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The Dream World of St. Vincent

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Leonard Cohen | 1969

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