Annie Clark, the singer-songwriter commonly known as St. Vincent, is thinking about moats. She's staying an hour outside of Berlin, where she's set to perform in a few hours. And there's a moat.
"I guess a moat was the function of a feudal system," she says, thinking out loud.
I comment that moats aren't something we North Americans see too often. "It's true -- but we have our own version of a moat," she counters, thoughtfully. "We have, like, a money moat." She lowers her voice a register, her approximation of The Man: "'There's no access to that unless you pay.'"
That's one of the most striking things about Clark, 31: she's incredibly incisive, in conversation and on record. Over the course of four near-universally acclaimed albums as St. Vincent -- 2007's Marry Me, 2009's Actor, 2011's Strange Mercy and this year's career high St. Vincent -- the Dallas-bred, New York-based singer/songwriter has examined the human condition with the curiosity of an anthropologist and the observational wit of a comedian. When she sings wry lines like "fake knife/real ketchup," it's though there's a slight, knowing smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
As a musician, she's an iconoclast, proving that pop music can be intellectual, but also challenging. An accomplished guitarist who honed her craft as a member of both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' backing band, her angular, avant-pop experiments are off-kilter yet virtuosic, complex yet catchy.
As a vocalist, Clark treats every syllable like an opportunity to wring more intensity and emotion. When she allows her voice to break or hiccup, there's intention behind it.
Clark is also a consummate performer, and a bold new album calls for a bold new stage show. On the season finale of Saturday Night Live in May, Clark offered a taste of the idiosyncratic live experience that she will bring to the Burton Cummings Theatre on June 22 for a headlining slot at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.
Designed with creative director Willo Perron -- the brains behind Kanye West and Lady Gaga's live shows -- and choreographer Annie-b Parson, the show is all about the theatrics.
"There are lots of stylized dance moves and lights and architectural outfits," she says. "I wanted to elevate the live show and acknowledge the artifice of it."
Indeed, St. Vincent's show is designed to be an immersive experience that offers escapism; as she sings on Digital Witness, she wants "all of your mind." Perhaps that will mean more eyes will be transfixed onstage, rather than on iPhone screens. "Hopefully," she says. "I think the antidote to being tethered to technology is experience. Hopefully you can inspire people enough with the experience you're offering them that they will forgo technology for an hour and 15 minutes."
Our increasingly dependent relationship with technology was top of mind when she wrote Digital Witness, an anthem for 2014 if there ever was one. We live in an era in which people invest lots of time and energy into crafting carefully curated, Pinterest-perfect Instagram feeds instead of living in the moment. We've become addicted to the sugar-high hit of instant gratification -- and validation -- offered by favourites and likes and little orange hearts. As St. Vincent sings: "Digital witnesses, what's the point of even sleeping?/If I can't show it, if you can't see me/What's the point of doing anything?" If a beautiful meal is served and no one is around to Instagram it, is it still delicious?
Clark was interested in exploring the intersection between our pictures-or-it-didn't-happen overshare and surreptitious surveillance. "We had a hunch that we were being watched, and thanks to Mr. Snowden, we had our hunch very much confirmed," she says, referencing the NSA whistleblower. "We have the knowledge that the government is looking in on us, and then we have the other side of that, which is this platform on which we can create an idealized version of ourselves that can be as aspirational as we want -- but it's two-dimensional. We equate day-to-day minutiae with news. We're all the star of our own show. I was curious about unpacking that relationship. It's scientific fact that people who are monitored tend to change their behaviour."
She relays an anecdote from a podcast she'd recently heard about Clark Rockefeller, a.k.a. German con man Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who fooled many people into believing he was part of the Rockefeller dynasty. He's serving a life sentence in the U.S. for murder.
"(Gerhartsreiter) was asked, 'How did you manage to make it into the upper echelons of New York society?' And he said 'Three words: vanity, vanity, vanity.' He said that you play into people's vanity by treating them like who they want to be, not who they are. It's a tenuous thread, perhaps, but there's something relatable in the way we're coerced into giving up all manner of privacy. Vanity, vanity, vanity."
Most profiles of the singer/songwriter marvel at her ability to maintain two identities, the public St. Vincent and the private Annie Clark. She seldom reveals personal details about her life in interviews and, while she's warm and open, she's not an open book. Social media has made celebrities more accessible than ever; that Clark has been able to exercise such control over her personal narrative is a source of surprise and fascination.
As her Village Voice cover story pointed out, "Everything you ever need to know about Annie Clark is already being sung by St. Vincent."
"I feel as though I've been couched to be a private person, which isn't entirely accurate," she says. "I put so much into my songs. How can I be a private person when I've told you about this particular night in my life or my very worst thought? I try to communicate with art instead of cultivating an interesting looking online presence. It isn't that interesting to me. Like, I don't want you to know who my mom is. That's for me. Why do you want to know that? It's not flattering to me that someone would want to know. But I think some people are flattered by that attention. I don't have anything to hide, but I'm cognizant of what I'm willing to talk about. We can talk about social constructs and contracts. I'm sure we'd enjoy shooting the shit at a bar, but that's not what this is. There's a transactional element that's mutually beneficial."
Vanity, vanity, vanity.
"Vanity, vanity, vanity," she says with a laugh.
St. Vincent is certainly visible, even if Clark remains an enigma. She's fresh off a high-profile collaboration with Talking Heads founder David Byrne, which yielded 2012's Love This Giant and 2013's Brass Tactics EP. Her big bright eyes have gazed out from plenty of glossy magazine covers. She even appeared in animated form to cover the hilarious song Bad Girls from the Fox sitcom Bob's Burgers. ("I channelled my love of Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl and did Valley Girl voice. It was a lot of fun and I was thrilled to be asked to do it.") And with that wild dyed-grey shock of hair, St. Vincent has reached icon status.
St. Vincent is who Annie Clark wants to be -- and who she is, too. While her new album isn't the stuff of spill-your-guts confessional singer/songwriters, it's the most raw -- and the most "her" -- of her catalogue. Clark thinks so, too -- that's why she called it St. Vincent. Her fingerprints are all over it.
"I was reading Miles Davis's autobiography and he said that the hardest thing about being a musician is sounding like yourself," she says. "There's a lot of truth in that. I felt like this is most refined version of myself to date."