As larger-than-life rock stars go, St. Vincent may be a slightly slippery character, but Annie Clark, the woman who records under that name, isn’t so much so. At least that’s the impression you’ll take away from the new audio project that has just been released as one of the pilot projects for Audible’s new Words + Music series. If there’s an alluring mystique to the persona that Clark presents in her visually arresting shows or deep-dive-worthy albums, she seems almost surprisingly easygoing about deconstructing it all and discussing the personal meaning behind some of her fans’ most cherished songs in the new audiobook.
For as long as Clark is speaking, “St. Vincent: Words + Music” (available here) feels like an especially revealing episode of “Fresh Air,” minus the Terry Gross. (The singer was in fact interviewed for the project, by veteran rock journalist Bill Flanagan, but his probing voice does not appear.) She discusses how she decided on her stage name, childhood panic attacks, having jazz singers Tuck & Patti as her aunt and uncle, her desire to escape Texas, apprenticing with both Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree, finding salvation in work with David Byrne, and how her father’s imprisonment and mother’s health scare affected her music. The candor carries through to the themes on her most recent album, 2017’s “Masseduction,” and how she engages with social media in the present (spoiler: reluctantly). If there’s anything she’s not eager to be as an artist, it’s “my own sweaty used car salesman.”
But there’s a “more rock, less talk” aspect to the project, too, as Clark unveils solo home versions of some of the most powerful and brilliant songs of her storied but still young career, from “Marry Me” to “Prince Johnny” to “Severed Crossed Fingers,” with appropriate song annotations (all the down to where the grisly title image of that last song came from). These aren’t resurrected demos; as she explains in our interview, they were recorded specifically for the audiobook, under cover of quarantining, which makes this something very close to the new St. Vincent albums fans are hoping for.
She has something to say about that prospect, too, in an interview with Variety, in which she discusses her ease with delving back into old topics for the audio memoir and just how prolific she’s been since the ides of March. Listen to this exclusive excerpt from the new Audible release, below — part of a “Words + Music” series Gunpowder & Sky has developed with the audiobook giant (also including releases from Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and Smokey Robinson) — and then delve into our Q&A.
VARIETY: This falls kind of somewhere between an interview and an audiobook memoir, along with the fresh versions of songs. Did the idea of doing this for Audible appeal to you from the start?
ST. VINCENT: It did. For one, it sounded like a really fun challenge to take old songs and reinvent them. And it happened at a really auspicious time because it got raised at the beginning of this corona pandemic, so it meant that I had something really fun to do by myself, alone in my studio. And I mean, really most of the way that I ingest information now is through podcasts and audiobooks, so this is really a very natural, familiar way for me to get involved.
Are these previously unreleased versions of songs that are included old demos or fresh recordings?
It really was all home recordings that I did in my studio, by myself, in this break, completely new.
At least a couple of them sound like they have strings on them, though, which suggested some kind of earlier or non-home component.
Most of them are completely new, with the exception of “Strange Mercy” and “Marry Me” — those were string arrangements that my friend Daniel Hart did for the solo St. Vincent shows on the last record, the “Fear the Future” tour. So that part of it had never been released in any proper way; it was just performed during the show. It was cool to get the chance to hear these really pretty versions.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about what you were going through in the lead-up or aftermath of each album you’ve made.
With so many of those things, you’re so busy just trying to keep your head above water that you have no idea really until you look back years later and go, “Oh, wow. Huh. That’s it. That’s who I was, or what I was going through at this time.” I said it, I think, in the Audible piece, but I really do mark time and the periods of my life and where I was in the world physically [by using albums as markers]. And it’s not at all necessarily the most conventional way. But it’s been a frigging thrilling ride.
We’re premiering an exclusive clip that has you talking about extreme childhood anxiety, to the point of panic attacks. Do you expect that might come as a surprise to many people?
I don’t know. I mean, the conversation around mental health is very different now than it was even five years ago. So if it makes people feel more comfortable in their own… let’s say the word journey — even though that feels terrible, it’s so corny to say! — if it makes people feel more comfortable in their journey with their own brain, then I’m really glad for it. But I don’t necessarily bring it up to overdramatize what I went through … more to just explain it,
There are topics in this audiobook similar to the themes you explore in the film you have coming out, “Nowhere Inn,” having to do with public versus private personas and whether it’s useful or normal to present a version of yourself offstage in your “real” life, especially now on social media.
My goodness. I wish all the time spent on that… I don’t think a lot of joy in it, really, at all. [Laughs.] I wish I did.
There’s something interesting that you said in the Audible piece: “I am always talking to an audience like they’re f—ing geniuses. I think people are so smart — they’re smart with their brains, with their heart, with their gut. There is I think sometimes what can be perceived as sort of coldness or aloofness is actually my feeling that everybody’s equal…” You say that in the context of explaining why you don’t feel the need to constantly engage your audience with small talk or vegan recipes. But probably a majority of the artists feel the opposite way nowadays, that they need to put themselves out there online as much as possible to prove that they, too, are everyday people.
Shouldn’t the work that you make kind of prove that? You can’t make work about life if you’re not living some kind of normal life that isn’t surrounded by a cadre of yes-men. Like. when has that worked well… Because if there are really talented people surrounded by people who just tell them yes all the time, that’s not good for art. It’s not good for somebody’s soul, but it’s also not good for art. So yeah, I think that it occurred to me… Like, I’m a person who will tell you something really intimate or vulnerable in a way that’s not particularly vulnerable. There are other people who will seem like they are revealing all things, and it seems very emotional, but it’s not particularly vulnerable. So I’m kind of more on the first side of that. And that’s just who I am. Probably the second thing is the more popular way to be. [Laughs.]
In the Audible book, you talk about a lot of things we wouldn’t necessarily have expected you to talk about, as they have come up in the songs. And it’s interesting because these are things that maybe have been a little harder to discern than they would be from someone who’s writing in a really obviously, purely confessional vein.
The other thing about it is that, as a fan myself, I will listen to stuff and it means so much to me if it’s inextractable from my life, from a period of time or from a major seismic event in my life. And maybe this is just me being selfish., but I don’t really want to know what the artist was thinking. I kind of don’t care! And I mean that with all respect. I’m like, oh, I’m too selfish — I love this for me, and what it means to me. And for a long time, I think I didn’t want to talk too much about what the songs were personally about for me, because it felt like it was a little selfish to push all that into the way that somebody was interpreting or enjoying the song. It felt like micro-managing their experience. You kind of have to trust that if you say something that resonates with you, then it’s going to resonate with other people. But the records that I touch upon in the Audible piece, I feel far enough away from personally — and they’d existed in the world long enough — to where I feel kind of okay divulging certain things and hoping that it doesn’t interfere with anybody’s experience of just listening to it. Because it’s like not about me. You make the work so it can not be about you, so it can just be for other people. I know that might sound kind of Pollyanna, but it’s true. That’s the best way I know how to communicate… You know, that and talk therapy. [Laughs.]
Truth be told, most fans may not feel the same way you do — they’re inquisitive about what prompted you to write the songs. Or else, as you say, they’ve lived with them too long to be talked out of their own interpretations now.
I hope so. I really hope I didn’t ruin anything.
You explain some things I’d wondered about. I do remember listening to the title track of “Masseduction,” where you repeat the refrain, “Don’t turn off what turns me on,” and thinking, is that a positive, liberated kind of request? Or a negative thing? And in the audiobook, you say: well, it’s both. It can mean either “proud” or “sick.”
Oh my God, it’s everything! I mean, there’s your social media. I mean, there’s your rat with cocaine. And there’s your bold pronouncement of love. It really is everything! And I think more than anything, especially as a writer, and as I’ve gotten better as a writer, I actually try not to be judgmental of anything. I just try to not be judgmental of a character’s process, or my process, and just let it be. I’m not explaining that very well, but maybe it’ll come to me.
You’re saying maybe that you’re not trying to impose an omniscient morality onto the point of views expressed in the feelings in the songs?
Yeah, and in general, we’re living in a time of a lot of “no bad thoughts, no bad thoughts.” And I just don’t think orthodoxy in any way, shape or form is the thing that’s going to propel us to a more compassionate future. The more you repress something, or the more you don’t allow the whole myriad of human thought and conversation and feeling and all that stuff, the more explosive you make it, you know? When you make art, you defuse the bomb,
How used do you think we should get to the strange situation we’re all in?
I’m pretty optimistic about the art that’s going to come out of this massive shift in culture. I really am. … I think people are just not going to have any bandwidth or any patience for things that aren’t real and moving to them. There’s a certain aspect of super-glossy pop music, or people who are throwing money around, that aspirational thing, that just is going to feel so Marie Antoinette. People have bigger things to worry about than, I don’t know, your contouring. I’m excited to see the ingenuity that comes out of this particular period.
I think we’re so far beyond a return to quote-unquote normalcy. I think we’re headed for a sort of unprecedented time in American history. … I’m so lucky I can work from quarantine and hide and do all that. But it’s a mixed bag for a lot of people. I know a lot of people who are creative for a living that are just really like, “What the hell do we write about? I mean, what are we going to say about this particular moment of time that we’re not all feeling?” It’s been a weird one for a lot of writers.
Just before the whole pandemic went down, somebody did a story on your producer, Jack Antonoff, and you were popping into the studio during the interview, but said you weren’t necessarily yet doing final, formal sessions for a new album or anything. So you’re probably not one of those people who has a finished album in the can and is trying to figure out whether to release it. But have you —
That’s a loaded question! I’ve got a loaded magazine clip, waiting! [Laughs.] I mean, it’s a different process, certainly. Some days I’m on top of the world, and I’ve just written this and made that, and it’s the most prolific thing. And then the next day I’m like, “Oh, I’m not going to get out of bed today, but…” So this is an interesting time. But no, I’ve been very productive. Very productive.
Can you imagine releasing something while we’re still in the situation we’re in. Is it like that far along that you feel you could put something out?
I don’t think I’m there yet to figure out exactly what [to plan]… I think America is going to be so really consumed by other things for the rest of this year. It doesn’t seem like the time to weigh in, just yet.
It’s thrilling to hear you’ve been productive, anyway.
Hell, yeah! What else are we going to do?