Talking to Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent, for 20 minutes is kind of like watching the first 20 minutes of a feature film: the premise is just starting to reveal itself, but you're stopped from getting into the guts of it, into the true meaning of it. Instead, you're left with little pieces with which to make insinuations with and draw meaning from.
Luckily, Annie Clark has a newish, self-titled album that effortlessly details some of the subject matter we start to cover – our reliance on technology, how subcultures have changed – and she also does shit-loads of press, so there are lots of (quite frankly, terrible – why do you need to ask that dumb question about her hair?) interviews to draw further information from. If that's not enough her theatrical live show adds further meaning to the songs.
Said songs are deep, sure, but they're also nasty and they're also plain, because life is deep, and nasty, and plain. When I talked to her two years ago she explained she "prefers people as they actually are, because that's more interesting". She's interested in, well, most things – everything from David Foster Wallace to David Carr to Vietnam to Internet trolling comes up in our conversations – because all of these things affect who we are as human beings. Including why people in Byron Bay wear tie-dye.
Hi Annie, how are you?
I'm at the beach, and I've very recently been in a hot tub. So, I have to say, things are really good.
It must be nice to be on this side of the world considering the snowstorms that New York is currently experiencing.
Oh yes, I haven't experienced this kind of weather for a very long time.
I'm wondering though: what it is about beach towns that tie-dye and henna comes to the fore? I don't know what that is, or what the cultural base for that is. I'm not objecting to it, I just don't know what it is.
I'm not sure either. I'm a recent immigrant to Sydney and I find it strange. It's not like there was a subcultural movement here that could explain it.
Yeah, it's not like Haight-Ashbury in the '60s happened here, but they've appropriated the aesthetic of it.
Maybe it's something to do with the fact that people who choose to live by the beach in small communities feel drawn to subcultures like Haight-Ashbury, and so they appropriate the clothing as a result of that?
You know what, that's a very good answer.
Thanks! How were the first two Laneway shows?
They've been fun. We've only done two shows. This is very different to my usual touring schedule – there are more beaches involved on this tour.
I know that for you, connecting in a meaningful way with your audience is important. Do you find that hard to do at festivals? Are crowds distracted?
No! They've been very rapt and eager. Bear in mind that so many bands don't go to Singapore, and so many bands don't go to New Zealand either. So I think that the crowds are excited that we were there.
Speaking of making a meaningful connection with your audience, I just read an interview with you on The Guardian where you said "it takes a lot to entice people to be in the moment today", which reminded me of when, at your Sydney Opera House show, you asked us to turn our cell phones off, which then reminded me of the thematic content of songs like Digital Witness. You seem to be unpacking our reliance on technology in your work – have you come to any conclusions about what it's doing to us?
Oh I'm sorry could you repeat the question because I was busy Tweeting...I'm joking!
Haha, good call…
Um, you know I don't know if I have any grand takeaways. Ultimately, it's not as if I was trying to make some hard-line statement or be sanctimonious or judgmental about where we are.
Oftentimes the closest petri dish is yourself, and you can look at what's happening to you and discuss that. I was finding there was a direct correlation between the amount of time I spent online and interacting with a screen and my ability to be empathetic.
I actually just reading a thing about how the frontal lobe is the last thing to develop in children, and the frontal lobe controls empathy, which is interesting.
I'm curious to know where we are going to go, and there is a lot of great writing about it. When we're children, we experience – whether we're on the receiving or the giving end – bullying in the school yard. We also experience the reaction to that bullying; we either make someone cry, or we get our asses kicked. Thus, we learn what is right and wrong, and thus we are socialised.
Again, I was listening to a Podcast about this women who was a writer and she was trolled on the Internet. To be perfectly honest with you I don't read internet comments and even if I did it wouldn't wound me, and not because I'm the most confident person in the world and not because I don't have a heart or anything, but because it speaks to a level of human sadness; that they've taken the time to engage like that – I feel sad for that person instead. But anyway, this woman wrote an essay where she objected to a comedian's rape jokes. Because of her objection to rape jokes, or her sensitivity towards rape more generally, she started getting trolled on the Internet. Her father had just died, too. This one particular troll found this out and created an email address in her father's name, and emailed this woman as her dead father, telling her she was this horrible person. He also set up profiles pretending to be the father in order to troll the daughter. It's kind of amazing to be honest – the amount of creativity it takes to think all of that up just to be mean to someone online.
But that kind of scenario is just a repository for human sadness and it's not fine, but it is kind of fine.
You're right in that we shouldn't pay attention to trolls. But do you think the fact that when people can be hurtful without consequence they will be hurtful without consequence says something about our human nature?
No, you know what I think it is? I think it's directly correlated to isolation. Isolation causes depression, and depression reveals itself by hurting themselves and others. I think it's more about that than human nature. The correlation is inclusion versus isolation.
The flip side of that is that people are able to form communities of people that they never would have had access to before.
The Internet is just a tool, and how we use it is up to us.
I'm certainly by no means anti-internet – I've built a career through this technology. Recording is easier for me and I can share my music more easily.
I guess, kind of on the same line of thought, I'm interested in how the Internet – and the resulting globalisation – has changed our subcultural landscape. We don't have geographically profound groups of people who come together for political or social issues and create art around that. What are your thoughts on how we can still create socially and politically profound work today, or whether we can, or whether art can be effective outside of these subcultures that used to exist?
[Operator comes on the line, telling us we have one minute left]
Sure, that's a really good question and I'm definitely going to be able to answer it in one minute…
You had people like Madonna in the past, who was a cultural appropriator, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Also, you could really debate what cultural appropriation is – it could be a figment of the modern imagination, but that's a different topic.
So anyway, you had people like Madonna who because there wasn't the Internet – or there was but it wasn't widespread – would go, to say, a club in Harlem, and take in the gay, black culture that was there. Gay, black culture was around long before Madonna came along but she appropriated it, and it entered the mainstream.
That was how a lot of subcultures entered the mainstream before the Internet, because there was this one, big loudspeaker, in the form of the radio or TV and when it got onto the radio or TV everyone would know about it.
Today it's more fragmented. Now, when you find yourself at something like Laneway Festival it becomes a little comical because you look around and it's like "oh you're the person who's into so and so", or "oh you're the person who likes that". Because there are so many people in one place, all with our little subcultures, it becomes quite interesting and entertaining.
Also, I think because of the distribution of information and the displacement of political power, I feel like there's this idea that there is a machine, but we don't know who the machine is. In the early '90s if you sold your song to Coca Cola people would be horrified and you would be a sell out. Nowadays, we're in this much more pro-corporation world because it's the only way artists can make money, which confuses thing again – who is the machine? We're in this place where our personal beliefs are importantly political, because we don't know how, or at least don't think we can, change the world.
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