Culture Trips

St Vincent: ‘I’d been feral for so long. I was sort of in outer space’ | St Vincent

The cover of St Vincent’s 2011 album, Strange Mercy, depicts an open mouth and teeth shrink-wrapped in white latex. It provoked much fascination. Was it Annie Clark’s mouth? She wouldn’t say. One song involved a pearl-handled whip, wielded for pain over pleasure; others negotiated submission and debasement. Perhaps it was a BDSM thing?

The startled questions showed the overnight evolution of Clark’s image from the “asexual Pollyanna” (her words) of her first two records. Over the following decade, she restyled herself as a white-haired “near-future cult leader” and then a “dominatrix at the mental institution”. She transcended her indie-rock origins to work with David Byrne, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa, date the model Cara Delevingne and front Tiffany campaigns. Confounding such a journey into celebrity, her pyrotechnic pop got stranger and stronger.

As her publicist counted column inches, Clark perceived the coverage differently. In 2010, her father was sentenced to 12 years in jail for his role in a $43m (£27m) stock-manipulation scheme. Inside, prisoners passed on clippings about his daughter’s flourishing career. “I always pictured it like I was throwing a little paper airplane over the gates,” says Clark, tracing the arc from her to him with her finger as she speaks over a video call from her studio in Los Angeles.

This is what lay behind the suffocated scream of Strange Mercy and its obsession with bondage. Clark never discussed her father’s imprisonment until the tabloids dug it up in 2016, during her 18-month relationship with Delevingne. A decade ago, she was terrified about protecting her family in Dallas and Tulsa – especially those of her eight siblings who were still children. “I wasn’t in any kind of place where I wanted that narrative to overshadow the music,” she says. “I didn’t have any perspective on it. It was just this horrible, festering wound.”

Clark has always dismissed the term “confessional” as diminishing artistry. But she says she didn’t need to dress up Daddy’s Home, a song about taking her father home from prison in 2019 and also the name of her disgustingly great sixth album. The title is trademark St Vincent – ambiguous and unsettlingly kinky – but there is a sea change in sound and spirit: the old adrenaline rushes are replaced by louche soul and world-weary tenderness, straddling Sly and the Family Stone’s degraded 1971 epic There’s a Riot Goin’ On, the sweet spots of Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan and the queer revelry of the 1974 Labelle concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York that scandalised polite society.

St Vincent on stage in Cambridge, UK, in 2014
‘A way to look as alien as she felt’ … Clark, on stage in Cambridge in 2014, dyed her hair white for her self-titled album of that year. Photograph: Rex

Electric sitar sets the mood of the album; as we speak, Clark – in a black sweater and brown, tinted aviators – grabs a red one for a quick noodle. It is one of nine guitars visible in an otherwise featureless white room. (Its owner is obvious only because Clark designed some of the guitars, plus her laptop is balanced on copies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward, evidence of her obsession with Stalin and failed utopias.) She says the barbed commentary of 2017’s Masseduction gives way on Daddy’s Home to empathy for “flawed people just doing our best to get by”. She drew from the aesthetic of grimy early 70s New York and the look of Cassavetes heroines (although the blond hair is a wig). “It reflects my particular feeling toward humankind right now.”

The album includes lots of first takes; the idea was to abandon perfection, “which often can cause one psychic pain”, she says. “Just to play and be truly free and in the flow; for things to have the logic of water instead of skyscrapers.” It is another volte-face. Around the time of Masseduction, Clark seemed so tightly wound that she might snap – trussed up in latex, her manner imperious and absurdist. “I think I got that rigid because the music was a deep lifeboat for me to get out of a bananas emotional space,” she says, congenial and loose as she rearranges a silk scarf into a headband and back again.

The years leading up to 2017 – her accidental tabloid era – had been a “reeeeal wild ride”, she says. “I’d been feral for so long. Constantly on the go. Never grounded. Like halfway out of the rollercoaster cart, white-knuckling it. I was sort of in outer space. And it was cool – I don’t have any regrets. But I was pretty blotto for a while there.” Parts of the Masseduction cycle were so severe that I wondered if she was on cocaine. She says she has never done it: “This is so nerdy, but the first time I ever saw coke was after a dinner party at a professor’s house and I was, like, 30. I’m not a real uppers person, unless they help me work. I would rather be pleasantly sedated.”

The source of Clark’s agitation was more natural. At the start of 2017, her body broke down, rejecting stimulants and making eating painful. “It forced me to stop everything,” she says. “Which was actually great.” She focused on work to the exclusion of all pleasure and adjusted her behaviour to fit. “I was holding on very tightly because I needed to get out of a real depression hole.”

She had often used extremes to cope: on the Strange Mercy tour, she flayed herself physically to externalise the hurt she felt about her father. Dying her curls white for her 2014 self-titled album was a way to look as alien as she felt, to escape the flesh-and-blood self that could sustain emotional wounds. Now 38, she can sit with distress more easily. “I’ve gotten better at not inflicting pain on myself. And at not seeking out pain from others, accidentally or intentionally. I have less bonus pain in my life.”

How has she done it? “It’s a combo platter,” she says, drawing on a trademark metaphor that seems to reflect a Texan childhood. “I surround myself with pretty grounded people now. And besides the exciting, elaborate, creative world that I get to make, I don’t have to live in constant illusion – or delusion – outside of getting to make it and engage with it. And that helps.”

Pay Your Way in Pain – Daddy’s Home’s lusty, strutting lead single – chronicles a hard-luck downtown wraith: no money, no baby, no home. It is Clark’s blues song for 2021. “I was watching the various mechanisms of power crumble, or at least get rocks thrown at them. And it seems like people have to make some Faustian bargain between dignity and survival.” She laughs, sadly. “Everybody just wants to be loved. We want to have a little shelter and a little food. But we’re caught in a system that makes that hard for most people.”

Previous St Vincent albums examined what it means to live for something larger than yourself. Daddy’s Home attends to baser issues, most pressingly how one earns the right to be treated with humanity. It is partly a consequence of experiencing the US justice system up close.

‘Everybody just wants to be loved’ … watch the video for Pay Your Way in Pain, the lead single from Daddy’s Home.

Clark recalls visiting her father in an “edgy” medium-security institution before he was moved to a depressing camp that reminded her of primary school. During visitation, families could pose for photos in front of various backdrops. “Like, look, an inmate is at the beach. They just happen to be in an orange jumpsuit, but with their wife and baby. The one that I remember most vividly was a picture where the inmates – who are obviously disproportionately black and brown in America – could stand on a plantation veranda.” Her eyes pop. “That pretty much sums up this place.”

Humour and perspective gradually leavened a situation that had been “immovable and full of sorrow”. Clark had to laugh when prison guards sent her to Walmart to buy looser clothes (“Mind you, I wasn’t going dressed to the nines!”), or when other visitors asked her to autograph crumpled receipts. She has a nuanced take on her father’s conviction. “One takeaway could be: don’t go against the government, or don’t be the last person holding the bag. There’s a lot of layers to it.”

Her father, now 73, could not be less of “a daddy”, she says, drily. “In some ways, the roles have reversed – I feel like ‘Daddy’ half the time, you know?” She says he is “thrilled” by the album. These days, they have a great relationship. “He’s a person, and every person has a lot of facets, and a lot of shit they’ve done wrong, and good qualities. So it just is. That’s not very poetic, but it just is.”

She chose to detail her family’s experience because, “while incarceration is an incredibly horrific story, it’s not in any way a unique story”. She cites the stats: nearly half of Americans – and 63% of African Americans – have had a close relative in prison. She is clear that her anecdotal experience does not make her a spokesperson for prison reform. The issue she returns to throughout our conversation is the importance of allowing for human fallibility in a “very pearl-clutching” time.

Clark was drawn to the art of the early 70s as a time of postidealism. “We don’t become good fighters without leaving some blood on the mat,” she says. “We need to be honest with ourselves when we are luxuriating in the mud of schadenfreude – when we are putting on a mask of piety while actually delighting in sadism. There seems to be a new religion of our time, one obsessed with a reframed moral purity in thought and action. But we have to have room for compassion and empathy and change and redemption.”

On a personal level, she says, “I ran far away from Texas [and] religion, so I don’t want to find myself ensnared in another”.

Clark was angry when her father was jailed – at him, the system – and scared. “I’m a lot like my dad,” she says with a woofing great laugh. He raised her with the records that inspired Daddy’s Home. “We have a very similar sense of humour and a lot of similar interests.” It invited a personal reckoning: “Am I too destined for a road to ruin? Is there something cracked in me that will … am I going to live the Icarus fantasy, too?” A line on Daddy’s Home sums it up: “Hell, where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you?”

She and a close friend, the musician and writer Carrie Brownstein, made a mockumentary thriller, The Nowhere Inn, about the struggle for artists to avoid their own Icarus moment. It debuted at Sundance last year. Clark stars as a tyrannical caricature of herself. “You have to be able to have these dual visions,” she says. “To have enough clarity to make things great, but if you surround yourself with people who will never tell you no, or never tell you the truth, then you’re going to be off on your planet alone pretty quickly, and you start serving a different beast.”

Six albums in, Clark has considered her balance sheet. The woozy Melting of the Sun celebrates her heroes Joan Didion, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Tori Amos – women whose “particular genius was not recognised at the time, or when they spoke out they weren’t listened to or they were actively suppressed. What they were doing was powerful, but they were met with a hostile world.” She compares herself unfavourably with them: “But me, I never cried / To tell the truth, I lied.” She says she hopes she has not denigrated their legacy. “I hope I wasn’t a coward when you guys were brave.”

St Vincent
‘I was pretty blotto for a while there.’ Photograph: Zachery Michael

The funniest song on Daddy’s Home outlines Clark’s commitment to her cause: My Baby Wants a Baby starts with Clark seemingly playing a pouty 60s rocker (her “baybee” is very Jagger), annoyed because his girl wants to pin him down. Then her own fears break through: she predicts her prospective failures as a parent, when all she wants is to “play guitar all day / Make all my meals in microwaves / Only get dressed up when I get paid” – conscious, too, of how art made by women is judged by their mothering capacities, or lack thereof. “I couldn’t leave like my daddy,” she sings.

The song is “the most base, dirtbaggy version of my life”, she says. She can’t cook. After answering the door for a delivery, she returns with a utilitarian vat of salad that you suspect is always on hand to minimise time away from the studio. “If left to my own devices, I would just make a lot of music and barely survive.” She does not live with her girlfriend – “I’m a real Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera kinda person: you have to have your own space to be able to work” – but she says they have had the kids chat. Clark demurs on the details, then does her best Texas accent. “Daddy’s home,” she shrugs, at once camp and sharp.

She once thought love was all about manic desire. Then this relationship showed her that “things can be really wonderful without a caveat. You don’t have to constantly do the dance of choosing between dignity and love. Anybody who asks you to make that decision is a fucker.”

Whether she finds it easy to be loved is another combo platter. “You want to find somebody who thinks you’re a better person than you do – who believes in you more than you believe in yourself. They actually see you and they actually love you.” It’s a great problem to have, she says. “I don’t know if I’m an easy person to be with. I’m crazy, but I’m aware that I’m crazy. And I’m not, like, mean-crazy.”

The song Somebody Like Me, warmed by pedal steel and openhearted vulnerability, proposes Clark’s vision of love, comparing someone who dresses up as an angel and leaps off a building to the high-stakes act of risking one’s heart. “Love is a mutually agreed-upon delusion. That, to me, is very poetic and very romantic. Because there’s action and agency involved – we’re going to build this idea of who we are and what we are together.” She knows it’s not exactly traditional. “But I think, as a person who peddles delusion, this is romance to me.”

A St Vincent album is only half-complete without a live incarnation. Clark is busy conceptualising for when touring resumes. She reflects on how it will differ from the Masseduction show. “There was a video of me getting punched in the face in slow motion and everything was through the funhouse mirror and perverse.” She pauses. “I mean, this will be perverse in a totally refreshing new way! Just really fun to play and more about flow and looseness and reacting to energy in real time and – God, I sound like a stoner.” She has never been a stoner. Can’t stand it. But, for the first time in a while, Clark has left herself room to breathe.

Daddy’s Home is released on Caroline/Loma Vista on 14 May.

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