Love Is The Drug: St. Vincent Interviewed

After touring the world, joining the Nirvana reunion and releasing a stunning self-titled album, Annie Clark aka St. Vincent tells us how music became like a drug, why touring is like a hurricane, and how an artist's life becomes a reverent construct

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 07 Aug 2014

"Touring is like being in the eye of a tornado – all of a sudden you get dropped down, and you're in the most mundane kind of circumstances, and you're trying to find your way again.” Speaking from her home in New York's East Village, Annie Clark, better known to the world as St. Vincent, is talking about the making of her new, self-titled album, on a brief rest stop between legs of a series of dates across the USA and Europe.

It's the same situation she finds herself in when we speak, having just toured in her home country, and currently poised to play some select dates in the UK. In the meantime, she's hardly been idle, taking part in the Nirvana anniversary reunion show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York this April, playing alongside Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, with Lorde, Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and herself taking the place of Kurt Cobain on vocals. If there's one thing Clark finds difficult, it seems, it’s taking time off to relax.

In 2012, after coming home from touring with David Byrne (playing their collaborative album Love This Giant, about which we spoke with the pair last year), Clark had originally intended to rest. But her creative, driven alter ego St. Vincent had other plans, and within 36 hours or less, she was sketching out ideas for the songs that would become St. Vincent. “I didn't want that comedown, I wanted to keep going,” she says, subtly confirming that for her, music is the perfect drug. “I had so many things to say, I was just so inspired. So I just kept writing, and this record came out pretty quickly.”

Musicians often say that touring is death to creativity. What was it about the process of touring that inspired her to write? “I wanted to make an audio scrapbook of where I'd been, just so that it felt even more real. I had a year's worth of nights out, and people I'd met, and places I'd been, which I wanted to... synthesise.” She laughs at having to reach for the word, but it's an appropriate one to apply to St. Vincent, a record on which angular synth riffs and electronic drum beats are deployed with devastating effect.

“I pretty much write music in the same way I always did. The whole thing is just trusting your instincts, and letting songs be what they want to be,” she says when asked if playing with Byrne on tour affected her approach this time around. But the experience of working with Michael Gira on his imminent new LP To Be Kind was another matter. “I wouldn't call it a collaboration – I sang back-up vocals on the Swans record,” she says. “Collaboration gives me too much credit. I collaborated with David, I sang back-up vocals with the Swans. But it was so exciting, I'm a massive Swans fan and even singing on that record, honestly changed my whole relationship to music. It was a dream come true.” How so? “I was asked to sing the same note for about thirty minutes straight... That's basically transcendental meditation, or a mantra. Your whole being changes when you do something like that.”

“I didn't want that post-tour comedown, I wanted to keep going” – Annie Clark aka St. Vincent

It is this transformative power, this complete and utter devotion of the self to art and the creative process, that she finds somewhat lacking in modern music, or art and culture in general. On one track from her new album, the undeniably funky Digital Witness, she examines themes of internet-era creativity, identity, empowerment and exploitation. ‘People turn the TV on,’ she sings in the chorus, ‘looks just like a window.’ For Clark, it's a song about how we elevate the mundane in internet-era culture, without adding real meaning and value in an artistic sense. Or as Clark puts it, “I think sometimes we're just all bowing to the god of 'content’.”

She's careful not to come across as either a Luddite or an elitist, however. “I don't think it's all bad, at all. There are some positive, awesome aspects to it. Like the democratisation of technology – that's very empowering, people have a voice now. They can form online communities, in a way that they certainly couldn't have done 30 years ago. But then there is this other side to it, which can be a black hole.”

For her, elevating the mundane is an artistic ambition with merit, and a pedigree: “That has roots in art – you can look at Dada, and that's basically the premise.” But now, she believes, “I don't necessarily know if we're taking the mundane and making it feel sexy and new and enervated. I wonder if we're all getting a little technologically fatigued, not just from the constant barrage of information... not just that, but being asked to place value, make value judgements on every bit of information that comes at us.” She makes a decent point – who has the time to like every Facebook status, and favourite every tweet? “I don't have the capacity to do that, by any means,” says Clark. “I just get overwhelmed, then feel depressed.”

Going back to the album, we discuss the songs and their preoccupation with love, death, faith and belief, not to mention a delicious and intoxicating physicality. “All of that stuff you mention – it's just the stuff of life,” says Clark. “In so many ways, I just write my life. Until we all figure out what it is we're supposed to be doing on the planet, and construct some new mythology to live by, I'll be writing about the grit and gristle of humanity. Because that's infinitely interesting, and infinitely explorable.” She pauses, before exclaiming: “And unknowable! Love and death are not opposed. Love is the thing that gives your life meaning. Love is the point of it.”

As to why she named this album after herself, she gives a simple explanation. “I was reading Miles Davis’s autobiography, where he talks about how the hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself. On this album, I felt like I did, so I named it after myself.” Scratching beneath the surface, there is another reason Clark's fourth album is her first self-titled work – a growing sense of confidence, but also of how blessed she is to be doing what she loves, has become a guiding principle for her. “If there's anything fit to worship, it's music,” she says. “With music, I give it energy, and it gives me more energy back. That's a bizarre system. If that was a capitalist system, people would treat it like the goose that laid the golden egg.”

It seems like Clark has achieved with music what physicists have tried to achieve for decades with cold fusion. “Exactly!” she exclaims. “That, to me is magic. That's alchemy. I'm lucky that is where I get to spend most of my days. It's a crazy, unlikely thing, in today's world, to get to quote-unquote 'live one's dream.' So few people get the opportunity to do that. I feel this sense of... responsibility, maybe. I mean, it's not that sexy to talk about. I grew up with people, I have family members, who don't get to live their dream. Who don't get to do anything even close to that, who barely even got the chance to dream whatever their dream was. So I feel this sense of responsibility to give it everything I have, because I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to do it.” In some ways, this connects back to her role as a Cobain stand-in – Kurt was a musician who, rather than feeling blessed to be in the public eye, living his dream, became overwhelmed. If Grohl and Novoselic are ever looking for a more permanent replacement, Clark is one singer who can definitely hack the pace, and feels blessed to do so.

The sense of self that comes with that kind of validation is hard-won, for Clark. “I think that somehow gets a little bit lost, in this day and age, where the technology has democratised the process to the point where anybody can be a photographer, or a writer, or a musician – all you have is this very minimal buy-in and then you can make art." You can sense her recoiling at the implication that not all art necessarily has value; that a half-written, three-chord pseudo-ballad or an auto-tuned, ProTooled beat have less validity than something created through some sort of artistic struggle.

She's also quick to enthuse about the level playing field that this super-connected world has to offer: "That's awesome, in some ways, it's so cool, but in other ways... there's this whole other realm to it which is like... the task of being an artist.” One can almost visualise her pondering this conundrum, one curl of silver hair wrapped around a finger. “It takes dedication and devotion. It's a very reverent construct, and that's what it takes to make something of value... something that has depth and dimension, and kaleidoscopic colour.” Something like St. Vincent.

St. Vincent plays Glasgow O2 ABC on 26 Aug, Liverpool O2 Academy on 28 Aug and Manchester Albert Hall on 22 Oct