In 2007, i signed to beggars banquet records. i was living in dallas, texas in my childhood bedroom at the time, which i had fashioned into a makeshift studio in order to record some of what would end up being my debut album “marry me.”
the first days of touring my own songs and as “st. vincent” are very vivid. in early 2007, in anticipation of the release of my record, my (much beloved) agent put me on the road as solo support for jolie holland and midlake. he saw potential in me, but rightfully, thought i needed to get my live act together. get comfortable playing for people. get road-tested. like most of the rest of my career, it was a trial by earth, wind, and fire.
i was performing solo; just my voice, a guitar through an array of effects pedals, a “stomp board” — a homemade device i made out of a piece of plywood and a contact microphone that i ran through a bass EQ pedal, and a keyboard. i thought the keyboard looked unmysterious on it’s own, so i designed a lighted wooden enclosure to go around it. my brother-in-law helped me build it in his garage. it weighed a gazillion pounds and gave me splinters to carry, and i don’t think anyone was under any illusion that there was anything but a keyboard inside it. neither the first nor the last in a series of hilariously ill-fated ideas.
January 2007, i borrowed my father’s station wagon and drove 12 hours from dallas to frozen lincoln, nebraska to open for jolie holland (what a voice) at a half-full 150 capacity carpeted club. i believe the compensation was $250/gig but it could have been as much as $500 — more $ than i’d ever seen for a gig for sure and guaranteed, no less! in my memory, this midwestern jolie tour dovetailed right into opening the midlake tour. they were out in support of their excellent record, “the trials of van occupanther” and were the sweetest good texas boys you could ever hope to meet. the drummer of midlake, mackenzie smith, would later prove to be a great collaborator, playing on actor, strange mercy, and st. vincent.
On this tour, i’d enlisted my dear friend, jamil, to come and sell merch and help do the long drives. we’d just played a show in detroit and while we’d been inside, a blizzard had swept through and covered the stationwagon in snow and ice. it was treacherous. jamil, who always had some incredible hustle going, hired a homeless man named larry to dig the stationwagon out of the snow. (in college, he had a gold lexus, stripped it of the good parts, and resold it. when i asked if he was sad to see it go, he said, “girl, they think they bought a lexus but they bought a corolla.”) i’ll never forget driving out of bombed out-detroit, apocalyptic at 1 AM. interstate 94 tense and quiet, jamil trying to make sure we didn’t crash or stall on the icy road.
I have eaten years of veggie subway sandwiches on highways 10-90, stayed at a super 8 motel behind a kansas federal prison, peed in cups in dressing rooms when there was no bathroom, gotten eaten alive by bedbugs at a cincinnati days inn. i would not trade a single highway or city or moment or person i met for anything. i have loved it all.
I’m very grateful to have received this grammy. thank you to my producer john congleton, thank you family, thank you friends, thank you to all the incredible musicians involved, thank you managers and agents and publishers and labels and publicists and everyone who works hard at their jobs. and thank you guys. thanks for everything.
It’s thunderstorming in Barcelona, so Annie Clark – who performs as St. Vincent and who “really, really, really” wants to go to the beach – is forced to make other plans. “You visit a lot of museums and aquariums when you’re on tour,” she says, crossing the rain-slicked plaza of the Museu Blau, a natural-history museum overlooking a stretch of the Mediterranean that’s currently the same desolate gray shade as the sky. “I watch a lot of Sex and the City on tour, too,” she adds. “Not that I watch it watch it, but it’s on TBS, so it’s always fucking on.” Clark is all black from the neck down – suede ankle boots, skinny jeans, scoop-neck tee, biker jacket – and polychromatic up top, with huge green eyes and stralavender-blond curls escaping from a cobalt-colored hat, its brim ample enough to keep her cheeks dry. The Blau resembles a vast slab of soil that someone dyed blue, stabbed with shards of broken terrarium and set upon a pedestal. Clark suggested that we come here, but she is unfamiliar with the place. “What kind of museum is this?” she asks. “Oh. OK.” She says she never really went through a science-buff period: “I had a brief shark obsession, but didn’t everybody?”
What about her music, dude?
Inside the permanent exhibit, contemplating some trilobite fossils, Clark says, “It’s crazy to think about the tiny fraction of time that we’ve been on the planet.” She revises that statement: “That we’ve been a pox on it.” We head into a gallery marked Evolución, where a primate skeleton stands beside that of an early man. “I went to the Creation Museum, in Kentucky,” Clark says. She identifies as a “reformed” Catholic and intended the visit as a lark: “I thought it would be a fun adventure, but it kind of darked me out. They tell you the dinosaurs died in the flood.”
One of Clark’s preoccupations on St. Vincent is the persuasive power of cult leaders and how such figures parallel pop performers. “It’s kind of the flip side of the same coin,” she says. Pushing her sound in a more danceable direction, she says, represented an attempt to “democratize” her concerts: If people didn’t move, performances would be incomplete. For the tour, she hired the choreographer Annie-B Parson, who developed a set of mechanistic movements for Clark and her band to perform on cue, in a winking acknowledgment of the artifice that goes into seemingly spontaneous performances. (It’s also, of course, a nice bit of stagecraft.)
What about her music, dude?
Clark moves on to regard a deep-sea spider crab, preserved in a jar. “The thing that really depressed me about the Creation Museum is that the tickets aren’t cheap,” she says. “They’re, like, $25, and yet there were buses pulling up from all over, full of these people who didn’t look like they had $25 just lying around. It seemed predatory to me.” She frowns. “Why would you want to control people like that? Would you even want to? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I wouldn’t. To have people live in this weird little art world you’ve created? Fine. But to make them believe some bullshit and build their lives around it? Unh-unh.”
Religion hangs over St. Vincent’s lyrics, where she pits salvation against desire and divine fervor against earthly love. Its role in her life is similarly spectral. Clark’s grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another,” Clark says, adding that her parents weren’t remotely devout, but “they decided that it meant a lot to her, and it wouldn’t do any harm.” Clark was born in Oklahoma and grew up in the middle-class Dallas suburb of Lake Highlands. Clark’s dad worked in finance; she thinks his job involved “stock-y things,” but isn’t certain. “My parents separated when I was three, so I didn’t really grow up with him as much – just Christmases and summers,” she says. Money was tight: Clark’s mom was a social worker, “supporting three kids on her salary, for a long time,” she says.
Clark’s creative side manifested early. “I remember submitting a comic about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to some contest,” she recalls. (She didn’t win.) She describes herself as a shy child who suffered anxiety attacks, stemming from what she characterizes as profound existential dread at the “vastness” and chaos of the world. “When I was six or seven, I started to have really intense anxiety, and I didn’t have the tools to even know what it was.” Such attacks still overcome her, though less often, and she still finds the sensation hard to articulate: “It’s always been this little buddy of mine; it informed my entire worldview. There’s general anxiety, and then there’s panic attacks, where I have really catastrophic thoughts, where I’m not in control.” This is where art came in. “When you’re forced to deal with something big that you don’t understand, you try to find ways to interpret the universe in a way that can make you feel safer or alleviate that crazy. For me, it was music.”
What about her music, Dude?