Backstage With St. Vincent: New Style, New Label and a Bold New Album

Tawni Bannister

St. Vincent photographed during New York Fashion Week at the Diane Von Furstenberg show, February, 2014

The alt-goddess strikes a new pose with her first major-label album: "The music industry is the wild west"

Inside a dimly lit and cavernous studio space in Manhattan's SoHo district, assorted members of the world's fashion elite jostle for rickety chairs while Annie Clark fixes owl eyes on the runway. Invited by inexhaustible designer Diane von Furstenberg as musical accompaniment for her Mercedes Benz Fashion Week show, the singer and guitarist known as St. Vincent, 31, stands out with a wild bouquet of grey-lavender hair. Models Karlie Kloss and Karen Elson bobble down the catwalk as Clark eases into captivating but unshowy renditions of new songs "Every Tear Disappears" and "Prince Johnny," both taken from her forthcoming self-titled album (out February 25 for Loma Vista Recordings).

Though Clark has never performed at a fashion show before, you wouldn't know it to look at her. She's cool and fluid and occasionally strikes a pose. Like the amazons parading around her, she wears a signature Furstenberg wrap dress -- that rare evergreen invention of the post-women's-liberation ‘70s. Clark's version, though, is bespoke.

"I had it hemmed," she says backstage after the show, her voice an airy chirp. "I think it makes it a little less disco and a little more rock'n'roll."

Four albums in, and with a growing reputation as one of alternative music's most reliable agitators, Clark knows what she wants -- and what she doesn't. She was thinking about the latter, in a dopamine hangover after her 2012 tour with David Byrne for their collaborative album Love This Giant, when the embers of her new material first started to catch.

"I started writing it about 36 hours after I got back from a year of being on the road," Clark says of the new album. "I always have these illusions that one day I'm going to slow down and take time off to learn how to cook soup or try organic farming or whatever people do. But I realized I actually don't care about any of that stuff. I just want to make records and play music."

It's hard to imagine an artist less sure of herself, less clear-eyed about her raison d'être, recording an album like "St. Vincent." It bobs where fans might have expected Clark to weave, beating with the pulse of previously untapped source material— Parliament and The Meters; Pantera and psychedelic Turkish folk music— and bowing away from the artfully angled indie rock for which she became famous.

"It was important to me that this album have more of a groove to it," Clark says, citing hip-hop's energy and malleability as another of "St. Vincent's" influences. "When I wrote [2011's] "Strange Mercy," a lot of sad things had happened in my life in quick succession and I was just totally destroyed emotionally. But my life is better now, so I approached this record from a place where there were cracks letting the light in. I wanted it to be more kinetic and inviting to people." 

For the new project, Clark reinvented herself visually, as well. The cover art for "St. Vincent," designed by Kanye West collaborator Willo Perron, depicts her and her hi-voltage hair-do on a pink, polycarbonate throne -- like the queen of some future moon colony as imagined by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The aesthetic was inspired in part by the ‘80s pop-art-influenced Memphis design movement, which Clark characterizes as "distilling things down to their most elemental shape and recontextualizing them so that they look or feel different."

"I think there's a strong parallel to the music in that I like taking things that are conventional and then just bending them slightly," she says. "It's still approachable, but just through the looking glass a little bit."

In keeping with the theme of renewal, "St. Vincent" is Clark's first album not to be released by indie stalwart 4AD. Following the end of her contract last year, she signed to Loma Vista, the 2-year-old joint venture that former Warner Bros. Records chairman/CEO Tom Whalley formed with Republic.

Though she says there are no hard feelings, the optics of that switch, from an independent label to the imprint of a major, make Clark a little uneasy. Asked the question, she's quick to dismiss the notion that there's any deeper meaning to the move.

"I think the music industry is the wild, wild west now and the labels of ‘indie' and ‘major' don't mean the same things that they did 20 years ago," she says. "If people think that they still do mean those things then they're working off an old paradigm." 

Back at the Diane von Furstenberg show, Clark hangs with her friend Carrie Brownstein, star of IFC's "Portlandia" (she'll guest-star on an upcoming episode). The two trade jokes about how well they fit in to the decidedly haute surroundings.

"It's all kind of hifalutin," Brownstein says.

But whether or not she's the toast of Vogue, Clark and "St. Vincent" do have at least one trait in common with the fashion world— an instinctive rejection of the prosaic in favor of the unknown. 

Additional reporting by Marisa Fox