St. Vincent

St. Vincent

The shape-shifting St. Vincent is more herself than ever on raw and rowdy seventh album, ‘All Born Screaming’.

Words: Marianne Eloise. Photos: Alex Da Corte


St. Vincent is late for our call, but I can’t hold it against her. The artist, AKA Annie Clark, is breezy, apologetic, and very honest: “Sometimes a girl drinks a lot of water and has to pee.” Now releasing her seventh studio album and nearly two decades into her career, Clark has little need for pretence. You take her exactly as she is, or you don’t get her at all.

For a decade, Clark has been playing one character or another. On 2021’s ‘Daddy’s Home, she donned a blonde wig and performed as the kind of ‘70s artist her father loved. For ‘Masseduction’ in 2017, she embodied female sexuality in latex.

“For a long time I was very interested in this idea of persona and authenticity, largely because of the proliferation of social media. We were all asked to perform a version of ourselves, so this led me to: what are we performing? What is this new reality where we all have digital avatars of ourselves?” she tells me. “Deconstructing persona was very interesting and relevant to me.”

Was being the operative word. ‘All Born Screaming’, St Vincent’s upcoming album, is split into two parts. The first is a lament on the frailty of life. The second is an acceptance of that fact, an exaltation, a promise to keep loving despite the suffering. “I’m keenly aware of how short life is, so everything on the record is urgent and lived experience,” she says, that urgency clear in her voice. “To live is to suffer, but the only reason to live is love, so let’s do it. Let’s be dangerous and radical and do that because we don’t have any time to waste.”

“To live is to suffer but the only reason to live is to love, so let’s do it. Let’s be dangerous and radical because we don’t have any time to waste.”

St Vincent

The album is about grief, and Clark is excited to talk about it, if obliquely. “People really do live on through you. The lessons they taught you or their spirit lives on. It’s the most cliché thing, but it is because it’s true,” she says. She is aware that she’s far from the first person to have these insights: “Artists and songwriters are in some way writing about the same thing over and over again. Sex, death, love. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got. That covers it all,” she says with a laugh. There is little sign of the Clark who made journalists crawl into a neon pink, paint-covered box to ask her questions around ‘Masseduction’. She is generous with the insights she has gleaned from loss, both in conversation and on the record.

‘All Born Screaming’ is the first record that Clark has produced entirely alone, and with good reason. “I knew that I needed to go places emotionally on this record that you can really only go alone,” she says. “I wanted to find my real sonic thumbprint as a producer, and I had a very supportive engineer, Cian Riordan, a good Irish lad, who understood the mission. This needed to be emotionally raw but sonically perfect. As I am both performer and producer, I need to be able to, in a completely new, deeper way, trust my instincts on everything.”

On ‘All Born Screaming’, Clark takes her vocals to new places. While the music is polished, that rawness she was aiming for is ever present in her voice, moving between haunting and ecstatic. On the closing track, ‘All Born Screaming’, she descends into repeating “we’re all born screaming” like a mantra. By producing the album herself, Clark could chase vocal perfection: “I easily sang the chorus of ‘Hell is Near’ 100 times, because I was singing ‘I was bare’, and the vocal had to be bare. I had to sing it and sing it and sing it until I stripped any performance or ego or vanity out of it,” she says.

I ask her whether she is harder on herself than another producer might be. “Of course,” she says without a beat. “You could say, ‘that sounds really pretty and that’s in tune.’ There’s a difference between it being technically good and me embodying it,” she says. “That’s a whole other place to get to as a singer and a player. When there’s no distance between what you’re singing and the lyrics and who you are.” Plus, she laughs, “because I’m a polite person, if someone else was in the room, I probably wouldn’t put them through what it takes to do that. I would be like, we’re good. Go on home.”

Clark is an accomplished producer with a clear-eyed vision, but she is also a big nerd about music in a way that’s endearing: “The sound of everything has meaning. There’s a reason why this is distorted and that is dry and this is psyched out and dubbed out and this sounds tiny. All of those choices are to create the world and to aid and abet the meaning of the song as a whole.” She takes her work seriously, but she’s able to laugh at herself and her own obsessive quest for perfection. It’s a big, playful laugh that sounds very real. 

While she needed to go places alone on this record, there is a cast of players on ‘All Born Screaming’ that she’s keen to shout out. “The music that has always resonated with me is the singular vision of an artist or a few people in a room,” she says. “This is my specific crew of people who are incredible players, but they also have incredible taste. Those things don’t always coincide.”

Clark has an audible, palpable pride for those friends and collaborators. She is deliberate about naming those people, never taking full credit for the record. Fair enough, when the credits list is this impressive: Dave Grohl, Rachel Eckroth, Josh Freese, Stella Mozgawa, Cate Le Bon. Let it never be said, either, that Clark doesn’t play well with others; previous collaborators include David Byrne, and Taylor Swift. Le Bon, who Clark calls her best friend, is all over this record. She is listed as a featured artist on the title track, but she also plays what Clark calls an “ugly, ugly bass sound in the best way” on ‘The Power’s Out’. “Her gentle hand is on various things. She also has a co-writing credit on ‘Big Time Nothing’ because she was singing a melody that I wanted to play on guitar.”

“I surround myself with people who tell me the truth. I think that’s a sign of respect. You don’t want someone who’s going to hold their tongue if they think something sucks,” says Clark. Of Le Bon, she adds, “I had never worked with Cate. We’ve toured together and she’s one of my best friends and she’s truly one of my favourite artists and an incredible producer in her own right, but we’d never worked together. We’d been talking about it for years. I played her things and she was like, you’re crazy, but you’re not crazy. You’re onto something, keep going. 

Clark previously worked with Sleater-Kinney, producing their 2019 album ‘The Center Won’t Hold’. I point out that ‘All Born Screaming’ is similar thematically, if not sonically, to Sleater-Kinney’s latest record ‘Little Rope‘, which is also heavy with grief. “Carrie is one of my best friends, but she’s an artist who I’m constantly in conversation with. Sometimes that’s literally just chatting shit on the phone, but we’re also in conversation in our art, and we have been linked in that way for many years and I love that relationship so much. It means so much to me. I think we are wrestling with similar themes on our respective records,” says Clark. 

‘All Born Screaming’ is a little heavier than the ‘70s affectation of ‘Daddy’s Home‘. There are distorted guitars, screamed vocals, and a whole heap of ecstatic rage. While St. Vincent is one of the most exciting experimental pop artists working today, her roots are in rock music, including a high school noise rock band called Skull Fuckers. After all, she took her name from a Nick Cave song. “Rock music is my DNA. ‘Nevermind’ came out when I was nine, and I remember the exact moment in my best friend’s front yard where his cool older brother had built a halfpipe and he brought out the cassette player. I remember hearing it for the first time and being like, ‘what is this? This is everything!’,” says Clark. She shifts into a more serious tone, less nostalgic. “It’s easy for me to emotionally tap into mania or rage. I can go there and that feels just under the surface. That’s easy. That’s easy for me.”

Why did that mania or rage feel like the right fit for ‘All Born Screaming’? “Sometimes I just want music to pummel me into absolution. It’s not cute, it’s not winky, it’s not ironic. We have one life and it’s fucking short, so let’s go. Let’s do this,” she shouts. “That urgency translates into heaviness and tempo and aggression. It goes to other places too, into an ecstatic mantra at the end, a level of acceptance. Struggle and suffering is not some cancer in life that we should eradicate.” It’s clear that she’s spent a lot of time thinking about this, but she doesn’t sound rehearsed. “Life is struggle, brutality, beauty. There is an obsession with cleanliness and categorisation and moral certitude, but all of it is everything all at the same time. What you do with that struggle, what you make of it and who you are for the people you love are the only things that matter.”

“Sometimes I just want music to pummel me into absolution. It’s not cute, it’s not winky, it’s not ironic. We have one live and it’s fucking short, so let’s go.”

St. Vincent

On the cover of the record, Clark is kind of dancing, her arms outstretched. She wears black and white, her dark hair slicked back. She is also completely on fire. It’s a striking image that immediately conveys what St. Vincent is trying to say with this record: we are in hell. Taken by conceptual artist, Alex Da Corte, whose name Clark repeats very intentionally, the inspiration came on a trip to Madrid. “I played him the record and we talked and went to the Prado and we saw the Garden of Earthly Delights which has always been one of my favourites. You get paradise and that’s a little boring, and then it gets more interesting on earth but hell is where it really fucks,” she laughs a laugh that almost sounds like a snarl. After viewing Goya paintings like Saturn Devouring His Son, Clark knew they had a starting point for energy to channel. “I swear to God I don’t throw the word around, but he is a genius. Period.”

St Vincent All Born Screaming album cover

It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Clark is something of a perfectionist. ‘All Born Screaming’ is a polished piece of work, and even its “raw” and “honest” moments feel crafted with great deliberation and a steady hand. I ask: how does she know when a song is done? After all, it sounds like she spent an awful lot of time on each one. She lets out a great big laugh. “I did, I spent so much fucking time on this! I think it’s done when you go, if I keep touching this, I’m going to make it worse.” Like a cake? “Like the fucking ‘Great British Baking Show.’ Hands up, time is up, take your hands away. When you know that if you keep going, you’re only making it worse. I did spend so much time on it, and I will say that my goal in life is to try to make work that I think is excellent.” Does Clark like her cake? “I love this record. I fucking love this record!”

After a long labour, ‘All Born Screaming’ is out of Clark’s hands and into those of her fans. It can be interpreted, or misinterpreted, over and over. It’s something she’s made peace with, as a “selfish music fan” herself. “If a song means the world to me, I don’t even care what the artist was going through. I don’t care that their dog died. I just know what it means to me and that it’s mine. I know I was standing there and I was with this person and I was in love with this person. I don’t care!” she cackles. “It’s for the listener now. It’s whatever it wants to be for them. That’s the journey of the song and that’s the magic of music. I don’t need to be knocking on your door going, “well did you know that actually I meant this?’”

‘All Born Screaming’ by St Vincent is out April 26 2024.