Speaking to Annie Clark occasionally felt a little awkward, and it wasn’t just in the way that phone conversations with transatlantic lags can do, nor because “anyone trying to speak to her would just be crippled with a schoolgirl-like giggling fit” as a fellow writer suggested. However it’s only listening back and transcribing that I noticed particularly why: the lack of likes, kindas and incoherent sentences one commonly finds in conversation, which were replaced by frequent pauses (accentuated by the connection), much consideration over each word uttered and a frank matter-of-factness. In essence, Clark’s extremely professional interview patter is almost as chiseled as her immaculate image and idiosyncratic, thoughtful records. Almost to the extent that it’s a little worrying – you have to wonder if she even sweats sometimes. As Derek ‘Meatman’ Scully would say: “She’s almost too perfect.”
St. Vincent’s self-titled new record, out later this month, follows hot on the heels of lengthy tours on the back of her own previous solo record, 2011’s Strange Mercy and the slower-burning brass-based collaboration with David Byrne in 2012, Love This Giant. The latter, in particular, prospered on the back of a stunning, choreographed, large ensemble live show (hinting at Byrne’s production values rather than Clark’s) which won acclaim at last summer’s Electric Picnic. Clark took “just 36 hours” off before leaping back in the game, writing her new part-inspired by the “fearless, in-the-moment” Byrne, but ultimately in the context of her own small but powerful band, made up of her own fabulous and unique guitar playing, drummers Homer Steinway (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) and McKenzie Smith (Midlake), keyboardist Danny Mintseris, former Prince collaborator Bobby Sparks on Minimoog (“but her can do anything!”) as well as her regular engineer and producer, John Congleton.
St. Vincent is tauter, sharper and groovier than Clark has proffered before, influenced by the reaction to the Byrne tour, but still woven from the same threads as her previous high-watermark Strange Mercy, with Clark’s dirty, skronking guitar filling the foreground against queasily inorganic, synth-heavy backdrops. Lyrically it mixes the personal (I Prefer Your Love), with the social (Digital Witness) and Ambien-fuelled surrealism (Huey Newton). Meanwhile the visual presentation, inspired by the Memphis Design Movement, mirrors this feel of the sound with Clark’s electric shock hair and Star-Trek-alien dresses giving off ‘near-future cult leader’ vibes, slightly terrifying but human rather than robotic. Ahead of a year’s worth of work (“Ugh, thanks for reminding me!”), Totally Dublin set out to find out more about the genesis of a record where this phenomenal, but occasionally distant artist finally (in her own words) ‘finds her voice’.
The new record has quite an unobstrusive title but it comes with this tagline that you have for it – ‘a party record you could play at a funeral’ – and it seems like an inescapable part of the presentation, everyone is going to repeat it. Was that a conscious decision in terms of how you wanted to shape the reaction to it?
Well I wanted to make a record that people could dance to and that I could dance to but sometimes party music has the connotation of something that’s just lighthearted or doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional weight. So I wanted to make a party record that had a whole lot of heart and emotional gravitas too.
It seems that the title is quite plain – it’s just self-titled – but this tagline is going to follow it around.
I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography and he talks about how the hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself – and I would agree with that. It’s one thing to learn how to sing or play some notes, but it’s another thing to have a voice. And I feel like I do on this record, so I self-titled it.
In terms of the new record, you said before about finding a voice – was there a distinct concept that you wanted to spell out? On Love This Giant, working with a lot of brass instruments was a very definitive parameter. Was there something similar on this record?
I wanted it to have the feel of humans but the sound of machines, so what you hear on the record is really people playing in a room – really good players playing – but it’s been synthesised and made to sound more inhuman. And I was really thinking about the energy of the live show, what’s going to make something that I can really dig into live. So all of that informed this [record].
Digital Witness seems to be mulling over this over-exposure that becomes available to people connecting through the internet, do you think its really a shift in behaviour of people or do think the scale of it has changed?
We’re very obsessed with documenting our lives these days. And anything that is being watched and knows that it’s being watched changes its behaviour, so I just was curious about how we are changing our behaviour with the knowledge that we’re being watched. I mean we’re being watched by the NSA here in the States and then also documenting ourselves – the mundane has been put on a pedestal. So I’m just curious about how that’s affecting us in the long term. But I don’t look at it as a wholly bad thing at all, I’m just exploring the idea of what it is and trying to unpack it for myself because I find myself using technology compulsively and sometimes looking for things in technology, looking for a connection in technology that actually is something that I should be looking inwards for.
For the promotional campaign, there was a series of Instagram photos leaking out that made up the cover and then previously, on Strange Mercy, there was a campaign where people had to retweet something and if it reached a certain amount the track was released. Do you have any input into the strategies of these campaigns or do you not see that as part of your job – is that someone else’s job?
Certainly executing those things is someone else’s job, as I just don’t have the time. But I was very involved in talking about the marketing of this record and how the roll out should feel and what I liked or didn’t like about other campaigns. In some ways I think people are a little bit fatigued with record roll-outs feeling like a second coming! Like, it’s a record, ultimately the best promotion for a record is people hearing the record. So that’s where I tried to create intrigue and get people a little bit excited but also to give people a little bit of music and let them decide.
It certainly seemed that Arcade Fire were trying to reinstate a record’s release as a monumental thing – I think because it’s gone away because people absorb music digitally and it’s so easy to come by. I think maybe it’s a nostalgic thing.
When records used to come out it was a big event. I think Beyoncé did a really smart thing which is rather than putting all that capital into marketing a record, she put that money into creating more content, so that the record itself was more than a record. Obviously that wouldn’t work for everybody because you have to have an enormous amount of capital to get things made on that scale and that quality, but also because she’s the biggest popstar in the world right now so there’s a level of interest and intrigue for what she would do that not everybody has. But it certainly was a game-changing thing. We don’t have the same technological constraints that we used to have. It used to be that, okay, a vinyl LP held 20-minutes of music per side, so that’s where album-oriented rock music comes from, re-thinking what a record could be, because it wasn’t all about the singles format. Then with CDs you have 75 minutes of music until people started making longer records in the ‘90s which was sort of ill-fated and fatiguing! But now you don’t have the same hardwired, hardware constraints that say ‘A record is 40 minutes long; that’s what a record is’. So I think in the coming years you’ll see a whole series of ideas in rethinking what a digestible form of music is and you’re going to see people start to branch off from this antiquated idea of an ‘album’. It works out nice in a couple of ways because of when touring, 10 songs is about as much new material as you want to bring out to your fans at one time, but I just think that there’s a whole lot of other ways to go with it that people are going to start experimenting with even more.
I think that there’s a value though to this ‘antiquated concept’ of the album, it seems to have survived beyond the accident of it’s birth – the limitations of vinyl – and like you said, it’s roughly the amount of music it takes you a year or two to produce and it’s a nice thing to cling to – a rule that you can break, as it were.
I certainly love putting a vinyl on a turntable and turning over side two and having that experience. That’s a really nice way to listen music.
I think that the lack of opportunity to change the track is one of the key things to listening to music, when you’re cycling a bike or something, you can’t change the track so you end up listening to more of the same album.
Yeah, that’s true. I heard that President Obama doesn’t ever look at a menu. He says he makes so many decisions in his day that he wants to eliminate having to make decisions when he doesn’t have to. It’s the same kind of feeling, if you have everything at your disposal, what do you listen to? I like to eliminate decisions too. I’d rather just put on the record that I know I love, rather than be in this perpetual state of ‘What else? What else?!’ It’s kind of compulsive in that regard.
It certainly sounds that you’re not a fan of Spotify from that remark – the limitlessness of it in particular.
Spotify I think probably has got some things to figure out. Unfortunately for them what they don’t have on their side is artists’ worth. What they do have is maybe artists’ ambivalence and then some artists’ vitriol directed at them. So my issue is that a little bit of curation is nice and to have everything at my fingertips feels a little bit overwhelming. It’s like the Wikipedia of music, it’s fine to do a little bit of research there, but that interface is not how I like to listen to music.
You’re working with John Congelton again [producer on Strange Mercy]. What role does a ‘producer’ plays in work like yours?
Well John is the engineer of the record too. So we’re getting sounds, we’re having discussions about sonics – he has a great ear for that stuff and is a great engineer. And also I think what John really does which is helpful is that, when you’re working on something for a long enough time, he’s good at telling me when to step away. You can overcook things in the studio for sure. It’s like working on a painting and then in a moment of impulsion, putting a splash on the face of the painting and he kinda stops me from…
…over-egging the pudding?
How was it working with David Byrne – with an equal partner in that kind of creative relationship?
I think the main take-away from working with David was that he’s totally fearless and he never looks back and he’s always in-the-moment. That was really inspiring to be around because when you remove fear, really anything is possible. So I approached what I was doing, going forward with that similar spirit – anything is possible, I can do whatever I want – so that’s the main thing I’d say.
Would you like to do another full-scale collaboration again?
I worked with one of my heroes and one of the people who I think is one of the best artists of the past century, so I don’t know that I’m going to jump into another collaboration so soon. I don’t know – I think I kind of hit the pinnacle, the best possible scenario of working with another artist for fear that it wouldn’t go as well as working with David.
Words: Ian Lamont
St. Vincent is out on Loma Vista Records on Friday 21st February and plays the Olympia Theatre on Saturday 22nd February (tickets here). Check out this sweet St. Vincent playlist on MUZU below: