As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, their favorite memories and their pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. First up: St. Vincent.
St. Vincent is never satisfied. It’s why, she says, she is always creating in one way or another: She picked up DJing in June and spun her first live set by September; reimagined her 2017 knockout MASSEDUCTION as a stripped down, piano-driven album called MassEducation this October; started producing for other artists as a part of some as-yet-unannounced collaborations; and is gearing up for her feature-length directorial debut, in which she’ll bring a woman-led version of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray to the screen.
“The best thing I’m going to do is the next thing I do,” she tells Billboard, just a few days before she picked up two Grammy nominations for MASSEDUCTION (the album’s art director, Willo Perron, also got a nod for best recording package.) But while she has a few more plans on the books for 2019 — including a Feb. 14 performance at Lincoln Center as part of its American Songbook series — what that next, best thing will be in her own music is open-ended. “You know when you hear it,” she says. “When a ghost walks through the room or when you sing a certain line and it makes you all weepy. That’s when you know that something is special.”
Below, she talks about reworking her songs for MassEducation, the hits and misses of Auto-tune and why she’s taking a break from social media.
“Slow Disco” now exists in three different forms: the original on MASSEDUCTION, a made-to-dance version called “Fast Slow Disco” and now a stripped-down take on MassEducation. Why is it important to show that your songs can have many lives?
I felt like that particular song wasn’t done telling its story in just the one version that existed [on MASSEDUCTION]. And to me, that’s a testament to songwriting. Like, “Can this song be stripped back to nothing and still be powerful?” I spent so much time really working on the songcraft of this album that I just wanted to live in [the songs], totally stripped bare. Recording in that way actually made me feel more free. We recorded it live over the course of a couple days, and we didn’t do very many takes of anything. We didn’t even talk about what we were going to do or how we were going to do it, so you’re actually hearing us discover the songs in real time. What happens oftentimes for me is I write guitar parts that are complicated and then vocal melodies that can be complicated, so my brain live is doing complex processing. But it’s such a joy to just sing. I just got to really live in the words and live in the space and take my time and live in the silence. That, to me, is really freeing and gratifying and gets to my heart.
You’ve taken up DJing recently. What has that taught you about reinventing a song?
I love DJing, because it keeps me voraciously looking for new music, going back to things that I love and trying to make connections between songs. Sometimes those connections are as simple as, “Okay, the BPM and vibe of this are in a similar place, this could be an interesting transition.’ And sometimes the things that the songs have in common can be really hilariously, lyrically thematic. I get to test my genealogy and go from Herbie Hancock into Tribe Called Quest into Kendrick [Lamar] or something — tracing lines between music from totally different eras. I love it. I get to discover music and listen in a way that is just total pleasure and enjoyment and inspiration.
You’ve also started producing for other artists. What surprised you the most about that process?
Producing takes the preciousness out of music-making, and you can see the big picture because you’re not in any way blinded by your own fear or ego — that thing that you run into when you’re doing something really personal, like singing or playing guitar. I can hear the bird’s-eye view of what something could be without having to perform it at all. So that’s great. I love the tech side of it, too. I love sitting and trying to get great sounds for hours, and I love trying different things and reaching and building and playing with space. Also, one thing I definitely have learned is to never ever settle. Never settle for what kind of artist you think someone is, never underestimate anybody. Always be listening, and push it.
What’s a musical trend you’d like to see go away in 2019?
Sometimes I find Auto-Tune really evocative, and then sometimes I find it really not evocative. But it’s all in the hands of the artist. I think that we’re going to see less trap beats in 2019. They are really cool, don’t get me wrong, but it seems like it’s reached max saturation.
What artist would you want to invite to a holiday dinner with your family?
This is going to sound braggy, but one of my favorite compliments that I ever got was from an artist who said: “So many things are pointless, and you’re not.” That was the biggest compliment I think I’ve ever gotten. But I don’t want to be gross and say who that was, so… who would I invite to dinner? Is this one of those ones where you’re supposed to say Jesus? I would love to invite Kerry James Marshall. I’ve never met him. I really loved his exhibition last year, it was just beautiful.
What’s the best performance you saw this year?
Nine Inch Nails.
What’s one song you could not get out of your head this year?
Currently, the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It” — I like that they’re pushing. It’s ambitious and has so much heart to it. I really have enjoyed their new album.
What’s your favorite city that you visited this year?
I had a really great time in Guadalajara — let’s give Mexico some love. I was on tour, I’d never been. I was there in October, but my brother-in-law is a chef, so he came and we just ate all the tacos and tried all the food. It was great.
What app did you use the most this year?
The podcast app. After I was done with touring and answering questions about records and stuff, I was taking a social-media break. I don’t have Instagram or Twitter or anything on my phone anymore. It’s wonderful. I used to, but the world doesn’t need me to weigh in on every outrage every day. I was like, “This is totally joyless. I’m doing this because it’s a thing that I got conditioned to think that I needed to do, and it gives me exactly zero pleasure.” It doesn’t feel good to my heart to do that kind of stuff.
Right now, what is the most important thing to you?
My family is the most important thing to me. What I spend the most time on is my art. You can read that however you like.
I’m sure they intersect at times.
They absolutely do, yeah. But my heart is making what I love and the people I love, and that’s kind of it.
During the rollout of MASSEDUCTION, you held a mock press conference and poked fun at music-journalism tropes. What do you ideally want out an interview?
The thing is, my ideal interview is actually an interview where I don’t talk about myself and get to ask other people about themselves. But I realize that’s not the structure, that’s not the exchange. I was trying to acknowledge the dance we were doing as artists and press and have some fun with that. Some people liked it, and I’m sure it was annoying to some people. It’s strange when you think [an interview] is one thing and someone has a completely different experience, and you’re like, “Oh dear God, do I lack that much self-awareness? Do I not understand facial cues, what’s happening here?” But it’s not in my control, and it’s not supposed to be.