DFW Music News

Divine Comedy: The Artful Artifice of St. Vincent

St. Vincent embraced 1970s glam and grit with her album, Daddy's Home.
St. Vincent embraced 1970s glam and grit with her album, Daddy's Home. Zackery Michael
The wig is off. Touring life is briefly at a halt and so is the blinding shine of rock stardom. St. Vincent is in Los Angeles, but she’s soon flying home to North Texas as "Just Annie."

It wasn't even two decades ago that Annie Clark was a promising Lake Highlands graduate looking for gigs around town, buying gear at local guitar shops. Today she’s better known by her performing name, St. Vincent, with whom "Just Annie" shares "just" two Grammy wins plus collaborations "just" with David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird and Taylor Swift, among many others.

The alt-rocker has earned a place in the pantheon of guitar gods, she’s become an actor and director and been featured in fashion campaigns, Pirelli calendar covers and ads for Tiffany’s. She was the jewel standing in as Kurt Cobain for Nirvana's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance in 2014, and is an occasional tabloid rebel-darling whose unconfirmed liaisons with celebrities fascinate and frustrate a curious public.

You may even remember her steamy performance with Dua Lipa at the 2019 Grammys. Or any of her Late Night, Oscar ceremony or SNL performances. For all her accolades, though, she’s still got her stiletto heels planted into the sweet spot, right on the edge of indie and mainstream.

A female colleague once told me she was irritated that it took “cool girl” St. Vincent’s endorsement to legitimize Swift’s talent in the eyes of indie music snobs. Two other male colleagues got slammed by fellow critics for getting St. Vincent “wrong” in reviews and yet another colleague recently said he thought St. Vincent was the name of a breed of horse. This is probably an accurate sample pool representing the way she's widely perceived. In some ways, she's designed her stage persona to not be known at all except only in the deepest of ways.

Time, for Clark, holds the highest value (if she had more of it she'd "Probably spend time with my family. Even though I do it quite a bit, you know, nobody's going to be around forever. So make it worth it,” she says) and she’s made formidable use of her pandemic stock. In the past year alone, she’s released and toured for Daddy's Home, her seventh studio album. She was the subject and star of The Nowhere Inn, an existential, meta mockumentary which she cowrote with musician-comedian Carrie Brownstein. She remixed McCartney's song "Women and Wives" at his request. She was nominated for a fifth Grammy (she’s won twice, the last in 2019), though the ceremony has been postponed.

Yet her show goes on, always. When we speak to the singer just a few days before Christmas, she's gearing up for a big, yet exclusive production meant for an audience of one: her mother.

“I’ve got a family version of A Christmas Carol to put on called A Clarkmas Carol,” she says.

The Clarkmas cast is large, which is why there’s technically only one actual, passive spectator.

“Yeah, well, that's the thing, it's a pretty big production,” Clark says. “So last year, which was the first year that we did it, we kind of ended up having nobody in the audience but my mother. So, you know, it's not really, I'd say, for the audience. It's more for the merriment of a bunch of people. As you might imagine it was born out of the boredom of COVID.”

In Clark’s 2001 high school yearbook, which recently surfaced online, she was quoted as saying, “I definitely plan on being very involved with theatre for the rest of my life.”

click to enlarge Annie Clark is St. Vincent. - ZACKERY MICHAEL
Annie Clark is St. Vincent.
Zackery Michael
Her family’s theatrical production involves “Victorian costumes, the whole getup,” Clark says.

Naturally, the question comes up as to whether she’ll use this inspiration for her next look. Like a true pop icon, Clark goes through defined new aesthetic periods to match her defined new sound periods. She lives, breathes and wears each new album. 2019's Masseducation brought on a period of slick short hair and futuristic neon pink couture with pointy, shiny boots that cut up at her thighs. The album cover showed a bent-over backside — belonging to a model — in a leopard-printed thong leotard and hot pink tights.

The album's entire rollout was an exploding ode to hyper-femininity, using overtly pretty pictures to call out the ugliness of sexism, but the irony was so polished that it was often entirely glossed over. Then again, who ever really knows with St. Vincent? Clark’s press at the time was mostly done “in character,” and she largely answered questions about the album in front of a bright pink backdrop and pink microphone.

For last year's Daddy’s Home, St. Vincent made a record rich with the glam and grit of the 1970s. Inspired by her father’s return from prison where he spent over a decade for fraud and money laundering, the album’s hard-grinding funk and glittery rock is a confessional hangover after a night at Studio 54.

But for all her anachronistic inclinations, Clark laughs at the thought of throwing her look that far back to the wretched days of Charles Dickens.

“You know, Victorian turns into steampunk real quick,” she says. “Steampunk is basically Victorian plus arcane gadgets, so I think, maybe not, but I'll think on it for sure.”

Of her to-do list from the last year, the first item that comes to mind is her tour, which kicked off in Portland in September, and will resume overseas in February.

“Miraculously, everybody was safe from COVID,” she says. “No band, crew, anybody got sick on that tour, which is such a miracle because it was booked before the delta variant took over. It was booked when we thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, but we managed to do it and it was just so fun.

“I mean, it was just joyful in a way of getting to see people again and the experience of the show. It just was kind of a new level of like, gratitude and joy … which you know those aren’t words I like to ... ” She  stops her own thought with a laugh. “I don't own the book The Secret, you know what I mean? But it’s deep, it’s deep.”

As Clark relayed again to host James Corden this month on his Late Late Show, she recently tried to return a compliment she received from Sir Paul with a sincere kind word. McCartney responded with “It’s great, this music thing we get to do. It’s great.” The words have stayed with her like an heirloom kept dutifully through generations and her love of the craft seems reignited. ("Miracle" or "miraculous" come up frequently when she speaks, among other reverent descriptors.)

Another keepsake memory for Clark, she says, was the tour treatment given to one of the tracks on Daddy’s Home.

“There was a moment at the end of the show that I always loved where we sing ‘The Melting of the Sun’ and the band would stop,” she says, “and it was just me and the singers singing the last refrain a capella and the crowd is singing along and we would like, spin out of sight. And it was just a nice way. 'Cause the show goes a lot of places, we usually end the show with that moment and I just thought it was such a nice … it was just, you know, a beautiful moment.”

But other pandemic-induced thoughts also stuck around.

“I think everybody's sense of time, it was recalibrated, " she says. "The sense of the passing of time. And also — I forget who said it, maybe you can look it up — but there's a great quote that says, ‘How you spend your days is how you spend your life’ and that really resonated, you know, just to not waste any time.”

(The quote belongs to writer Annie Dillard.)

“And besides that, in 2020 I just thought, well, I should brush up on my Russian literature and history and just kind of went down a Stalin, gulag, Dostoyevsky kind of rabbit hole," she continues. "So that wasn't the lightest reading, but some people I think went escapism, then I went like, ‘Well, I guess it could be a lot worse.’”

Just a year ago, Clark starred in The Nowhere Inn, cowritten by Clark and Brownstein and directed by Bill Benz. It started out, in the plot and in real life, as a documentary on Clark, and diverted into a philosophical dilemma as a study on fame, perception and other illusions. Early on in the film, Clark talks about wanting people to know her, but does she really?

click to enlarge St. Vincent reveals herself in her artistic best. - ZACKERY MICHAEL
St. Vincent reveals herself in her artistic best.
Zackery Michael
“Well, I think it's an interesting question because I feel like if you know my music you know me in a very deep way,” she says. “And so there's that, I think, real intimacy that gets to happen in music, and I think in The Nowhere Inn the conundrum that we’re faced with is the conundrum of a documentary about a musician. ... At the end of the day it's still going to be a documentary that the musician in question has final cut over and they still will be controlling. ... You'll still get to see their version of who they want you to think they are.

“And I'm not saying that's wrong or bad or anything like that," she says. "But at the end of the day, that's propaganda. And I think that's, that was sort of the question we were wrestling with. 'Cuz I thought I could make a straight-ahead documentary that ostensibly would function to endear people to me [laughs] but that’s called ‘manipulative.’ Well, what happens if we just explore all these questions that we have about authenticity and identity, you know, especially in a time when I think for a new generation there is no line between online [and offline]?”

"I think we're in an era where the paradigm is authenticity, but the authenticity is always moderated by a screen. So it's like, who can seem the most real in a fabrication? And I just don't know how to answer that question." – St. Vincent

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In the age of social media fame and the often staged, forced, uncomfortable paradox of public intimacy, Clark isn’t interested in offering her mundane worst to the masses. She's no more "real" than what she reveals at her artistic best.

“That's kind of where we got to, and the point in Nowhere Inn was I don't know,” she says. “For me, personally, I actually care more about the art somebody makes and how that makes me feel and makes me think than about who someone is as a person. ... But I think we're in an era where the paradigm is authenticity, but the authenticity is always moderated by a screen. So it's like, who can seem the most real in a fabrication? And I just don't know how to answer that question. And I think that's not the paradigm I really want to work in, so we just did something else.”

Many of these themes are woven into Clark’s other projects. In 2017, it was widely reported that Clark would be directing her first full-length film, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in which the main character was going to be female — a woman whose painting ages for her.

Clark doesn’t have any status updates on the film but rather cautionary production tales.

“Well, you know, it's something I learned about Hollywood,” she says. “You think you can be making something and then it can just sort of go into a forever limbo.”

In terms of Dorian, “there's nothing started, anything,” she says. “In general, in this time, we all have an embarrassment of riches in terms of content to watch, like films and TV and all that stuff. But that said, it  still is a sort of mini miracle when anything gets made because it takes so much capital, it takes so many people signing off, it takes so many puzzle pieces to fit together in order for it to kind of happen, is what I learned.

“And it's a very different process to me than music. Which is, if I have an idea, I can go in my studio and make it in a day, usually. So this making films is so different.”

The modern wealth of entertainment choices is but one barrier among a great generational divide, but Clark doesn’t believe she'd do anything different than kids today had she been one of them.

“I think everybody is really a product of their time and place in history,” she says “I think even if we're talking about a decade or two split, really, especially now things change very quickly. I mean, social mores seem like they're changing by the day, and it might be true that also we might just perceive that things are moving more quickly because we hear about them, when in times past, we would not have. So I don't … I definitely would have been a different person for sure.”

Clark's brand of rock stardom is a rare item; she's the thinking man’s rock star. Her book recommendations for NPR ran the gamut from Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Proust and Joan Didion to The History of Punk and Just Kids to Tracy Morgan. She has a sober grasp over her ideas and words. There are no mindless tweets to be found from Clark, no careless statements to be retracted. Her stage presence is synchronized, her abandon unreckless. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she’s never had to substitute artistic substance for debauchery.

Her latest, Daddy’s Home, shows once again Clark's brilliant compositional hand. While her persona is prismatic and complex, her songs are still musically equipped for radio, which makes them no less excellent. The depth of the funk grooves in the album are shaded as if by a master painter. The record opens with "Pay Your Way in Pain,” which teases what’s to come with a moan and a bordello-like piano. The saloon doors soon slam open, however, to a synth-made throb. As St. Vincent sings, “You’ve got to pay your way in pain,” the last word recalls David Bowie’s famous sounds of “Fame.” Her voice explodes like stardust.

The Bowie comparisons were endless when describing Daddy's Home, but many figures contributed to Clark's gallery of inspiration, namely those found in her father's old vinyl collection, her source material when writing the record: The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed. Her blond wig is inspired by New York icon and Warhol muse Candy Darling, for whom she also named a song. “I never wanna leave your perfume candy scene," Clark sings breathily, "So, Candy Darling, I brought bodega roses for your feet."

The record has three interludes, called “Humming,” that are a distant glimpse of a dreamlike melody. Other songs wrap up and fade away with a saxophone solo. Clark performed the singles on tour and on TV consistently in full vintage costuming, under her flip-curled Candy Darling wig, with giant gold jewelry, gesturing like that favorite aunt of yours who's really lived.

As much as Clark is an aesthete whose performance art elements fit right into the creative culture of Instagram, the demands of social media don’t inspire her in the least.

“Personally, I find social media very stressful,” she says. “I find it to be a stressful thing. I used to enjoy being on Twitter or something, but now I don't. I find it really hectic and stressful, so I don't go there.”

She isn’t worried about scrutiny. It’s just not her medium. Clark doesn't care for performative virtue signaling.

“What I love is making work,” she says. ”I love, I love making music. I love it. I love making things and I’m lucky it's my life's work, and when I'm making things I'm just following some internal north star, you know, just following my instincts. Then I can present it and people can like it, hate it, love it, not care about it, whatever. Any of those things is a perfectly acceptable reaction, right? But it's something like, I've made the vision. And I've gone to really, really explore the idea until what I feel is like its presentable form, whereas, and I’ll say, I'm not really into, like, morality pageantry,” she says with a laugh.

Clark says that looking back on The Nowhere Inn, “What would have been probably a savvier, smarter way to get more likes would be to not turn into a terrible ego monster in the film,” she says of the plot. “But the contrarian in Carrie Brownstein was, like, ‘What if we just become really unlikable people?’ That's fun, that's funny and that's not who we are culturally. But to ... the social media side of it … if you know me, you know my morals. I don't need to make a pageant of them and make them a cudgel to harm other people.”

It’s this kind of fair rationalizing and other statements ("It's nice when really lovely people can make amazing things. That's a bonus. I don't really need that. I just want, you know, really beautiful work to be made") that could be the reason recent headlines summed up Clark as “against cancel culture.”

“I'm not against cancel culture or for cancel culture or anything,” she says. “I think that's a big conversation that not … I don't know where that idea came from. Those aren't really waters that I want to wade in.”

One thing she’s clear on, when she thinks about her fellow North Texans such as her former Polyphonic Spree band members Toby Halbrooks and Daniel Hart, who are now a producer and composer who work with film director David Lowery, also her North Texan collaborator, supporting good people is far more personally rewarding.

“They're crushing it. And I love them so much,” she says of the trio. “I haven't gotten to see [their film] The Green Knight yet, but I'm going to and I was just texting with Toby. Oh, so brilliant and again, just great dudes.”

“I totally agree,” she says, returning to the idea of art that can be taken at its face value no matter the artist’s personal virtues, but those virtues — or their lack — can make a difference in how we feel about that support. “You're really happy for great people to succeed and it’s not obviously always the case,” she says with a laugh.

Hart is now a well-established film score composer based in Los Angeles, but he's never forgotten his early days playing Dallas clubs with Clark.

click to enlarge Clark remarks on the unpretentiousness of her Lake Highlands roots. - ZACKERY MICHAEL
Clark remarks on the unpretentiousness of her Lake Highlands roots.
Zackery Michael
“Sometime in 2001, back when Poor David's Pub was still on Lower Greenville, I asked Annie Clark to open for my very mediocre band at the time," Hart remembers. "This was several years before she worked on anything that would resemble St. Vincent. But having both grown up in Lake Highlands with many mutual friends, I knew she was a total shredder on guitar, and the songwriting chops were already there as well. She might have covered 'Beat It' in her set? At least half the people there in a fairly full room were there just to see her/support her. She's always had an undeniable magnetism."

Hart says that later that year or in early 2002, "I asked her to open another show for another mediocre band of mine at Red Blood Club. While we were setting up for soundcheck, Chuck Rainey walked in and sat down at the bar, to have a drink. Annie and I both freaked the fuck out, because Chuck is a legend, and because we both have a deep, deep love for all the Steely Dan records he played on. You won't find a kinder, warmer, more encouraging legend than Chuck, but him being there still made me nervous about performing music, even just for soundcheck. Annie, on the other hand, turned to me and said, 'I think I'm gonna play [Steely Dan's] 'Josie' tonight if Chuck sticks around.' Even back then, she had the confidence to match her incomparable talent."

"What I love about Texas, it's very unpretentious ... You can't get too big for your britches." – St. Vincent

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After answering the calls to contribute musically with seemingly everyone important, Clark thinks on those she's yet to collaborate with.

"All those things came about really organically, which is just kind of miraculous," she says. "But I mean, I still have so much to learn, and there's still so many great people to learn what I can from. And one
thing I will say is that in my experience with working with the greats, they're not cynical. I mean, they might have obviously had their fair share of ups and downs, but they’re not cynical about music. And that is to me the biggest lesson I have taken away from getting to be in the room with the greats, you know, David Byrne, and have had the pleasure of getting to talk to Bruce Springsteen a time or two … like, they're not cynical."

She doesn't get particularly nervous through pressure or have any great fears that her style or ideas won't line up with someone else's.

"I mean, there's always a level or a degree of just 'What's going to happen?'" she says, "But I think ... the joy of collaboration is that it's ... not a walk that you would go on alone. Your instincts are being challenged and validated and stretched. And that's the way you grow, I think."

While other artists are scrutinized and critiqued, Clark's work seems, in particular, to be subject of deeper analysis. But she hasn't considered that.

"I don't feel super aware of that," she says. "I mean, I think I'm glad for it. I haven't thought about it that much because I haven't … I don't have the context of living someone else's life, but I think if people, whether they love it or they hate it, if there's something in it that they are trying to unpack or understand, then that's great, it means that they think there is enough there worth trying to understand, which is great. I guess I feel way less, personally, like inscrutable than I think I am perceived, but that's fine, too. I'm not really here to manicure and mitigate someone's experiences."

In the past, Clark has talked about growing up under conservative Southern principles that clashed with her own. In The Nowhere Inn, both Texas and Clark's large family are depicted as caricatures. The musician now spends her time largely in Los Angeles and New York, but Texas, she says, is still, well, just sweeter than stolen honey.

"Oh, I love it so much. I mean, I love it so much," she says of Dallas. "I love coming back and seeing my family. I live there part-time, like, I love it. You know, and they have rejected a lot of the dogmatic side
of the religious things growing up in the South, but I mean, I think I took with me the good stuff.

"What I love about Texas, it's very unpretentious. People are friendly and there's not a ... Maybe you'll totally disagree with me and think I'm crazy, but it just doesn't feel like a place ... you can't get too big for your britches, like in in such a good way, you know? I go home and I'm Annie, I’m just, like, wrestling with my nephews on the trampoline, just chill, I'm going to Super Target, loving every minute of it."

Clark doesn't keep up with the local scene much.

"I don't," she says, "but I'm not great at keeping up with the L.A. or New York music scene, either."

There's one name Clark knows, of course. A few years ago, a mutual friend gave her fellow Dallasite and fellow music star Erykah Badu's number. Clark says the neo-soul icon is "one a few people who I’m a huge fan of whom I've never really met." But Badu never answered her text.

"She never did, but I completely understand because it was an egregious thing," Clark says. "I think, now, looking back on it, I might have had a couple too many margaritas. I should not have texted her out of the blue. I think that was an overstepping on my part. So I completely understand. But I mean, if she wants to hit me up while I’m in town, I'll go shotgun in that Porsche that says, 'She bad' on the license plate."

I suggest to Clark that it's unlikely anyone would be annoyed to get a random text from her.

"Again, I'm a Texan, like, I'm proper and polite over here. I'm not trying to overstep, right? It's a small community. It's like a hometown hero thing, as big as Dallas is. It's good. I love it. I'm glad I grew up there. I'm glad I still live there part of the time, you know?"

I also offer Clark my sincere wishes that she breaks a leg during her family Christmas performance and that her mother enjoys the show. She knows she will.

 "It will be a tour-de-force," she says.
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio