PHOTO CREDIT: Gregory Harris
Part Five: St. Vincent
I am almost spoiled for choice when it comes…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
to musical heroines - but there is an artist I have wanted to include for a while now. I have been a fan of St. Vincent for years now, and I think she is one of the most electric and accomplished artists in the world. She is shaping up to reach icon status; someone who is inspiring women to take up the guitar, opening doors and breaking barriers. I will get to her albums soon, but I wanted to mention a couple of things that have been happening regarding St. Vincent. It has been a couple of years since her last studio album, MASSEDUCTION, but Annie Clark has been pretty busy. She appeared at the Grammys earlier this year and performed alongside Dua Lipa. The two made an explosive and natural partnership and, when Lipa spoke out against sexism and a lack of female inclusion at previous ceremonies – Clark supported the statement:
“When Dua Lipa accepted the trophy for Best New Artist at the Grammys Sunday night, she included a not-so-thinly-veiled jab at outgoing Recording Academy President Neil Portnow when she said it was an honor to be nominated along a number of female artists. “I guess this year we really stepped up,” she said. Last year, Portnow had said that women needed to “step up” to become part of the industry. It wasn’t too long after Lipa made her remark that the strings kicked in for her to finish her speech.
“I think it was awesome that she said that,” says Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), who had performed a mash-up of hits with Lipa earlier in the broadcast. “People in any marginalized position have long been told the myth that if they only worked a little harder then they too could inherit the earth. And I’m glad she referenced the ignorance and arrogance of his particular statement. It’s absolutely idiotic”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Maria Jose Govea
There was a mix of celebration and judgement when it was announced St. Vincent was in the chair to produce Sleater-Kinney’s new album, The Center Won't Hold. It didn’t help that, soon after the album was released, the long-time drummer Janet Weiss departed the group. Some claimed the departure was due to St. Vincent/Annie Clark getting involved and taking the music in a new direction – the fact of the matter is Weiss was one who lobbied St. Vincent to come on board! The album, I think, is a great step from Sleater-Kinney and one of their best works. There are some St. Vincent touches and elements here and there but, for the most part, it is the producer working closely with the band and allowing them to evolve and progress their music. The band lost their drummer, but it had nothing to do with St. Vincent. The New York Times assessed St. Vincent’s input on The Center Won’t Hold and how St. Vincent was a positive influence on the band:
“They were the classic things that Sleater-Kinney has always done so well, which is great guitar parts and big firework, lightning-in-a-bottle kind of songs,” Clark said, “but then there was this other side that I also felt in the demos — kind of an extra vulnerability from both of them.”
It came through in their vocals and subject matter, which both writers called unusually personal, taking on depression, suicidal thoughts and #MeToo. “Broken,” the wrenching piano ballad that closes the album, invokes Christine Blasey Ford.
Clark, Brownstein said, directed them to “not circumvent the emotion, but actually really delve into it.”
Production-wise, “I remember I was using the word ‘corrosive’ a lot,” Clark said, when she joined the group interview. All three were arrayed in variations on black, white and a pop of red, in escalating levels of glam. “Nice suit,” Brownstein, low-key in a printed button-up, said admiringly of Clark’s slick, sexy-boss black-and-white pinstripe, set off by red heart-shaped sunglasses and a Gucci handbag.
They wanted the album to sound “really gross,” Tucker, in contrasting lacy white, said, as her collaborators mmm-hmmmed in affirmation. “Like, disgusting, dirty, gross, dusty.” She went to a Depeche Mode show and got absorbed by synths; Clark and Brownstein saw Nine Inch Nails, and heard industrial”.
In fact, before I start at the beginning – as you do -, I wanted to bring in a feature that reacts to MASSEDUCTION and how it elevated St. Vincent’s sound and name. I will come to that album near the end of my feature, but I am still listening to tracks from the album. It is a hugely impressive album and one that sort of builds from St. Vincent’s previous work but adds new levels and layers. As the world wonders where she might head next, one can bask in the magnificent of MASSEDUCTION. In fact, in an unexpected move, St. Vincent released MASSEDUCATION in 2018 (the additional ‘a’ adds confusion but, hey, I guess there was a reason). It was the original album but stripped back and reimagined.
GQ talk about the contrasts between the albums:
“Masseduction made the case that Clark could be as much a pop star as someone like Sia or Nicki Minaj—a performer whose idiosyncrasies didn't have to be tamped down for mainstream success but could actually be amplified. The artist Bruce Nauman once said he made work that was like “going up the stairs in the dark and either having an extra stair that you didn't expect or not having one that you thought was going to be there.” The idea applies to Masseduction: Into the familiar form of a pop song Clark introduces surprising missteps, unexpected additions and subtractions. The album reached No. 10 on the Billboard 200. The David Bowie comparisons got louder.
IN THIS PHOTO: St. Vincent in 2012/PHOTO CREDIT: Inez and Vinoodh
This past fall, she released MassEducation (not quite the same title; note the addition of the letter a), which turned a dozen of the tracks into stripped-down piano songs. Although technically off duty after being on tour for nearly all of 2018, Clark has been performing the reduced songs here and there in small venues with her collaborator, the composer and pianist Thomas Bartlett. Whereas the Masseduction tour involved a lot of latex, neon, choreographed sex-robot dance moves, and LED screens, these recent shows have been comparatively austere. When she performed in Brooklyn, the stage was empty, aside from a piano and a side table. There were blue lights, a little piped-in fog for atmosphere, and that was it. It looked like an early-'90s magazine ad for premium liquor: art-directed, yes, but not to the degree that it Pinterested itself”.
It is amazing to look back twelve years and see where St. Vincent started life! Aside from changing looks/wardrobe – which has become bolder and more colourful as her career has passed -, the music has become bigger and more ambitious. I did not know St. Vincent (or Annie/Anne Clark as she would have been known) was with The Polyphonic Spree before going solo. That band’s infectious and relentlessly positive music was much-needed and, in these tough times, maybe we need them back! Clark was working on her debut, Marry Me, when she ended touring with The Polyphonic Spree. Sufjan Stevens heard the material and asked Clark to open for him. When performing in London, she was spotted by Beggars Banquet and she got a deal – St. Vincent was born and in the world! Right from the off, you could tell St. Vincent was so different to anyone out there. Songs like Your Lips Are Red are instant and captivating. There is so much life and colour in a single song! Whilst St. Vincent would widen her sound and create finer works, Marry Me is an amazing introduction from someone you just knew would become a star. Marry Me received a lot of positive reviews – hardly surprising to hear why! In their review, AllMusic had this to say:
“Not that Marry Me doesn't have its fair share of happy love songs ("All My Stars Aligned," "What Me Worry?"), but the album isn't seeped in that kind of joyfulness that sings blind and insincere. It's an mix of good and bad, of light and dark, of the woman who purposefully sets up the obstacles she must get through to find her lover ("I'm crawling through landmines/I know 'cause I planted them," she sings disarmingly), of sweet self-deprecation ("Marry me, John, I'll be so good to you/You won't realize I'm gone"), honest and quirky and totally enticing.
Clark is young enough that she's still able to retain that sense of wonder about the world without seeming naïve, and old enough that she can say things like "My hands are red from sealing your red lips" and you believe her. It's an orchestral record for those who prefer the simplistic, a darker one for those who prefer theirs twee, love songs for the scorned and sad songs for the content, an engaging and alluring combination that makes Marry Me nearly irresistible, and one of the better indie pop albums that's come around for a long time”.
St. Vincent’s follow-up album, Actor, arrived in 2009.S he started working with another producer but, after things went in the wrong direction and the album started to sound a bit too Disney and sweet, she called John Congleton to assist. With Congleton on board, she recorded everything again, bar wind and strings. It is clear there was a lot of colour and light on the original recording. Clark revealed she was watching a lot of Disney before recording, so that might have influenced the direction. Congleton came in and helped work out the tracks; alongside the artist, what was released was a complete, clear and original work. Actor has a lot of similar threads (in terms of Marry Me) but there is more confidence regarding the songwriting; St. Vincent spreading her wings a bit more. In this interview with The Guardian, she talked about the creative process and recording Actor:
"If you have a vision you want to figure out how to make that happen. You don't want to have to ask permission, or negotiate, you just do it. It's very natural to me," she says of writing and performing alone.
Natural, perhaps but not always straightforward. She admits there were times during the recording of Actor when it felt too much. "There were a lot of ups and downs: 'This is amazing, this is great' and 'This is terrible. I'm going to call the label and give them their money back.'" But the St Vincent persona, if not quite the high-concept alter ego that female stars such as Bat for Lashes have adopted, made the process easier.
"I'm too middle class for grand archetypal personas and too inherently self-effacing." She mimes theatrical diva-like actions. "For me calling it St Vincent, it's a subtle thing, a psychic thing, it gave me room to be able to make a space for what I was doing. Annie Clark will go and do the laundry but I felt like I could do anything I wanted if I gave it another name".
Maybe it is me but, in 2009, there were not many female artists wielding guitars. There were a few, but St. Vincent was a rarity. Now, we have great artists like Anna Calvi who are showing how female artists can shred it with the best and cannot be easily defined. It was her unique guitar chops that made St. Vincent’s Actor such an interesting and personal work. You can hear every ounce of her being and expression in the songs. Again, the album resonated with critics and further highlighted the fact St. Vincent is an artist like no other. I like to listen to her slightly older albums and compare them to say, MASSEDUCTION. You can feel St. Vincent growing hungrier and more alive with every album.
On every outing, she is stunning and presents the most fantastic, fascinating songs. When it came to Actor, Pitchfork were keen to praise:
“Since Clark's voice seldom strays from a calm, lovely tone, her guitar parts articulate much of the record's anxieties and provide its moments of cathartic release. Her style is melodic and controlled, conjuring abrasive textures that nevertheless have a clean, meticulous quality that complements her immaculate arrangements as well as her characters' temperate demeanor. Despite a reliance on processed tonality, she manages to avoid a sterile coldness, and has a way of performing her most tightly composed hooks with a touch of looseness and immediacy. In her heaviest, most warped riffs, Clark finds the grace in her subjects' frustration and purges their fear and repressed anger with a glorious, singular noise”.
I think there are two phases to St. Vincent’s solo career. One can hear a definite shift and change just before Strange Mercy. The 2011 album to that point, was her most celebrated and talked about. I read interviews where she was inspired by Nick Cave’s attitude to songwriting. He would tackle songs like a day job, seriously, and make sure he committed himself with discipline and resolve. St. Vincent had to get away from any distractions and noises; isolate herself and set to work on her next album. She retreated to Detroit, rented a studio and adopted a new approach to her songs – learning not to judge what was coming out of her and look at her thoughts in a new light. Maybe it was not a case of writer’s block, yet it was clear Los Angeles was stifling St. Vincent to an extent.
PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Youssef
There was definitely a bit of a personal awakening and alteration when you look at St. Vincent on Strange Mercy. Great artists are always open to change and a new approach; Strange Mercy is a remarkable album that one falls in love with on the first visit. There are, again, some great interviews online that were conducted around the time of Strange Mercy’s release. When speaking with The Guardian, St. Vincent talked about retuning and personal openness:
“She wanted to create "something to really dig into live" with Strange Mercy. That meant out with riffs, and in with hooks. "I don't do a lot of strumming on this record because I think it's really boring," she says. "Guitar can take up all of the mid-range, and I can't think of a more boring thing to put in this wide swath of EQ. There's a little strumming on Cheerleader, and Year of the Tiger, but it's tucked in."
The resulting work is a sublime affair, sewn together with intense, ambiguous narratives and Clark's beguilingly languid vocals. Performing the songs has become something of an exorcism for her. "A song has a life of its own. It's an autonomous thing, separate from your own experience, almost," she says. "And the mere repetition of it means it's subject to change; it means approaching it differently, expressing different emotional aspects of it. It doesn't feel like wallowing."
The talk of wallowing is interesting, given the word's association with depressive illnesses. Clark is candid about her past experiences with anxiety attacks, which began when she was eight or nine. "I was very ashamed of it," she says. "I thought I was going crazy and I didn't want anyone to know. Everyday life was fraught. I always needed to know where the exits were." Out of her anxiety bloomed a skill for dark, disarming humour. In the song Northern Lights, she gazes at the aurora borealis and sees only a harbinger of the "end times". "I guess I thought that line was kinda funny," she says with a gentle shrug.
Before talking about a few other albums from St. Vincent, it is worth bringing in a sample review for Strange Mercy to see how critics approached it. In their review, NME highlights my point regarding Strange Mercy’s instant allure and attraction; how one falls for it because of the sheer power and passion running alongside one another:
“Virtuosity and accessibility have never been easy bedfellows, but ‘Strange Mercy’ is one of those rare albums that makes you think and makes you fall in love. If St Vincent’s previous studio album, ‘Actor’, had us slavering on its release in 2009, it must now be regarded as progress in the historical sense, such is the inventiveness and cohesion here. Annie Clark’s third is a record of such assuredness that it staggers on first listen and, equally, with subsequent spins. Like Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Age Of Adz’ last year, it is one of those complete creations that gives up more intricacies with perseverance”.
Not long after the release of Strange Mercy – a year after, in fact -, St. Vincent joined together with David Byrne for Love This Giant. The two met initially back in 2009 at a Radio City Music Hall benefit; it was a second meeting that sparked the idea for a collaboration after they watched Björk and Dirty Projectors play together at a New York thrift shop Housing Works – a concert organiser mooted the idea of David Byrne and St. Vincent putting their heads together. St. Vincent had worked with woodwind on Actor, so suggested she and Byrne use horns on their record; penning original music around that sound. The original plan was to do a single performance, maybe with a couple of guitars, but the concept grew, and an album arrived. Compared to her solo albums, the reviews were a bit more mixed for Love This Giant. That said, there was a lot of love and respect for the St. Vincent-Byrne unity. This review talks of the romantic elements of Love This Giant:
“All the best male-female pop partnerships teasingly hint at romance, and this collaboration between David Byrne and Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, is no exception. Sometimes it's on the surface, in the seductive push and pull of their voices in Lazarus; sometimes it's subtler, buried in the tantalising intermingling of songwriting limbs. When Ice Age, sung by Clark, begins to sound like a Talking Heads song, or her guitar flickers across Who, you get the peculiar sensation they are wearing each other's clothes.
That said, mostly their aesthetics seem to be spliced rather than shared, and hers – exemplified in the tender Optimist – tends to be dominated by his: exuberant, febrile, a riot of rippling percussion (I Am An Ape) and joyful brass (The One Who Broke Your Heart). By the end, the couple they most resemble is Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, for he is eternally youthful in his restless invention, and while she seems soft and wispy, up close she glints like a razor blade”.
If Strange Mercy and Love This Giant added new textures to the St. Vincent sound, her eponymous album of 2014 added yet new life to her bubbling pot. The songwriter wanted to create an album that was party-appropriate for a funeral. Something that was not all serious, but it had some serious edges – offset by plenty of energy and oomph. St. Vincent contains some of the best tracks from the Oklahoma-born artist. I Prefer Your Love concerns Clark’s relationship with her mother (who was briefly ill); Severed Crossed Fingers borrows a sentence from a Lorrie Moore short story: “He thinks of severed, crossed fingers perfectly survived in the wreckage of a local plane crash last year”. Whether expressing a vulnerability, or the human heart’s ability to repair and cope, it clearly struck St. Vincent – she cried her eyes out after recording the song. If Strange Mercy is a visage of St. Vincent’s life at the time, St. Vincent is a more confident and outward album.
It is a fantastic album that saw her collect the most impassioned reviews of her career to that date. AllMusic gave an extremely positive review:
“Similarly, while St. Vincent is some of her most pop-oriented work, it doesn't dilute the essence of her music. If anything, her razor-sharp wit is even more potent when polished in a candy coating with just a hint of venom. This is especially true of the album's singles: on "Digital Witness," one of the songs with the closest kinship to her "Love This Giant" work, she juxtaposes pointed commentary ("If you can't see me/What's the point of doing anything?") with Valley Girl "yeah"s in a trenchant expression of the 21st century's constant oversharing and need for validation. This somewhat frantic undercurrent bubbles to the surface on "Birth in Reverse," one of Clark's most immediately winning singles since "Actor Out of Work," and one that makes retreat seem nearly as exciting as revolution. Here and throughout the album, Clark and longtime producer John Congleton use their signature, proudly artificial sound to highlight her direct storytelling, whether it's the way "I Prefer Your Love"'s trip-hoppy sheen lets the declaration "I prefer your love to Jesus" ring out more boldly or the way Clark sings "I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind" gives the lie to her brash guitar playing on "Regret."
As on Strange Mercy, Clark explores strength and vulnerability in ever more masterful, and approachable, ways. Not every song may be as literally autobiographical as "Rattlesnake," which was inspired by a secluded walk in the desert in the altogether. Yet there's more than a kernel of emotional truth to "Prince Johnny," where Clark's character ends up even more exposed thanks to some songwriting sleight-of-hand. The hallucinatory, funky "Huey Newton" and the decaying power ballad "Severed Crossed Fingers" show off not just Clark's musical range, but just how eloquently she blends passion and precision. And, as her most satisfying, artful, and accessible album yet, St. Vincent earns its title.
MASSEDUCTION/Masseduction is St. Vincent’s latest studio album (not including MASSEDUCATION) and it is a record overloaded with life and genius. Subjects take on sex, drugs; sadness, relationships and death. Of all her albums, MASSEDUCTION is the most personal one. It is the culmination of years of notes, text messages and thoughts; an album that combines the first-person, yet everyone can bond with the album and find something that can applied to their own experienced. Alongside Jack Antonoff, Lars Stalfors and John Congleton, it found St. Vincent (yet again) hitting a peak. There are few artists that improve with every album; St. Vincent is an artist who seems to grow in stature and brilliance. MASSEDUCTION is so varied and wide-ranging that one needs quite a while to play it and really get to grips.
It is interesting learning the genesis of many of the tracks. When speaking with The Line of Best Fit , she explained how some songs came together quite easily, whereas others were a bit more complex:
“The journey for some songs was simple. “'New York' was written on guitar,” says Clark. “And then we just had it played on piano by Thomas Bartlett."
The journey for others, not so much. “The genesis of ‘Pills’ was that I was having trouble sleeping,” she says of the album’s four minute mental pop opera. “I took like, an over the counter sleeping pill and I just started singing the song’s jingle. ‘Pills to eat / pills to sleep / pills, pills, pills / every day of the week.’ And I was like, oh, that’s a good one. I’ll take that! So many songs that we love are like versions of nursery rhymes, you know? So I knew that it was something. And then the second half of that song, I had this piece of music that I’d written for David Byrne’s ‘Colour Guard’ project. So I kind of had ‘Pills’ part 1 and ‘Pills’ part 2. I didn’t necessarily think they would go together but I kept refining both of them.”
“The first time I played it for Jack,” she continues, “it had both parts but it wasn’t really fleshed out as an idea. He was like, ‘that’s really cool, that sounds really ambitious’ and I was like, ‘hm. Ambitious is not what you want to sound like. Ambitious sounds like you’re really trying for something but you didn’t get there.’ So, OK. This needs to be something people can really dance to until they listen to the words and then they’re crying”.
I can understand why St. Vincent wanted to strip down the songs on MASSEDUCTION and let them breathe on MassEducation. Perhaps she felt the tracks were too frenetic and busy, or that there was greater emotional resonance available when taking away some of the layers. I love the ‘original’, and the fact the same songs take on new life when readapted shows what a brilliant songwriter St. Vincent/Annie Clark is. I will finish off now but, before doing so, I want to bring in some praise for MASSEDUCTION. It is, in my view, one of the best albums of the past decade and has some of the strongest releases of St. Vincent’s career. As I keep saying regarding St. Vincent and her constant improvement, there were few who had anything but complete adoration for MASSEDUCTION. It is a truly fantastic album and one I urge people to stream/buy if they have not done so already. In their review, The Guardian show their love for a brilliant album:
“Mechanical beats and abrasive synths underpinned by producer Jack Antonoff’s feedback-pocked soundbed-of-nails: Annie Clark’s sixth album as St Vincent is not immediately inviting. But it is fascinating, sometimes grimly so, with Clark relating scenes from a relationship with a drugged-up Young Lover. But the frank confessions – of transgressive desire, pathological anxiety and romantic rejection – that pepper Masseduction transcend gossipy intrigue. (Inevitably, people will assume some of the material is inspired by her breakup with ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne.)
PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn Andel
Sonically, the record gradually unfurls into something similarly captivating though, as Clark ditches the guitar rock for pop that is rich, nuanced and constantly surprising. Single songs journey across genres – Pills, for example, begins resembling a bass-heavy remix of a nursery rhyme and ends up a big ballad with a Kamasi Washington sax section – while bizarrely amusing ingredients are continually added to the pot, from parodically funky synth lines to shrill vocal gymnastics that would have Mariah Carey cowering on her chaise lounge”.
St. Vincent has not long completed her production duties with Sleater-Kinney, so we might not see any new music for a while. There is always anticipation regarding her music because, on every album, she brings something staggering to the party. One wonders where she will head next and what the next album will sound like. Like all the artists I will put in this Modern Heroines feature, there are upcoming artists who are showing little touches of St. Vincent. She is highly influential and one of the most interesting and original songwriters in all of music. I love the fact she is this sensational live performer and terrific guitarist; someone who is hugely intelligent and warm; a songwriter who never stands still and is always blowing the mind. She has come a long way since Marry Me and her days with The Polyphonic Spree. There is still so much music in Annie Clark, and I wonder whether she will produce for other artists (like she did with Sleater-Kinney). There is no telling…and there is no end to the talents of Ms. Clark. The music world is very lucky to have her and I, and many people, know that she is shaping up to be…
PHOTO CREDIT: Catalina Kulczar
A legend of the future.