St. Vincent Mines Contradictions, Talks Tech and Sexuality with NPR at SXSW 2014

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Annie Clark is a woman of contradictions, a fact made clear by her two sole appearances at SXSW yesterday. At the first, an hour-long afternoon chat with NPR Music critic Ann Powers, Clark showed her humanity and her humor. Nine hours later, at her big gig at NPR Music’s official SXSW showcase at Stubb’s, she was a goddamn robot, right down to scripted banter and angular choreography. Her new look (the wild grey mane, mostly) and live set (a powder-pink throne) invite digital documentation, and yet, that’s precisely what Clark doesn’t want, going so far as to announce it before the show starts. All of these juxtapositions are just as interesting as Clark’s songs.

At the afternoon talk, Powers and Clark spoke mostly of artistic process, exhaustively dissecting St. Vincent’s songwriting approach and how it relates to technology. Those who know anything about the aesthetics surrounding St. Vincent’s new album, which my colleague Tom Hawking aptly described as “mundane futurism,” found the subtle slant towards the technological fitting, despite the participants’ multiple disclaimers that the topics were “nerdy-techy.”

Watching a St. Vincent live show feels a bit like that too, but it’s not “nerdy-techy” like the jag-offs at SXSW Interactive. It’s deeply High Art, but its base is pure sci-fi — two disciplines that can be sort of polarizing, which is funny considering Clark’s declaration (in the afternoon chat and in multiple interviews), that she wanted her new album to connect with people. Like I said, this is a woman of contradiction.

Mixed messages aside, Clark herself spoke thoughtfully and easily in her chat with Powers, joking that she’d rather talk about the last episode of True Detective than her music. She’s simultaneously transparent and completely mysterious. The way she’s been able to navigate the press by completely side-stepping the conversations she doesn’t want to have, but being totally open in the ones she does want to have, is a tactic that’s seemingly worked with her. But NPR Music, and Powers specifically, has a history with St. Vincent as one of her champions in the press, and this allowed the conversation to go a few places we haven’t heard before from Clark. So, some take-aways I found particularly interesting:

– Clark started playing guitar at 12 with lessons at a suburban, Guitar Center-esque shop that blasted Pantera and Iron Maiden, both of whom she has a soft spot for.

– She was in a metal cover band in junior high, rocking braces and sweater vests while playing Metallica and Megadeth.

– She likes sports “for the drama.” (“Also, you get booze while you watch it.”) And she thinks of fans tweeting commentary during her shows as a scoreboard of sorts.

– Clark once transposed all the parts of Madonna’s 1983 debut into a different key just for fun. “It was a real bummer in minor.”

– Being probed about her particular brand of non-sexualized sexuality, Clark countered, “Is power sexy? Is submission sexy? This isn’t being done to me, I’m an empowered woman in my life.” Re: the mention of masturbation in new song “Birth In Reverse,” Clark characterizes it as gross and funny, “not meant to titillate.” “How do you make sexuality so mundane and boring? That’s the new frontier — how to be boring in bed!”

– Clark on our digital culture: “It’s interesting how we have a vehicle for creating an idealized version of ourselves.”

– She “didn’t talk a whole lot about what we’re going to do” with David Byrne, her Love This Giant collaborator. They thought it would be just one show at NYC’s Housing Works bookstore, and they got the brass band to help with the fact that there was no PA there.

– Clark has an admiration of storytellers who enter their work in the middle of scenes, like Raymond Carver.

– I just liked this quote: “Some of the best art comes from people who go the whole hog and end up fucking failing.”