This interview originally ran in The Herald newspaper, Scotland.
To paraphrase from chaos theory, when St Vincent kicks a ball in New York, it knocks kids in Bridge of Allan for six. The avant-pop star and David Byrne collaborator – also known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Annie Clark – proved this Transatlantic soccer-pop hypothesis earlier this year, when she made a short film for US feminist teen magazine Rookie, displaying her impeccable knack for a rainbow kick. I watched it online with my daughter and her friends, and soon there was a gaggle of six-year-old girls out the back, attempting St Vincent’s football tricks.
“Really? That’s wonderful,” says Clark – who recently fronted Nirvana in their first public appearance since Kurt Cobain’s death – down the line from San Diego. “That’s really cute, but it’s also wild. I just didn’t know what to expect when Rookie asked me to do it.” The online magazine runs a regular feature called Sunday Video, in which women in music are filmed doing unlikely and / or inspiring things. Neko Case made borscht. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna gave tips on public speaking. “They came to me and said, ‘Everybody knows you play guitar, but do you have another skill you could maybe show us?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at ordering room service,’” she quips. “I know how to get a good coffee. That’s about it. And then I remembered that before I started playing guitar, I used to play soccer all the time.”
Clark’s formidable kicking technique suggests that her commitment to art, be it playing football or fierce guitar, was always fastidious, and relentless. The viral success of her Rookie video also neatly captures the scope of the digital age – a fundamental theme on St Vincent’s sublime and remarkable eponymous fourth solo album, which was released earlier this year. The record is, in many ways, her most emotionally and musically direct to date, but Clark remains an avidly private artist. Is it hard to balance such a private nature with interacting on social media (she is lively on Twitter), or writing from the heart?
“A lot of this album was simply writing my life, and I feel very free in music to do or say anything,” she offers. “I always think that songs have to come from some emotional truth and real place of human empathy, although do I balk a little bit at the idea of quote-unquote confessional songwriting. I feel like it implies, especially in terms of female writers, this idea that you lack the imagination to write about other things,” she says. And so it is that the current LP explores love, obsession and sense of place, via experimental groove-pop odes to naked desert-walking, severed integers, religious imagery and snorting the Berlin Wall.
The album’s most overt nod to the internet era, Digital Witness, is also perhaps its clearest musical nod to Clark’s kindred art-pop spirit, David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012’s excellent Love This Giant. You can hear shards of Byrne’s Talking Heads in its awkward grooves and angular vocals. Did working with Byrne consciously influence Clark’s aesthetic, or outlook? “It was tremendously inspiring being around David,” she recalls. “That whole experience was just wonderful. I think we both just felt so positive about the shows, knowing that fans were walking away having had a real experience, and that whole idea has become hugely important to me.”
Has it impacted on St Vincent’s live shows? “Yeah, it’s made me think much more about how you communicate in every single thing that you do when you’re on-stage, from the movement to the outfits to the staging – and obviously the music, that’s the most important thing,” she says. “So I’ve really dug in on the performance aspect of this tour, and I think that was really inspired by everything that we did on Love This Giant. Everything was very intentional. That show was maybe a bit more joyful and silly than what I’m doing on my own, but the dedication to detail and performance remains the same.”
Clark even recruited a choreographer for her current tour. “Yeah, it’s not 100 per cent choreographed, but I worked with [Byrne / Eno collaborator] Annie-B Parson,” she says. “I’m not a dancer, but that means I’m not coming at it with any baggage – I’m not worried about being really expressive or whatever. I’m just like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, how do I make this movement? How do I embody it and make it be right for my body, and for what I want to say?’ And that’s a challenge.”
Has Clark’s relationship with her songs changed since she started to physically inhabit and interpret them? “Well, my relationship to the songs gets deeper every night, because you keep finding these nooks and crannies and crevices and places to stretch out and breathe,” she says.
When we last spoke, around five years ago, Clark enthused about economy in music; about trying to make (and find) more, from less, in her art. Is that something that still drives her? “Yeah, I’d say especially on this record, there’s nothing superfluous in there – it’s kind of succinct songwriting – just get in, communicate your message, and get out,” she says. “But I also wanted this to be a very open-armed record. I wanted to connect with people. That’s the whole goal of life.”
St Vincent plays Glasgow 02ABC on Tuesday August 26.
Related articles: St Vincent interview (The List), July 2009.