Interview: St Vincent

Below is a transcription of a chat I had with Annie a coupla months ago for TLOBF. Her new record is out today and it’s great. She’s great to talk to. It was nice to get the chance to chat with her again.

Interview: St Vincent


I sit down with Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, at a hotel, after a day of photos and interviews. It’s a couple of months before the release of her third record ‘Strange Mercy’. She tucks into a snack from EAT.

Anika: I go to EAT for lunch sometimes

Annie Clark: Yeah?

A: I have turkey and cheese, with salt and vinegar crisps and a coke.

AC: Every day?

A: Not every day. That would be sad. How’s your day been?

AC: It’s been good. A little long, but good.

A: I came to the show yesterday, the Rain Dogs Revisited one. I enjoyed your songs. What was it like playing with that band?

AC: That’s a good band! A really good band. I loved every individual player. Sometimes you can get a group of really good players who don’t all play well together, but this was a really sympathetic and intuitive band. A band of people; and they played really well together. I think it’s rare, I’m realising more and more, how rare it is to get to have these communal experiences like that, that are different from… like, the communal feeling you get at a sporting event when you’re rooting for the destruction of someone. This, I’ve only known those people for less than a week, I just walked into rehearsals, flew in, had a dinner, did two hours of rehearsal then we had a show the next day. But I felt more connected and cared for them more than people I’ve known for a long time.

A: Wow.

AC: I won’t name names, but…! I think it’s rare, and really special, to have such a team effort to put on a show. And not in a competitive way, all in this was like ‘oh shoot, Camille really nailed it!’. Everyone’s really bringing it…

A: It’s all for the mutual love of those songs.

AC: Exactly, exactly…

A: How did that all come about?

AC: I just got asked to do it. And that’s such a great record. Mark Cardenell, who put it together, and Dave Coulter who was the music director – really talented guys. And I worked with Mark before because I did this night of Brooklyn Music at this amphitheater in Lyon last summer. It was me, and The National, and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings… and The Dirty Projectors.

A: Amazing. What I really liked about it was that I really like the idea of an album, and listening to it start to finish, not skipping anything. When you see it performed in that way you can really appreciate every single part of every song. Especially hearing it performed by different artists; every song gets its own spotlight. I was just thinking… if you were to do that with any other album, to have the chance to get your own crew together and do that, what would you pick?!

AC: Woah. That’s a really good question. Uhm. God. Well the thing about the Waits stuff… I love that album a whole lot. It’s tremendous. I felt emotionally invested in it, just as a listener. But then, once I started to learn the songs… I mean: I was very intimidated actually to learn the songs. I still have this thing where even though I have a trained ear, in a lot of ways, when I like something I think it’s magic. It still alludes me how they put it together. I can’t reason how these three simple ingredients… you know? I could never figure out the recipe. But once you start digging in and learning it, you go ‘oh okay’ and it demystifies it a little bit… I mean, there’s a period of it being demystified, then it swings back around to going: ‘Holy cow! This text is so rich! These lyrics are so rich!’ The characters speak for themselves. Even Downtown Train which is the most working class, almost Bruce Springsteen-y, fist pumper of a song, on that album, the dark horse on that album in some ways… that one, when I started to sing it, and sing the words, I found I really emotionally connected with it. But in a totally different way from how it’s presented on the album. It took on its own life, like an alien spawn inside of me.

A: Intense! It was cool to hear all those interpretations. Returning to what you said earlier, about being all in it together, the day before that show, I saw another show at the Barbican. It was called Congotronics Vs Rockers.

AC: Oh!! Congotronics! Sooo cool!

A: It was the coolest thing.

AC: Was Battles involved?

A: No, it was Wildbirds & Peacedrums, who I know you toured with.

AC: I LOVE them!!

A: I love them too. They constantly amaze me with their creativity.

AC: Was it just the two of them?

A: So for Congotronics, it was them, Deerhoof, Juana Molina… and then Konono No 1 and the Kasai Allstars.

AC: Fuck you! That’s the coolest lineup ever.

A: 19 members all on stage at once, taking their own songs and interpreting them in different ways, and just jamming new jams together.

AC: Oh my god, so cool. Was it amazing?

A: It was amazing. I’d never seen the Barbican flip out like that. People in suits, getting up and dancing. Losing it.

AC: Oh my god. I wish I could have seen that.

A: I knew you had toured with Wildbirds, as well. So how did that go on that tour?

AC: Lovely. They are just the loveliest people. It was just so easy. Again, it just comes down to this super-team-spirit camaraderie. Mariam just sings from here; it’s the most guttural, amazing thing. It was nice to have this counterpoint and get to talk to them backstage, or talk to her about singing. She’ll look you in the eye, she has a lot of power. She’s a very powerful person. It was nice to have this energetic person who I really looked up to…

A: I love the way she moves. I guess when you’re playing you always have your guitar. How would you be if you didn’t have your guitar. Would you dance?

AC: I would probably have to, right? Or… I would do the exact opposite.

A: Stand still?

AC: Stand perfectly still probably.

A: That might be awkward…

AC:… OR, awesome.

A: Hmm, perhaps. Maybe you should have a go.

AC: Maybe I will.

A: So. I guess it’s been two years since you were here. What have you been up to? Made an album………? Where did you record it?

AC: I recorded it at John Congolton’s studio in Dallas.

A: And you worked with him on Actor as well.

AC: I did. I finished Actor with him. I actually started with another producer and it didn’t work out very well, so I called John. “Johnny, baby, I need your help!”. And basically started over. And made Actor. We kept all the woodwind parts but basically started over.

A: I’ve only had a chance to listen to the new album, uhm, one and a half times, but I thought it was excellent.

AC: Thanks!

A: It’s a lot to take in. But I think that’s a good thing, because if you listen to it once, and you feel that you’ve heard it… what’s the point? How do you feel you’ve changed from the last record?

AC: These songs are closer to my guts.

A: Are they all fairly new?

AC: Yeah. They’re less than a year old. Strange Mercy… I took that title for this album. I thought ‘oh’, it was like looking at all the other songs through that prism and realising there was a thread, and that was the thread.

A: What is a strange mercy?

AC: Well, in the instance of the song, you’re telling someone a merciful lie. You want to protect someone so you give a half truth… or, like in Chloe In The Afternoon, you’re looking for catharsis through an S&M scenario. You know there’s a lot of strange mercies in the world? There are lots of mammals, that when they give birth, cats for example, if there’s a runt in the litter, if it’s clear it won’t survive, the mother cat will devour it.

A: That is a strange mercy. A sad mercy.

AC: Yes. There’s a lot of that.

A: The album cover. This is the first without your portrait on. Why the change? Is that your mouth?

AC: It’s not. It’s sort of an homage to this Can cover; there’s a hand reaching through… I just thought it was funny. Funny in a dark way. We had to stretch white latex completely over someone’s face, so they can’t breathe… to get that shot.

A: That sounds logistically pretty difficult to pull off. What’s your plan for the next year?

AC: Touring! It’ll be busy. Tours. I’m playing London on November 9th.

A: Where are you playing?

AC: Royal… Festival Hall.

A: Really? No way.

AC: Oh. Does that not sound right?

A: That’s a big venue.

AC: That can’t be right.

[EDIT - SHE MEANS QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL]

A: It’s highbrow.

AC: Oh… I don’t think that’s where I’m playing. If you build it… they will come. So, yeah, touring. I start a US tour in October. Lots of press. All the normal album releasy stuff.

A: Are you looking forward to returning to touring?

AC: Yeah. I am. (laughs) Did you see my eyes glaze over? Like a Stepford Wife: ‘yes I like touring’. (laughs). No. I do. I feel comfortable, I’ve spent all my adult life on tours. And ironically, I think touring keeps you young.

A: Have you played in Japan?

AC: I toured with Sufjan in Japan. I love Japan! I think if the Japanese embrace you, it’s a great fanbase. I’ve been over there with my aunt and uncle and they’d play shows… and it was a really enthusiastic crowd.

A: Where do you prefer touring? Here? The States?

AC: I love being anywhere where there are people. I mean, I do quite a bit better in the States than I do here. So in terms of sheer volumes of people, I can do sell out tours of good sized venues. Here, it’s a little different.

A: Well if you’re playing Royal Festival Hall…

AC: Hah. I totally just threw that out. I have no idea.

A: I’ll find out and change ‘Royal Festival Hall’ to wherever you’re actually playing.

AC: Probably, like, a Flannery’s Pub…

A: Yeah, Weatherspoons. You’re playing in Weatherspoons. Anyway… what have you been listening to lately?

AC: Lately? Oh! I’ve been listening to a band called the Pop Group. They’re GREAT. You would like them. They’re, like, demented funk. They put out a record called ‘Y’ in 1979.

A: Great year for music.

AC: Yes! Recession equals good music. Also lots of Nick Cave. But that’s always. But yeah, Pop Group: Y. It’s just the letter ‘Y’.

A: Sounds hard to Google.

AC: Ha! Yeah. Took me some searches.

A: Have you had much time to relax during the time off, or have you been busy with odd shows and stuff?

AC: Actually, so after I finished the record in mid April, I had May. May was pretty quiet. And part of June.

A: What do you do when you’re not doing music things?

AC: I mean, I still do music… but just, like, living in NY. I got very social. I’ve been getting very social. Like, when I was in Dallas recording I really didn’t see anyone. You can’t go out and drink and show up to the studio the next day and expect to have your bearings… so I was pretty much isolated. Pretty much me and John in a room for two months together. May and June were very social. Saw a lot of shows…

A: What did you see?

AC: I saw James Blake at La Poisson Rouge, it was really great. I saw… this tribute to Kate McGarrigle.

A: Oh! I saw the London show.

AC: It was so beautiful.

A: The London one was so soon after she passed away. People were crying on stage, breaking down.

AC: Oh my god. I can’t imagine…. it was intense. It was still intense a year and a half later. But beautiful.

A: I’d love to see that Kate McGarrigle show again. They wrote some great songs. It really slipped by a lot of people….

AC: I know!!! It really does.

A: You say, do you like Kate and Anna?

AC: Yeah! And they’re like ‘who?’. Yeah. I didn’t really know them until recently. Who else? Oh! Justin Vivian Bond! She used to be in this group called Kiki and Herb. It’s this cabaret, synth trance show. She’s such an incredible performer. I’ve seen that show at Joe’s Pub like six times.

A: I like all the music videos you’ve done in the past. What’s next?

AC: We’re going to do one. Uhm… atleast two. Yeah!

A: How involved do you get in that? Do you find someone and say ‘here’s the song’…

AC: Yeah! Well, typically how it works is different directors will submit a treatment. I’ve worked with Terri Timely, the directing duo before…

A: I liked Actor Out Of Work…

AC: Yeah! That’s disturbing. That psychologically took quite a toll on me. You know, they’re actors. Fake crying. But it was hard to sit across from people for hours, bawling their eyes out… I think the other thing is, I put it together later, I think the producer or whoever, had told the actors not to ‘bother me’. You know “don’t bother ‘the talent’”. So I’d be like ‘that was great!’ and they’d be like
‘thanks’ and skulk off. I felt responsible for their pain…

A: Are you into film? What good films have you seen lately?

AC: There’s a really dark film called Leap Year. That was… a friend of a friend’s friend, is John Waters and he recommended it. So we went to see it. It’s about a lonely woman in Mexico who starts having an affair with a guy who, errr…. like, there’s a lot of sex in the movie. It starts off with him slapping her during sex to, like, test the waters. You can tell she gets into it. So there’s crazy, intense, S&M style degradation. But…. you can tell there’s actual affection between them. But the intensity and pain in the scenarios gets more and more intense. I mean, I was kinda watching…. few things shock me, but this was shocking. And deeply disturbing. But really well made. A great film.

A: Would you ever consider directing?

AC: Ohhh… I don’t know. I know that I typically think in colours and more abstract ideas, to write. I don’t think about music or chords, that kind of building blocks stuff… so maybe it could work the other way. But this movie, Leap Year; don’t get it confused- there’s like an Amy Adams film where she falls in love with a chipper Irish lad…

A: I’ll be watching that one and be like: ‘Hmm, it’s not as dark as I was expecting’

AC: ‘So wait, when does Amy Adams get pissed on?’ ‘I’m waiting for the water sports scene!’. I hope they make an American remake and cast Amy Adams.

A: That would be… pretty interesting.

AC: ‘Hmmm, this is great but when does Amy Adams get her nipples burned with cigarettes? Hmm’.

A: You should pitch that to someone.

AC: (Laughs) It’s a really intense movie. It really fucked me up for a couple of days. But y’know, it was good.

A: Those are the best ones, that leave you thinking…

AC: Right. Tree Of Life was good. I walked out and I just couldn’t carry on a conversation for days.

A: Have you seen the film Dogtooth? That’s the last film that left me thinking for days.

AC: No!

A: It’s Greek. The concept is that this family have these three young adult kids, who have been kept in this compound their whole lives. They’ve been taught the wrong words for things, taught that you can never leave the compound or you’ll die etc. They understand nothing about the world… like, a cat comes in the garden and they freak out because they think it’s a monster. They’re insane.

AC: Do they ever leave?

A: I won’t tell you.

AC: Oh! Don’t spoil it. I really want to see it.

A: It’s amazing. Just like, wow. You’re parents have a lot of responsibility to… not destroy your life like that. You should check it out.

AC: I really want to.

A: Would you like to do music for a film?

AC: I’d love to.

A: Can you think of any directors in particular?

AC: Terrence Malick. Werner Herzog. Lynne Ramsey. Claire Denis…although she already has Tindersticks locked down. Actually, Kelly Reichardt…

A: Have you ever been asked by anyone?

AC: Yeah. Little bits. Sometimes people will come and say ‘we really want to use this Rolling Stones song but we can’t afford it, can you do a sound-a-like?’. And that’s not very fun. No. If the director’s at that point of knowing what they want but it’s too expensive, they’re never going to be happy with whatever.

A: That’s all. Thank you so much.

AC: My pleasure.

Then I confuse Annie talking about jellies and jams and burgers and scare her saying I don’t like vegetables. What a nice lady. Warm, friendly, clearly very intelligent, articulate and incredibly talented. Strange Mercy is a stunning and brilliant record.

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