How St. Vincent Fakes Her Way to Realness

With her latest persona, St. Vincent has fully embraced her sci-fi superhero side.
With her latest persona, St. Vincent has fully embraced her sci-fi superhero side. Nedda Afsari
Ever since Annie Clark emerged in 2007 with St. Vincent’s Marry Me, she’s had a certain mystique. The pale and willowy musician plays the guitar with a ferocity that makes her a guitar god in her own right, and it’s as hard to pin her personal life as it is to guess what she might do next.

As her sound has changed, so has her St. Vincent persona. With each new release, she has moved toward David Bowie status, trying on new looks and pushing the boundaries of her art. Consider the album cover of her 2014 self-titled record. She looks like an imperious witch-queen from an Alejandro Jodorowsky sci-fi movie. It’s a look that placed her a million miles away from the more “human” every-person she cultivated on earlier releases.

With her newest album, Masseduction, Clark has fully embraced her sci-fi superhero side, with a dark bob, vinyl dresses, and thigh-high boots. It might seem counterintuitive, but this newly constructed persona accompanies some of the most intensely personal music Clark has ever made.

“If you want to know about my life, listen to this record,” Clark said in press materials for Masseduction. And that’s part of what makes the album so intriguing. It seems to shine a light on the person behind St. Vincent in a way that her previous records haven’t.

That dichotomy harks back to something Oscar Wilde once said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” This is a thread that weaves itself through more than a half-century of music. From Bowie and Marc Bolan to Prince, Madonna, and Gaga, pop musicians and underground artists have found their truest voices while pretending to be someone else.

click to enlarge “If you want to know about my life, listen to this record,” Clark said. - NEDDA AFSARI
“If you want to know about my life, listen to this record,” Clark said.
Nedda Afsari
Few modern musicians understand that contradiction better than St. Vincent.

On Masseduction, Clark sings about the fallout from her breakup with supermodel and actress Cara Delevingne. Her aggressively plastic and shiny image reflects the music. It’s her most pop album to date, full of slinky vocals, hyperactive synths, and guitars. It boasts a production style as shiny and colorful as the clothes she wears on stage.

“How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds, too?” she bemoans on “Los Ageless.” So much of the album is about loneliness and drugs and trying to overcome the numbness of a great loss. Some people respond to a breakup by hitting the gym; Clark morphed into Bowie’s kid sister instead.

While on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, she described the sound and vibe of Masseduction as “dominatrix at the mental institution.” It’s a commanding look — one that is matched by her standoffish attitude toward those critical of her artistic evolution.

Along with the new persona, Clark has reworked her live show for her current Fear the Future tour. Abandoning the conventional band setup, she now performs onstage solo, with a guitar and backing tracks. She has faced some backlash, but Clark has shrugged off the hate, and in doing so, forced audiences to reconsider what an “authentic” artist is.

It’s that willingness to question reality that makes St. Vincent such a fascinating figure. In an age when pop stars like Taylor Swift build brands around the illusion that what you see onstage and on Instagram is who they really are, it’s refreshing to have someone who’s willing to be unknowable, yet willing to share secrets while wearing a secret identity.

St. Vincent is scheduled to perform at The Van Buren on Friday, January 26. Tickets are $39 to $42 via The Van Buren's website.
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Ashley Naftule