The Dream World of St. Vincent

Art, darkness and blurred lines: Hanging in Spain with the smartest indie-rock star of her generation

St. Vincent
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St. Vincent
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It's thunderstorming in Barcelona, so Annie Clark – who performs as St. Vincent and who "really, really, really" wants to go to the beach – is forced to make other plans. "You visit a lot of museums and aquariums when you're on tour," she says, crossing the rain-slicked plaza of the Museu Blau, a natural-history museum overlooking a stretch of the Mediterranean that's currently the same desolate gray shade as the sky. "I watch a lot of Sex and the City on tour, too," she adds. "Not that I watch it watch it, but it's on TBS, so it's always fucking on." Clark is all black from the neck down – suede ankle boots, skinny jeans, scoop-neck tee, biker jacket – and polychromatic up top, with huge green eyes and stralavender-blond curls escaping from a cobalt-colored hat, its brim ample enough to keep her cheeks dry. The Blau resembles a vast slab of soil that someone dyed blue, stabbed with shards of broken terrarium and set upon a pedestal. Clark suggested that we come here, but she is unfamiliar with the place. "What kind of museum is this?" she asks. "Oh. OK." She says she never really went through a science-buff period: "I had a brief shark obsession, but didn't everybody?"

Listen to St. Vincent's Space Oddities Playlist

Clark, 31, is in the middle of a global run of shows that began in February, promoting her fantastic new album, St. Vincent. A few months ago, the surviving members of Nirvana invited her onstage in New York, where she lives, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony; she played guitar and sang lead on "Lithium." And last week, she brought her transfixing brand of high-concept, high-energy art rock to the Saturday Night Live season finale, then left the very next day for some Australian gigs. All the trans-hemispheric schlepping has left her severely jet-lagged. "I'm off a 30-hour flight from Sydney," she says. "I've got to be up front with you: My head feels like it's floating above my body on a thin thread. I don't even want to pretend to stop and read all the placards and stuff in the exhibits here, because I'm not going to absorb anything. I was listening to a Proust audio book earlier, and I got nothing from it. Nothing. Except that he might be a little hung up on his mother."

In conversation, Clark is a good deal like her music: wry, erudite and free-associative. Over the course of her four solo albums and a 2012 collaborative LP with David Byrne, she has gone from a prodigiously talented, occasionally over-precious genre-juggler to an assured pop visionary – establishing herself along the way as a bona fide guitar god capable of wringing both virtuoso jazz phrasings and bracingly atonal disturbances from her instrument. She's said that St. Vincent, which sold nearly 30,000 copies in its first week, is her first LP that truly "sounds like myself." Byrne describes her songs the way people describe Talking Heads': "I find them accessible, but if you look closely, they're pretty strange," he says. "There is a nice push and pull, some energizing tension going on there. It takes some skill to keep that balance."

Inside the permanent exhibit, contemplating some trilobite fossils, Clark says, "It's crazy to think about the tiny fraction of time that we've been on the planet." She revises that statement: "That we've been a pox on it." We head into a gallery marked Evolución, where a primate skeleton stands beside that of an early man. "I went to the Creation Museum, in Kentucky," Clark says. She identifies as a "reformed" Catholic and intended the visit as a lark: "I thought it would be a fun adventure, but it kind of darked me out. They tell you the dinosaurs died in the flood."

One of Clark's preoccupations on St. Vincent is the persuasive power of cult leaders and how such figures parallel pop performers. "It's kind of the flip side of the same coin," she says. Pushing her sound in a more danceable direction, she says, represented an attempt to "democratize" her concerts: If people didn't move, performances would be incomplete. For the tour, she hired the choreographer Annie-B Parson, who developed a set of mechanistic movements for Clark and her band to perform on cue, in a winking acknowledgment of the artifice that goes into seemingly spontaneous performances. (It's also, of course, a nice bit of stagecraft.)

Clark moves on to regard a deep-sea spider crab, preserved in a jar. "The thing that really depressed me about the Creation Museum is that the tickets aren't cheap," she says. "They're, like, $25, and yet there were buses pulling up from all over, full of these people who didn't look like they had $25 just lying around. It seemed predatory to me." She frowns. "Why would you want to control people like that? Would you even want to? I've thought about it a lot, and I wouldn't. To have people live in this weird little art world you've created? Fine. But to make them believe some bullshit and build their lives around it? Unh-unh."

Religion hangs over St. Vincent's lyrics, where she pits salvation against desire and divine fervor against earthly love. Its role in her life is similarly spectral. Clark's grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink "with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another," Clark says, adding that her parents weren't remotely devout, but "they decided that it meant a lot to her, and it wouldn't do any harm." Clark was born in Oklahoma and grew up in the middle-class Dallas suburb of Lake Highlands. Clark's dad worked in finance; she thinks his job involved "stock-y things," but isn't certain. "My parents separated when I was three, so I didn't really grow up with him as much – just Christmases and summers," she says. Money was tight: Clark's mom was a social worker, "supporting three kids on her salary, for a long time," she says.

Clark's creative side manifested early. "I remember submitting a comic about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to some contest," she recalls. (She didn't win.) She describes herself as a shy child who suffered anxiety attacks, stemming from what she characterizes as profound existential dread at the "vastness" and chaos of the world. "When I was six or seven, I started to have really intense anxiety, and I didn't have the tools to even know what it was." Such attacks still overcome her, though less often, and she still finds the sensation hard to articulate: "It's always been this little buddy of mine; it informed my entire worldview. There's general anxiety, and then there's panic attacks, where I have really catastrophic thoughts, where I'm not in control." This is where art came in. "When you're forced to deal with something big that you don't understand, you try to find ways to interpret the universe in a way that can make you feel safer or alleviate that crazy. For me, it was music."

At school, Clark played soccer – she can still do a badass rainbow kick – and got into theater. Later, inspired by grunge acts, she started playing guitar, an instrument she didn't see as gendered. "I wasn't thinking about it like that. Nirvana were my heroes, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden." She formed a metal covers band with friends, heavy on Iron Maiden and Pantera. At home, using audio software, she recorded more ornate original compositions. "I always had this other thing, this stuff I was making on my own," she says. "I would have been too shy to do that spontaneously with other people." Computers are still part of Clark's method: "I discovered I could write stuff that I couldn't play; my ears are smarter than my fingers." She describes her early songs as "fully arranged, all over the place. I used to practice Billie Holiday riffs, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, which was pretty ill-fitting clothing, but a good growing-pains tutorial."

In Clark's adolescence, her love of Nirvana led her to groups like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. "I was just as into the politics as I was into the music," says Clark, "maybe even more. It was tough and confrontational. Kurt [Cobain] was such a feminist, and the scene was so radical, punk and queer." She calls queerness a way of relating to the world that "transcends sexuality and is a banner for being 'Other.' I think most people feel 'Other,' don't they?" One of the most hauntingly lovely ballads on St. Vincent is "Prince Johnny," which celebrates a gay, or perhaps transgender, protagonist. "It's unpacking some of what it means to be a 'real girl' and a 'real boy,' " Clark says. "We get handed down these ideas of gender and sexuality: You're supposed to be this or that. What happens if you float around the cracks and don't fit into these narrowly prescribed things?"

I ask Clark if she herself identifies either as gay or straight. "I don't think about those words," she replies. "I believe in gender fluidity and sexual fluidity. I don't really identify as anything." She points to her adopted home: "New York is where all the freaks from all the places converge. I've had wild nights out where you end up at the Box" – a downtown club that hosts highly sexualized, frequently nude performances by dancers of both genders. "I think you can fall in love with anybody," Clark says. "I don't have anything to hide," adding, "but I'd rather the emphasis be on music."

After high school, Clark moved to Boston, studying for three years at Berklee College of Music before dropping out. "It was more focused on athleticism" – i.e., technique – "than artistry," she says of the school. Artistry and athleticism intertwine in her best music. For the solo on St. Vincent's "Rattlesnake," she says, "I was obsessed with playing on one string to get this serpentine sound. So you play it like a violinist: You overshoot the note, slide into it. I sliced the fuck out of my finger."

Since her 2007 debut, St. Vincent's sound has grown bigger, but dread has remained a constant theme. Her recent single "Digital Witness" describes a nightmare world shorn of privacy. Contrasting her solo work with Love This Giant, her horn-splattered album with Byrne, she says, "I love David's absurdist outlook, but I have too much melancholy in my blood to ever be that lighthearted on my own."

Clark has optimized her New York apartment to suit her temperament. For a time, she turned all her books backward on their shelves because she couldn't bear the visual clutter of their spines: "There were too many different fonts next to one another, and some were just ugly," she explains. She decorates the apartment with paintings, drawings and sculptures made by outsider artists "with really alternate ways of seeing the universe – in some cases because they're schizophrenic." One prized possession is a sparkly cardboard likeness of Mary J. Blige by portraitist Sereno "Glitterman" Wilson. "I like people who have really intense lenses," she says, "and art is their one way to really communicate."

"Goddamn those stupid fuckers!" Clark says. Her face is contorted with anger. The morning after her museum visit, she's onstage at Barcelona's Primavera festival, soundchecking for tonight's show. One of her guitar pedals was damaged in transit by airport security. "We can work around it," her guitar tech says. "Fuck," she replies.

Clark is an exacting performer. Rather than engage in what she calls "the guitarist tap dance," in which a player manipulates a fleet of pedals with her feet, she pre-programs her effects so they toggle on and off remotely during her set. Last week, however, the system misfired, and Clark slammed her hand into her guitar in frustration, hard. "I thought I broke my hand," she says, laughing at the memory. "I played the rest of the set like, 'Fuck. My career's over. That's it.'"

We climb into a van and drive toward a nearby shopping mall, which supposedly features a great sushi spot. "Being from Texas, I know a thing or two about eating at malls," Clark says. After the meal, "blood sugar restored," she returns to her hotel. In a few hours, she will change into a black miniskirt and a severe black cropped jacket that looks like it might have been designed by H.R. Giger for Grace Jones. At 9:45, she will stride out of her dressing room, past a cooler of free Fanta and a tray of lukewarm quiche, and accept words of encouragement from her friends in Arcade Fire, who are preparing to perform immediately after her. She will take the stage to a packed crowd and, standing stock-still at the microphone, she will offer special words of welcome to "all the freaks and the others" in attendance. Then she will launch into a furiously noisy guitar solo, unfurling it like a magnificently tattered flag, and all the freaks and others within earshot will salute.

This story is from the July 3rd-17th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1212: July 3, 2014