In the middle of her two night stand at The Moore Theatre here in Seattle, St. Vincent stopped by the KEXP studios to share songs from her latest LP, Masseduction (with a fan-favorite from 2011's Strange Mercy thrown in for fun). With just an acoustic guitar and her powerful voice, St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) stripped the intricately textured, densely produced sound of the new release, giving KEXP listeners a fresh new take on these tracks. Revisit her interview with DJ Cheryl Waters, where she talks about her recent film work, designing guitars, and her time hiding out in a bathroom here in Seattle.
Cheryl Waters: We're live in the KEXP studios with St. Vincent who plays tonight at the Moore Theatre. That was absolutely beautiful.
St. Vincent: Thank you.
I mentioned how lovely it is to hear you playing these songs acoustically. Of course, the album is big and full of all kinds of sounds. I read somewhere that you wrote that song [ed. note: "New York"] specifically on guitar — it sounds a bit different on the record. Do you generally start that way?
No, I'm all over the place. Sometimes I'll go to an MPC and make a beat, and sometimes I'll have lyrics written top to bottom and then go, "OK, what do these lyrics sound like?" Sometimes it is more organic — what you think of as a classic singer-songwriter process where you're sitting down with a guitar and a pen and your feelings. But it really is all over the place for me.
Speaking of your process, I remember reading an interview when you wrote Strange Mercy that you actually holed up in Seattle for a few weeks.
I sure did. I was staying at the Ace Hotel in one of the shared bathrooms. I mean, I had a room but I had the option [laughs]. I was hiding out in the bathroom for a month. No, but I was working at a studio on Aurora [Avenue] that was owned by Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie and he let me have the lay of the land for a month. I wrote most of Strange Mercy alone in this rainy city. It was wonderful. I loved it.
I ask because that sounds like a very solitary process. Very peaceful, very productive — makes me curious if that's a space you create for yourself to begin each record?
Yeah, I think that there's a certain amount of writing that can only come from a very monastic place, like when I was writing this record from about March of 2017 to August of 2017. I was in what I was calling, "monastic fantastic." I was just sober, celibate, writing every moment of every day — just crazy manic focus to finish this record and it was really helpful. It was really wonderful to put every distraction away and be able to go to the more meditative, the deeper places that you can only go when you have some quiet and really carve out the space.
It's like you're drawing all the ideas from your life but at some point you say that's it, no more input...
...Now I'm just going to synthesize it all.
Yeah, everybody get away from me. I've got a job to do.
You won a Grammy for your gorgeous last album, St. Vincent. Congratulations.
Well deserved. I imagine that you're always wanting to push yourself into new territory to explore new things. So how did you prepare for this new record, Masseduction?
I felt like I had gone a lot of places in the records I'd done before. I definitely felt like I had explored the muso thing and the orchestrating, the arranging — to death, almost, and — I wanted to write songs that just went straight to the heart and go as far as I could at the time, emotionally. It's very first person, it's very — I mean, every record is very personal but, this one is more overtly and obviously so. So, that's where I wanted to go — just to the heart.
Do you then have to figure out how you're going to perform those songs and talk about them in interviews like this when they're that personal?
A little bit. I think the thing that I keep in mind is that once a record is done for me, it's not for me anymore — it's for everybody else, and I truly, truly encourage anyone's interpretation of a song. However, what the best songs do — you know, is like — the verses are for you, the chorus is for everybody else. You leave enough room for people to see themselves, put themselves into it — and live in the songs, walk around in them.
And that's how people can really connect to the music and you help them create somewhat of an image through some really fun artwork and aesthetic. It seems like you've really had a lot of fun with the promotion and the aesthetic of this album. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I did. You know, the last record I did, the self-titled record — the archetype I was playing with was "near-future cult leader" and it was very fun. But it was also very cold and there was post-modern choreography. It was sort of angular and austere, and this record, I think because again, there was so much more heart in it, I was able to have — the archetype was like dominatrix at the mental institution as far as the aesthetic and the bold colors. I was able to have a lot of fun with it. So I made these faux interview questions in front of a green screen that I wrote with my friend Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia. The show is pretty bonkers and I built a pink room to do press in and made journalists like crawl through a tiny door... I had fun with it, you know?
It does sound like a lot of fun.
You didn't have to climb through any doors though.
I did not.
You just walked through a normal sized door —
We're in kind of a —
— into a beautiful studio.
— a pink room right now. Speaking of film, you have made a foray into film over the last year or so. Tell us a little bit about that. I'm excited about that side of your work.
Thank you. About Sundance last year, I premiered this film — a short horror film as part of — it's called XX. It was an anthology of female horror directors and I'd gotten asked — I don't know why — if I wanted to direct a horror film and I said, "absolutely, that sounds like so much fun." Then, I just really fell in love with doing it. So, I've been pursuing other projects and I'm working on now to direct a modern adaptation of Oscar Wilde's A Picture of Dorian Gray with a female protagonist. It is written by this incredible, bonkers screenwriter named David Burke who wrote this French film called Elle, which, if you haven't seen, go see it. It's not for the faint of heart. So maybe if you're under 6, don't see it, but [laughs] I saw Basic Instinct at 7 so that's why I'm putting 6 as the bar there. But, I'm so excited to do that. It's just another way to collaborate with people and make things which is my favorite thing to do.
I'm excited to see it as well. You have your acoustic guitar today but I can play around — play a few songs around a campfire, but I'm not the virtuoso that you are. But I know that you created a guitar and I compare my guitar playing because I don't know exactly what that means. It seems like an amazing opportunity and I'm curious what that is like — how that happens and what kind of input you have. I heard that you used your signature guitar on your entire album.
I did. So I made a guitar. The St. Vincent Signature Series guitar with Ernie Ball, which is a great guitar company. It happened because they invited me up to the factory because I'd been playing one of their guitars for a while and loved it. They invited me up to the factory in San Luis Obispo, California. It's a family company. I met the whole team. I met everybody who worked at the factory. It's a living wage company — they do a good job there with treating people well. Anyway, I sketched this thing that I was hoping would be lightweight, specifically ergonomic and a tone monster — a very toned flexible guitar. The sketch that I did that day on the first meeting was more or less what the guitar ended up being. It was a really good template. And what does it mean to design a guitar? OK, what's the pickup configuration? What are the pickups in it? It has a whammy bar so you can do super dive balmy stuff. Tell me if this too nerdy.
No, I'm super fascinated.
I wanted it to be lightweight because I'm a small person and I play a lot of shows and I stand a lot with a guitar. There are some guitars that play really well, but they're almost — the weight of them makes them prohibitive.
It sounds fun, both for you and for them.
I had the best time and they are great people and a great family and everything.
And it comes in all kinds of colors.
So many colors.
Live here in the KEXP studios with St. Vincent. The new album called, Masseduction. I have to say, I didn't know initially how to pronounce that because it's a very fun word you can really play around with it. I thought it was "mass education" for a while.
Yes, you are not alone in that. I was playing around with the title and I showed it to a couple trusted friends, and my best friend was like, "I just see 'ass education.'" I mean, that's more accurate, frankly. But yes, you're not alone in thinking it's "mass education" but it's Masseduction — a little play on words.
DJ Cheryl Waters chats with Annie Clark about her latest record, reinvention, and the fashion and aesthetics of her latest era
Highlights include St. Vincent, Janelle Monáe, Childish Gambino, and Kacey Musgraves