'It's Sorrow You Can Jam To': St. Vincent On 'Masseduction'

Oct 12, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 9:39 am

In the decade since her debut as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has earned some of the rarest honors a rock artist could hope for. Her 2014 self-titled LP won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. She was one of the small handful of artists chosen to perform in Kurt Cobain's place when Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Critics have compared her more than once to one of her heroes, David Bowie — and she made a collaborative release with David Byrne, a kindred master of angular, high-concept songwriting.

Still, some things about the rock and roll life haven't changed in that time. Ahead of her latest album, Masseduction (out Friday), Clark made a series of videos satirizing her own press cycles — and in particular, the most tiresome questions asked of women in the arts. The new music doesn't pull punches either: With a production assist from Jack Antonoff, who has co-crafted hits for Lorde and Taylor Swift, Masseduction trades the jagged art-rock on which Clark made her name for something a touch more emotionally direct.

Annie Clark spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin what it means to "go for the jugular" as a songwriter, missing Bowie and processing it in her work, and why she believes she's finally writing the kind of song that could be someone's favorite. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

Rachel Martin: It's always unnerving to do this kind of interview, because you know you're asking questions that people have asked a million times. You have pretty much acknowledged what goes down in these situations with these promotional shorts, which poke fun at the kinds of questions you sometimes get. So to get it out of the way, what's the worst question I could possibly ask you?

Annie Clark: Well, I have a couple. "Where's the name St. Vincent come from?" Because it's such a first thing on the Wikipedia page. But you know what the worst one is? And it's not the worst because it doesn't need to be spoken about, it's that the answer ought to be so nuanced that you'd need a semester of university to unpack it: "What's it like to be a woman in music?" Well, it means that you get asked about what it's like to be a woman in music. There's no good answer. You're kind of forced into one of two narratives if you're not quick on your feet — one of which is the narrative of hierarchy, of victimhood, and then the other is like, "Why do you deserve a spot at the table?"

Do people really ask you that?

They don't ask me that explicitly, but I think it's implicit in the question. I think there's a lot of sexism implicit in the question that then becomes your responsibility to unpack. And it's like, "That's your problem. You deal with that. That's not for me."

All right, well, we won't ask that — we'll dig into the music, which is the best place to start. You've said that the song "New York" isn't about a specific person, more of a composite – and among the people you were thinking about is David Bowie. Was he a role model for you in some way?

I mean, David Bowie was a role model for everybody. It's not so often that somebody comes in and changes culture with music — I mean truly, truly changes culture. And yeah, it's an unfortunate thing to sort of make the death of a genius about me in some way. That's not my intention; he certainly was a massive influence to so many people. I would be lying if I said I didn't write a number of songs about Bowie that didn't end up on the record, but that were kind of necessary to processing that kind of artistic loss.

So many things made him particular and unique, but one was his ability to take elements of the avant-garde and make them work in the mainstream world, make them accessible to a bigger audience. Is that something that you aspire to do?

I think it's a little more organic than that. I really just want to be a good songwriter. And that's been a journey for me, certainly — because there's been more direct, more straightforward, almost like Great American Songbook kind of songs that I've written. There's been early Yes, kind of prog odysseys that I was really super into. I'm lucky to be five solo records in, and one collaboration record with David Byrne, and still get to talk to you, you know what I mean? Still have people interested. It's rare and it's lucky.

There are a lot of things that come to mind when people think about who you are and what your work has been: really angular, high-concept, not a whole lot of ballads, not a whole lot of straightforward storytelling. This album feels like a departure, like a different part of your journey. Was that feeling there for you in creating it?

It was. I knew that I just wanted to go straight for the heart. I had a really thoughtful, wonderful dinner with Jack Antonoff, who co-produced this record with me. It was more or less the first time that we hung out, and we bonded instantly, just kind of made a blood pact to just go for the jugular and push every song over the emotional finish line. It's a manic panic record; it's bonkers but I love it. Its bright melancholy and it's a lot of sorrow, but sorrow you can jam to.

What does that mean, to go for the jugular? Is it being more earnest in your lyrics?

Artistically, it's sort of about a nexus of power. If you watch people walk down the street you can sort of see where they carry their power in their body. I've noticed this from watching dancers: You can see their center of gravity. And so mine, I think, has been on a journey from from being very much in my head to slowly moving down further and further and further. I would say the nexus of power from this record is, like, the gut rather than the throat or the head.

That's an evocative way to put it. So the creative energy is much less cerebral. Did something happen to push you in that direction?

I mean, a lot of life happened in those three years of between writing the last record and this record. Love and family and loss and all that.

A lot of fame, too: Your music was charting higher, you won a Grammy, you were touring a lot. Was all that OK, or were there parts of that ride that were unsettling to you?

I had one thing going for me, which was that I was more or less a formed person when I started getting more successful.

I would say that that description of the kind of fame I attained in the last three years, that's a little bit overstated — I wasn't that famous, let's be real — but sweet of you to say. I was definitely fame-adjacent in that I was in a relationship with a very famous person. And I kind of saw a little entryway into the world of celebrity culture that I wasn't privy to before.

I want to ask about the song "Smoking Section," which is presumably about someone in a state of deep depression. That kind of thing feels easier to write in metaphor, but you don't do that at all — you just go for the jugular. Was this ... a comfortable thing to write?

[Laughs]

I just got on your video list! You're like, "That will be question No. 45 in my dumbest questions of all time."

Not at all, it was so sweet — in a kind of way that my mom would ask the question. Like, "Darling, are you okay?"

That's really what the question is! Are you OK? It's a dark song, Annie.

Yeah, it sure is. I've been there. I mean, I was there, so I wrote it.

But you've also said that your songs aren't necessarily a catharsis.

Generally, I think music is a catharsis. I think making order out of the chaos that is life, in the form of art, is deeply cathartic. But it's not necessarily like, "OK, well I wrote about depression, so I don't have it anymore."

We're all human beings walking around an insane planet, trying to figure it out. Everybody's just doing the best that they can, and I feel completely fine about opening up the breast and sharing that kind of stuff because everybody's been there, or if not everybody's been there, there's some little crystal in it that people can see of themselves. That's what art does, and that's what art did for me. So there's no shame about it.

Was that something Jack helped you move towards? Or were you already feeling ready to have more of a gut creative experience?

I'd been writing for a year and a half before I started working with Jack, so I had a lot of material. But in terms of shaping that material for maximum emotional impact, he was so helpful. He changed my life for the better in so many ways. He's one of the shiny ones.

Where do you see his fingerprints most on this album?

He did a lot of the drum programming, so a lot of that energy in the drums is him. [But it's] not just production and texture — I think I see the fingerprints more in the way he made me feel so comfortable about going anyplace, and was so encouraging. It's a vulnerable thing, to share like that and to try new things, and he just was ultimate cheerleader.

It's probably a really basic question, but what are you most proud of when you think about this particular album, this set of songs, where you're at in your creative life?

I think that these are just the best songs that I've ever written. And I mean songs with a capital "S."

What does it mean to be a "capital S" song?

There's some songs that are just, like, hard labor. My sisters will kill me for [saying] songs are like having children — it's like, "No, having children is like having children, please never use that metaphor again." But there are some songs that feel like you plucked them out of the ether, and they could've gone to your next door neighbor or they could've gone to somebody down the street, but you got them — and there are some songs that legitimately take years. When I wrote the song "New York," I was like, "Oh." It's taken me 25 years of writing songs, but I feel like it's the first song I wrote where I was like, "This could be like someone's favorite song." Like, I get it. I get it now.

I talk to musicians all the time and they're like, "It's my art, I'm just doing it for me, I don't care what anyone thinks."

I mean, that's true — I love it, so of course I do it for me. But I love great songs and I want to write great songs. I don't see those things as mutually exclusive — wanting to make great songs and doing something for yourself and having a pure artistic expression. I think they are absolutely one and the same, and oftentimes it's just fear and ego that gets in the way of merging the two.

Web intern Steffanee Wang and web editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to this story.

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