With a one-off show at Carriageworks just announced, which will feature songs from an album I had in my top 10 of 2017, Massseduction (read that review HERE), and a reputation for brilliance - on guitar, on disc and in her conceptualising of music-as-art – St Vincent is the talk of the town right now.
Wind Back Wednesday takes a short step back to 2014 and the artist also known as Annie Clark discussing whether truth is over-rated and identity misunderstood.
FOR MANY OF US, the imagined life is a much more vivid and exciting existence than our reality. If we were writing songs, we’d have to make up the odd and the bizarre.
For New York-based Annie Clark, or St Vincent as she’s mostly known, real life is plenty odd enough. And we’re not just talking about recording and touring Australia last year with one of her heroes, Talking Heads’ David Byrne, with a dancing brass band as the accompaniment to her inventive and exciting guitar playing. That tour reviewed HERE.
We’re not even talking about being one of four guest vocalists, along with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Lorde, who sang with the rest of Nirvana when the band was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame last month.
Though if you watch her perform Lithium you’ll get a good idea why as a guitarist and a singer she owned that stage.
For now though, just take a look at the new, self titled, St Vincent album. Its opening number,Rattlesnake, may feel like a metaphor as she describes an encounter with said snake which has her being chased in the desert. Hmm, you wonder, maybe it represents the perfidious business world which is the music industry.
Or a symbol of losing faith in the wilderness. Or, not.
"I'm trying to think of a song that's mostly metaphor and there isn't one coming to mind," Clark says of her fourth album of art-inflected pop music. "Rattlesnake is a pretty literal take, reporting the facts of getting chased by a snake in West Texas."
"While nude, yeah.”
As one does.
"Well one ought to. It's a hell of a ride,” the Texan native says. “All these songs are incredibly personal, if not necessarily word for word true. I'm not sure what the concept of true means in art. It's not something I'm interested in."
We build our own truth around what we are hearing. Knowing that there is literal truth in some of these stories is irrelevant in a sense because our imaginations will run free with Rattlesnake.
"Exactly. Which calls into question why ...”
Why you are doing interviews about the songs?
“Kind of. I don't mind doing interviews but I'm somewhat protective of songs and content because I wouldn't want to ruin anyone's experience of a song they take to mean one thing which may be very specific for them,” Clark says. “When I learnt that [the Beatles’] Martha My Dear was about a dog, i thought, ‘oh, that’s a bummer’.”
Or like finding out Michael Jackson’s Ben is about a rat.
“Wait. What is about a rat? [a long pause] Well, that shakes up my worldview. I also heard that Smooth Criminal he was singing to one of those dummies you use for CPR [training] and the generic name for those is Annie. So that’s what he's singing to when he says ‘Annie are you ok?’."
Ok, unlikely, but if true, this may be more disturbing than to find out Ben was a rat.
There is far less disturbance in Clark’s background but plenty of oddness. Her musical career began as a member of the gospel choir/quasi-cult group from Texas, the Polyphonic Spree before a stint playing with the 100 guitar ensemble put together by extreme arthouse guitar creative Glenn Branca and then touring with weird folk/pop maven Sufjan Stevens.
Her own music can be heavily intellectualised but still bouncing with some ‘80s synth, danceable funk mixed with melting guitar shapes and brass band parping alongside choral harmonies. Live, it’s all that and choreographed moves.
If there is a place for her music you’d think it had come from New York rather than her home state of Texas. But then stereotypes mean little around here.
"There are a couple of ways in which I think I would fit in to the Texas stereotype,” Clark says. “Manners are something that was always impressed on people; I think there is a groundedness to Texans.
“Maybe it's a middle-class or lower middle class thing, a sense of don't get too big for your britches. I wouldn't say I am proud of being from Texas, it's a place, but I do love it dearly. It does feel like home."
The idea of being "proud" to be from somewhere, whether it be Texas or the USA or Australia is an interesting one. What is it that we are "proud" of? What does it mean? I tell her that this has been a topic debated here in recent years in the context of racism and xenophobia disguised as border protection.
"Australia is a funny place. I've had the experience of being with people my age and in a similar zone, an artsy person or whatever, and in the States you would never hear anyone, ever, say something overtly racist or use a slur. I've had a couple of experiences with Australians, people who by all accounts would be my Australian analogue, who have said things that had my jaw just drop. ‘Wait, that’s still a thing here?’.”
Identity politics is one thing Clark can speak on, not just the surprisingly open racism in Australia but the more basic issue of taking on a name and an identity as an artist.
"I think if I had gone by my name I think the expectation would have been at the very beginning a strumming acoustic guitar and more earth mother archetype. That wasn't what I was doing and I was afraid of being perceived as doing that,” she says.
“I thought I would create this space over here so that whatever St Vincent is can grow and I can grow into it without the baggage of being me.”
St Vincent will play at Carriageworks on Jun 17 as part of Vivid Sydney.