St. Vincent Doesn’t Need A Backstory

On her new album All Born Screaming, Annie Clark lets themes of life and death speak for itself.

St. Vincent begins our interview by asking me a question: “You know what I did last night?”

She asks this with no ulterior motive, no attempt to thwart my upcoming line of questioning or run the clock on our allotted time. The singer, who introduces herself with a smile and a firm handshake, simply had a thought that she’d like to share.

“I went to an archery class,” she continues. “Indoors. I'd never shot a bow before.” The three-time Grammy award-winning artist so famous for her guitar work that she has her own line of guitars with Ernie Ball was, of course, a natural. “I'm good at hand-eye coordination.”

Annie Clark, the artist known as St. Vincent, has spent nearly her entire career living in New York in some capacity. For about a decade, she had an apartment in the East Village where she lived “completely illegally” until she returned home from tour to find an eviction notice on her door. “I just moved out truly in the middle of the night,” she says. These days, she has an apartment in the Lower East Side for when work takes her here (she splits time with her home in Los Angeles). She’s still enchanted by the ever-changing nature of the city — hence the excitement over the archery discovery — though sometimes for better or worse. “Yesterday I walked across the street to this place that I thought was a restaurant that I knew, and it was a knitting place. They were like, ‘Are you here for knitting?’ And I was like, ‘F*ck no.’"

Today, we’re somewhere much more familiar to the artist: Electric Lady Studios, where she’s recorded a majority of the vocals for her latest album, All Born Screaming, out April 26. “I did ‘Hell Is Near’ and ‘Big Time Nothing’ in Studio A,” she says, listing off tracks from the album. “I did ‘Reckless’ in this room. There's something about doing vocals where you want to feel like it's for real, and when you're doing it at your home studio by yourself, you're like, ‘Well, I could always do it again tomorrow.’"

Dressed in tights, black mesh gloves, and a shiny red plastic trench coat that crinkles when she walks (“Is this going to interfere with your recording? Do you need me to take it off?” she kindly asks before we start), Clark, 41, is open and warm in her banter, partial to tangents and self-effacing jokes. She’s the ideal interview subject who doesn’t shy away from answering questions. “She’s game to talk about anything,” her publicist tells me before we meet.

Ironically, the only subject Clark seems to struggle over is discussing the album. Not the technicalities of recording, which she is fluent in, breaking it down in a language of numbers and letters that goes above my basic knowledge, but rather the ethos of the album: What does it all mean? “It's a weird one because on some level you're like, ‘Well, I made the thing. I don't know how to explain it.’” she says.

The title of the album traces back nearly two decades, when the idea of writing a song called “All Born Screaming” came to a then 23-year-old Clark. It wasn’t until now, she says, that she crafted something worthy of the title. “I had lived enough to be able to sort of own it,” she says. “I know what it is to live [now], so I had earned it.” The general arching theme that Clark can attribute to the record is “life and death.” For that reason, it’s also the first record she’s produced by herself (her past two, 2017’s Masseduction and 2021’s Daddy’s Home, were co-produced by Jack Antonoff, with whom she also worked on Taylor Swift’s massive hit “Cruel Summer.”) “With a lot of the subject matter of the record, it just made sense to kind of be alone in a room to find it,” she says. “I wouldn't want to put an engineer or another producer through me singing a hundred takes of a song. I just wouldn't do that to someone.”

When and why the actual album started coming together is less concrete. “To be honest with you, time has been pretty elastic since the pandy,” she says. She began writing the songs that would end up on the record while working on Daddy’s Home. She stopped when she started sequencing the album. “You just follow your instincts… I don't know how records get made. And I mean that as someone who's made a lot of records at this point. You sit in a room long enough and work hard enough, and eventually something gets done.”

She points to the cover of the album, a stark Alex Da Corte photograph of the singer set on fire. “I like that you can't tell if I'm trying to put myself out, if I'm on fire and I'm trying to put myself out, or that I'm moving so furiously that I've started it,” she says. In the past, she’s relied on a “persona” of sorts for the press aspect; a latex-clad dominatrix for Masseduction; a ‘70s outlaw for Daddy’s Home; for Burning, she’s the closest to Annie. “On previous records, I was dissecting the idea of persona and using persona to liberate my subconscious from whatever,” she says. “Which I've realized makes perfect because I'm queer. I know how to code switch. I've been aware that gender is performance and all that, since I was a child. This record, it's not about persona or anything, it's just kind of life and death, and life is impossible, but we get to live it. And it's really f*cking short, and we are all we got, and people we love are all we got. So it's in some ways easier to talk about because it's kind of dead simple.”

It’s a back-to-basics record, in the starkest respect, and if anything, one that benefits from Clark’s mystery. “I think if the work is good and the work speaks, besides kind of pointing to it, and ‘Hey, check it out,’ it doesn't need a big backstory,” she says. “As a music fan, if I love a song, I don't care what the artist is going through even a little bit. As an artist, I think it's kind of a slightly more generous act to be like, ‘No, just take it.’ That's what completes a song.”

Photographs by Mari Sarai

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