotent.
So as a famous person, where does Clark fit into this complex landscape? “I have a very much a double-edged relationship with it. I’m so entrenched in it. I have a laptop. I wake up three times a night with melodies in my head and I reach over to my phone that sleeps in the bed with me to record it before it goes away.
“My psyche is just as fragmented but I’m trying to figure out the ways in which the Internet is positive and connects me more to my humanity and connects me to other people. And the ways that it makes me more empathetic. I’m trying to root out the ways in which it doesn’t, and examine all of that too.
Clark recently performed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Nirvana, alongside legendary guest vocalists such as Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, and newcomer Lorde. “Nirvana asked what I might like to play and I suggested Lithium,” she tells me. “That song is such an anthem…” She may be as thoughtful, confident and forthright in conversation as she is in her music, but talking about Nirvana’s most important song, Clark struggles to articulate her feelings.
“I can’t even to say what it was like; it’s too big to even process is honestly how it feels. I am so incredibly grateful to the legacy of Nirvana and that song. I think that song saved a bunch of peoples lives. The song made me go, ‘I wanna do that’. That’s who I wanna be – that’s freak, that weirdo, I want to be that person.”
Nirvana, in their hey day were very connected with the now iconic riot grrrl scene and bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney who also had a ‘big influence’ on Clark in her adolescence. She told Rolling Stone recently: “I was just as into the politics as I was into the music, maybe even more. It was tough and confrontational. Kurt [Cobain] was such a feminist, and the scene was so radical, punk and queer.”
One of the most beautiful tracks on the new album is ‘Prince Johnny’, which has an overtly queer context. According to Clark:“That song for me is very much about queer identity and what makes a real girl and a real boy, and wanting to unpack ways to not feel hemmed in by gender and not feel hemmed in sexually. It’s a song that is very near and dear to my heart.” Another theme that features prominently in St.Vincent’s work is that of religion, which is not surprising given her Texan Catholic background.
“I was exposed to the fire and brimstone idea of religion from pretty early on,” she explains. “When you are exposed to a very extreme world view at such a young age and you’re having to figure out where to put it and how to make sense of the universe, it can be pretty frightening stuff. So, I have a particular allergy to hierarchical, organised religion. I don’t know if I have ever believed in God, I don’t know if I ever will, but the idea of God was certainly impressed upon me because of where I’m from.
“The mythology of religion is always a spectre in my work because it’s shorthand. People know these stories, even if they are not particularly religious. They’re very loaded stories and they provide a very easy way to communicate a whole lot of ideas with just a couple of illusions.”
Clark may have rejected the religious services of her background, but as our conversation comes to an end, and she speaks about the heart of why she’s making music, I get the understanding that this part of her childhood is in essence her creative driver. She’s making sense of the universe through music instead of through religion, and she’s spreading the word.
“This music that I love very much and have dedicated my life to making is actually finding roots in people,” she tells me. “People get to take it in any direction they want and superimpose their lives onto it and vice versa, and then it’s this osmotic and symbiotic entity that I have no control over. It gets to be so much bigger than where it started and that’s the power, and that’s so exciting.”
© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.