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Can't Turn Off What Turns Me On: St. Vincent's 'Masseduction'

We Talked To Annie Clark For The Liner Notes On Her Gritty, Erotic New Album

On October 17, 2017

In a quiet, unassuming neighborhood in Van Nuys, California, in September, down the street from a Burger King, Annie Clark was busy rehearsing for the Fear the Future tour for her new album, Masseduction. In less than a month, she would leave on an international tour, and befitting the songs on the new album, she’s crafting a performance she calls “emotionally brutal.” For Clark, a good performance demands the adrenaline from pushing herself to “that point.” On her Digital Witness tour for her 2014 self-titled album, she expended herself physically. “I wanted to dance myself to death,” Clark said, referencing Pina Bausch’s The Rite Of Spring, noting the permanent physical scars she acquired during the tour. But her newest album is more of a psychological death. Masseduction won’t require her dance herself to death; the songs will do it for her.

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She walked into a dressing room at Show Biz Studios, styled for a long stretch of rehearsals: a lightweight sweater as black as her hair, worn skeleton-print leggings, and Gucci Stan Smith sneakers flaunting a pink sequin lighting bolt on the side. She requested a coffee and “a small handful of nuts,” faking a less-than-convincing British accent that she immediately dismissed as “terrible.” Crossing both legs underneath her, she perched herself on the leather couch. Her face—sharp enough, even bare, to stop a passerby in their tracks—showed almost no sign of exhaustion despite the marathon rehearsals.

“I like that little bit of pain and mania and frenzy, I really like it,” she said of her last tour. “This tour's just different. I think the new record and the new music is really emotional, and so it just requires less flailing. I more or less just feel like I can just stand and deliver, and it'll be a different kind of brutal,” she said.

Masseduction, St. Vincent’s fifth solo album, is a neck-snapping magnum opus. Though dark, it avoids the kind of overdone, maudlin doom and gloom that mopes instead of shocks; it’s the most conceptually perfect and perfectly constructed album in a whole catalog of incredible albums. Every second and noise is accounted for, but it’s not so stuffy that there isn’t air to breathe. Rather, the fester of drugs, fame, loss, sex, indulgence and suicide found on Masseduction are strained through Clark’s signature clever grin. “Pills”—featuring vocals from Cara Delevingne and a sprawling Kamasi Washington sax solo—repeats a coked-up-carnival-barker chorus akin to a hellish commercial jingle:

”Pills to grow! Pills to shrink! Pills, pills, pills and a good stiff drink!

Pills to fuck! Pills to eat! Pills, pills, pills down the kitchen sink!”

Stuffed with the fastidious pop production of Jack Antonoff, the song is chilling: a head-spinning build that bursts into a glam-rock, Bowie-big bridge so expansive it could shatter a cathedral ceiling. Those familiar with St. Vincent’s brand of art-rock absurdity might do a double take at her collaboration with a producer known for his work with Lorde and Taylor Swift, but the incongruity of Clark and Antonoff creates an uncanny harmony. The album’s sonics often echo the unnamed feeling of living in America today: the eerie, polished mainstream, infiltrated by bizarre, self-aware escapism, and surrounded by the anxiety of impending destruction. It’s seductive reality horror: a mirror reflecting fire so blue you can’t help but walk into it. The unlikely marriage yielded an unnerving bubblegum dystopia, like on the panic-attack-dance-track “Sugarboy,” where she surrenders to destruction’s seduction: “I am weak / got a crush on tragedy.” “Fear the Future,” the Jenny Holzer maxim-inspired apocalypse-rock anthem, is a blur of distorted elevated uncertainty. But even as tracks take off into hysteria, everything has its place. That’s Clark’s modus operandi: the muscles of a complete lack of control clinging to the skeleton of control itself.

“The calculation is a means to an end. The calculation is, you know, building the house, building the structure, but the intention is that more emotional [aspects] be buttressed enough to come through as a result of the structure,” Clark explained. Deadpanning, she shrugged, “That was the goal, I mean, who knows?”

Clark’s prepense design extends all the way down to her public persona. Even relaxed on a dressing room couch for an hour, she never fell short of performatively professional—her persona could be described as kind and cordial, thinking before she spoke, but she made it clear she’s endured enough interviews to know the game. To announce Masseduction, Clark released a series of videos making fun of repetitive or stupid questions she’s often asked in interviews, like the ever-repulsive, “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” “People are more scared to talk to me,” she laughs, assuring me that wasn’t her intention. “But if I weeded out the 'women in music' question, then I did something good for the world, or for my world, rather... It's an unanswerable question.”

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But much like just about everything else Clark does, the videos—aside from their (more-or-less effective) practical function—carry a big-picture awareness beneath their surface. She wanted to “draw a box around the artifice of doing press,” a performance of a performance. To her, the press is a necessary evil done out of responsibility to her art. She’s aware of the perception that she’s “incredibly austere or self-serious or pretentious or whatever.” She wanted to push into that idea and draw a caricature of her supposed persona, “making [herself] a joke.” In fact, for the stone-cold ringmaster people make Clark out to be, poking fun at herself seemed second nature to her.

In a scene in her “New York” video, a swan begins to eat her sequin dress. Clark powered through the take as the swan nibbled, continuing to mouth the lyrics, neither flinching nor breaking eye contact with the camera, as she gracefully guided the swan’s head off her lap. “Swans are scary motherfuckers,” she said, and admitted to being a skittish by nature, in contrast to her fearless stage presence. She threatened to jump on the table if a cockroach walked into the room. “Fight or flight? I'm flight... but, for the three takes we had the swan there for, I managed to hold it together and focus.” I commended her grit, to which she responded, “Anything for art. ANYTHING FOR ART!” parodying her own obsessive dedication.

Despite a misinformed reputation of intimidation, all it takes is one look at Masseduction’s album cover to infer that Clark is anything but austere. The saucy Day-Glo cover enshrines an ass (belonging to Clark’s friend and photographer/model Carlotta Kohl) sporting pink tights and a leopard-print thong—carnal, yet plastic. While campy, it also mysteriously replicates the aura of something on the walls of the Tate. That’s the album’s trademark: a garish chaos inside a rigid, high-concept frame.

“Masseduction,” the album’s title track, oozes sexual pandemonium. It contains a series of smutty vignettes—nuns smoking Marlboros, crying Lolita, teenage virgins, paranoid secretions. The icons are sandwiched by a moaning chorus: “I can’t turn off what turns me on / I don’t turn off what turns me on,” alternating with robotic backing vocals “mass seduction / mass destruction.” Mixed with signature St. Vincent shredding—an obvious staple of the album, despite fears that she gave up the guitar for this one—the one possible reflexive sympathetic nervous system response to the track is toe-curling, face-flushing, heavy breathing. Still, the sex of Masseduction never quite stands to override the art of it, but rather forms a balanced relationship between them. Sex for the sake of sex, sure. But also, sex as a model of power.

Power is something Clark’s gotten a unique look into over the past few years. While increasingly well-known with the growth of her artistic career—St. Vincent won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album in 2015—a series of high-profile relationships—Carrie Brownstein, Kristen Stewart, and most famously Cara Delevingne—forced her guarded personal life into the public eye. A fed-up Clark and Delevingne once blasted the paparazzi with squirt guns in playful protest to their obtrusion. While placing no blame on Delevinge, calling her “the most wonderful creature in the world,” she became revolted by aspects of the fame she encountered during their relationship. After a period of entering rooms to every eye staring at her, she began to feel like public property. She said encountering that level fame destroyed people’s boundaries, making them feel “entitled to your time and entitled to really anything they want from you.” But along with her proximity to fame being at worst a violation and at best an annoyance, Clark interpreted the experience as a symptom of a larger problem.

“The whole thing is—kind of bird's-eye view—part of this celebrity industrial complex to sell magazines, to sell movies, to sell cans of soda, to sell weapons of mass destruction. It's really kind of all part of the same thing and really, to me, seems like a reflection of the wealth and aspiration inequality that this system has created and perpetuated.” Referring to America, she said, “We have so much money, and if we just did more for the citizens and made life better for people as a whole, then people would be less excited about seeing someone they don't know wearing fancy clothes on a beach vacation.”

“The idea with all the music is that someone will hear it and they will like it or, best-case scenario, love it, but it'll weave its way into their lives, and they'll have their own experience with it. I don't care who Leonard Cohen wrote 'I'm Your Man' for. I don't care what Tom Waits was talking about. I don't care."
Annie Clark on fans interpreting her music

Traces of her frustrations with fame and wealth—and the culture that surrounds it—are sprinkled throughout the album. “Oh, what a bore to be so adored,” she sighs on the bridge of “Masseduction.” In the verses of “Los Ageless,” a song set in the epicenter of entertainment, she observes the odd reality around her: mothers “milking” their young for fame or money, socialites drinking their memories away, the “ageless” clinging to their youth and beauty, staving off “winter” for an eternal summer (by way of plastic surgery, as the video suggests). How does someone prevent that from affecting them? How could anyone hold onto their sanity? “I try to tell you I love you, but it comes out all sick.”

Like fame, she turned to religious allusion as a manifestation of elevated power, pairing it, naturally, with sex. “Savior,” a sleazy ’70s funk jam, is saturated and erotic, but ultimately a literary tragedy. Narrating the self-destructive sexual tension of a doomed relationship, it explores tired, overdone sexual kink and fantasy: a partner dresses her up as a teacher, nurse, nun, in leather. But, when it comes down to it, “none of this shit fits.” It’s a push and pull for mutual satisfaction that is destined to end in manipulation and destruction: “I keep you on your best behavior / honey, I can’t be your savior / love to the grave and farther / honey, I am not your martyr.”

"The record... it's *not* for me and it's not *about* me anymore, it's for everybody else.”—Annie Clark This and above by Nedda Asfari

St. Vincent has never exactly shied away from sexuality, but the explicitness of Masseduction is jarring in comparison. Clark was candid when asked what prompted her most sexual album yet. She shrugged and cocked her head, “I probably just had more sex in the past however many years.”

That wasn’t the case when Clark made the album. In contrast to the uncontrollable, hedonistic indulgence of Masseduction, she was sober and celibate during its creation. Her purity extended all the way to her ears—she didn’t listen to other music besides her own while making it. “I don't really do anything but make things,” she told Rolling Stone. While Clark and I sat in her dressing room, the rest of the world was celebrating “Bodak Yellow”’s climb to the top of the charts. I likened her approachable and admirably terrifying aura to that of Cardi B, and she responded, “Oh, I gotta find out who she is!” Who can blame her? She’s been busy with her all-encompassing creative grind—making money moves, so to speak.

To most people, this lifestyle might seem impossible and obsessive. But she doesn’t question it. Her militant, self-inflicted disciplinary extremes were in service to her organization, productivity and above all, her work.

“There's just certain kinds of energy I can let in at certain times,” she said. “And there is some overlap with sexual energy and performance that can be catalytic and exciting. But as far as making records and writing, that's sort of monastic in and of itself... There's something about sex or substance that really doesn't mix in the writing, because you're sort of letting the air out of the balloon.”

That is a lesson Clark didn’t learn until after making four previous albums. “I mean, if I did it for other albums it certainly wasn't like a concerted effort, just no one would fuck me,” she said through her cheeky half-smile.

The payoff of her vigorous lifestyle is tangible. Clark’s incessant grind is evident in her musical perfectionism; you can hear it. This record was a product of intuition and patience. “Young Lover” had “all the components melodically and lyrically to be something really special” but they couldn’t get the production right. She recognized “Hang On Me,” an ambitious “big, '90s-ish rock song,” didn’t feel quite there. She never settled for just the trappings of a good song, but instead drudged with Antonoff in the studio until they clicked. “It feels like getting the last juice out of an orange or something. You just know, from here to here,” she put a hand just above her chest, and one below her stomach, “that it's done, that it's right. It hits you somewhere in your body.”

The first single, “New York,” a track that clicked right off the bat for Antonoff and Clark, excretes the no-bullshit transparency that Masseduction does so well: “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.” It’s an upbeat ballad with muffled drums that drive the song like a train. Its build is so natural, you hardly notice where it’s taking you—you just end up there. When the song starts, you’re listening to a simple piano ballad, and by the end of it, your breathing’s synched to a grandiose string section. “Slow Disco” has the same romantic, lachrymose melancholy—the kind classics are made of. The ambient strings sound like the slow inhale you take to prolong a necessary goodbye: “Slip my hand from your hand / Leave you dancing with a ghost.” “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” tells a story of an old friend and partner-in-crime with whom she’s lost touch. While the narrative crushes forcefully, it’s placed on a bed of soft, minimal piano and heartbreaking pedal steel. Absent from her other albums, pedal steel proves a gorgeous staple on Masseduction. “It's so weepy. It reminds me of Texas, and it reminds me of Pink Floyd. It's just so beautiful. Instant emotion.”

"There's something about sex or substance that really doesn't mix in the writing, because you're sort of letting the air out of the balloon.”—Annie Clark Nedda Afasari

In the final song, “Smoking Section,” Clark shows us at her most vulnerable. The eyes of her other ballads are pink and teary, but the eyes of “Smoking Section” are bloodshot and veiny. It sounds like a last-resort cry of resignation that’s both disjunct and defeated, undulating between depressive waves and fits of abrupt, cinematic burts. Following the path of demise laid down by the tracks before it, the album's end ponders the purest act of self-destruction: taking your own life. Clark accesses a voice we’ve never heard from her, a register so low she reaches a Tom Waits growl: “Sometimes I sit in the smoking section / hoping one rogue spark will land in my direction / and when you stomp me out / I’ll scream and I’ll shout: 'Let it happen, let it happen, let it happen.'" She leads us through scenes of suicidal thought, manipulatively seducing and bargaining death and meeting it with apathy as it nears. She holds a pistol and shooting at the grass “to scare you right back,” considers jumping off her roof “just to punish you.”

While deciding which songs would make the album, “Smoking Section” wasn’t initially on top of Antonoff’s list. Without noticing, Clark kept bringing it up, over and over. “I didn't even realize I kept mentioning it,” she said. “But he stopped one day and he's like, 'That song means a lot to you, doesn't it?' Yeah, it really does.” For all the absurdity, horror and destruction, the song ends with genuine hope. After tooth-and-nail tension, it finally resolves: “And then I think, what could be better than love? / it’s not the end.” She cut herself open with a dull knife, bled out on a podium, sewed herself up and kept walking. So few people, and so few artists, are able open themselves to this extent. Yet, she’s able to relinquish her entire self to her music, because she doesn’t care what judgement it’s met with on the other side. “I'm fine to be misunderstood,” she said.

After her personal life became so public, she’s been prodded to reveal who her music is about. Her response is always that she makes "composite characters." Listeners mistakenly fish for insight into her art on the surface of her own life. And while curiosity gets the best of us all, to make this album about Clark would be to reject the depths of everything it offers us. Her ability to give us everything and let us keep it is what makes her a once-in-a-generation artist. In an album made of self-destruction, she’s left self-sacrificial. Sure, she constructed the album out of her own intimate experience. But at the end of the day, Masseduction’s brilliance, like all great art, comes down to what she gave those who receive it.

“The idea with all the music is that someone will hear it and they will like it or, best-case scenario, love it, but it'll weave its way into their lives, and they'll have their own experience with it. I don't care who Leonard Cohen wrote “I'm Your Man” for. I don't care what Tom Waits was talking about. I don't care,” she said. “It doesn't enrich the experience of listening to music to me to know. I mean maybe that's just me being selfish, I'm like 'I don't care. This is for me now.' And I feel that way, I think, the record... it's not for me and it's not about me anymore, it's for everybody else.”

Profile Picture of Amileah Sutliff
Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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