St. Vincent

St. Vincent

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 17th February, 2014 8:22AM

She read American novelist David Foster Wallace, and had dinner with controversial New York Times journalist David Carr in preparation for writing an album about masturbating and taking out the garbage because “the way we actually are is fascinating”. St. Vincent A.K.A Annie Clark will release her fourth studio album at the end of February and here she discusses her warts-and-all vision of the American Condition and why she wanted to write a “party album to play at a funeral”...

Hey Annie, how are you? What are you up to today?

Hey! I’m good thank you. I’m just doing interviews.

Have you just started the promotional roller coaster for the release of the new album?

No it’s been a couple of months now; I’ve made a few trips over to Europe and I’ve been to Los Angeles a few times and I’m just in that drum. In that St. Vincent drum.

How’s it all going so far?

It’s good: I’m just putting my catnip out there and hoping people bite. Haha…I don’t have a cat so I don’t know what they do with cat nip but I assume they like it.

Excellent. I wanted to start by talking about the beginning of your process for the forthcoming album. Tell me a little bit about what was going on in your head / life when you sat down to start writing it? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do?

I toured my last solo record Strange Mercy for about a year and finished that in Japan. And then I went straight into rehearsals for the Love this Giant tour with David Byrne and the first leg ended in the fall. I got home and I sent everybody I work with an email saying “hey guys don’t bother me for a couple of weeks because I’m going to re-adjust to life and I don’t want to think about work or anything”. But then about 36 hours later I started writing this record.

Like I said, I’d been on tour with David and that show was so fun to do with an eight piece brass band and David and I were co-fronting this band, and it was choreographed, and it really blurred that line between a music piece and a theatre piece and a dance piece, and people got up and danced to a lot of the show. That was very inspiring because I’ve never really played music where the majority of the crowd danced, so I had that in my head a little bit when I started this record: I wanted to make a “party record that you could play at a funeral”.

I guess that quote has been floating around quite a lot in the release to the album, and the thematic countenance in your work is something I’m super interested in and that quote goes a little way in explaining what, to me, is your concern for the disollution of the American dream and perception versus reality. Is that a fair statement?

I mean I think I’m asking myself the big existential questions like “what are we doing here” and “what is life like in this modern age”. I’m thinking about it from a macro perspective in some cases but also down to the really mundane things like taking out the garbage and masturbating, and all of these ways people try to make sense of their world and get pleasure here, or avoid pain there; whatever it is. I wanted to talk about it not in really all that romantic of a way but in how people actually are because that’s fascinating to me. I think that’s interesting and sexy and compelling and full of contradiction.

Totally, and it’s something that you’ve been exploring for a few albums in your work: does it feel like you’re starting to get somewhere with your self discovery?

Yeah I think confidence is definitely a bit part of it. I trust my instinct and I have honed and carved out my voice and my lane in the musical landscape I guess. Even down to the fact that I was trying to make a more direct record that was more about connection with other people and less about just looking inside and being down and out or depressed or frustrated or any of those things that we can all be. I just wanted to really connect and extend a hand and I that even manifested in where I’m singing this record from; I’m singing it from my gut and from the lower register of my voice which is where I speak rather than the high, ephemeral Disney thing.

I guess the whole making a piece dance and creating a rhythm that is really instinctual. Tell me about going into the studio and creating those rhythms and creating the sound that would accompany the aforementioned themes.

Yeah I worked with John Congleton again because I felt like we had done great work in the past but we hadn’t made the best record we could make together. I called my friend who is the drummer for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and he’s this really salty, funky drummer and my friend Bobby Sparks who played Mini Moog on the last record and my friend McKenzie Smith also played drums on about half the songs as well.

The rhythm section we spent a pretty good amount of time getting the steels really good. Yeah, because I love music that really grooves – I’m a sucker for Parliament and the Metres but also it needed to be a little different. It couldn’t be me doing a soul record because obviously I don’t have a soul … voice, haha, I don’t have a soul, but I think you can get away with a lot of wild thinks on top if you’ve got a real kicking groove. One of the many lessons of hip hop is that you can do the weirdest, most stoned stuff on top if you’ve got some like, 808’s going. You know, so I was just thinking about that.

Reading interviews with you I’m always quite flabbergasted by the anecdotes that you quote from the strangest places; scientists; mathematicians; writers; novels. Was there anything or anyone that you were taking inspiration from for this album?

Yeah, you know in some ways it’s kind of hard to recall; it’s like being a weird bird and gathering a branch from here and here and here and all of a sudden after nine months you’ve build a nest! And you don’t remember every tree that everything came from. I was reading Joan Didion and I referenced her in Prince Johnny, and I was reading Laurie Moore who is another short story writer. I was reading David Carr who is a writer for the New York Times wrote a book called The Lightest Gun and I got the pleasure of having dinner with him…

Wow, was that amazing; he seems like an incredible person / journalist / all of the things?

Yeah, he’s a great dude. I mean he’s so smart and if you read Night of the Gun he’s really been through the ringer and conversely put a lot of other people through the ringer. So I was checking out that, and god, there’s all kinds of stuff…

Oh, I was travelling so much because I was on tour and I had to sleep so I got prescribed Ambian and I had 24 hours off and I was like “OK I’m just going to sleep for 24 hours”, so I decided to take an Ambian. What happens with Ambian is that you go to bed and sleep forever, but if you take an Ambian and don’t go to bed you hallucinate. So I was in this hotel room and I hallucinated that Jimmy Newton the co-founder of the Black Panther party was in my room and we had a work with Huey Newton.

I put a David Foster Wallace quote in there because he wrote on a college tax course that he was taking that “the IRS are the cowboys of information”. So that’s probably more than you wanted to know so there’s stuff from all over the place littered in my work.

It’s fascinating hearing your references, particularly people like David Foster Wallace and David Carr because they – although in very different ways – discuss the dissolution of the American dream and the contemporary American condition in the same way you are exploring in your work, right?

Yeah yeah it’s interesting. I do have such an American lens because America is like a parent who breaks your heart. You’re like “aww, come on America, we can do better than that”.

Yeah totally I actually just spent two weeks in Vietnam and it was really interesting seeing the reputation of America outside of the West.

Right yeah, it’s like the toxic ooze or something coming out on the other side of the world.

St. Vincent - St. Vincent is out Friday 28th February.