“We create myths as a way to get through life,” says Annie Clark, the indie-rock virtuoso who has released music as St. Vincent for the past decade. “There are myths with a capital ‘M,’ like Bob Dylan changing his name from [Robert Allen] Zimmerman and claiming to have traveled the railroads across America.” There are lowercase ones, too: “the tiny things you tell yourself to get out of bed every day. It’s all kind of the same to me.”
If everything from the way you part your hair to the name you choose allows you to hide, expose or wholly transform yourself, you can be whomever you want so long as you give yourself permission. In Clark’s case, that means embracing both the Texas-raised kid whose grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink and the Grammy winner (for best alternative music album in 2014) who flouts repressive ideas about sexuality through her lyrics and latex onstage get-ups. She can be intellectually intimidating yet still exude Southern warmth and self-deprecating charm in conversation. On Masseduction, Clark’s late-2017 album on Loma Vista, which peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and landed her two Grammy Award nominations — for best alternative music album and best rock song for the title track — she gave herself permission to be something else still: darker, sadder and more pop-centric than ever before.
During the course of 13 tracks that veer between the brash and the delicate, Clark explores fear, desire, mortality and gender roles using distorted tones — including guitars that do not quite sound like guitars — and her own mutable voice, at times omniscient and at others punching through the fourth wall. To get the LP just right, she recorded another version of it with only her voice and piano. “It’s a game of millimeters instead of miles,” she says of the stripped-down end result, which was rereleased as MassEducation last October.
It also exemplifies her changeable nature as an artist. Masseduction, which Clark produced with Jack Antonoff, has been compared to David Bowie’s Let’s Dance! and, like Bowie, Clark has an exacting approach that places her music both within and well beyond the boundaries of pop. There are synths and gloss shellacked onto the record, but for all its sheen and big hooks, the songs and the artist herself prod at the artifice of the pop genre rather than becoming it.
“It’s not really my job nor interest to be the genre police,” says Clark of her nominations. “But I’m glad [“Masseduction”] was nominated as a rock song. I’m thinking maybe because it has a guitar solo?” While it’s true that she can seriously shred, Clark is still one of only two women nominated in the alternative category (Björk is the other) at a time when young women with guitars, like Snail Mail’s Lindsay Jordan and boygenius’ Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, are the most exciting new performers in the genre. “I’m not sure where it lands with me,” she says. “But I am in a position of power to change the climate from within. I want to go even further with that.”
For now, she’s looking forward to a Grammy ceremony that, with all five female album of the year nominees confirmed to perform and Alicia Keys announced as host, already looks more inclusive than the #GrammysSoMale debacle in 2018. “I was stupidly on tour when I won for alternative album [her only other nomination], and I kick myself every day that I wasn’t there for that,” she says. “So I’m really excited this year.”
There’s also her next big project: producing Sleater-Kinney’s just-announced forthcoming record. “It has been one of my favorite things I’ve ever done,” she says. “The great thing about producing is that you aren’t contending with your own ego.” She knows what it means to be vulnerable inside of a vocal booth. And now she’s ready to embrace yet another archetype — the unflinching pilot driving toward an artistic destination unknown. “It’s like, ‘We’re going down a road, and if it’s not the right road, we’re fucking fine,’” she says. “The song will reveal itself. It just does.”