It is difficult, if not impossible, to pin down exactly who Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, truly is. That’s because, with each new album, she transforms into a new version of herself. At the time of her 2017 Grammy-winning record Masseduction, for instance, St. Vincent was a neon-hot, futuristic dominatrix, dressed in pink latex and fixated on power. Now, as she tours in support of the glittery, gritty, glam-rock Daddy’s Home, she sports leather jackets, bell-bottomed jumpsuits, and a bad wig, creating a somewhat sleazy yet brazen character who could have easily stepped out of Andy Warhol’s Factory. And then there’s the artist depicted in The Nowhere Inn, a new music mockumentary about fame, identity, and the stark, often humorous schism between Clark and her onstage persona.
Raised just outside Dallas, Clark got her start as a member of the experimental, symphonic rock group the Polyphonic Spree, before briefly touring with Sufjan Stevens in 2006. A year later, she released her debut studio album, Marry Me, under the name St. Vincent, an homage to the New York hospital referenced in a Nick Cave song. In the decade-plus since, Clark—in all her iterations—has accrued a loyal fanbase and critical acclaim. Some of her music can best be described as experimental art rock; other tracks and albums veer towards indie pop, jazz, and in the case of her latest album, Daddy’s Home, ’70s-inspired funk. But there are some constants in every St. Vincent project: killer guitar, sharp lyrics, a certain cinematic sound. And in the same vein, every version of St. Vincent is a dynamic, confident powerhouse of a performer.
While we’ve seen various iterations of St. Vincent, The Nowhere Inn (in theaters September 17) is arguably the first time that Annie Clark, too, becomes a character. Written by and starring Clark and her longtime friend, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, the film follows very exaggerated versions of the two artists as they attempt to create a concert documentary using footage from Clark’s Masseduction tours. Over the course of an hour and a half, Brownstein watches in awe and horror as Clark’s character turns from a subdued, farmer’s-market-loving nerd into a terrifying, aloof diva both in love with and scared of her own fame.
It’s a fictional (well, metafictional) story, but Clark and Brownstein still get to poke fun at some of the real-life events in Clark’s life. One of those relates to her love life: Clark’s highly publicized, 18-month romance with model Cara Delevingne is winked at in the film via a cameo from Dakota Johnson, who expertly plays Clark’s fictional (very smitten, very public-facing) girlfriend. Also referenced in the film is the story of Clark’s father, who was incarcerated in 2010 for his role in a multimillion-dollar stock manipulation scheme. (His 2019 release from prison also helped Clark conceptualize some of the themes on Daddy’s Home—in the album’s title track, Clark remembers one of the last times she visited her dad in prison. “I signed autographs in the visitation room,” she sings. “Waiting for you the last time/inmate 502.”)
But one of the most compelling components at the center of The Nowhere Inn is the personal and creative bond between Clark and Brownstein. As Clark’s character says early on in the movie, “She understands what it’s like to be a performer. But more than that, she understands me.”
Which is why it makes perfect sense for Brownstein to unmask the real Annie Clark in this cover story. Here, the two discuss their inspiration for The Nowhere Inn, and Clark opens up about the many characters, stories, and truths that she contains, revealing herself to be a smart, thoughtful combination of them all, shot through with a clever, quick wit. –lydia wang
Carrie Brownstein: Thanks for doing this interview.
St. Vincent: Oh, my pleasure. So, when did you first know that you were a big fan of Camille Paglia?
CB: [laughs] I think I’m the one that’s supposed to be asking the questions. So, where’d you get that hat?
SV: I got it at Target in Hawaii. I think I’m auditioning for a Chevy Chase film in the ’80s.
CB: Yeah, it’s a Caddyshack look.
SV: I’m auditioning for a role in the remake of Caddyshack, which will be in no way problematic in 2021.
CB: That’s weird—I’m auditioning for the prequel. [laughs] Alright, let’s dive in. Do you remember when we started discussing the idea for this film?
SV: I think that I begged you to help me, because I was playing shows for the Masseduction tour, and I wanted to make sure I captured them. But I wasn’t exactly sure, once I captured the footage, what to do with it.
CB: Originally, you conceived it as a concert film with some behind-the-scenes footage. And there was copious amounts of footage from that tour, right?
SV: There really was. There was a little skeleton crew—and I don’t mean small, I mean they were literally skeletons.
SV: And I had them come with me when I was doing radio interviews or hanging out backstage. We used some of that in The Nowhere Inn, but more as kind of a montage, to create the texture of what it really is like to be on tour, which is so sexy. [laughs]
CB: Yeah, it’s exactly what everyone imagines. Like in those 1970s tour stories. Private jets, groupies....
SV: Just PJs and BJs!
CB: One thing you brought up as a motif was authenticity. We were talking about some of the music documentaries we had seen. Like, the Lady Gaga movie and the Katy Perry one.
SV: We also re-watched Truth or Dare. Which is a very intense watch.
CB: Very intense for sure. And a lot of things that would be questionable by today’s standards.
SV: Questionable is a very tactful way to put it. I watched it in the ’90s, when I was a child, so I didn’t know anything then. But in re-watching Truth or Dare, there is a scene where I think a makeup lady comes in and describes a sexual assault, and Madonna and the whole crew just laugh, and are like, “Oh Jane, you’re such a party girl!” And she’s describing waking up with her anus bleeding, and you’re just like, Oh my God.
CB: Yeah. There are lots of consent issues in that film that go untouched.
SV: I remember the overarching theme of the Katy Perry film was that she’s this massive pop star, but she just wants to be married and loved and settled down. And we just started talking about the cachet in seeming relatable. I’m not saying Katy Perry isn’t a real person. I have no idea….
CB: [laughs] And there’s no way to prove it.
SV: I’ve been convinced she’s a ghost, but there’s no way to prove it. [laughs] I mean, she’s obviously a person with relationships and troubles of her own, but what struck me was thinking that what people secretly want from women is [for them] to be like, “I wish I was a housewife but I happen to be a rock star.”
CB: In each of these films, they went to greater and greater extremes to seem normal. But at the same time, there’d be these intense scenes, like Lady Gaga meeting with her art directors and having her shirt off.
SV: Yeah. What’s great about that scene is that it starts with her shirt on, it pans to the art directors who are pitching ideas for the show, and then it pans back to Lady Gaga and she has her shirt off.
CB: No judgment here. I mean, it’s a hot day and everyone should be able to take their shirt off. But that’s not something you would see your
mom doing in a documentary….
SV: Well, my mom is freaky deaky so….
CB: [laughs] Sorry. Your mom, absolutely.
SV: Likability was another big thing. How fun would it be to just say, “Oh, who cares about being likable?” And the ironic thing is, we both happen to be very nice, thoughtful people. But that’s not the point. The point is, we make art.
CB: Did the process of making The Nowhere Inn make you rethink your place in the world as an artist?
SV: What happens in The Nowhere Inn is that you have somebody—me—who starts believing in their own myth. A certain amount of that can be helpful because it can propel you to new heights. But too much of it and people start surrounding themselves with people who only say “yes.” You see my character start believing her own myth and becoming a monster—turning against her best friend, being an absolute psychopath to a fan—and it’s a commentary.
CB: One thing I thought about while making the movie was—What do people prefer? What version of knowledge gets you closer to the experience you’re trying to have with art?
SV: There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, or knowledge of “facts” and truth. And that’s why I support QAnon. [laughs]
CB: Oh, yes. [laughs] The first time we saw the completed film was at Sundance. It was right before the pandemic, so we watched it with an audience, which was horrifying.
SV: We were so green that we were like, “Oh, I guess we just sit in the room with people while we screen the movie for the first time ever.” Nobody does that! No real actors do that! They go to the bar, have a drink, and then come back and chitchat at the Q&A. I remember we were proud and tall at the beginning, and then both of us, as the film went on, just sunk lower and lower into our chairs. Not because we were ashamed, but because it was so vulnerable.
CB: I know. And then at the end, for the Q&A, we just slithered up to the front of the theater like two chastened worms. Did you enjoy acting?
SV: Yeah, I really liked it. As far as any preparation in terms of like, acting lessons, I did none of that. It didn’t even occur to me that I would need to be acting until the day before the shoot. I knew my lines, but it was like, “Oh, I guess I’m acting. Do I know how to do this? I guess we’ll see!”
CB: When you’re performing on stage, would you consider that acting?
SV: You’re trying to give people an experience, you’re trying to have an hour and a half where you dream the same dream and the audience pushes you and you push them. I liked when Bruce Springsteen said, “Your job as a performer is to shock and console, shock and console.” But when I’m playing a song I wrote on stage with other people, there is a feeling of freedom and that anything can happen, especially in the Daddy’s Home era, because the music is looser, and there is a feeling of deep conversation with the other musicians on stage. I feel like that is analogous to really great actors—when they know their lines, they can just play.
CB: Performing gives you latitude to try on personas and step outside yourself, but it also acknowledges you are at the core of it.
SV: I always think that every persona or iteration [I take on]—it’s all in me, some version of me. It’s not made up out of whole cloth. This Daddy’s Home situation is me at my cockiest—and that’s not a feeling I feel every day, but it’s in me. So, I can own it and play with it.
CB: With Daddy’s Home, did the music come first and then you found your way into the character?
SV: I started writing really heavy stuff, and I felt like I just didn’t have anything to say. But when I started going back to the records I love from the ’70s and studying that shit, it was like, “Oh, I do have a whole lot to say here.” And I feel like I was only a good enough musician now to approach it without being an absolute tourist. You don’t want to be a tourist. You want to be deep in the aesthetic; to be able to speak and use the language.
CB: Do you have as much distance between Annie and Masseduction as you do between Annie and Daddy’s Home?
SV: [In Daddy’s Home,] I really wrote my life in a lot of ways. Like in the song, “Down and Out Downtown,” I’m thinking of my time in New York just scrambling and being wasted. But I really romanticize it, too. In “...At The Holiday Party,” I’ve definitely been the person who’s like, “Oh wow, it’s a little early to be that fucked up.” Or in “My Baby Wants a Baby,” and “Somebody Like Me,” I’m talking about the stuff we explored in The Nowhere Inn, when people get so seduced by a fantasy that they truly lose themselves.
CB: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I was raised in a very matrifocal family with sisters, and my mom’s whole ethos was, “We girls can do anything.”
She used to sing that to the tune of the Barbie theme song. [singing] “We can do anything, right Annie?” I think the first time I ever encountered [sexism] was outside, in the world, and I was confused. Like, “Why won’t this gym teacher let me play football?” Or [when people would say], “That’s the girl who wears boy shoes,” because I got Reebok Pumps and they were sick. But I also think feminism is about action and the way you live your life, not that you posted a quote on Instagram. It’s about hiring. I’m a small business owner, I love working with other women, I hire other women, I support other women, I collaborate with other women. Would you consider yourself a feminist?
CB: I definitely would. I’ve tried to spend my life, whether it’s with Sleater-Kinney or on Portlandia or when I direct episodic TV, trying to lay tracks behind me so other women can just come along. I’m trying not to shut doors behind me.
SV: Part of that is what I’m talking about in the song “Melting in the Sun.” I don't know what the shift was [in me], but I feel very invested in making sure that the upcoming generation is free to make whatever the fuck they want—to be bold and dangerous. We need artists. We need art.
CB: I’m with you. And I’m older than you and I feel it. There’s that band of young girls from L.A., the Linda Lindas, and I’m just like….
SV: Here, take my guitar!
CB: Yeah! And it’s so great to be like, “Good, there’s someone else carrying the torch.” We can make a contemplative mid-or-late-period record, because the next generation is thrashing around out there.
SV: Absolutely. I was thinking about this in terms of Sleater-Kinney and how great the new record is. It’s a really cool new space for you guys emotionally. If you were still writing songs from the same perspective as you did in 1997, we wouldn’t think, “Oh great!” We would think, “What is wrong with them that they haven’t adapted or gathered any new information to broaden their sphere of expression?”
CB: Agreed. Well, that’s the interview. I’m excited for people to see our movie.
SV: Me too. I think people will love it or hate it, which is cool.
CB: I want people to be crying one minute and then laughing and then screaming.
SV: [laughing] If no one’s having a nervous breakdown, we haven’t done our job! Hilariously though, a couple weekends ago, my whole family—I couldn’t go because I was in New Orleans—was down at a ranch in Texas, shooting guns.
CB: Oh, just like in the movie.
SV: Just like in the movie! It was the whole gang of Clarks. So, it was pretty funny.
CB: Well, all right. Very excited to see you on the cover of BUST!
SV: Absolutely. And this, just to be clear, this is a titty mag, right?
SV: Tits out. On BUST.
CB: Yeah, I strongly encourage you to take it literally.
SV: [laughing] Free the nipple!
CB: And try to use a hashtag from four or five years ago.
SV: [laughing] Absolutely.
Photos by Ramona Rosales
Styled by Avigail Collins
Makeup by Hinako Nishiguchi
Hair by Pamela Neal for Exclusive Artists using R+Co
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!