photo by Zackery Michael
Cheryl Waters will air an exclusive interview with St. Vincent this Thursday, May 20 at 11:30 AM, alongside a DJ set curated by Annie Clark herself. Tune into the Midday Show to hear tracks from the new record ‘Daddy’s Home,’ plus the songs and stories of the ’70s era that influenced the album or listen back via the KEXP archive. Alongside the guest set, Cheryl had the chance to speak with St. Vincent about the record. Read the interview or listen to excerpts in the latest edition of the Sound & Vision podcast below.
To consume St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home as she intended is to sit back in a leather chair, kick off your shoes, hear the crackle of a dusty record player, and embrace the beauty of talented musicians performing at their peak. It’s transportative, yet not escapism. The songs radiate a soothing vibe, while lyrics encourage a listener to dig further into the complex parallels between present and past.
Inspired heavily by the music born in 1970s New York, St. Vincent transformed both her sound and aesthetic to honor her influences.
I sat down with Annie Clark to discover why she was drawn to this era, how she trained to capture the specific chords and harmonies, and why the ‘70s still feel relevant a half-century later.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cheryl Waters: Last time we talked, I started the interview asking about your love of fashion. I feel the need to start that same way again, because when I first saw the styling for your new album, Daddy’s Home, I practically gasped. You have captured the gritty glamor of ‘70s New York, including the superstar Candy Darling, so beautifully. I’m wondering, who were some of the strongest influences for the style and persona of the album, especially that blonde bob?
St. Vincent: Oh gosh. Well, I had to think long and hard about going blonde because it is quite a to-do going from dark hair to blonde hair. When I’m thinking of the heroines of this time, the Gena Rowlands and the Candy Darlings and the Lauren Huttons, I’m like — it’s just gotta be blonde. Plus I look a little too severe with dark hair, I think, to embody this music. So I went with the blonde bob. I was just really inspired by those heroines and the films of the early ‘70s, but also I traced my transformation on the record from more coquettish daddy’s girl to becoming "Daddy." So one is like, OK, that’s the slip dress and the stockings, and the other is like full blown Daddy in the suits, just comfortably sitting very wide.
Congratulations on the release of Daddy’s Home. I first listened to the album in its entirety while I was on a walk in Seattle on a beautiful, gorgeous day. I loved it so much, I nearly wept, it’s such a beautiful record. When you started thinking about making this record, did you have a clear vision or a plan from the outset of what it would sound like?
First of all, thank you, I’m so glad, that fills me with warmth. Music is smarter than you are, smarter than I am. You try to think you’re going to do something and the music is like, ‘nope, you’re going over here.’
This whole world of music of 1971 to ‘76, music made in New York City that is sophisticated, but so musical, and speaking to the heart, it’s a style that’s been in my ear since I was a kid and I love, and that I hold with a lot of reverence and high regard. The Stevie Wonder records, Steely Dan records, Sly & The Family Stone, that kind of stuff. I feel like I was finally ready to approach it as a musician. I had come to a place where I had the kind of depth to speak that language a little bit. I approached it very humbly, honestly. I studied Stevie Wonder. I studied those chord progressions. And then the rest of it just flowed out.
It sounds like going back to school, although you mined from your memories as well. You do seem to approach things in a very studious way. I read some interviews about some of the things you were doing in the last year during the pandemic, and you brushed up on Russian literature! Was it an academic process, even though this started from a very emotional place, mining your memories of music and a period of time in your life?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it academic. And I want to make clear, I did plenty of “Netflix and chill” as well. But in between working on this record and realizing that I really needed to know more about 19th and 20th-century Russian history, I just looked at the chord progressions. I studied the harmony. I know this might be a boring thing for listeners, but I just have enough musical theory to kind of know, ‘Oh! OK, this goes here, and that goes there, and that’s why this is so interesting and that’s why this is a real subversive thing to do.’
More than that, I mean, I just have ears, and I’ve always more relied on those than anything too academic. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an academic exercise, although it was pretty nerdy. Really the music came for me from a really emotional place. I wanted to make something beautiful. I wanted the music to feel like…’Hey, come on in, sit in the beat-up leather armchair and I’ll pour you a drink, and let’s have a gallows laugh and a chat and a cry.’
What I love about you as an artist is how, on each record, you represent a new era. It’s like a new archetype, both aesthetically and sonically. It’s staggering how you continue to explore from record to record. I think you’ve pushed yourself in a really cool direction on Daddy’s Home. Do you feel a strong desire for reinvention as an artist?
I do. Well, I feel a strong desire to tell stories. I think everything starts with the music, but then I want to continue to tell the story of the music in how I look, and how I move, and how the videos look, and how the entire world relates to one another. I really try to make whole worlds to live in. And I get to live in them too.
To me, in the sense that we live by the stories that we tell ourselves, it’s nice to be able to just tell yourself a different story every once in a while and see where that leads. So I feel simultaneously very tethered to reality and then also not at all, it feels very elusive and very malleable. I mean this with love, but life is so absurd. Let’s just make it up as we go.
You’ve said, as I would consider you a student of history, that you were also drawn to the ‘70s due to the parallels of social unrest that were happening in that decade. It’s very similar to what we’re experiencing today. I know it can be easy for many people to gloss over the issues of the past and instead view it with rose-colored glasses. Are you hoping to draw those parallels for your listeners in this record?
I do try to be a student of history because it helps me understand where we are now, or try to understand why we are where we are now and everything. You look at the early ‘70s, and of course I didn’t live through them because I’m only 19, but there’s civil rights happening, and there was women’s rights happening, and gay rights happening, and tremendous economic instability. Just a sense of unease. The flowery idea of the ‘60s and the utopian thing had crumbled, and things seemed like they were really gritty. And art was great. Life was bad, but art was great.
I think we’re absolutely still dealing with the same issues, and the same tumult, and the same injustices now. Even more economic instability and things like that. I think maybe subconsciously I was drawn to that era because it feels like there are some real parallels to that.
Speaking of great art and some real parallels to that time, I’m actually prepping right now for the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which was released in May of 1971. It is such a landmark release, particularly for the exploration of injustice and environmental destruction. That album clearly inspired many, many artists. Do you think one of the reasons we’re drawn to music of the 70s is it’s frank and honest dealings with the issues of the world?
I think so. I really think it was, in some of the very flowery stuff of the ‘60s, it was almost a little too utopian or pie in the sky. Then I think in this period, artists were really talking about literally "what’s going on." What is going on in our world, and talking to the human condition in a really honest, thoughtful way.
I feel like, especially after the pandemic, I don’t think we’re going to go full-on into escapism. I think escapism is for when the economy is good. Escapism is for different times. I think people’s hearts are hungry, and I think people are tremendously sad, and tremendously angry, and they want to be acknowledged, spoken to and not condescended to. That’s what I want.
I actually am super envious of a personality trait you seem to have that I don’t, which is the ability to just dive into home improvement sorts of things. I can barely change a light bulb. When one goes out in my house, if it’s not in a critical area, I might get around to it in a week or two. It seems like you’re ready to dive into a project. You’ll rewire the house, just look it up on YouTube. That paralyzes me.
I understand! I don’t think one is better than the other because I can assure you, I did plenty of half-assed, poorly thought out home improvement during the pandemic. But I do like to just start things. I don’t like to read instructions. I don’t like to research. I like to just do a project, which again, has its pros and cons.
I was talking with a friend the other day about how there are different kinds of personalities, and they were saying that their partner, when they open something, just throws the instructions away. I have to read the whole thing! I struggle personally with perfectionism, and it’s something that I want to grow with. I think I’ve made some progress, but perfectionism keeps you from trying new things. It’s a form of fear, really.
I know what you mean. I think a lot of times, if the fear is that it won’t be perfect, why should you even start. That’s depression talking in an interesting way. Nothing’s perfect, but also it doesn’t have to be zero sum either.
That makes me want to ask you, obviously, the end product of an album is something that’s important to you. And I’m so happy with the end product. How important is it for you to enjoy the process along the way, do you labor over it? Do you find you have perfectionist tendencies in the studio?
I do and I don’t. I do just start and I just go, because at this point I know that eventually I’ll find it. Even if I spent three hours going down this one path and I don’t end up using a single note of that, it got me to this path, and this is where I’m going to go. I feel pretty zen about the process now.
I learned, doing home improvement, that I have no sense of order of operations. Really true, I realized in doing home improvement, where I would start on one project in one room, and then walk into the other room to get something, and then be drawn to whatever was in this room and start another project in this room. Cumulatively, that’s how I make music - I’m drawn to this shiny thing, and then run over there, and then slowly the entire picture emerges. I really don’t have any patience for order of operations. Which was interesting to learn. That’s just how my brain works, all these things and then eventually it comes together to be the full picture, and I know what I’m doing. If you looked at it from outside, if I were in glass, it would look absolutely insane.
I was excited to see that you teamed up with Jack Antonoff to produce Daddy’s Home, especially after the masterpiece of MASSEDUCTION. Tell me about your working relationship with Jack. Was it easy to fall into a familiar routine on this new project?
We haven’t worked so long together that there is a quote-unquote routine. I think on MASSEDUCTION we had known about each other, but we didn’t know each other that well. We got to know each other doing MASSEDUCTION. Then on this record, I’d say we started in on it and we’re friends. I love him dearly, and I think he’s such a great musician, and such a great person. Those things aren’t always married. I think they are increasingly so because people just can’t get away with being dirtbags.
He’s such a great person and has great ideas and man, he’s playing his ass off on this record. He’s playing the drums on most of the songs, bass on a lot of the songs, Wurlitzer on a lot of songs. I turned to him, after he ripped this Jaco Pastoris bass moment, I was like, ‘where the hell have you been hiding this? Like what? I didn’t know you could play like this. I knew you were a great player, but I didn’t know you could play in this idiom!’ We had so much fun. This process was joyful. It was not filled with strife, it really wasn’t.
You said earlier that your goal was to just really make something beautiful, and I have to tell you, the vocalists that worked with you on this record are absolutely mind-blowing. Who are those angels?
Oh, they’re so great. Lynne Fiddmont, who has sung with everybody. I mean, Stevie Wonder. Just truly, go down her list of credits, she’s sung with everyone. Also Kenya Hathaway who is Donny Hathaway’s daughter. I found them and invited them in and luckily we had started the process before the pandemic hit, so I got to actually know them, spend time with them, get a vibe, get to hear them in the studio, hear them sing, and then give them little notes and then hear them sing, and all that.
It was so fun to write for other voices besides my own, and to have their voices really be a point and counterpoint, a real conversation between us. Sometimes I think of them as an incredulous best friend, sometimes I think of them as truly an angel on my shoulder. Sometimes they’re a Greek chorus who’s omniscient. It’s just a dialog, truly a dialog.
They add so much warmth to the record, and it’s funny that you say it’s like a dialog. Watching you perform on Saturday Night Live, it looked like a dialog, even though you were singing.
There’s an unfortunate background singer trope where they’re hidden in the background and just there to quietly make the lead singer look good. I was like, ‘you guys sing so good, you make me look bad, but I don’t even care. You guys get front and center.’
This is about our conversation. When they’re saying, ‘what do you want,’ they’re talking to me, and I’m telling them, ‘you know what I want.’ Same with "The Melting of the Sun," I just pictured them as angels pulling me from a narcotic coma.
I’ve been incredibly drawn to the song, "The Melting of the Sun," it’s like a love letter to women mistreated or ultimately destroyed by the industry. You name-drop Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Mansfield. How do you carry their stories with you as you navigate your own career?
I’m incredibly moved by them as artists. It’s not my intention in any way to couch them as victims. I’m saying ‘thank you for the work that you made.’ I say Jane, but I mean, Joan Didion, and her time spent in Malibu, I just couldn’t have Joan and Joanie.
Joan Didion and Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Nina Simone. Their work is so deep and it’s given me so much. In certain ways, whether it was Nina Simone speaking out about civil rights or Tori Amos speaking about sexual assault and being punished for being honest, I just wanted to say thank you for being brave and being authentically yourselves, even when the world was hostile to that. You made my life easier as a female artist, and I hope that I make the next generation’s life easier too. That’s really it. I’m not trying to be hubristic, like putting myself among their ranks or anything, I’m just saying ‘thank you.’
Diving back into aesthetics for a moment, I know from personal experience that seeing you perform live is a spectacular event. You put so much thought into a live performance and every aspect of what you put out there. Have you planned out yet what Daddy’s Home is going to look like on stage?
I think SNL is a pretty good place to start. This record really is about vibe, feel, honest reaction in the moment, performance, and things that are very grounded. I think that this music will be best served with musicians who are amazing, playing together on stage. I’m glad the last record I did was exactly what it was, and that the show was a full-frontal assault of sensory overload and videos of me getting punched in the face in slow motion. It was everything. But this one is going to be way more of a gut punch.