In October 2017, St. Vincent released her fifth album, Masseduction, a critically acclaimed collection of art rock with a pop sheen courtesy of producer Jack Antonoff. Now, a year later, she has put together a companion piece, MassEducation, made up of quiet piano versions of the same songs. St. Vincent walked us through the writing and recording of both versions of the track “Savior,” which explores the discomfort of trying to mold yourself to your partner’s desires.
The first part of this song was something I wrote when I was 16. When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time with one of those boom boxes with the microphone you can plug in, sort of like makeshift karaoke, and I would just practice Billie Holiday riffs. The “Pleeeaaaase” part of this song would’ve been one of the first melodies I wrote, and I assume that some of the inspiration came from trying to practice the melismas of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It was in the midst of another song that was dirge-y; I think I’d just discovered PJ Harvey’s Is This Desire? record. And me and my best friend made a music video for that song. I went to Stein Mart and found some ’70s-housewife Dolce & Gabbana kind of outfit, and I was writhing around my mother’s house while my best friend filmed it. So that’s why it particularly stuck out, because we had all the fanfare around it when I was 16. Some melodies, you don’t know when they’ll come into play, but you’re like, Okay, I see you. I’ll squirrel you away for the exact right time, and that time happened to be 15-plus years later.
The rest of it came probably in 2015 or 2016. I was thinking of the general theme of role play as a metaphor for all the ways in which we try to change ourselves in relation to another person in love — how you try to be all the things they need you to be, even when those things aren’t necessarily natural for you. I was spitballing as many role-play scenarios as I could. I settled on a teacher, a nun, a cop, and a nurse. There’s probably a lot of civil-servant jobs I tried to write in but didn’t quite get to, a fireman that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The line “You put me in a teacher’s little denim skirt”: Every teacher that I ever had in Texas public schools would wear those long denim skirts. Even as a child, I was sort of confounded by those skirts. Grown women were wearing them, but they were also something that little girls would wear to Sunday school, so it was kind of matronly but also weirdly infantilizing. That line always makes me laugh, because it sounds like really sexy student-teacher porn, but I’m thinking of whatever Miss Ganard wore in 1991, which is not pornographic in any way, shape, or form.
The melody of the verse, like a lot of melodies that come to me, was something that I woke out of a dream and sort of rolled over and recorded into my phone. You save everything, ’cause you never know what’s gonna be gold. But there’s a lot of mining, shall we say. It would be my worst nightmare for some of the Gregorian grunting you have to do to approximate the idea of a melody that comes to you in your sleep to come out. I’m glad no one ever has to hear it.
I was always a little bit like, Wait, is this a George Michael song? There was something about the pre-chorus that reminded me of him, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. I finally absolved myself of the idea that I’d stolen anything by going back through George Michael’s catalogue: Nope, nope, nope — okay, good, I didn’t lift anything. But there was something very George Michael–y about it to me.
The Masseduction Version
Pretty much every song that I do goes through a lot of iterations in the demo process, ’cause the song will tell you what it wants to be. You can tell when it’s wearing ill-fitting clothes. It’s like, “Please get me out of this weird Spock turtleneck. I wanna be in a fancy suit.” On my first iteration of demoing “Savior” myself, I was leaning more into the bluesy aspects of the melody and having a heavier guitar play the riff. But then that iteration kind of ended up sounding like a blues band at an Irish pub and not in a good way.
I had the great [Welsh bassist] Pino Palladino come in and play on the song, and he came up with the idea of doing a “dumb bass player” thing on this. He plays a flat seventh instead of what would’ve been a major seventh, like a dumb bass player who only really plays root fifths. And it just made the verses so cool.
My friend John Congleton had done some additional production on the song, and we worked on a more extensive demo of it. Then I played all this material for Jack [Antonoff], and he had suggestions about the arrangement: “Let’s double the chorus here,” things like that. At first I was thinking of “Please” being more like an outro and less like a chorus, but after doing some futzing around, we decided it was more satisfying for it to act like a proper chorus. And Jack did a lot of production of really rad sounds. There’s a lot of pleasure in those textures, especially when it opens up at the end and the Mellotrons fade out and I do a kind of spoken-word thing. It’s very delicately put together, but also has a lot of excitement to it.
With the guitars I was going for a Dr. Dre thing, honestly. Like the tone in “Bag Lady” — no distortion, we’re just laying back playing this little clean, phased guitar tone. I had my friend Greg Leisz come and play pedal steel. I had my aunt and uncle, Tuck and Patti, come down. Tuck played guitar over the whole track and just played his feelings, basically. Patti sang the backgrounds. I had her sing them super low; her voice just sounds so cool down there. And then my friend Bobby Sparks, he had that great keyboard line at the end. It was so sick.
My first instinct with great players is just to say, “Hey, be you.” John Congleton used to always say, “Play like you want people to know you played on this.” Player-players, if they think they’re just coming in for a straight-up pop session, they might have the idea that they’re supposed to play it safe. No, don’t play it safe. Go for it, and then we’ll steer it the way it needs to go. I’m down to be pleasantly surprised. If you stay so doggedly attached to your first idea of what something is, then you miss the fun of the process. I don’t put that much stock in my first idea, except in going, Okay, this is what I feel when I sing this, I wanna make sure I don’t lose that. On “Savior,” that was the sadness and urgency and sexiness and defeat, all the things that I feel when I sing it. And the way to protect that was to really nail the contrast of the verses to that big release of the chorus. That’s the thing worth protecting to me.
The MassEducation Version
Thomas Bartlett and I have been friends for a long time, but we’d never really played together. I’ve seen him do incredible things with Anohni, Martha Wainwright, and Justin Vivian Bond, but we’d never sat, you know, him at piano and me singing. But I had this idea that to emotionally and psychically wrap up the process of Masseduction, I wanted to record the songs stripped down. I worked really hard at making these songs be what they are in this fluorescent way, and now I just wanna live very quietly with them for a second. It was something that could calcify the songs for me.
One of the great things about being such good friends with somebody is we didn’t talk about what we were gonna do. Thomas is a genius, so it’s not like he had to sit and practice the songs. He would listen to it one time and then go, “Okay, I got it.” He was at the grand piano in a big room, and I was on a couch, kind of sitting and kind of in a fetal position, in front of a mic. No headphones, just two people in a room discovering the songs. None of my attention was bifurcated on a guitar part. I got to live in the moment. Everything that I’d written and all the stories were right there in my chest.
We recorded them over two days, and then on the third day we chose our favorite takes. Greg Leisz came in later and did these pedal-steel interstitials that went from one key to the other. I wanted it to feel like we never leave this world.
It was the quickest recording process ever. It was feeling and it was heart and it was emotion in the moment. That’s what it is. There’s no irony, there’s no tongue in cheek, there’s no cleverness, there’s nothing coy. It’s just like, “Here’s my heart, here’s some beauty, I hope you like it.”
MassEducation is out now on Loma Vista Recordings.
*This article appears in the October 15, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!