The compassion of St. Vincent


Dallas-reared Annie Clark, the brain behind St. Vincent, has been on tour non-stop since releasing her self-titled fourth solo album. The high-octane, highly choreographed performance smashes the typical rock band approach, and has landed her on late-night TV and in sold-out venues. She spoke by phone from her home(ish) in New York City on a rare day off.

Austin Chronicle: I saw you in April in Lawrence, Kansas. You've incorporated such theatrical elements into the show. Was it something about the songs on St. Vincent specifically that made that possible?

St.Vincent: I started to find a whole lot of solace in structure. What I mean by that is essentially I have a few jobs to do, one of which is to make music that I believe in and can stand behind. Another is to put on an entertaining show – whatever that means. I didn't want to leave that up to chance and just do the same old kind of rock band thing. I wanted to be thoughtful about the way in which I engaged with the audience as maybe a counterpart to the last tour, which was stage diving and doing that kind of thing. I wanted to create an experience that might inspire people to put down their phones for an hour.

AC: I remember you saying something about keeping the show off of social media. It made me realize the truth in your song "Digital Witness," and how social media actually disconnects us.

SV: Ultimately I want people to enjoy the show however they see fit. If they want to take out a phone to take a picture, that's fine. It's not like it was a strictly enforced policy. I just wanted people to be mindful of it. Basically my life philosophy can be summed up by David Foster Wallace's Ken­yon College speech. What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to do things that encourage compassion and try to be thoughtful and mindful in your life? Or are you going to be a person who is petty and judgmental? I feel like screens can encourage a lack of accountability that doesn't exist in real life. [Face-to-face] you learn to be compassionate because if you say something horrible to someone, they get upset.

So, I don't have a stance on anything except that I'm trying to live life as a more compassionate person. However that manifests is good for me and sometimes I find that, personally, if I interact too much with a screen then that depletes my ability to be compassionate, and that makes me less happy. That's my life's philosophy.

AC: In creating such an immersive show, what have you learned going forward? What are you going to take from this and apply to subsequent tours?

SV: On a micro level, the structure allows me to really be in the moment. I don't have to think about what my hands or voice or the choreography is doing. My body is already going some place, but I can have a third ear in order to hear the 3-D spectrum of what's happening onstage. And not even what's happening onstage, but in the audience. All the little micro-movements that everybody is doing allows me to be really emotionally present. At least for an hour-and-a-half a day, I have a meditation on humanity that happens to me onstage. It's amazing.

I'm sort of addicted to that energy, and I don't mean to people clapping. I mean I'm addicted to that connection. My version of connection might look different than someone else's. But it's towards the same end, which is reaching people's subconscious through music, and reaching people's hearts through music which is massive.

AC: You feel more connected to your music while performing than you did when you didn't have all of the choreography?

SV: You can't do something every day for years and not get better at it. The layers in which you connect should change and grow and deepen. It's a never-ending source of intrigue for me. Sometimes I get questions about when I'm going to take a break. Quite frankly, I could really use a day to sleep. I could use that right now, but music is one of the rare things that gives you back more than you could ever possibly imagine when you give to it. I don't need a break from music. Why would I take a break from something that I love, and that never disappoints? Why would I do that? I mean, surely I need to take a break from being on the road. One can't exist at this pace forever. But I mean, I have a week off in two weeks, and then I'll be good to go.

AC: I read an interview with you in The Guardian where you're talking about growing up in Texas, where even the slightest quirks can stand out. How do you think that shaped you as a person and as an artist?

SV: That's a good question. I have so much love for Texas that I didn't really appreciate until I lived someplace else. When I come back to it – which is all the time because I split my time and live in Texas part of the year – it's home in a way that nothing else can be replicated. I know in every season what the Texas sky looks like. You could show me a picture and I would be like, "Oh yeah, that's March." That's really powerful.

For me growing up, it's not as if I specifically stood out much. I was kind of shy, but I wasn't the freak in the class that was getting picked on. I had more of this internal world of feeling very at odds with some of the ways that didn't seem to be fostering human compassion, but were instead more about browbeating or trying to control people's minds. I reacted to that kind of thing. I hate to make generalizations, I just — [pause].

Sorry, I've had like two hours of sleep, so it's hard for me to form a sentence [laughs]. I'm super jet-lagged, and for some reason I got back to New York and I can't sleep. So this is day three of two hours a night. My brain might actually be breaking down. I don't know what I've said in this interview, but all of it is schlock.

AC: Very poetic schlock!

SV: No, it isn't. Anyway, I don't want to get into murky waters putting anything down. I love Texas. Texas is my home. I am very glad I was raised there. I think it breeds a very specific kind of weirdo. And a Texas intellectual is probably my favorite kind of intellectual, because if you're Texan it means you don't come with the pomp and circumstance. There's always this grounding that I really appreciate.

Increasingly, going through life and meeting any number of people from all different walks of life, being grounded is something that's really important. You can obviously be as eccentric as you want. That's awesome, but don't be up your own ass about it. I hate to make generalizations, but I really do think it's a colloquial thing. I really think there's something about being raised there. The expression I always heard growing up was, "Don't get too big for your britches."

It's not a crabs-in-a-barrel situation. There are so many successful people from Texas. It's a place where people can really thrive. I don't know if it has to do with physical space, or resources, or whatever.

AC: When you go back to Texas are you still spending most of your time in Dallas?

SV: I live in Dallas part of the time [laughs]. Effectively I don't live anywhere, because I live on the road. When I go back, I spend a lot of time with my family, so I consider that as much of a home as New York.

St. Vincent performs in Zilker Park at the Austin City Limits Music Festival Friday, Oct. 10, 5:15pm.

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