St. Vincent Explores Moral Grey Areas to Tell Her Most Personal Stories Yet
"If this particular story is so unpalatable to someone, then I encourage them to find a morally pure artist with a morally pure story to enjoy"
Published May 11, 2021Annie Clark is about to release her most personal record yet. Or, her most personal since 2017's MASSEDUCTION, which was her most personal since 2014's self-titled St. Vincent, which itself beat out the personal stories on 2011's Strange Mercy with even more personal stories.
"They're all so personal!" she says, laughing. "It's really funny, that that's the currency." Clark calls Exclaim! on rehearsal break in Los Angeles, where she and her band are tightening the screws on the lounging '70s fantasia that premiered on the SNL stage in April. A world away from the polarizing severity of the "Fear the Future" tour, this new stage presentation is more evidence — no lasers or smoke or jumbotrons — that for all its wigs and stylized sepia tones, Daddy's Home finds Clark getting real.
Is Daddy's Home more direct? Maybe. Softer? Yes. But more personal? As Clark tells it, not any more so than the five records that precede it. While the skin-sucking bodysuits and isolation have been traded for ragged furs and joviality, the woman under the wig remains. "There are just a lot of ways to be personal or to be vulnerable or to be intimate. I mean, this is definitely, I think — sonically and colour-wise — it's my warmest record," she says. "There are other records or moments on records that are icy. But that doesn't mean they're not sincere, or really personal, it just means the colour palette is a different one."
Though the comparison is tired, Clark's approach to intimacy leans more Bowie than Joni Mitchell, an artist who melts in the cracks between authenticity and performance and fuses the two into something resembling reality. She shows that all performance is in some part authentic, that all authenticity is in some part performance. "You don't go in the front door, you go around the back, you climb in through the window. But you get in all the same, is at least my hope," she says.
The oft-employed "most personal yet" angle is rarely reliable — It's not all that common that artists promote a record as less personal or privately meaningful than their last. But in the case of Daddy's Home, the narrative is earned. When the album's promotional machine started rolling earlier this year, it was revealed that the "father in exile" Clark sang of a decade ago on Strange Mercy was imprisoned for a $43 million stock-manipulation scheme. She'd written about it before, covertly and painfully, and the details would later be publicized against her will. But Daddy's Home is the first time she's told it on her own flamboyant, exacting terms. It's an eyebrow-raising piece of context that Clark has described as "white-collar nonsense," and a reality that may seem at odds with the down-and-out street urchins that populate the record.
Clark has been careful not to position herself as the voice of something she doesn't represent, generally wary of commenting in depth on abolition, prison reform, or how her father's white-collar crime fits into the larger puzzle of mass incarceration in America. Instead, she's focused more on what she considers an artistic duty: to tell the story as it happened. "It's just one person's story, and there's not any changing the fact. And if the question is whether white-collar crime is unpalatable — certainly! But which crime would be most acceptable? Which crime would you prefer?" she says. "You might be thrilled that it's not physical violence! Y'know, everybody's take on these things is very different based on their own sensitivities. Life is complicated and people are complicated, and there's no changing the facts. So whaddya want?"
Clark is prone to pausing and gathering herself before she answers, a speaker that moves with thoughtful vigilance. In the wake of her father's imprisonment, she says she found herself lost in the grey areas, a space with little room for hard moral boundaries. "We live by the stories that we tell ourselves, right? And sometimes we are presented with new information that makes us reevaluate the story we have been telling ourselves. And some people, their response to new information is to reject it, and to not assimilate it. And some people's reaction is to try and assimilate it amid all the contradictions. And [the second option] is kind of what I had to do, because there are so many contradictions."
Clark calls bad-faith interpretations and moral binaries "a bummer." She says, "Think of all the facets of life that you reject by being so rigid. This is why I'm interested in utopias and things like that. People are very complicated, and every generation you get a different flavour of a utopian idea. And they always fail! Because they fail to account for human nature, which is really complicated."
From the non-committal rock star of "My Baby Wants a Baby," the "fallen lamb" at the heart of the seismic "Live in the Dream," or her own father, Daddy's Home is an anti-utopia; populated by difficult people and complex stories. The point, Clark seems to push, is not sympathy or righteousness, but a level of honesty and truth that leaves room for failure — told with humour and flair for good measure. "And if this particular story is so unpalatable to someone, then I encourage them to find a morally pure artist with a morally pure story to enjoy! No one's forcing this on anyone," she says, laughing. "Also, I didn't do shit, so."
Her father sits at the knotted emotional core of the record, but his influence can be felt sonically too, as Clark found herself drawing from a well he'd long ago helped her discover. Daddy's Home dives headlong into the grimy, bender-warped opulence of '70s funk and glam rock. It's a new mode for St. Vincent, one where guitars actually sound like guitars and human hands are behind the kit. A consummate mythmaker and rigorous world-builder, Clark has moved planets about half a dozen times. But Daddy's Home ditches the alien angularity entirely and brings her back to Earth — at least for now.
"When you go so far in one direction, you're like, 'There's nowhere else to go on this lane,'" Clark says of the oblique art-rock that she built her name on. "And I think that you kind of learn lessons when you're ready for them. I mean, sometimes, of course, you have to learn them when you're really not ready. But as far as music goes — this music that has this kind of colour and this kind of space and this kind of relationship to time, is something that I was finally ready to learn."
She continues, "Music is smarter than we are. It's one of those things where you think you're gonna make one thing and you realize, like, 'Oh no, music is just gonna go where music goes.' And the more you try to fight it, the worse off you'll be. So I was just like, 'I'm gonna go back to the records I love.'"
Finally prepared to step into a canon that long felt untouchable, Clark says she approached the energy of Daddy's Home with a sense of reverence. "You know when, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it's like, 'Only a humble man will… do the thing,' and then everybody else walks in and they get their head chopped off, but he bows at the feet of it and he survives?" she asks. "I was approaching it very humbly."
The colour palette of Daddy's Home is all dusty goldenrod and corrupted green, scuffed white platforms and pearlescent back-alley steam. The pastiche is fun — Clark's black hair stuffed beneath a blonde wig in homage to Warhol Superstar Candy Darling, the fonts and clothes and set pieces of '70s New York deployed with on-the-nose exuberance. But there are deep wrinkles to the record's torn velvet camp.
Though her father's story — and the narrative complication it's caused — has clouded some of the record's finer points, it's only a shade in the smear of colour that Clark paints. Daddy's Home has tender and thorny things to say about love, dignity and legacy, all the easy answers obscured in the record's delirious haze. "The Melting of the Sun" finds Clark exalting the culture-defining work of artists like Nina Simone, Tori Amos and Marilyn Monroe, whose glamorous, tragic spectre has haunted St. Vincent's work since her diary pages first appeared in the frantic chorus of Strange Mercy's "Surgeon."
"These women's work — oh! that's a Kate Bush song — it moved me so deeply. So part of it is just like, 'Thank you for the work that you made. What you did made my life easier,'" she says. "And I hope what I've done makes the next generation's work easier." It's the first time on record that Clark has grappled so clearly with her own artistic legacy, a daunting symptom of becoming a piece of the public imagination. "I'm not trying to be hubristic, by putting myself in that canon," she says. "But in the way that we keep a tradition of storytelling alive through music, you hope you did enough."
It's a glimpse of the artist as devotee — to hear Clark talk about these women is to hear a fan, a position that she seems to hold as tightly as ever. She describes the relationship between fan and artist, one which now balances at the core of her own work, as something she feels deeply protective of. "I'm so glad that I'm making records that people still care about — that's amazing. I'm so glad that I've been able to get better for fans, and I think it's kind of a sacred bond and trust that an artist has with the audience. Which is to say — I promise I will never make you feel stupid for loving me. I won't make you feel stupid. I won't Wile E. Coyote you. My desire to make things great is paramount still, and always," she says. "It's not for everybody and that's absolutely fine. But for the people it's for, who it resonates with, I promise you I will do my absolute best."
Clark is clear, however, that this "sacred bond" doesn't require complete transparency — that there's still value in dressing truth in the garb of fantasy. She says she rejects the hyper-fixation on the private lives of our pop idols, pointing instead to the ways that intimacy can be built through a shared trust in the music. In other words, don't expect to know what kind of sandwich she grabbed on the way home or the state of her bathroom, and don't expect a lot of soul-baring in print. "Mystery used to have a whole lot of currency, but was also easy to have because there was no obligation, pre-social media, to post what you had for lunch or whatever. And if anything becomes a currency, there's an incentive to fake those things," she says. "Where I want to create immense intimacy is meeting in the work. And, y'know, walking down the street and someone says, 'Hey, I loved this record!' and having a fuckin' nice chat and talking. Again, having this implicit trust. I care a lot. I care a lot about people."
It's perhaps that care that informs her insistence on rejecting binary narratives, or, as she puts it, telling "human stories without judgement or moralizing or any of that shit." Daddy's Home certainly sticks to those guns, telling stories — some sad, some unsavoury, some gentle or angry or petty — with wit and understanding. Clark says she has little interest in a world where retribution is impossible, where people must be painted either hero or villain. "If you follow that down to the logical conclusion, and we're just eyeing one another with nothing but suspicion, then who will be left standing? Who among us has never made a mistake?" she asks. "And god, I completely understand how we're all wanting truths to be simpler. I understand that completely. 'Cause it's scary."