St. Vincent

St. Vincent Talks Anxieties, Fighting the Powers That Be & Moving From 'Fear to Freedom'

Flying cars may forever be the realm of science fiction, but in the last 10 years, we've seen technology advance to a point where most Americans can access information, watch TV or pretend to be an Angry Bird just by reaching into their pocket and pulling out a powerful handheld computer. So it's not much of a shock that as technology spreads and art becomes mobile and instantaneous, it's harder for traditional forms of entertainment – including concerts -- to get attention.  

But unlike plenty of indie scene curmudgeons, Annie Clark isn't fighting this – she's embracing it, and allowing it to challenge her to bring St. Vincent to people in new ways.

Case in point: St. Vincent's Saturday (Oct. 7) performance as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles. Ahead of her Masseduction album (Oct. 13), which finds her exploring the archetype of a "dominatrix at a mental institution," Clark will perform at Paramount Studios' New York Street Backlot. That means fans will watch her put on a show set within a recreation of New York City that actually sits on a Hollywood movie lot. That's a lot of layers. Whether you spend the concert unpacking the meaning inherent in that or just soaking up the show, she just hopes you walk away thinking "my life is better."

Ahead of Saturday's St. Vincent: Fear the Future show, Billboard spoke with Clark about everything from the "silly and scary" concept behind Masseduction to anxiety and brain chemistry to why she's hopeful for the future, despite the way the world looks in 2017.

So your show takes place on Paramount Pictures' recreation of New York City. How did you settle on that?

We were thinking about various venues [for the Red Bull Music Academy show] that would make it feel special and not just a regular show. An experience where people would be like, "oh my God, did you see that show?" That's always the goal, so people walk away and think, "I'm so glad I did not miss that because my life is better for it." So anyway, we were looking for a venue that did that, and then this idea of the Paramount lot came up and it seemed perfect. We're making sure that in addition to the space being a movie set, that we take that experience a bit further and have the set very customized for people to walk around and have it be a full experience.

So there's movement?

My show is a whole story. It's a whole movement from, I would say from fear to freedom is the architecture of the idea. So I move through the space with that in mind and the show unfolds with that in mind.

The "Los Ageless" video just came out, with the facelifts, living sushi and the bright Technicolor solid color scheme. The visuals behind this album are very distinct, where did they come from?

Every album has an archetype. I've done housewife on pills for Strange Mercy, I did near-future cult leader for St. Vincent, and this one is dominatrix at a mental institution. I'm really trying to skate that line between sexy but very silly and kind of scary as a result.

The video definitely has a Cronenberg-ish body horror element for me.

Yeah, I mean, every woman in the world knows about body horror.

So Willo Perron collaborated with you on the visuals for this album. Does he instinctively get where you want to take things?

It's a really nice collaboration. We just met each other on the last record, but now we're deep buds. We gel together and just rap about ideas for a few hours, it's kind of like, trying to make each other laugh, look at images of things, say what about this or that. It's a natural, organic rapport.

What kind of images?

Poison Ivy from the Cramps, a lot of fluorescence. Florescence is a weird one, at first blush it looks cheery and then you really look at it, and it's like, "This is so aggressive to my eyes." And I think there's a parallel to that with my music.

Yeah, the song on Masseduction "Pills" is a bop, but lyrically it's darker. With a song like "Pills," does the music come first, or did you have the lyrical concept and then pair it with upbeat music?

That one came pretty… it came pretty instantly. I had taken a sleeping pill because I was pretty jet lagged. And I looked down at it and was like, [singing] "pills to wake, pills to sleep / pills pills pills every day of the week." And it was just like, okay, I'm using the language of advertising to talk about a very personal story and also a very uniquely American macro story about capitalism run amuck on mental health, and an opioid crisis as a result. So how's that for a hit song of the summer?

Obviously there's a satire element to the song, but also like you said, you were using sleeping pills. Do you have a conflicted relationship with them, or where do you come down on that?

I don't have a hard and fast rule. For years I've had anxiety and depression so there's an element to pharmaceuticals that's tremendously helpful to me. I'm not like, "Well just go take a hike if you're feeling down!" It's more complicated than that -- that's not going to cure depression. So I'm psyched on the help I've gotten as a result of helping regulate my brain chemistry. But at the same time, going into Benzo Land, all that stuff, I didn't have a lot of coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression, so I was not doing the healthiest things for me when anxiety would flare up. But it was never like an epidemic-y problem for me, it was just, "maybe I should reel this in a little bit and find some other methods of self-soothing." That was really it. But I'm not an anti-pills person -- my God, most of my friends are medicated.

There's another pretty personal song on the album, "Happy Birthday, Johnny." Is that the same Johnny as "Prince Johnny" from St. Vincent?

Yeah, Johnny's been with me a while. Everybody has a Johnny.

I don't want to pry, but seems like a difficult situation. Did you feel anxious about being so personal in a song?

No, because I think a lot about shame. The human experience is universal, everybody has their Johnny. Everybody has their dark nights of the soul moments where they're on the edge of the metaphorical building. I feel very comfortable sharing those because I think they're universal.

Yeah, I think it makes people feel less alone when they hear others vocalize things in art that they're feeling.

I agree.

So your show is called Fear the Future, and it's an album track too. What does that mean?

It's a lot of things. It's something I could just picture on a billboard driving through Texas or Missouri, something that reminded me of Jenny Holzer's work, who I love, a giant phrase, almost using the language of advertising – and I know that's not a new concept in art, by any means. Also, I am terrified of the future with everything that is going on. But also, it seemed very powerful and a "fuck you" to the powers that be. Saying, if we can recognize the fact that we're afraid, we can do something to counteract it. But also I thought it was sort of funny, because it's so emotionally on the nose. If that makes sense.

Fearing the future makes me think of Las Vegas. I know it's not the first time it's happened, but now it's getting to a point where people are scared to go to public gatherings like concerts. Do you share in that anxiety, or how do you react to something like that?

I mean, of course I do. Yeah, of course I do. Everyone is taking their lives in their hands to go to a concert. That's horrifying.

It's unreal that's the normal world.

Yeah, we… we are… America is just fuckin' sick right now.

Are you hopeful for the future at all?

Yeah, I totally am. With great tumult comes great change, too, and I think the youth is incredible, and the youth will do what the youth does best, which is terrify the old and unseat them, unseat their power. We're seeing the last gasp of relevance of oppression of old patriarchy. I think we're going to usher in a new dawn because things can't keep going this way or we're all just going to die. We can't function in these ways with this particular warped value system, or we'll extinguish the planet.

You recently made your directorial debut as part of the horror anthology XX. That was very funny and I loved the compositions in your short. Did doing that change the way you approach your stage show?

It changes everything. That's why it's important to work in mediums you don't know very well. At best you can bring a gleeful naiveté to the medium you don't know, and then take back what you learned to the medium you're more familiar with. Yeah, I thought about color in a way I hadn't before when making a film, and I thought about composition in a way I hadn't before. And I learned from the actors and the director of photography, yeah, you take it all back. You really do. That's where innovation comes from -- a cross-pollination of different mediums, not just people plowing away in one.

So is Saturday's show a one-off, or a preview of the tour to come?

Sort of a preview of the tour to follow, but it's a really special night. This particular show won't happen any other place.

Yeah I saw Solange perform in a Laundromat years ago, it still might be my favorite show.

We are living in a golden age of entertainment, where a performer has to do a whole lot more to be memorable or special. Unless someone is so epically good, unless it's Neil Young, I don't want to see five or six people in a band just playing songs. You gotta go above and beyond. A lot of things don't hold my attention.