This article originally appeared in Q381.
We are living through the first flush of what in the future will be known as The Era Of St. Vincent. Niall Doherty steps out into the cold of the Midwest with Annie Erin Clark to hear how her alter ego redesigned pop and performance in her own image, and has designs on the film and art worlds in motion too. “I got all that shit done,” she says. “Did all of it.”
One day back in March, Annie Clark stood on Seventh Avenue in New York and considered walking into the nearest emergency department. The creative dynamo behind St. Vincent was nearing completion of her new album at the same time as writing one film and pitching two others. She was also overseeing an art installation and had videos to shoot and concepts to come up with. Everywhere she looked, deadlines loomed and, now, in the middle of one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities, she was having a monstrous panic attack. But Clark didn’t go to hospital that day. She did what she always does: she took a deep breath and made a plan.
The thing the 35-year-old Texan is best at is getting things done. She knows how to make things happen. Clark has spent much of her life feeling shy and nervous, but over the course of her career, she has learnt to take charge. She likes making decisions because it alleviates the stress and anxiety of not having a plan. “I fucking got all of that shit done,” Clark says now, eight months later. “I got through it. I got all of it done. Did all of it.”
Indianapolis, November 2017. The second biggest city in the Midwest is an urban sprawl of anonymous blocks that stretch into the distance, with a striking monument and some big hotels in the middle of it and not much else. It’s for this reason that the Old National Centre sticks out.
A venue situated in the Downtown area, it belongs to the Murat Shriners of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, a freemason organisation who recognised that, even in the late 1800s, Indianapolis needed something. It’s now a venue and tonight it’s playing host to St. Vincent’s Fear The Future tour, a run of dates named after one of the tracks from Masseduction, her excellent fifth album.
Clark has appeared in many eye-poppingly flamboyant outfits over the past year or so, wearing thigh-high leather boots and a cone bra with duct tape over the nipples while performing on Ellen, joining Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh on Graham Norton’s sofa while wearing a PVC bunny outfit and dressing up as a toilet for a show in New York in 2016. Deep within the bowels of the Egyptian Room, an 1800-capacity venue inside the Old National Theatre, though, she’s curled up on a sofa in her dressing room in her pyjamas, eating from a bunch of red grapes bigger than her head. “It’s so big, it’s heavy. I’m gonna eat it like a Roman,” she says, craning it above her, picking at them with her mouth.
Masseduction feels like a culmination for Clark, the mainstream breakthrough her decade-long solo career has been shimmying towards. Each of her records has been a leap forward and 2014’s Grammy Award-winning self-titled fourth suggested she could be a genuine star. Masseduction is her most accessible album yet, folding the experimentalist indie quirks of her early work into sophisticated and catchy twisted pop. She’s like a cross between Prince, Lady Gaga and PJ Harvey, an arch conceptualist who knows that if the idea is good, the songs have to be better. The album’s centrepiece track New York, either about her ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne, or David Bowie dying, or a friend moving away from the city, or all three, is one of those songs whose warm, melancholic familiarity makes it feel like it’s been around forever.
Like Lorde, Clark is emblematic of a new wave of artists for whom there are no boundaries. Clark can cut it with the fusty old rockers (she’s appeared onstage with Pearl Jam, stood in for Kurt Cobain when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and made an album with David Byrne), the fusty new rockers (she’s collaborated with The National and Bon Iver, and used to be in Sufjan Stevens’s backing band) at the same time as being one of the faces of Tiffany’s advertising campaign and curating House Of Peroni, a pop-up art installation in New York. Her heroes aren’t the usual roll call of rock or pop icons, but French-American artist Louise Bourgeois and influential choreographers Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker.
Clark is on the road on her own at the moment. The current show, which features her singing and playing along to a backing track in front of sleek visuals, requires no band and so her long-serving group are sitting this stint out. They will be back in the spring for the second leg of shows. Clark misses them but has more than enough to keep her occupied. On the road, she wakes up at 9am, trawls through her emails, heads out to get coffee, and then gets to work, planning out “all the little million things to do.” The show is being refined from day-to-day. When that’s done, Clark puts her director hat on and continues her notes on the script for The Picture Of Dorian Gray, her first feature film. It will star a female protagonist and it’s being written by David Burke, a screenwriter who has worked with Paul Verhoeven.
Clark co-wrote and directed her first film, a horror short called The Birthday Party, last year and loved it. Directing is about vision, she says. “It’s about having ideas. If you have ideas, you can figure out how to make it happen.” She says film-making and music are about teamwork and assembling great people around you. “It’s knowing when to push your ideas and insist on them being exactly so and knowing when to let really talented people run with it,” she says.
Clark has no misgivings about entering an industry engulfed in sexual harassment scandals. She bristles at the mention of it. “You mean, am I worried someone is going to masturbate in front of me?” she snaps. “I’m the fuckin’ director, man. I’m the director. Acting is a really tricky profession because it only exists in relation to other people. The dynamic for actors oftentimes is being dependent on people to give you a job and with predatory people in places of power, looking at people who are dependent on them for work, it makes it easier for predatory people to prey. But I want to direct, and usually it’s directors exploiting people.”
She says all the people she’s met in the film industry are intelligent and not sleazy. She can’t imagine a time where she would make films and not make music, though. “I’d never not do music,” she says. “I have to. It’s like when you walk around and you’re like, ‘Why am I so angry today? Oh, I haven’t come in three days’ or whatever. I have the same thing about music.”
Also keeping her busy on the road are her “soundcheck parties”. These intimate meet-and-greets with fans entail a short acoustic performance and a chat afterwards. Clark loves doing them as much as doing the gig. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” she says. “It’s a nice counter-point to the very stylised nature of the show.” Clark wanted to personally interact with people and find out how they’re feeling “because the state of the world is so insane.” She says that people are very raw but there are “kernels of hope.”
It’s been enlightening for her to see how broad her crowd is. “It’s dudes in their 60s to 15-year-old girls to, like, everyone in-between. It’s really rad.” She’s designed her own cocktail, The Slow Disco, for the occasion. It’s her take on Ranch Water, a drink originating from west Texas, silver tequila mixed with Topo Chico, chile para frutas and lime. But Clark doesn’t partake herself. She has a shot of tequila before showtime but she can’t “throw down”. There’s too much to do. “I’m onstage for two and a half hours a day, so it’s not like a thing I can afford to be hungover for,” she says. She does Pilates every day. “I’m in a pink bunny suit,” she says. “I gotta keep that shit tight.”
Clark is a fascinating character but it takes time to adjust to being in her ether. She’s friendly and funny – her humour is often delivered like it’s in a noughties indie film – but there are a series of quirks and traits to navigate before you feel totally at ease. There are the “ah-a”’s, the “uh-uh”’s, the “aaahhhhhhhh”’s, the voice that can lower itself to a whisper. She is excruciatingly fine with long silences as she ponders to herself. You could go off and make a casserole in the time it takes her to answer some questions and she often screws up her face as she’s thinking, like someone’s in there tweaking her brain with a screwdriver. She doesn’t have a Texas accent in the way British people imagine that everyone who’s from there should speak, like they’re chewing gravel. Instead, she often sounds oddly anglicised. She has a lovely, welcoming laugh, and can be steely, soft, erudite and filthy. Her favourite joke is “what’s the difference between jam and jelly? I can’t jelly my dick down your throat.”
Clark has three modes, turning from one to the next depending on what’s going on at the time. There’s Monastic Mode, the hermit-like existence she went into to make Masseduction, which involved recording, transcendental meditation every morning, Pilates, lots of coffee, and not much else. Doing “TM” changed Clark’s life, she says, and a lot of the best ideas for the album happened as she was meditating. “It’s really creatively generative,” she says. “I was also able to deal with my life emotionally a bit better and keep my head on.”
Then there’s Athlete Mode, her current setting. “It’s regimented and functional,” she says. “I’ll talk to you, I’ll do a bunch of other shit, get my recording rig set up, exercise. Dur dur dur!” she says, mapping it out with her hands. After Athlete Mode comes the most dangerous, and fun-sounding, mode. “Once you start to go a bit stir crazy and you get tired of athlete style, there’s Mania Mode, where you’re looking for “some distraction… give me a party, give me something seedy, something I can do that’s a rebellion. Those are the three modes: let’s go bananas, let’s be an athlete, or get thee to a nunnery.”
She isn’t in a relationship at the moment, and isn’t the sort of person who feels like she needs to be in one when she’s not. “Some people are like, ‘Oh, I really want a partner,’ but I don’t,” she says. The thing that irritates Clark the most is “when people are in that line where indecisiveness meets ineffectiveness. It drives me crazy.” Recently, there was someone in the tour crew who did not meet her high standards. “I can’t stand it when people’s first instinct is to say, ‘Nooo,I don’t think that’s possible,’” she says. “He drove me crazy and I fired him.” Pity the technician or engineer who talks down to her. “Sometimes you walk into a situation with new engineers and people will treat you as if you don’t know what you’re talking about, like a pat on the head, ‘Oh, poor thing, she doesn’t know what she wants.’ That, I cannot abide. I eviscerate people who do that.”
You have been warned. Now, though, it’s time for her afternoon Pilates and, despite the kind offer to join in, there’s a bar round the corner that is more suited to our present mode.
Later that evening, 10 guests wait in the foyer of the venue before the meet and greet. The Slow Disco cocktail – very strong, unfortunately moreish – is on the menu and fans can have a go on the St. Vincent signature series guitar, an “all-inclusive” model she designed and made with guitar manufacturers Ernie Ball Music Man. The podium from the Masseduction tour announcement video is also here and a St. Vincent crew member with a Polaroid camera will take a picture while you adopt a pose behind it.
The doors to the Egyptian Room open and the lucky punters make their way inside. Clark walks onstage in a see-through rain mac and shades, offering a nonchalant “hi guys” before playing two acoustic tracks. Afterwards, she sits on the edge of the stage and asks how everyone’s doing. She talks about the Indianapolis scene with a couple who’ve just bought a new washing machine, discusses the ins and outs of a student’s computer engineering course with him and really peps up when the conversation turns to what guitars people own. Noticing that the two people standing next to me haven’t said anything yet, she enquires, “What’s going down with you guys?” There’s no answer, and she’s wearing sunglasses, so no one is really sure who she’s looking at. For reasons still unclear, I choose to respond. “What, me?” I say. She shakes her head abruptly. “No, not you… I know what’s going on with you,” she says drolly. The whole sorry episode prompts the bloke next to me to explain to her what guitar he plays.
She says goodbye to everyone and heads backstage, stopping off to say a quick hello to some local radio people, and at 7.30pm she starts doing her make-up for the show. She has her regular tequila shot at 8pm, finishes her make-up and puts on her bunny outfit. She did used to have a vocal warm-up routine but hated it, so now she just plays songs to herself. Tonight’s choice to get her in the mood is a track by veteran Texan rockers Toadies, which she continues to play and sing until right before she appears from behind a curtain to go into Marry Me, an orchestral reworking of the title track from her debut album.
It’s a fantastic show, like a futuristic punk-rock musical. With the set split into two sections, the first featuring reworked old songs and the second with Masseduction played in full, it’s got the feeling of a spectacular one-off rather than a regular gig. Clark is a ferocious performer, and a thrilling guitar player. She plays it like she’s trying to put a leash round a lion and every attack of her instrument is met with huge whoops of appreciation from the audience. The gig is both a compelling piece of art and an exhilarating rock show. By the time the ecstatic crowd are filtering out to the foyer at the end, Clark is already out of the building. At 2am, her tourbus pulls up 185 miles north at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Chicago. She goes up to her room, rolls into bed, and falls asleep listening to a podcast about Charles Manson.
One of Annie Clark’s biggest fears is the people she loves dying. She knows there’s no way she can prepare for it. Her family is important to her. They’re her best friends. She has four brothers and four sisters, and all are incredibly close. Her fondest childhood memory is driving with her mum and two older sisters from Oklahoma to Texas singing Chapel Of Love in a three-part harmony over and over. Her eldest sister Amy calls the shots. “She’s the future matriarch,” she says. “She still bosses me around. It’s really cute. My little brother Jack and I laugh about it all the time.” Jack is on tour with her, acting as her personal assistant. Clark doesn’t really have time to speak to anyone on the phone when she’s on tour, but she and her mum text each other a lot. “We speak about once a week,” she says. “I’m glad she’s gotten into texting.”
It’s early evening on a cold winter’s day in Chicago and Clark is stretched across a sofa in her hotel suite. There’s a balcony with a view looking out over the city’s Gold Coast neighbourhood but she hasn’t had a chance to admire it yet. It’s been a busy day of radio sessions and interviews. She finds it hilarious when I bring up her telling me off at the meet-and-greet the day before. “Hahaha! I’m sorry,” she says. “I wasn’t being shitty, I promise.”
Clark counts three places as home. There’s New York (“the place where I have wild nights”) and LA (“I love that there’s a million resources available”), but nowhere has what she calls “the ease” of Texas. She grew up in Dallas, moving there with her mother from Tulsa, Oklahoma, after her parents split when she was three. “It’s slow-paced, and running errands with my mom, like going to [discount retailer] Target, is a joy,” she says.
Although Clark hasn’t had to deal with close family members dying, she has had to cope with loss of a different kind. In 2010, her father was jailed for 12 years after being convicted of fraud. She talks to him about once a month. “I’m not amazing at answering the phone in general,” she says, “but he talks to my other siblings more often. It’s definitely a mourning. It’s mourning a loss but in a specific kind of way.”
She thinks about her father’s incarceration every single day. “And those thoughts vary,” she says. “There’s so many facets to that pain, or that tragedy, if you will. Even under the best circumstances, prison is a horrible, unnatural place, and in America there are so many rungs lower you can go. America is in the deepest need for prison reform, and I would think that even independent of my dad.” Recently, she was reading about a man who was wrongfully accused of murdering a prison guard and ended up in solitary confinement for 44 years. “The amount at which we disproportionately incarcerate people of colour in this country, poor people, increasingly women, and the fact that, like all things in America, it’s also privatised and incentivised, it’s deeply corrupt.”
But Annie Clark loves America. As a touring musician, she’s been to every corner of it, criss-crossed over every state, travelled every highway. “It’s beautiful and it’s massive and has so many different kinds of people and so much potential,” she says. “I love it so much, I love it in the way you love a parent who lets you down, it breaks my heart.”
Our time is up, and Clark gets to her feet to give me a hug as I leave. The door shuts behind me, leaving her to get back to making plans. There are script notes to approve, concepts to design, songs to write, a feature film to finish and recording rigs to set up. Other people buy a house, or get married, or have kids, but those markers have never held any allure for Annie Clark. Art, music, creating: these are the things that map out her way forward. She’s a dreamer and a visionary, and she gets shit done. She knows how to make things happen. That’s how she gets through.