Current Grammy-nominated for best alternative album for “Daddy’s Home,” St. Vincent had a hella-holy good year in 2021, not just putting out her first new collection in four years but taking it on the road with her most satisfying tour to date, a combination of soul revue and big blowout rock show that included triumphant stops at the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall. It was, in one way, her salute to 1970s mack daddies ranging from Stevie Wonder to Pink Floyd, but also a move toward a warmer style and sound in which, even with a Me Decade-inspired blonde look and garb, we seemed to be getting more of an undisguised Annie Clark than ever.
She also had side projects ranging from her cover of Metallica’s “Sad But True” to releasing a new electric guitar — the second in her Ernie Ball Music Man line — to starring in and co-writing a satirical feature film, “Nowhere Inn.” (See our previous talk about the movie here.) Clark talked with Variety just before the holidays about her big homecoming of a year.
VARIETY: Your tour was one of the most exciting shows of the year. What kinds of things did you have in mind going into it that were different from what you’d done on the road before?
ST. VINCENT: The tour was like: I’m going to get the sickest band in show business out on the road. Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Mark Guiliana, Jason Falkner, Rachel Eckroth, the singers — it was a real crack group of musicians. I always have kind of felt like, if you’re going to put on a show, put on a show. Especially now, I feel like we all need release. We need catharsis. We need escapism. We need to just go somewhere else, because we’ve all obviously been so cloistered. So how do I do it? I decide on the color scheme; work with my great costume designer and stylist, Avigail (Collins); figure out how to block the show… I can tell you that production rehearsals were me in the audience playing guitar and singing next to the set designer and lighting designer, calling out different cues and then blocking the singers on stage. I was directing the show but I also happened to be playing in it.
At the Bowl, I was just so thrilled that people were dancing in the aisles. I feel like that’s sort of new for my shows, and I was so thrilled that we got people up and moving.
It was warmer and very, very different from the “Masseduction” tour — still choreographed, but more like a soul revue. And you didn’t have musicians in masks, or the same kind of high-concept projections you had previously.
Totally different — I mean, looser musically, more room to improvise, more about groove and feel, less about structure and stricture. To me, this album was like beat-up leather armchair — you know, rocks, glass, spliff. That was, I’d say, a 180 from “Masseduction,” which was like, you know, bound woman as furniture [laughs] and every interaction being about some sort of subversion of power.
And this was a very different kind of vibe, and a really, really joyful, fun show to play for me. The connection with the audience was so special and magical, and we both needed it so much.
With the “Daddy’s Home” album, you had songs about people dying, and legacy and choosing whether to have children or not, and people who are in pain in different ways — very real and raw people in the subject matter, whether these were personal songs or character sketches. But there’s the element of playing dress-up a little bit with it too, whether that’s with the ‘70s visual elements or the audio. It can feel like a magic act in a way, like maybe there are diversionary tactics while you sneak in this kind of personal, cutting stuff amid the interesting visual design. Do you look at it that way at all?
No, I don’t really look at it as diversionary. I created a world musically, and could write very honestly about all of it because I’ve been on all sides of all the stories on the album. I’ve been everybody at some point in my life or another, or am now currently that person. It’s my life. But no, I don’t necessarily look at it as like a diversion. It’s more that I created a world musically, and this is how it sounds, so this is obviously how it looks as I paint the visual world with it. … You and me and Carrie (Brownstein, her “Nowhere Inn” collaborator) have had the authenticity conversation before. And to me, authenticity isn’t an aesthetic. It’s a feeling, and it’s a spirit.
The album and tour reference the ‘70s a lot, but you mastered the trick of making an album that uses all these period elements without necessarily having it end up sounding ike you’re trying to create the illusion of it having come out in 1972 whenever. So many people want to reference the ‘70s now, and sometimes it ends up being very campy, because it’s so much about the pastiche but not that much else. How did you settle in your mind that you were going to use instrumentation that sounds right out of the period, but not have it feel like it’s, like, “a tribute to mellow gold”?
Well, I guess I don’t want to be a tourist, you know. The harmonic side and the feel side of some of the stuff I was referencing is my favorite music ever made. I feel an incredible reverence to it, and I think I was trying to actually really, truly learn the lexicon. When you know the lexicon, you can take this part from the ‘70s and take this reference from right now, taking from all over the place. But I think it just kind of comes down to trying to be very in it and not go: “Isn’t this cute.” Because with the subject matter of the songs, nothing’s like that cute, I wouldn’t say.
When we talked in 2020 and you mentioned you were working on the album, you said you were listening to Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder and things like that. But I wasn’t expecting some of the Pink Floyd touches and things like that too. So you wanted to just not cover the funk aspects of that era, but touch on some other things.
Yeah. It’s like 17% psychedelic, the record, for sure. I mean, listen — I was taking a lot of mushrooms, OK? [Laughs.] It was an album of micro-dosing, you know, so this is what you get.
(Producer/co-writer) Jack Antonoff gave you his vintage electric sitar when the album was finished. Does that go into the closet, or could you imagine using it again? You change things up enough from album to album, it’s hard to imagine your next one will be filled with sitar, flute and clavinet.
That’s a spicy sauce, that sitar! I love it so much. I think I can’t use it the exact same way again, but I know it will appear somewhere. At this point, the music will just take me wherever the hell it wants to go, and I’m just along for the ride. That’s how I honestly feel.
The album also has this emotional warmth and an openness to it. Because of the imagery you’ve used in the past, if nothing else, people have maybe had an image of you as being this chilly art-rock person or something. But on “Daddy’s Home,” the addition of female backing vocals may be something that sort of helps, in a way, letting people ease into the idea that, oh, there really is some heart and soul on this. Female backing vocals maybe just automatically put that across right away.
Yeah. You know, I’d never really used other people’s voices. If there were background vocals, I thought, “Well, I’m the only one in the room; I guess I’ll just sing them.” But in this case, it really is a dialogue. The singers could do things with their voice that I can’t do within the song and the narrative. Sometimes they’re my best friend, and sometimes they’re my conscience, and sometimes they’re the angel on my shoulder.
A few brief questions about a few specific songs on the album. “…At the Holiday Party” is very apropos right now. The female vocalists at the end are kind of reinforcing you there, in that empathetic “I see you, even though you’re hiding” message, which could be a comforting message for people who are on the other end of that song during the season. Was there anything about specifically being at a party or just the whole holiday season that made you think about writing that song?
I’ve definitely been on both sides of that. I’ve certainly been the girl who’s revealing herself by the things she’s trying to hide with consumption of all kinds. But I’ve also been in the person who has seen that …. Somebody’s laughing and smiling, but you see that little crack, and you’re like, “Oooookay. I see you.” So I can write it. And to me it was sort of a feminine version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for 2021. That was, in some ways. an ode to the Stones a little bit.
These thoughts could probably be had at any party, not just a holiday party, but is there anything about this time of year that you think makes people more desperate?
Yes. Because the season is extra reflective, when it’s melancholy, it’s extra melancholy. We’re not talking about a Rose Day summer soiree. We’re talking about cold outside, end of the year — “What have you done? What are you gonna do next year?” It’s a completely different feeling, I think, so it definitely had to be a holiday party. And that’s when people are really imbibing and stuff like that.
The album ends with “Candy Darling,” an ode to a famous figure of the ‘70s who influenced your look for the album.
I just felt like Candy Darling was like an angel on my shoulder, in making the record. And so the last song on the record is saying, “Thank you for this, and goodbye.”
In “The Melting of the Sun,” you reference so many great women — Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Nina Simone. But I have to ask about one reference that puzzled fans, when you sing the name “Jane” about someone who “lost it, crashed her Corvette, ran into the tide in Malibu.” Is Jane a famous figure we should recognize?
Do you know what? To me, Jane is actually Joan Didion, when she was living in Malibu, in that classic picture of her in front of the white Stingray Corvette. And I tried to get a reference to her daughter Quintana Roo in there, but it just wasn’t going to to fly. I was really picturing ‘70s Joan Didion, writing about California.
[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted the day before Didion died Dec. 23 at age 87.]
That clears that up. Let’s talk about your sense of humor a little bit. You had the film “Nowhere Inn” come out this year, which is such a funny film, but so deadpan that perhaps not everyone gets it, or at least comes in prepared for that. And there is some of that wit in the lyrics or visual presentation. Even with the song “My Baby Wants a Baby,” which is about dealing with the pressure to have children, it’s not LOL funny, and yet there is something comical as well as touching at the end when you are thinking about your legacy and how you’ll be remembered for your work, but you describe people putting that aside and asking, “Where’s your baby?” So do you feel like your sense of humor is underrated, to the extent that you have that kind of sense of play. or even ironic or gallows humor…
Yeah, I do have a gallows humor. And yeah, I think it’s probably the case that, unless you spend a little bit of time with my work, you wouldn’t know the humor in it, or you might think I take myself very seriously. I take music really seriously. But life is just a series of hilarious, demeaning calamities, and you can’t take yourself too seriously or else you’ll just perish.
I have the description of myself as the dirt bag in “My Baby Wants a Baby”: “I just want to play guitar all day, cook my meals in microwaves.” I’m not trying to rhyme, but it just is. “Only dress up if I get paid.” Like, that’s not far off! That’s like “Eh, sounds pretty good!” So I’m not painting myself in the most flattering light, and that’s fine, because it’s true. [Laughs.] But yeah, people might not get that.
I think there’s humor in all of it. I think when people heard that the record was “Daddy’s Home” and that it was referencing my father being incarcerated, they were expecting that particular (title) song to be a scathing rhetoric. Or me weeping into a microphone. I’m not sure what it was that people thought would be the appropriate reaction, appropriate story. But my story is that all you could do is laugh. To me, that song is funny.
You’ve said that the title “Daddy’s Home” just made you laugh, and that was one reason for having that as the title of the album.
Yeah – ridiculous!
People can take one line from a press description or something and then blow it up into an overarching concept. There was a writer I was reading the other day who described this as something like “St. Vincent’s concept album about her father being released from prison”…
Oh, Jesus Christ. No! Come on. They’re wildly overestimating that part of the story. I mean, hey, it’s a record about me becoming Daddy. [Laughs.] It takes that as a starting off point and then kind of goes. But also: That doesn’t sound like very much fun! The record is way more fun than that makes it sound. “Oooh, get out the balloons and the streamers! That sounds like a good time.” Like, no… what a bummer. And then, because of the subject matter, you know, people want (that song) to be a sort of neatly wrapped-up story that is appropriately moralistic. And it’s not. It’s life, and it’s messy.
Before asking you about your Grammy nomination: There was that whole strange Grammys brouhaha a few weeks ago about credits being taken on and off. You were nominated for album of the year — briefly — because of the song you co-wrote with Taylor Swift for “Lover” (“Cruel Summer”) being interpolated into an Olivia Rodrigo song on her nominated album, and then those nominations went away. How much were you paying attention to any of that stuff?
I didn’t know anything about any of that until my little sister sent me what the press was (saying), trying to make a big deal. It’s not anything. It’s something that the press was able to make seem like something dramatic that was not dramatic at all. You know, kind of like my concept album about my father in prison.
The Grammys have loved you before, so it’s not a surprise you would get a nomination for best alternative album, which you’ve won before. But does that still mean anything to you when you are acknowledged by your peers?
I think it’s awesome. I mean, I think the thing that the public might not realize about the Grammys is that it’s not a popular vote. You’re voted on by the people in your industry, and that’s not just the people who are on stage, with the names you’ve heard. It’s engineers, it’s writers, it’s producers, it’s composers. And so to have those people be like, “Hey, we, we see you and we appreciate what you did,” that’s a very nice feather in your cap from your peers, and lovely. There’s so many people who work in the industry whose names are not on the marquee, and we’re all in this weird grind together. And I salute them.