Annie Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent, is one of pop’s originals.

The missing link between Kate Bush and Jimi Hendrix, she is noted for her mezzo-soprano voice and her virtuoso musicianship.

A multi-instrumentalist of Prince-like ambition, Rolling Stone magazine once named her the 26th Greatest Guitarist of All Time.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Clark began her career as a member of sprawling Noughties’ oddities The Polyphonic Spree, before joining Sufjan Stevens’ touring band.

She released her first solo album, the excellently-titled Marry Me, to critical acclaim in 2007, and has not stopped since.

Each release is significant both for its handbrake-turn in music styles and for Clark’s accompanying new visual direction, sometimes provocative, sometimes demure, but always fascinating.

She has won shelves-full of awards, including a trio of Grammys – most recently for her 2021 album, the 1970s-influenced Daddy’s Home. If all that sounds a bit like hard work, she also knows how to write a hit.

St. Vincent’s seventh album All Born Screaming is a big, noisy, crunchy record, heavy on fat 1980s synthesisers and a growling industrial menace that has already seen it compared to Nine Inch Nails.

We met in a central London hotel to discuss it recently. As celebrity cliché dictates, Clark is a big presence on stage but tiny in real life.

Dressed exclusively in black and red she was dwarfed by a suite-sized sofa as she waxed lyrical about her love for a UK restaurant that doesn’t get enough love from visiting global superstars: Pret A Manger. (Formidable porridge, apparently.)

Impossible to credit with being 41-years-old, Clark chose her words with care, weighing up each question before answering.


Is it weird doing interviews when you’ve finished a record? A succession of complete strangers meeting you for 30 minutes to tell you their opinion on something you’ve made

I don’t mind. I feel like anything that helps bring this little cow to market is okay. [Laughs] I’m bringing my prize pig to market.

And what a pig it is

Some pig! I mean, anything that helps get this music that I love and care about out there….

Somehow, this is your seventh album. They all sound very different. When does a collection of songs start to become ‘an album’?

Making albums to me is sort of like polishing perfect little puzzle pieces. Toiling away on these intricate little puzzle pieces. But you don’t know what the big picture they make is. Until the end. Everything on this record was, like, ‘Does every song go deep enough? Does every song take a big enough swing?’

I can hear echoes of Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie…

Oh, I love all those things!

but then the press release mentions Steve Albini and Nine Inch Nails. Who’s right?

Everyone’s right. You’re right, too! I love all those people. Yeah. But it’s missing The Specials.

Two-tone ‘done wrong’ on the track ‘So Many Planets’, apparently

Two-tone done wrong, yeah.

Is there a more satisfactory way to talk about new music than comparing it to old music? That Elvis Costello quote: ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to do’

To me, this music is black and white and all the colours in a fire. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. And ‘This is the sound of the inside of my head’.

All Born Screaming is the sound of the inside of your head?

Like, ‘Let’s just get into it’, you know? Like, life is impossible. But we get to live it. We’re all born screaming. If you’re screaming when you’re born, that’s a great sign because that means you’re alive. It’s miraculous! The baby’s alive. But we’re all born in protest in some way. It’s just… heaven and hell. And everything in between.

Where does the title come from?

Actually, that line has been with me since I was 22. I’ve been trying to write a song with that in mind since I was 22. [Archly] So, you know, three years ago.

Does it still mean what it meant to you when you were 22?

I don’t know. I think it was always, like, [what-are-ya-gonna-do? voice] ‘Well, we’re all born screaming!’ It’s just: ‘Here we are’.

Haven’t you described this as your ‘least funnest’ record?

No! I think it’s so fun. Or, at least, funny. I meant: it’s not ‘winky’. You know I spent a few records, for sure, dissecting the idea of persona. And dissecting the idea of a ‘pop idol’ and using certain kinds of iconography. In this case there’s not a persona. I’m not really playing with the idea of persona. This is just what the sound of my head sounds like.

What’s ‘the look’ going to be for this one?

Black and white and all the colours of the fire.

Okay! You’ve had some good dressing up moments in the past. Daddy’s Home came with a dishevelled 1970s nightlife vibe

That was so great. It was exactly what I need to do at the time.

Is your job fun?

Which part?

The whole thing

Oh, my God. Playing music for people? Best job in the world. I mean, it’s so miraculous and it’s so rare that anybody gets to make a living doing the thing that they love the most. It’s crazy. I’m so lucky. I’m so fucking lucky.

Alex Da Corte

You’ve also said you want to ‘fuck people up’ with this record. What have we done?

Don’t you sometimes go to a show and you just want to be pummelled? Like, you just want to be thrashed. If artists are a weather vane for culture, or, like, a psychic mirror to what’s happening in our collective unconscious [then right now everything feels] violent, chaotic. And the great thing about music is that, even in the process of making this music, it was using modular synths, which are chaos machines, to create a little bit of release and transcendence. But I just want to be pummelled. I want to hear something that makes me want to go ‘Fuck!’ That’s what I want.

Does that mean you want to shake people out of their complacency?

I mean – any reaction people have to this is totally fine by me. Because that’s for them. And I don’t prescribe to [the idea of wanting] to know what that reaction will be. But for me making it was raw. I just wanted to make something that to me felt dangerous.

There are some fantastic jarring sounds. What’s your favourite noise on this album?

I love noise. Like [the sound of] a snare or something – [makes snare sound ] pchzch! pchzsch! – so there’s some of those. Like, in ‘Broken Man’. The snare in ‘Broken Man’ makes me happy. There’s Two-Tone dub-gone-wrong, running Josh Freese’s [Devo/ Foo Fighters drummer] drums through a Hawk Japanese tape machine [vintage reel-to-reel contraption], playing with the speed of that, so it sounds like absolutely melted. Another of my favourite sounds on the record is Cate LeBon playing the baseline in ‘The Power’s Out’ on an A2 fretless [bass guitar noted for its melodic sound], Cate’s playing it left-handed and my engineer is holding the e-bow. [imitates sound] Raow! Raow! Raow! Raow! And it’s ugly. It’s ugly in something that is otherwise quite sonically beautiful. I would say another of my favourite moments in the record is the way the chorus in ‘Hell Is Near’ just sort of blooms…

You’re a bit of a musical gear-head, right?

I’ve got a lot of gear. But I also went to my friend Justin Meldal-Johnsen [Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Air], who played bass on the record, and he had all the synths. So I would go over to his. He’s got quite an impressive collection. I’ve got a solid collection. Maybe 20 drum machines. And synths… a bunch of them.

Do those jarring sounds originate from, for want of a better expression, ‘mucking about’?

Most of the music-making was me going in, syncing up all the drum machines, syncing up the modulars [synthesisers] and then running them through my board and just making 8am dance parties for myself, on a little bit of mushrooms. Just entertaining myself, for hours and hours.

That’s quite a strong start to the day

Yeah! But you gotta do what you gotta do.

Dave Grohl plays drums on some of the songs. You can tell

Yeah, he was the most fun. I sent him the songs and he comes over to my studio and he drinks a bunch of coffee, he smokes Parliments and he tells the best stories and we have a laugh. We trade war stories. And then he’s, like, [brightly] ‘Alright’. And then he goes in and he plays the song perfectly. Every hit. Every turnaround. He just nails it.

This is the first album you’ve produced yourself

I mean, I’ve co-produced everything that I’ve done. But it’s a lot longer of a process because you just don’t have somebody going ‘Yeah, alright, that was good’. [ie: ‘We got it now. Let’s move on’.] But I think I knew on this record that sonically there were places that I wanted to go that I just had to do alone.

Would another producer have stopped you going there?

No. That’s never the kind of producer I’ve worked with. It’s more like there’s a different energy to a room when you’re with someone. And that’s the beauty of it. I love collaboration. There’s just a different energy to the workflow, to the amount of – I sang some of these songs 100 times to get any ounce of falseness out of it, to make it exactly what was happening here in my chest. But that’s not something I would ever put another person through. That’s sadistic at a certain point. I’m fine being masochistic. But I’m not a sadist!

How much of making a record is inspiration, and how much is perspiration?

It’s never a straight line, is it? You just go in there until you know that if you spent five more minutes on it, you’d make it worse. It’s just knowing the point of diminishing returns.

The other thing that’s mentioned in the press release is the influence of your first band, The Skull Fuckers

That was a noise band I played in, in college. We were very inspired by [challenging US noise/ ‘math rock’ band] Polvo.

I found a photo of The Skull Fuckers on Reddit. You don’t look quite as intimidating as the name suggests. You’re wearing a brown felt hat and a scarf, playing acoustic guitar, sat on a chair

I know! I remember that. Yeah, that’s really unfortunate.

Was that not representative of The Skull Fuckers?

No. For some reason we played a gig when the drummer couldn’t come. And we were, like, ‘Okay, I guess we could still do a noisy set with the three of us’. The early 2000s were not a great time for fashion.

When we spoke in 2021, I asked you how we should best listen to Daddy’s Home. You said ‘Put it on a turntable. Pour yourself a glass of tequila or bourbon and smoke a joint. That’s the vibe’. How should we listen to All Born Screaming?

Like, on what drugs?

Just ‘How should we listen to it’?

Listen to it loud! Listen to it loud, wherever you listen to it.

So would you advise drugs, too?

You know, I think the end of ‘All Born Screaming’ [a wild instrumental section, seeing out a seven-minute song] – I think that’s where the ecstasy is peaking. Before any gurning starts.

For the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and for other tribute performances, you have variously stood in for Kurt Cobain, Kate Bush, David Bowie and Prince. Is there anyone you can’t do?

You’ve just named four of them.

That is some list

That’s wild. I don’t know… they asked me.

What’s your reaction when they ask?

Usually terror. And then I cycle through that and then just practise a lot.

I rewatched your performance of ‘Lithium’, with the surviving members of Nirvana, for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, last night. It’s astonishing. What was going through your head on stage?

It’s genuinely indescribable. I mean, that’s the first music I heard that was like ‘This is mine. This isn’t something my parents played me. This is mine. This speaks to some resonating frequency in me and some experience that I’m gonna have’. It was like a premonition of a whole life when you heard that music.

Presumably people now have a similar reaction to the music you make

It blows me away. Especially when young artists come up, and they’re, like, ‘Your art has helped me making more art’. That’s the generative spirit. That’s the multitudes.

What do you look for in a good stage outfit?

I need to be able to jump into the crowd if I want to. And I also need to be able to be as active as possible in my footwear. So I require ankle support. So I can jump and move and run around. If it’s constricting, it’s because I’m constricting myself intentionally. For [2017 album] Masseduction I was in latex. I was making myself as uncomfortable as possible because it would give me something to fight against in a performance, you know? Daddy’s Home was a lot more comfortable. Easy-breezy. Got to move those hips. And this [album] I just need to be as kinetic as possible.

You did a MasterClass, one of those multipart online tutorial guides. Yours was on ‘Creativity And Songwriting’. Did people find it useful?

I don’t think I gave them any practical theory. Except to say ‘Try to get out of your own way. Let yourself throw it at the wall and then judge it, or be critical of it, later’. You can’t be critical of it as it’s coming out. Or else it just won’t come out. I hope that was helpful. But I don’t think I was, like, ‘Well, here’s how to write the perfect bridge!’ I wouldn’t necessarily know how to do that.

Let’s talk about your contribution to the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack

Lipps Inc. ‘Funky Town’. Lipps with two ‘p’s. I love that song! It changes keys. It’s so weird. This was before the pandemic. I was working on Daddy’s Home. And [pop music’s current favourite producer] Jack Antonoff was working on the Minions soundtrack. And he just said ‘Okay, you want to do something?’ And I said ‘Can I do ‘Funky Town?’’

Another highlight of your CV: you co-wrote ‘Cruel Summer’ with Taylor Swift. It went to Number One this year, four years after being released

I mean, it’s very cool and it’s very indicative of the way people consume music now. Like, it wasn’t a single from that record [the album, Lover]. The fans just decided it was a hit – four records later. It’s crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like it, first-hand. But also I’ve never actually seen it happen before [ever] – except maybe with ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ when it was in Stranger Things [Kate Bush’s 1985 song, finding wild new popularity on the back of a pivotal role in the Netflix series]. The fans just decided it was a hit.

Hurray for the fans

Yeah, hurray for the fans.

Where does Taylor Swift’s insane work ethic come from?

You’ll have to ask Taylor Swift.

Taylor can’t come to the phone right now

I think she’s just tapped like that. She’s just built for it.

Are you planning to tour this record?

Yeah, of course.

Can you tell us more?

I think it will be a pummelling. A pummelling, plus making sure the beat don’t stop. Like with Daddy’s Home where I took catalogue material and reinvented it in [a new] style with that band. I’ll do similar. With shows your job is to surprise, shock, delight, console, surprise, shock, delight, console, disgust, console. Not necessarily in that order. So sometimes you need to give people a kick in the teeth. And sometimes you need to tell people that everything is going to be okay. And then sometimes you need to dance together in ecstasy. And that’s what I imagine the show will be.

Who’s missing from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Let’s go Throbbing Gristle.

What do you like about ‘noise bands’?

The nerdier answer is that I like that there were these [music] scenes that existed because people lived in a place and a time and everyone was in communication with one another and people were cross-pollinating in a very organic way. I mean, that’s why you have Two-Tone, right? The UN couldn’t have made a better cultural collaboration. And I like that. Because it’s genuinely the thing that music does which is to bring people together and give people a voice. It’s also fucked-off people just expressing the violence and the chaos of the wolrd. And it’s ugly.

Peter Gabriel. Lipps Inc. Taylor Swift. Throbbing Gristle. Polvo. Is there any sort of music you don’t like?

Coffee shop singer-songwriters aren't for me. You know – [sound of an acoustic guitar being strummed] - ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste. But that’s not for me.

All Born Screaming is out on 26 April

Originally published on Esquire UK