In any year that St. Vincent releases an album, there’s a hood chance it will end up being crowned as one of the best; Annie clark is a superstar of the highest order.
St Vincent's ‘MASSEDUCTION' captures Annie Clark at her most confident; every brightly coloured corner swells with an assured grin. She's always stood proud and unblinking, but her fifth album - all capital letters and neon shine - comes with more belief and more desire for the spotlight. "Haven't I earnt it?" she asks, deadly serious but quickly turning to laughter.
And of course, she has. Her self-titled fourth album, secured, underlined and drew little fireworks around her talent as both artist and entertainer. Building worlds and pulling apart constructs, it took her from indie darling to gleaming superstar, via a Grammy win. ‘MASSEDUCTION' channels the same spirit but reinvents the box before leaving it behind.
Which might be why earlier this year, Annie launched the record with a series of interviews in a large, pink wooden box within a warehouse. "Well, I wanted to give people an experience they wouldn't forget," offers Annie. Today, a day off from tour and following a wonderfully brilliant show at London's Brixton Academy, we're in a hotel room. "You may very well forget being in this ugly hotel room with track lighting and me, half lying down on a couch," she explains. "We have to work hard to make this remarkable. It's very similar to a million other interviews you've done in hotels with whomever so if we're going to do it, why not make it an experience?" That attitude drives everything St. Vincent is. "If you're going to do it, why not make it fun," she asks with a grin. "Why not?"
This new era is "set alongside a very real, very raw look at power, control, love and sex", and sees Annie sit somewhere between shredding rock star and sparkling pop icon. There's a sprawling artistry to everything she puts her name to, an intimate understanding to the secrets and revelations she shares.
"I don't know where I fit," she admits. "We're super postmodern as a culture. We're all Tumblr upon Tumblr pages of references, and I don't spend a lot of time thinking about where I fit in," she continues, before pausing and thinking for a second just to be sure. "I don't. Because I don't know the answer. I've only ever made the music that I thought was the best thing I could make at the time."
‘MASSEDUCTION', all clear cut synth and lack of distortion, was a twist on the pencil drawn next step for St. Vincent, but she didn't do it to play with your expectations. "I don't presume to know what people think enough to go, ‘I'm going to really toy with them like a cat and one of those cat toys'. I'm not really thinking about that very much, if at all." And anyway, "There's a lot of guitar on the record. The first three songs have guitar solos. Solos! Like, solos. Boom, boom, boom. Come on. They might be solos in a Fripp & Eno ‘Evening Star' way, but it's still a guitar solo."
Despite the distance of having a character to hide behind, "for me, the record is very first person. I'm not necessarily going, ‘I wonder what it looks like from the other side', but it's really personal." Still, St. Vincent isn't alone on the record. "The song ‘MASSEDUCTION' is the thesis of the album, and you meet all the characters on the record in that song. There is a narrative, but I wouldn't be able to necessarily say this is act 1, act 2 and act 3. There's an intuitive through-line. An order."
It's not so much a journey with introduction, conflict and resolution, more a progressive conversation. ‘MASSEDUCTION' looks at power and works out what can and can't be controlled. As a concept, it's something that was maybe worked out in real time alongside recording the record, but Annie doesn't really remember. "I don't remember most of my life," she admits, perhaps because she's always looking towards the next thing.
At its core though, ‘MASSEDUCTION' is a record about love. "It's an incredibly heartfelt record. It wasn't difficult to write. It was difficult to live," she smiles. "I mean, it is difficult to write, of course it is." As the saying goes, "I hate writing. I love having written. It's arduous and painful, and sometimes things all happen like clicking your fingers, and sometimes you're slaving over a line or a melody or a beat or whatever for ages. I can never see what it's going to be at the beginning ‘cos what's the point of doing it if you know where it's going to go? That's no fun. ‘MASSEDUCTION' started to all crystalise in a way at the end. But that's just weird alchemy. I don't know how that happens."
And so as the hero, love straddles both sides of control. However infatuated, head over heels or heartbroken she is, everything is given an equal weight. There's power throughout, even when she's baring her soul. "I think vulnerability is brave and therefore powerful," she reasons. "I have agency in every song. We all have agency; we just have to acknowledge and exercise it." It feels like self-love comes into play, "You mean like masturbating?" Annie asks with a knowing smirk. "Self-love? I don't know what that terminology means. I'm not sure what people mean by self-love or self-acceptance. There's not so much judgment in the record. The narrator or me or however you want to say it, is not standing on high, away from a situation going, ‘This is what's justice, and this is what's injustice or anything like that. It's just human experience as lived, which is complicated and faceted."
The record teeters on the edge of chaos, that feeling of "it's just inside me." A little bit political, a little bit personal, "the two are so interlinked". The title-track plays seduction and destruction off of one another, blurring the lines and holding up a dirty mirror. "You don't know what you're going to make until you are in the process of doing it," Annie reasons, but she knew it was going to be a personal record. "I knew it was going to be a glamorous bloodletting." Why? "It just seemed like the right thing to do." There's hope to the record, because "hope is in life too. It just exists, so I put it in there. I must have wanted it because I did it," she offers. Her art is made up of "so much thought. So much accident."
"Making a short horror film was really influential in how I thought about the visual side of the record," she continues, referencing The Birthday Party, her contribution to horror anthology flick XX. "I started writing with my friend Willo Perron, my creative director, on this. We started rapping about the aesthetic, back in March and the record wasn't anywhere near done at that point. The visuals were influencing the music; the music was influencing the visuals. It really was symbiotic in a way it never had been in the past."
The mood board ideas of "manic panic, sexy Pee-Wee's Playhouse and a dominatrix at the mental institution," set the tone for the world of ‘MASSEDUCTION'. "We live in really absurd times, so this was how we could really lean into the absurdity of the times but also have it be sexy. It's an odd balance, to be absurd and sexy." Especially when you have the sincerity of it all. "You'd have to, otherwise there'd be nothing rooting the whole thing. It's a very sincere record, very heart on sleeve, but if I were to draw the exact visual analogue to the music, it would be Metallica's ‘Black Album'. I needed a visual that had some humour and some buoyancy to it."
Annie Clark is well aware how silly this all is. Live, she's the only person on stage. The people handing her instruments wear ski masks, and she's backed by videos of herself, in various guises. It could be really self-indulgent, but it never is. "It's not like I'm taking myself particularly seriously in any of the videos. None of it's done for beauty. It's just kinda bonkers and weird. I just thought it was funny. I mean, life is ridiculous," she shrugs. "Donald Trump is President of the United States, what absurd clown hell are we living in?" And that humour and brevity help her stay on a level with her audience. We're all in on the joke.
"People are smart, and the second you underestimate them, you're done for. I have tremendous respect for the audience and the audience's intelligence. I've never tried to pander or do, ‘Teeheehee, you're not in on this. You don't get it.' It's not that at all." Instead, there's an intimate connection between Annie and her audience. ‘MASSEDUCTION' gets to the bone of emotion, offering validation and community, without breaking the spell. "I've never heard an artist explain what a song is about to them and gone, 'Oh my god; I love this song so much more'. Ever. I remember being so bummed out when I heard ‘Martha My Dear' from [The Beatles'] ‘The White Album' is about Paul McCartney's dog. The song is ruined for me. People don't need to know that stuff. They really don't. It ruins it for them, and that's not my goal."
Like her place in the world, St. Vincent doesn't spend much time thinking about why her music connects. She doesn't know, and that's good enough for her. "Presumably for the same reasons, in a global sense, art makes you feel understood and not alone and so, that's probably a feeling people have listening to it," she offers. It's not why Annie makes art, though. "I can't not do it," she starts. "I think about going to Lausanne in Switzerland and going to this museum and seeing this quote-unquote outsider art. There was this woman who had been put in this mental institution, more or less against her will. I don't know how many people go to a mental institution super willingly, but she was in her forties or fifties, she knew that she was never going get out, she knew she was never going to get married or anything. But her dream was to get married and to wear white on her wedding day. She made the most gorgeous wedding dress you've ever seen out of toilet paper and spit. And that was because she had an irreparable desire to make things. I have that. I just want to make things. I can't even tell you why; it's just necessary for survival."
That need to create a universe for her own use is still the divine force behind 'MASSEDUCTION', despite the glare of the spotlight. "I heard the tales, fortune and blame. Tigers and wolves defanged by fame," warns ‘Pills', putting the reoccurring disconnect into pointed words. "I'm not particularly famous, so this isn't me harbouring illusions about my status by any means," she considers, "but there is certainly an anxiety about falling into trappings of success that ultimately take you away from making good music. A lot of people get comfortable, and then the fire dies down because it just becomes about making sure they can keep affording the five mortgages or put the down payment on the condo in Boca. I was just wary of that, but it wasn't, ‘God, I'm so famous now. I can't deal with my life' by any means. 'I wish I could go to the shops, but I get hassled now'. Not at all."
She doesn't think people read too much into her art, "but as far as the interpretation of it, people ask me to speak to their thesis all the time. One, I don't think it's really my place and two, the songs and the meaning of it all still reveal themselves to me. With this record and the show, so many things were intuitive. ‘This really moves me, let's go there'. I don't know why watching people stretch in slow motion in gimp outfits paired with ‘Slow Disco' makes me feel tremendous sadness, but it does, so maybe that's okay. I feel it, so let's go there. I'm not thinking this is a commentary on the state of narcissism and the male gaze, which isn't to say they're not there, but my focus is on making something that is meaningful. And a lot of times, I don't know the full extent of why. That's just instinct. That's just art. That's why it's so exciting."
Taken from the December/January issue of Dork, out now.