The Most Virtuosic of St. Vincent, According to Annie Clark

“If I wasn’t a writer, you might be going to see me play guitar at the local blues jam.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

You can judge a St. Vincent record by its cover, specifically its color. They’re usually monochromatic: The hospital-waiting-room gray of Marry Me; the Truman Show orange of Actor; the terror latex of Strange Mercy; the cultish steel of St. Vincent; the leather salmon of MASSEDUCTION. Annie Clark seems to choose her colors as her most explicit act of world-building in a universe linked by Clark’s guitar virtuosity — meticulous, often explosive — and her vaudevillian songwriting, where the prototypical St. Vincent song, from “All My Stars Aligned” to “Slow Disco,” feels like a show tune from Venus.

Daddy’s Home, her sixth and latest album, tries to throw off that pattern. You can still see Clark’s signature frozen smile on the LP sleeve as she cosplays an outtake from Taxi Driver. But this cover’s all sepia, dulling the typically vibrant colors into a more timeless image, something out of step with the world within which it exists. You’ve seen this kind of photo before. That’s the point. For the first time, a St. Vincent record looks to the past — both figuratively to ’70s rock but also literally to her father’s near-decade in prison for a stock-manipulation scheme in 2010 — to talk about how weird present-day truths feel, instead of trying to manifest a weird future that isn’t real. Whether it works or not depends on how dearly you hold onto the classic-rock notion that music should be a door to untapped feelings and not a mirror to reality (and also how comfortable you are with a musician who has never been locked up teaching you about America’s prison-industrial complex, when you could just read a book instead). Suspension of disbelief is advised. Clark still writes show tunes, but it sounds like Steely Dan has now landed on Venus.

She can confirm at least half of that is true. “I saw them do Aja,” she says, offering a rare moment of unguarded glee in her praise of the band over the phone last month. Clark mostly speaks with thoughtful pauses and a “bless your heart” kindness that’s distinct to New York transplants (she was born in Tulsa and moved to Dallas when she was young) but breaks character on the subject of what’s become a sort of New York rite of passage among certain music fans: Seeing Steely Dan perform their classic albums at the Beacon Theatre. “I saw them do The Royal Scam,” she continues. “Love Steely Dan. Love Steely Dan so hard.” We connected a few days after she came back to New York, the scene of the album, to play SNL in early April. Before then, Clark spent much of the pandemic in California and Texas, though she’d previously called this city home for over a decade and refers to it as her “foot on the earth. (She still has a place here, just in case.) SNL was a teaser for how Daddy’s Home will translate live. As of now, the album will not go through the various remixes and alternate versions that defined MASSEDUCTION; the idiosyncrasies of each song will exist as is. “So much of it is the conversation between the instruments,” she explains. “No clips, no tracks, no nothing. Just people good at playing music, playing music.”

“People good at playing music, playing music” is a good review of Daddy’s Home. In lesser hands, a “The ’70s! What a concept!” travelogue through New York could have been about as nuanced as your college iPod. Instead, Clark is a serious student of the luminaries who released classics throughout the ’70s: Stevie Wonder, War, The Pointer Sisters, Marianne Faithfull, and all the artists she names on Daddy’s Home standout “The Melting Of The Sun.” By restricting the sound of the album to one real place and era, she’s made her most freeing record yet. It might also be her least accessible. Sometimes “freeing” turns into “doodling” with professional musicians jamming just for the sake of jamming. The album’s midtempo-ness and lack of riffs (from one of our great riffers) can be disorienting if you’re looking for anything as thrilling as “Sugarboy” or inviting as “New York.” Daddy’s Home serves a mellow middle ground that’s happy to get lost in the shuffle. That’s not a negative by default. If nothing else, Daddy’s Home loosens and unexpectedly challenges what a St. Vincent record could be. What’s familiar about it is what’s true of all her records: a strong sense of forethought, even while Clark’s process is guided more by impulse. “I mostly just look four feet in front of me and just get very obsessed with whatever’s right there,” she says. “It makes it so that I’m unfortunately not a very strategic person. I’m just interested in what I’m interested in now.”

Favorite new piece of gear used for Daddy’s Home

The 1967 Coral Electric Sitar Guitar. Jack Antonoff [who co-produced the album] gave it to me. We were in the studio and he had it out, and I picked it up and played a song on it. I thought it could be a cool texture for the album instead of heavily distorted guitar and borrowed it for the duration of the recording. In the end, I tried to give it back to him. He was like, “No, it’s yours. I can’t take it back.” I think he bought another one and didn’t need it anymore, but he very generously gave it to me. I know this is a vintage piece of gear that is somewhat sought after.

We had Wurlitzers from that era. The claves are from that era. Everything was pretty period-specific. Did I run it through a reimagined Opamp Labs console? Yeah. Did that exact board exist in 1971? No. You could split hairs about new gear versus vintage gear. But at least instrumentation-wise, the album was definitely done with instruments of that time.

Nerdiest music discovery made while researching for Daddy’s Home

Studying and charting out Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” It’s so musical but so harmonically complicated; it starts in a major key and modulates. The chorus is in a minor key, and not even the relative minor. It modulates to a totally different key. It’s just like, Whoa. Wow. Why does this sound and feel so good? There wasn’t any way to do it exactly as he did it without rewriting “Golden Lady,” but to [instead] sort of take some of the lessons and go under the hood and go: How is this constructed?

I think studying harmonic cadences was probably the nerdiest I got. l remember being at CVS and just happening to hear Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.” There’s that chord turnaround [Clark sings the chorus to “Something To Talk About”] and I was like, Whoa, great chord change. I’m going to study it. I think I threw it into “… At the Holiday Party.”

Every St. Vincent record as a New York landmark

I associate Actor with Battery Park because I remember I played a show there around that time. Marry Me is this deli on Second Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. Strange Mercy is probably 13th Street between First and Second Avenues, and this bar called Von on Bleeker Street where my friend [and frequent collaborator] Thomas Bartlett and a bunch of us would hold court. I wrote a lot of the self-titled in Texas, so I’m kind of drawing a blank there a little bit.

I associate MASSEDUCTION with staying at a hotel by Electric Lady Studios in the Village on 8th Street. Even though I had an apartment, I was staying at a hotel just because it was a lot cleaner. I was in total nun mode. Not drinking, no sex, no nothing — nothing fun. My only vice was with jellybeans from the minibar. Wake up early, write, write, write, manically work, and then at night, I would get to jellybean. That’s what my life was. The big, exciting treat: Jelly Bellys.

Daddy’s Home is the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side. I don’t spend a whole lot of time above 14th Street; I don’t know why it feels like a psychological barrier going past there.

Biggest lesson from making your own guitar

Photo: Retailer

With the guitar, I did what I always do, which is just kind of humbly make shit that I think is cool [laughs]. I think I didn’t realize the extent to which a certain part of guitar culture is very territorial or very much about preserving the history of the past, instead of necessarily getting excited for new shapes or the future. There’s an aspect to guitar culture that I would say intersects with vintage car collectors or people who like antiques. I say this from having gone to a lot of guitar conventions; I don’t say that with any judgment, truly.

It’s a romantic instrument to me. I don’t mean that I anthropomorphize a guitar because I don’t. I specifically am not like, “Yeah, when you play it right, she really sings for you” [laughs]. No, that’s strange to me. But it’s a romantic instrument to me in the way that I find them so captivating. Walking into a guitar store as a kid took the place of walking into a toy store: Wow, look at all these possibilities, look at this color, and look at this shape. But I’ve also looked at the instrument as a tool for expression. It’s kind of only as useful as what you’re able to say on it. I just wanted to make something that, based on my years of playing guitar, I thought could change it up a little bit or add some things that would be helpful to me as a player. I guess I was a little surprised at the certain fetishization of the past, or a really classic shape, you know? The loudest voice will always be the crankiest voice. It’s fine. But I think guitars have energy and you play certain guitars in different kinds of ways. I feel that. If I pick up the strat, the first thing I do is play a Hendrix riff. But in this way with a guitar with a new shape, you get a blank slate. There’s not already a canon of music on this particular guitar, so isn’t this exciting we get to make it together.

Best-written St. Vincent song vs. best-recorded St. Vincent song

“The Melting of the Sun” was a very, very crafted song. I rewrote the lyrics seven times. As far as sonically, [Daddy’s Home] scratches a lot of itches for me. There’s an amount of psychedelia, which is very soothing and transformational. This isn’t another record with an aggressive hyper-color assault. This one is: Come sit in the seat of a leather chair, and welcome.
I don’t really work on other stuff that I’ve done in the past. I probably haven’t heard any of my old records in a very long time. I don’t even know exactly what to say from a sonic standpoint. I think I’m just most excited about what I’m doing now, which I hope isn’t a bummer answer. I don’t know because I haven’t listened to it in a while. And your opinion on your own past will change depending on the day you ask it, you know?

St. Vincent song that brings the most joy to sing

Pay Your Way in Pain” brings me a lot of joy. I love getting to scream at the top of my lungs. Hmmm. Joy. Maybe “Candy Darling.” I guess you say joy; I say comfortable melancholy. But there’s a love there that’s a warm, resigned, nostalgic, twinkle-in-your-eye kind of thing. That one is joyful in a way that puts me in my chest.

The whole record [Daddy’s Home] was a lot of fun to sing and make. It’s a lot about capturing the performance. “My Baby Wants a Baby” was fun to sing, especially at the end [starts singing it]. That’s really fun.

Go-to key to write music in

I hop around all over the place. But I also will write something in one key and then realize it sounds better a half-step lower. I will play with the keys a lot after the song is written. I do tune my guitars down a whole step to D, so they’re just a little richer on the bottom end and I can get that [laughs] … that big D, that big open D. [Clark impersonates a TV announcer]: “St Vincent. All about the Big D. The new album: Daddy’s Home.”

I probably should just stick to a key. I’m like the person at a buffet whose eyes are too big for their stomachs. I write too ambitiously for my voice, or I did for a long time. I don’t do it anymore. The good part about it is that you push yourself. The tricky thing about it becomes: “Oh, I gotta really practice to get this right.”

I think it goes back to having something to say. If I was just a guitar player, you wouldn’t have heard of me. If I was just trying to be a singer, you wouldn’t have heard of me. I kind of know what I am and what I’m not, in a way. It’s the combination of writing and playing and singing. If I wasn’t a writer, you might be going to see me play guitar at the local blues jam. But it’s the combo of being an artist. It’s not necessarily one thing that I do exceptionally well because I definitely have gaps in my abilities. Your voice — whether that’s on an instrument or your literal voice — is only as powerful as what it is that you’re saying. I’m not trying to be self-effacing or self-aggrandizing in saying this. You could come see me on Tuesdays at the local blues jam, but it is about me having something to say and being a writer. That is the reason why — my ability to have a place to go.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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The Most Virtuosic of St. Vincent, According to Annie Clark