For St. Vincent, life under COVID has meant recording a soul-baring podcast and binging on Stalin
During a recent conversation, Annie Clark, the Grammy-winning musician who performs as St. Vincent, confessed that she had, quite literally, nothing else scheduled for the day. She had awakened, she explained, knowing that her only obligation would occur at precisely 2 p.m.
“The crazy thing is, because there’s nothing to divide a day, having anything on the calendar to do feels almost overwhelming,” she said. “Like, what am I going to do now that I have this one 20-minute thing that must happen at this specific time? It’s very strange. It’ll be interesting to go back, in some way, to all the spinning plates.”
On Monday, Clark’s new audio project, “St. Vincent: Words + Music,” premieres on Audible, the online audiobook and podcast platform. A 90-minute first-person deep dive into her life and music, the program is interspersed with revelatory new versions of some of St. Vincent’s most popular songs. She offers a fresh rendition of 2007’s “Marry Me,” for example, that highlights dizzying string arrangements absent from the original version.
Most politicians, even if they have the legal right to play a song at a rally, will not risk the PR backlash of an artist objecting. Not President Trump.
For St. Vincent obsessives, these versions are essential listens, as are her recollections on her early years as part of the Texas music collective the Polyphonic Spree and her decision to embark on a solo career under a pseudonym. For passing fans, Clark’s conversational way of speaking about the evolution of her work across six studio albums (including “Love This Giant,” her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne) provides a glimpse into her creative methods. An artist whose work has evolved from guitar-driven indie rock to increasingly experimental work filled with electronics and vocal effects, St. Vincent’s music has at this point transcended genre.
The project is part of Audible’s “Words + Music” series, which includes “Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane,” James Taylor’s “Break Shot,” Common’s “Bluebird Memories: A Journey Through Lyrics & Life” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Road Trip Elegies: Montreal to New York.”
Clark, 37, recently spoke to The Times from her home in Los Angeles.
How much podcast and audiobook listening do you typically do?
I’m obsessed with podcasts and audiobooks. I probably listen to more audiobooks than I do music. I mean, I certainly listen to music — for enjoyment, for research, for just making sure I know what is happening. Luckily, maybe because I’m a musician, I can retain a lot of information that comes through on the auditory side. I mean, I’ve really been brushing up on my Stalin.
You’ve brushed up on your Stalin?
It makes me feel much better about where we are today. Because they had it bad.
It’s pretty bad now.
It’s really bad now. But it was worse. I’ll go ahead and say it was worse in Stalin’s Russia. So there we are. That makes me feel bright and sunny. I’ve been on a real Stasi Gulag Stalin kick for the past many months. Cold war, espionage — all of it.
You want to recommend any specific podcasts or books?
Oh God, we shouldn’t be talking about Stalin. This is already a disaster. I haven’t done this in a minute, you know what I mean? I don’t have my talking points all figured out.
I hope this isn’t a disaster.
No, but if we lead with Stalin, it’s not going to go well for me. Let’s talk about this Audible thing, because it was a lovely experience. It was fun to take old songs and reinvent them. There’s a version of “Digital Witness” on this that’s really funky and I love it. I’m glad they gave me a reason to look at my back catalog and reinvent some old songs.
Did you enjoy the process of recalling where you were in your life during various points?
I did. I divide my life into albums, instead of the other markers of time that most people have. I can go, “Oh, I was in the middle of this tour, and this is what was going on in my life and this is what I was writing about as a result.” That part of it was kind of an archaeological dig.
You reveal a few experiences in the program about your family and private life. I didn’t know, for example, about your father’s white-collar crimes, which landed him in prison in the early ’00s. Did you have any hesitation about engaging with parts of your life that aren’t related to your music?
I would have a long time ago, and I certainly did while it was all going on. I’ve always wanted people to enjoy and take in my music for what the music was. I don’t want it to be like a piece of art on the wall that needs an explanation in order to enjoy it. I want it to be enjoyed and interpreted on its own merit. I don’t think that it makes art more valid because it came from really horrible circumstances. I don’t necessarily want to mythologize something that’s actually quite normal. Things happen. And the crazy thing is to expect otherwise.
I think that in the past I felt way more protective of my family and my privacy because he was still in there. But since then, he’s been released, and we have a great relationship. It’s been a wonderful story of reconciliation, change, forgiveness, all those things. That’s why I feel fine about throwing it out there, because frankly, it had the happiest possible ending.
Another story you share is about being groped during a performance while you were stage-diving, and reacting by hitting the fan with your microphone. Have you stopped stage-diving since that happened?
Yes, stage-diving in that particular way. During the “Strange Mercy” tour, I was straight up hurling myself into the crowd and getting some pretty sick dives in. But then during the “St. Vincent” tour, I was definitely going into the crowd but more like jumping on the backs of security guards and running through that way. I still love the fan interaction. It’s not necessarily the end of my stage-diving days.
A lot of creative people I know are having a hard time with their muse right now. How are you doing with that?
I’m doing OK. It’s been a really productive time, but in a different way. I have this theory that people who are creative for a living were dumbstruck, creatively, by the pandemic, because we all need an element of chaos in our day to be able to grab inspiration. I know that’s a cheesy word, but we need to be able to be walking down the street, see that strange thing that somebody did and think about it, metabolize it and write about it.
People who are creative for a living have had a very hard time being creative during the pandemic. But a lot of people who aren’t necessarily creative for a living are like, “It’s a great time. I’ve finally learned how to knit and I finally wrote that short story that I‘d been meaning to do.” My informal poll of my fellow writers is that they’re banging their heads against the wall. But other people learned how to crochet or how to play “Sweet Home Alabama,” and that’s awesome.
Have you considered how you might present yourself as a performer going forward if, because of the coronavirus, the concert experience evolves into something unrecognizable?
I think about it every day. I wouldn’t imagine that things will ever be exactly back to normal, in terms of live touring. There’s a whole lot of other ways to get creative about how to reach people. And not just how to reach people but have the actual intimacy and energetic exchange of a show. The need for that kind of communion isn’t going to go away. I don’t think that’ll ever go away. It’s going to change, and it’s changed many times over the course of history. But yes, I think about it every day.
I think things that people love, they’re going to love even more, and they aren’t going to fall for things that they don’t love. Everything’s been put into sharp focus. Everybody’s figured out, more and more, what they actually need and what they don’t in these crazy times. I certainly don’t mean to minimize the actual human condition on the ground. But I think it’s going to be an exciting time for art. And that’s a silver lining.
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