St. Vincent Has Crafted a Magnificent Mythology on Her Own Terms

Annie Clark is back with her fourth and biggest album

Songs like "Rattlesnake" — a naked communion with nature gone horribly awry — and "Huey Newton" — an Ambien-tripping encounter with the Black Panthers cofounder's ghost — have basis in fact. But even the most banal lines — even, for example, when she sings her to-do list, "take out the garbage, masturbate," on "Birth in Reverse" — are bathed in a science-fiction glow, an effect blown out with the help of Congleton and additional percussion by Dap-Kings' Homer Steinweiss and Midlake's McKenzie Smith. As Clark said in her announcement of the record earlier this year, St. Vincent is "a party record you could play at a funeral": a characterization that, if multiple subsequent interviews are to be trusted, "sounds like myself."

While most of St. Vincent was masterminded alone, her art direction was born of collaboration: a partnership, negotiated by Farrell, with Willo Perron.

"The indie vernacular is always marred with this kind of unintentional, laissez-faire, I-don't-give-a-fuck [attitude]; it's just a snapshot," says Perron. "But in our conversations, we were like, 'Let's do something for that audience that's super intentional.' The performance, the look, everything thought through to minutiae. There's a story, maybe not a narrative-narrative, but an aesthetic story, a through line."

Renata Raksha
Timothy Fadek

The pair exchanged a steady flow of cultural talismans and assembled a "visual bible" that has guided every artistic element of the newly reborn St. Vincent, from costumes and lighting to videos and, of course, the instantly iconic album art.

"I'm very drawn to symmetrical images, and I wanted to make sure that the cover conveyed a sense of power. That leads you down the rabbit hole of 'What does power mean? What does that translate to? What does that look like?'" Clark says. "In this instance, it seemed as though power was in intentionality. So I'm on the cover, on this pink Memphis chair that's very structured, very symmetrical, very sturdy. But also, it's pink, a soft color. I experimented with different poses; it was so interesting, every micro-movement . . . if I put my legs to the left, it looked like Golden-era Hollywood. If I put my legs to the right, it looked imperious and queenly in a way that was just not it. So I think the cover shot we got, it was like the third shot [we took]. Symmetrical, clean: It was direct."

The result: an aesthetic Perron describes as "postmodern-meets-new-cult-leader," a commanding new identity that takes cues from touchstones like Alejandro Jodorowsky's shamanistic The Holy Mountain (she says she had no idea that Kanye West had picked up on the 1973 film around the same time); the angular, colorful Memphis furniture design movement of 1980s Milan; and (of course) old David Bowie YouTube clips. It's more than a few jumps from the guitarist who wailed, "I don't want to be a cheerleader no more" on her last record (and played a life-size ceramic doll in the corresponding "Cheerleader" video to boot).

The art, as rehearsal showed, doesn't disintegrate when it meets the outside air, either. With the help of lighting designer Susanne Sasic and throne architect Lauren Machen, that otherworldly aura is translated to the tour's stage design. There's little accompanying St. Vincent onstage other than Toko Yasuda, keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, and drummer Matt Johnson, but despite the minimal collection, she says, "everything you hear is made by a human." That means while Mintseris is teasing horns and strings out of his keyboard, the synth tones are coming from Clark's guitar pedals; and when Clark relinquishes her instrument for a melancholy throne lament, Yasuda assumes guitar-picking duties. And of course Annie-b Parson's artfully stiff choreography — for which she mined her own past work designing routines for a fleet of guitar-strapped dancers on David Byrne and Brian Eno's elaborate 2008 tour — fills each and every moment where Clark's limbs are free of instrumental imperative (as well as many moments where they're not).

"She wanted this show to be something powerful, and at the same time, something very supernatural," says Parson, from whom Clark requested frequent notes at the ends of their long-winded rehearsals. "Maybe not the first day you teach her the movement, but the third day, she totally embodies it. She's a very natural performer, so when you give her a movement, she knows what to do with it. That's not typical of a non-dancer, not at all. She's very special."

Of course, despite all the professional high-art talk, Clark's still got a soft spot for the extemporaneous. (She's a crowd-surfing, rip-soloing Dallas-to-New York rock guitarist, after all.) For all her refined tastes, she's still using Netflix and a fourth-generation HBO Go password to binge on Scandal and True Detective. ("I love Matthew McConaughey now. He's a Texas boy. There's something comforting to me about his accent. The only thing I don't like [about the show] is that the women are only prostitutes, nagging wives, or mistresses.") She and Yasuda sometimes use Louis C.K.'s Louie theme song as a vocal warm-up. And the inspiration to bleach her hair came from The ("totally insane") Bachelor: She took the plunge after watching recent contestant Sarah Herron leap off a 30-story building, despite a crushing fear of heights, to stay in the running. "She fucking did it!" Clark exclaims. "She faced her fear. The reasoning is questionable maybe, but she faced her fear, maybe for no good reason, but maybe it's admirable. She had blond hair and I was like, I think I'm gonna go blonde. If she can [go] off a building, why not?"

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