About a fortnight ago I was commissioned to interview St. Vincent, an artist I have been inspired by, impressed by, turned on by, compelled by, curious of, in awe of, occasionally suspicious of—for the better half of a decade. I try not to think about other journalists too much, but St. Vincent has developed a reputation for intimidating us. For her last press cycle, she made her interviewers crawl into a pink box; she would play a pre-recorded message on a tape recorder if a question bored or irked her. I found that quite funny—irresistibly imperious—but I considered it an act of degradation rather than an interesting switch of power. I love famous people but I also find them quite silly, like a Schnauzer wearing a bowtie.
I didn’t know why, but for around two hours after our call ended, I was reeling with nervous energy. I was vocalising it and trying to get to the other side of it, the way I sing songs when I’m walking through a haunted house. I woke up the next morning with a voice message from the editor who assigned this piece. I am fond of this person and I will not name them. MBC, the team in charge of St. Vincent’s publicity (which is helmed by Barbara Charone, who also works for Madonna, and is considered one of the more powerful and intimidating publicists in the industry) had been on the phone to this editor, demanding the piece be pulled. My editor’s words: “They said she’s terrified of this interview coming out.” The publication didn’t have a leg to stand on.
"Terrified"? That word didn't seem to square. I thought I had done a not-so-good job the night before. I ended the call thinking I hadn’t asked the right questions. St. Vincent and I didn’t feel like a good match in conversation (or at least not in this conversational setup set-up, for which I was given thirty minutes, and continual reminders from the person on St. Vincent’s team, who remained on the call with us, that we’d need to wrap up well in time for St. Vincent’s Instagram Live session with Paul McCartney, which directly followed our interview.) St. Vincent tended to interpret my questions in bad faith. I assumed she believed me to be a Bad Reader; presumptuous, judgemental, simple, anti-curious—all qualities that her latest album ‘Daddy’s Home’, which I’ve interpreted as a counter to the folly, inadequacy and meretriciousness of moral purity—counters. Anyway, she read me wrong. I love Lana Del Rey.
I got a call from MBC later that morning by a man who sounded quite nervous. I told him I was confused, I asked him what the matter seemed to be. He wasn't totally sure, he said, "she found the interview aggressive." Aggressive? I complimented her and cowed to her and laughed at her jokes. "Well, the message has been passed down a line of many messengers, she might not have actually said that." The man on the phone said that this—one of his artists demanding an interview to be pulled—had never happened to him before. It hadn't happened to me either. I felt annoyed by how easy it was for St. Vincent to kill something I had researched and expected money for. But the interview started to seem valuable to me after I was told that she didn't want it out in the world. "Can we draw a line under this and just kill the piece here?" said the man on the phone.
Below is the full transcript of my interview with St. Vincent (save for a short and-forth about Tool which didn’t make sense when turned into text). My questions are in bold, her responses are in italics.
Hi, how are you?
Good how’s it going?
Not too bad. What’s your mood for today?
My mood for today, well it’s good, I’m getting on an Instagram Live chat with Paul McCartney in a couple minutes so my mood is a little bit nervous but good.
I’m excited to talk about this album, I think it has a sick sense of humor that I appreciate a lot. I’ve had a really fun time listening to it.
Oh I’m glad, thank you.
I’m sensing there’s kind of a 70s trend at the moment in terms of fashion and the ways some other bands are presenting themselves. Is that something you were anticipating, is that something you feel you belong to, or was it just kind of accidental?
Do you feel bummed about that?
No I don’t, I always just kind of do my own thing.
Do you think there’s a reason why people might be inspired by the 70s today? Do you see an analog with our world today and with the 70s? I guess this album is based in 1973, right?
Between ‘71 and ‘76, so post flower children idealism, post the Summer of Love hangover, but pre escapism of gay disco and pre nihilism of punk. Life was bad but music was good, kind of vibe.
Kind of when the trash aesthetic was taking hold, especially by Andy Warhol. Does trash inspire you?
Um like literal rubbish?
No like the trash aesthetic, I guess in the PR you call it sleazy, grimy.
Yeah but the difference with sleazy is that sleazy tries to present as glamorous but there’s something off, trash is just trash. I don’t know if trash pretends to be anything other.
Can you have glamour without sleaze?
Sure, absolutely. I mean, like the 20s Greta Garbo way, I would say Golden Era Hollywood, I mean behind the scenes it was probably a nightmare but you look at it and it is very genuinely shiny and beautiful.
I love the sitar on this album especially on ‘Down’, the riff is so sick. How did you get to the sitar?
Well it’s not a sitar per se, it’s a choral electric sitar guitar and so it was I think George Harrison made them kind of popular in the ‘60s, I think the one I have is from ’67 and it plays like a guitar but it has a resonating body on it so it sounds sitar-esque. It was made very famous in the Steely Dan Do it Again solo.
I guess the main PR bulletin point of this album is about your dad coming out of jail. Why did you want that to be the main way that people might read this album?
More like an entry point, the title Daddy’s Home to me I mean one, it is literal but also it’s funny and cringy and pervy and also I think more than anything kind of refers to my own transformation into Daddy as it were. Yeah it’s probably not anything I would’ve really thrown out there except that it was made public without my consent but I didn’t really get to tell that side of the story and I don’t bring it up for sympathy. It simply is my story, it’s not intended to be indicative of necessarily anything, it’s just my story and I was gonna tell it with humor and compassion, all of that.
Did you anticipate a lack of sympathy for your dad’s crimes and the subject matter of this album and did that factor into how you shaped this record?
That’s the tail wagging the dog my dear. No, no. A lack of sympathy, well, which crime would be the most sympathetic? I didn’t do anything, I’m simply writing about something that I think on some level everyone who’s ever had a parent can understand in the sense of you’re often going “How much of you am I?” and we kind of do identity projection through all these things so no, it’s again, it’s not really there for anything other than my own anecdotal story.
At what point did you transform into this daddy character? For how much of your adult life have you been the daddy?
Oh I would just say over the past few years, I’ve just been quite a bit more leaned back and shoulder shrug and say let’s just sit down in the old beat up leather armchair and have a tequila and chat it out you know. Life is complicated, human beings are complicated and I wanted to just write stories about flawed people. There’s a whole lot of judgement going around and not a whole lot of understanding. And judgement is anti-curious.
There are some people, perhaps the more sanctimonious and morally pure, who might not be interested in an artist’s reflection on their father’s white collar crimes. Do you have much sympathy for those kinds of people?
I mean I think I can get sympathy for all people. If that is the reason why they decide not to spend 46 minutes with my work then I’m sure there’s plenty of other work out there for them that they can enjoy that is morally pure. They should find pure work from pure people and enjoy it.
I guess last year’s riots brought abolition towards the mainstream, during the time you were making this record, which is partially about your father’s time in prison. How did that square with your thoughts on prison and the US carceral system?
Well I have plenty of thoughts on it, I’m not totally sure how it’s relevant to this.
Well I was wondering if you have a standpoint on it or if you’d rather just be ambiguous?
I have so many thoughts and opinions, I don’t presume that my thoughts and opinions are relevant on every subject though. I don’t have that much hubris.
I understand. I was wondering about the Candy Darling inspiration, how does she come into the fold?
Oh I just, Candy Darling to me is such a beautiful heroine in that she came from Queens and went not geographically far but worlds away to Manhattan and became her true self and in that particular kind of combination of glamour and toughness, where you feel like her name should be on the marquee and yet she could stick you with a shiv if you said the wrong thing. And I just find her inspiring and really beautiful, and I didn’t know but I found out a friend of mine was close with her and was at her bedside when she died so I was just picturing Candy Darling’s ascent to heaven as taking the final uptown train.
Wow. Did you feel like you were embodying her on this album or presenting as her?
No not as such, but definitely taking inspiration from some of her energy for sure.
I do hear a bit of her voice on the title track, I was wondering if you were kind of modeling your voice after her?
On Daddy’s Home? Oh, no.
I love the sultriness of that song, even though it’s just about signing autographs in prison. I found it really funny.
Yeah it’s definitely again, I’m writing about my own story with humor and compassion and self-effacement, all that.
Do you see this album as a movement, does it have a narrative?
Yeah. It’s a full story, it’s a full collection of short stories. It has a shape and everything.
That’s just how I listened to this album, as a series of short stories. I was wondering how they interlink in your mind? I guess you have the person on Broadway, you have your dad, you have the person who’s maybe thinking of having a baby or not having a baby.
I just could write stories of flawed people doing their best to get by because I’ve been most of the people on this album at one point of my life or another. And again I could write about them without condemnation and judgement just, here we are.
Are you a nostalgic person?
No not generally.
Not even during the creation of this album? I’m thinking of the humming tracks, your mum cooking in the kitchen.
Not exactly, I think that this particular kind of music with its sophistication and some of the jazz language in the harmony and its sense of time, it was a kind of music that I’d loved for so long but never really dipped into myself, and I think we kind of learn things a lot of times when we’re ready to, and I think I was kind of ready to learn some of the lessons that this kind of music had to teach me.
Do you think about shame a lot?
Um, I think that shame is the reason why most people do the violence that they do. I think violence is an expression of impotence.
What was it about the post-idealist era in particular that you were drawn to, why not go through the flower power utopia sort of 60s route?
I think that there’s an intellectual orthodoxy that is involved in utopian thinking and a lot of times it doesn’t allow for either a complex set of incentives or it doesn’t allow for the totality of human nature in its equation, and then it fails and because the structure of any kind of power is really complicated so I think in general the desire… and I understand that we’re living in, in some ways, I think just with the internet part of it, in some ways unprecedented times. And I understand people’s desire for certainty in times economic strife, cultural upheaval, all this stuff. I completely understand the desire for certainty. But I don’t think it’s as simple as demanding moral purity and punishing anyone who doesn’t fix the orthodox criteria. I understand the desire but I’m not sure it’s gonna get to where I think we want to be, which is just general more equality, whether it’s wealth equality, wealth disparity, all that kind of stuff I just think the matrices of power are really complicated.
You were saying earlier about Daddy and how you were thinking about your dad and the overlap between you two and how we all possibly become our parents. I was wondering how you consolidate the influences of your parents? I don’t know anything about them obviously but I know that your mum was a social worker, your dad was an entrepreneur, and those seem like two totally opposing worlds.
Yes, my mother is a social worker and she instilled in all of us I think the idea that the work we do should be meaningful and she’s definitely really humanistic and that kind of thinking I think, that had an impression on me. My dad wasn’t an entrepreneur, my dad was a stock broker I think? But I grew up with my mom and my stepdad and my stepdad was a very different kind of guy, just was an army brat and grew up really poor, and was just coming from a different mindset and they’re just very different kinds of people. Not a judgement thing, just very different. Yeah my mom definitely errs on the very humble side. And yeah, my dad is a complicated, charismatic person who’s also very intelligent, and who went down a path that was full of consequence. Yeah they’re really, really different people so it’s funny to kind of square who was who.
What does your dad think of this album?
Oh he loves it!
Yay, that’s good to know. Did you ever rebel against your dad’s lifestyle growing up as a teenager?
I didn’t grow up with him, and he was in Tulsa Oklahoma. I don’t know what lifestyle you’re necessarily presuming but..
No I’m not presuming, just wanted a little background on your relationship with him I guess. So he wasn’t in your life that much where you were younger?
I would go and we would spend summers there and Christmas, but I grew up in Dallas for the most part with my mom and my stepdad.
Was this album in any way an opportunity to get closer to your dad?
Not in any way consciously, no.
But are you finding with age and with time you’re getting closer to him?
Well him being out of prison helps in terms of just proximity. Yeah, here’s what I’m finding. I’m finding that we live by the stories that we tell ourselves and that sometimes we realize that the story we’ve been telling ourselves for a long time was either wrong or lacked a certain amount of information, and then we have the choice of whether to reject the new information because it’s too painful to rethink the story that we’ve been telling ourselves, or assimilate the new information and go, wow life is complicated, this is an interesting wrinkle. I choose to do the latter.
Yeah, it’s very easy to bullshit yourself, right?
Yeah, it's true in all kind of ways you know?
This story, the story of your dad, it almost seems redemptive.
I mean I would say so, and that’s not in any way what I intended and you know, a lot of times when you’re making something, I mean you’re a writer you know, you have the compulsion to make it but you’re not necessarily sure where it’s coming from or why or any of those kind of questions, but I think there is the possibility of redemption, I do, I think there is the possibility of people to change and I think there is a possibility of things like forgiveness and growth. And if I didn’t think that there was a possibility for human beings to change, to grow, to take in new information and then continue to write their story, then I don’t know what we’d really be doing, you know? And that’s not really the world I want to live in, we’re a moving picture we’re not a still photograph.
Do you want to try and change the world, do you feel like you have that power, do you feel hopeful that there can be a better future? Sorry for the cheesy language.
No, I mean I don’t think that many people would accuse me of being an optimist in a lot of ways, and I don’t think in terms of my “power to change the world” I mean I think all I can do is try to study the human condition and write about the human condition in some way that resonates and then maybe people will hear that and that will resonate with them and I think that ultimately the best case scenario for music is empathy because it’s like psychologically this is why we like to listen to stories or this is why we like to watch movies is so we can go down the empathy exercise and you can see yourself as that person in the film, see someone who isn’t like you in any way, shape or form from a just box ticking kind of way, but then realize oh, we’re very similar in some ways or what would I do if I was in that situation, we do all these things and we live by these stories and I think those stories well-told can encourage empathy and empathy can go out into the world and have a kind of transformative experience. I don’t really think about, I mean I think once I make a thing and then it’s out in the world and it’s for other people to assimilate or enjoy or not, whatever, however they take it, is absolutely fine by me. But it’s for them, it’s not my place in any way to say how people should or should not enjoy it or assimilate it.
Yeah the reason I brought up prison abolition earlier is because that might be how some people contextualize this album.
I would say that that’s one lens. That to me would not be the main lens.
[I’m told to wrap it up]
Yeah let’s wrap up. So Tool cover album next?
No, I wish.
Someday I’m hoping.
I love Tool.
I feel your Paul McCartney nerves
Yeah, I’m gonna go shower.
That’s always a good idea. Okay take care, thank you again for you time