performance, fame and the digital age with grammy winner st vincent
Speaking ahead of her Laneway Festival performances, Annie Clark is just as ambiguous and hypnotic as her songs.
Photo by Ben Thomson
Since her 2007 debut, the wonderfully titled Marry Me, St Vincent's Annie Clark has showed off the ease with which she can change the subject. In the four albums since, she slips between reflections as easily as most people change outfits. All the while she draws the listener in with sweet words, and cuts them up with a smart mouth. Last year's self-titled St Vincent was Clark at her visceral, rib-splitting best. It warned of false prophets, digital messiahs and those who will break your heart. And like all her work it told stories and put on voices but never allowed itself to preach or lament. It was the artist at her roleplaying best, and left the lister sure they were the main character.
Your performances are hypnotic, but seem pretty emotional. Is it hard to keep yourself emotionally and physically sustained to perform like that night after night?
The great thing about being on tour is having an outlet for a lot of energy — emotional, physical and otherwise. It's actually harder to not be on tour. There's a natural arc and drama to a day.
When you're not performing do you have to find another way to exercise that energy?
Yeah, I do. I have a lot of ways.
What do you do?
Things you don't mention.
Do you get tired of your own songs?
No, I don't. I mean I always get excited for whatever the next thing creatively is. I always have one eye to the future. The songs are physical and fun, and the shows are physical. The whole point is to make it an immersive experience for the audience, as a result it has the effect of keeping me engaged.
What was the last performance you saw that really resonated with you?
Swans — watching them the stakes are very high. It's a really monolithic performance and it has the effect of being legitimately scary. There's just a full commitment to not just the music, and not just the performance, but the amount of physicality it takes to play that hard that long. It's a bastardization of transcendental meditation.
When you see a show like that, can you get lost or do you find yourself thinking of your own performance?
I'm totally immersed, but what it does do is it charges me up. It gets my adrenaline and aggression going, it makes me want to perform. I mean certain times and certain performances you just end up more physically violent than others. And that particular kind of exorcism, when it happens, is really gratifying for me.
When you play is it an expression of internal energies or do you walk out and react to the crowd each time?
It varies from show to show. I've had the experience of being up on stage and being super emotionally present and really, really, really feeling people. It's an intuitive thing that you don't quite know how to explain. It ends up sounding very new age-y when you try.
When you do have moments like that, and a sense of connection, does it feel confessional?
I feel like sometimes when people describe music as confessional, it's a term that they relegate to female artists. I don't often hear it used in relation to men. And I think there's something slightly pejorative about the term "confessional." What it does is it presupposes in a kind of sexist way this idea that's ingrained in culture, that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives. And that's not true.
When people listen to a woman's music, do they go into it with a different headspace than they do with a man?
I don't know, but when I've noticed people speak about confessional music and it being like therapy, it's often in relation to women rather than men. I really think what I said before, I believe it's a subtle kind of sexism where people just assume that women are "more emotional" or "more intuitive" and they can only write about their emotions instead of ideas.
You're on a press junket at the moment and you must be hearing a lot of different interpretations of your music. Are there any you hear over and over again that you don't resonate with?
We're all kind of in a situation where we have ourselves reflected back in a digital form. Every person, no matter what they do, unless they're completely off the internet, engages with that. Everyone has this alternate reality version of themselves. And depending on what you do, you sort of have even more reflections of that.
I happen to be a musician, so part of my vocation is being out in front of people, doing these things like press, and essentially being the spokesperson for my music. And I feel fine about that — I don't feel conflicted about it at all. I don't really feel any different from any other person who walks into this digital room of funhouse mirrors. I think the thing that ultimately matters, and the thing I feel lucky about is that I've had a number of records to develop into what I am and who I am. When I read something that I feel is not reflective of who I am I don't care. It doesn't get to me. I know what I am and what I'm capable of doing. It's sort of none of my business what other people think of me.
And I suppose with music as well, when people listen to your album they hear what they want to hear. It's a personal reflection of themselves as much as what you've put down.
I mean that's the miraculous thing: it starts with one source and has so many end points. Or there really isn't an end point because you're reviewing all the exponentials and getting very involved in other people's lives and other people's wonders and consciousness. It's pretty comic and pretty life affirming.
You spend a lot of time having conversations with strangers and people you'll never meet. Do you ever find yourself wanting someone to ask you a question or bring something up?
Not especially. I would honestly rather know about someone else's life than talk about mine, but I realize that's not the set up, that's not why we're talking, and that's unfortunate. I mean, it's not unfortunate — it's great that you want to talk to me. I just don't love talking about myself, but I'm not nearly so arrogant or entitled to complain about it. (Laughs) Most people shovel shit for a living, so I'm happy to talk about what I do.
I like that, I think it's an open-eyed way to look at it.
Yeah, a lot of young artists I talk to clearly think and feel that press really wounds them, and they just don't need to do it anymore. Sometimes I just want to sit them down and say: Would you like a career, or would you not like a career? Because if you'd like a career, then perhaps you should get on the phone.
Text by Wendy Syfret
Photography by Ben Thomson
Thank you to the Melbourne Museum