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St Vincent: “I don't miss domesticity at all”

17 July 2009, 09:00

“I can’t see the future but I know it’s got big plans for me,” sang Annie Clark on Actor, her latest record as St Vincent. Judging by the coy smiles and avoided looks as we ask her about collaborations and film soundtracks, it’d seem that the musical world is now her oyster, but frustratingly, she’s not allowed to spill the beans.

However she’s more than happy to discuss R Kelly’s oeuvre, preconceptions and community with Leah Pritchard and Laura Snapes on a rainy afternoon prior to her phenomenal show on Bristol’s Thekla.

We heard you soundchecking earlier with some crazy vocal warm ups, and your voice live sounds pretty different to on record. Do you have to work hard to keep it in shape?
I do vocal warm ups, just so I can make sure I get the whole range. I took a couple of singing lessons in Dallas when I was about 20, from a gospel teacher, but earlier I was just riffing on an R Kelly song – R Kelly and Sparkle, from the late, mid 90s? It has typical R Kelly style, the funniest most ridiculous lyrics. We were riffing on Real Talk too, it’s them in the studio fighting – it’s so hilarious, he’s singing along to the record, the words are just special – “Bitch I wish you weren’t wearing my clothes!” I think it’s pre-Trapped In The Closet. ‘Sex in the Kitchen’ is another good one to YouTube, it’s incredible!

Have you ever thought of doing some R Kelly covers in your set?!
Oh man…! I might work up that song he did with Sparkle. It’s a male female duet, so I’ll have to find someone to do it with me.

Did John Congleton have a lot of influence on the sound of your record? His stuff with The Paper Chase is really intense, using scissors as percussion and so on, and to a certain extent that comes through on your record, but it’s a lot more toned down.
We certainly had dialogue about all the sounds, he’s so fast at getting sounds and so creative at sound, it was very effortless sonically. He’d say, “that’d sound cool”, and it did! I think everyone should make a record with John Congleton, he’s the best.

So was the process a lot quicker than when making Marry Me?
Yeah, Marry Me was made over more time. All told, minus me doing some days on my own with woodwind, and little bits of tracking, I think altogether we had about 30 days including 10 days break. So we did about 20 days of studio time, which is not a lot. We had to break it up ‘cos of John’s schedule, so we’d have six days here, three days here. He’s the busiest bee on the planet. I’ve never met somebody who works as hard! He fit me in every day he could.

Did many of the songs change a lot from their Garage Band origins?
Oh yeah. I could pull up MIDI files right now on my laptop, of like, the clarinet parts in ‘The Strangers’, or all of the notes in ‘Marrow’ I have sketched out, but it all got transposed and rearranged and given to different instruments. So they were more just notational templates as opposed to sonically fleshed out.

Are the sound limitations of recording like that frustrating?
Well, John was instrumental in making the music tangible, because it was very esoteric for most of the writing. He’d talk about songs feeling good to play, or sounding good but not feeling like anything. So he brought it to life.

Your technique of soundtracking Disney movies on mute has been referenced a lot. What do you make of the whole new wave of CGI, 3D Disney animation, in comparison to the romance of the films from the ‘30s and ‘40s that inspired Actor?
You know, I saw ‘Wall-E’. Is that Disney Pixar? I cried at ‘Wall-E’. It was so good, right?! “Wall-E! Eva!” Other than that, I don’t really have much of an opinion on them, the ones from the ‘30s are my favourite brand of cartooning, but yeah, I cried at ‘Wall-E’, so there’s some emotional resonance there!

Did you get any offers as a result of showcasing for people who commission soundtracks? The next Michael Bay movie, right?
Got my fingers crossed! I think if I did have something in the works, I couldn’t talk about it…!

Ohh! Well moving on, are the people in the songs intentionally characters?
Haha… . Umm… Yeah, I found it was helpful to be a little bit…not removed, but to try to look at a situation from a lot of different sides, and often in the writing of the new record, even if I’ve experienced something emotionally similar to what’s going on in those little stories, I’m not necessarily the narrator. I might be the antagonist…

With the darker lyrics especially, do your parents ever worry about you?
My mom used to be cute about it. “Are you ok?” “Shut up mom, it’s art…come on!” I never tell my mom to shut up, by the way. I don’t really get asked by them any more!

On Actor, domesticity is presented under quite a bleak light. Do you miss the vagabond touring way of life when you go back to that?
I don’t miss domesticity at all. I like touring. I was home in New York for about seven days after the US tour, just a little time. I didn’t even really unpack, just did the laundry. We recorded Letterman in that little window. How are people responding since Letterman? Well I don’t get followed or anything! I was eating dinner in New York, and a guy came up and said, “I saw you on Letterman, I loved it so I bought your CD,” which was really cool. No one has yet come up and said, “I saw you on Letterman. It was terrible, I did not buy your CD!”

With people like you, Bat For Lashes and Beyonce, there seems there’s a lot of negativity towards women who take on alter egos. How do you find people respond to your pseudonym?
I find that sometimes when women who go under their own name there’s more preconceptions, but if you hear…I’m trying to make up a name…“Jane… Whatever!” that carries a different sort of connotation, that that’s going to be an acoustic guitar, I feel like that’s on a lot of people’s minds. Aside from getting asked over and over where the name comes from, there’s no backlash to it.

I read Marnie Stern saying that often when she goes to play shows, a stool is put out for her ‘cos they think she’s going to play acoustic guitar!
Aww! She can shred people’s faces off…

I wanted to ask about ‘Chinese Democracy’, I heard you were playing it a lot in the studio because it was so bad. Did you seek out a barometer of bad taste to work against?!
Yeah, John and I were talking about it, whether we’d heard it or not, so he put it on, and we were listening through really nice hi-fi speakers, and you can just hear this huge digital mess! I’m not a digital/analog snob or anything, but it sounds like somebody let this man play with a hamster until it was dead. It sounds modern and confused, like they didn’t make any decisions anywhere. I’m gonna get hate mail from Axl Rose, I’m sorry! It’s tricky.

We listened to the whole things a couple of times, and usually you can say, “sing me that tune!” and get some idea of melody, but I don’t know what happened, it was so confused! Axl Rose is gonna hate me! All of it was terrible. And I’m not a hater, but it was remarkably bad.

Have you been back to Texas or Oklahoma since the Bush administration’s been over?
Yeah, I was there for Christmas. Dallas went for Obama, Dallas is blue!

With songs like ‘Jesus Saves, I Spend’, if you find yourself playing in the Bible belt, do you have to adapt your set at all?
I think on the first tour it happened a couple of time, people gingerly asked, making sure that I wasn’t being irreverent. So much of that is word play, not that it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s subtle enough.

The idea of preconceptions about names reminds me of Queens of the Stone Age, they got sued by a group of deaf people who thought that ‘Songs of the Deaf’ was an album of vibrational music.
Ohh! I was wondering about that actually, because when we played Bonnaroo my sound engineer asked if I wanted someone interpreting, signing the words of my set! I was thrown! But that was awesome. I don’t remember if we actually had the person doing it. But it would have been very cool.

Is there a particular movement or group of bands that you associate or align yourself with? A lot of the people you’re compared to don’t actually sound at all like you, like Grizzly Bear or Dirty Projectors.
I’m glad to be thought of in the same vein as them. The Dirty Projectors are probably my favourite band ever. I think there’s something really vital happening in New York with Grizzly Bear and the Dirties.

How do you find NYC as a place to live in terms of music, the way that trends come and go? Or is it quite supportive?
It’s wonderfully supportive. My friend Bryce Dessner, who’s in The National, he’s like a powerhouse. He curated ‘Dark Was The Night’, he’s a mastermind, doing stuff with Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, he’s kind of a genius. He has his hand in this established New York minimalist compositional thing, and he’s also in a fucking great rock band. Nico Muhly’d be in there too. This new wave minimalism! It’s really sweet – you don’t think of it as such a scene, but these are friends or people you’re friendly with, they’re all so talented and “wow!” that we all want to do stuff together.

Do you have any exciting collaborations coming up?
I do! But I can’t say! But it’s a very exciting time to be in New York.

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