Baby you can drive my Cara, says cheeky-sexy St Vincent
‘Masseduction’ star still has a very soft spot for her ex
You might know St Vincent as the ex of Cara Delevingne. But you should know her as a polymath pop pioneer and style chameleon, poised to conquer all.
So interviewing the singer is nerve wracking. It’s not just that her “cheeky sexy rock” music is fiercely clever, or that you’re never quite sure who’ll be turning up when you meet her (her dramatic, frequently changing style has seen her described as “the female Bowie”).It’s the fact that over the past few years, St Vincent – real name Annie Clark – has made a habit of keeping interviewers on their toes.
Tired of being asked the same unoriginal questions when promoting her latest album Masseduction, she variously met journalists inside a cramped pink cubicle, showed a short film that answered generic questions on flash cards, and recorded rote answers on a tape, to be switched on should the unfortunate hack lapse into predictable territory.
Her unique approach is amusing, impressive even – I just don’t want to experience it first-hand.Clark lives between LA, New York and Dallas. When we meet, she's clad in a long, black leather trench coat by Céline. I feel hot just looking at her.
With her red lipstick and sleek black bob, the 35-year- old looks like a sexy 1940s detective; though she admits with a laugh that underneath she is wearing athleisure.
“I got confused: I thought we were going for a hike,” she says. Instead, we settle under a gazebo while her younger brother Jack, also her assistant, fetches coffee. The coat stays on for the duration of our time together. So too, more disconcertingly, do her huge Chanel sunglasses. But if those are today’s tactics to keep me on my toes, I certainly prefer them to flash cards. And if Clark retains some wariness of the media, I wouldn’t blame her.
Even if you’re not familiar with her five albums, the fourth of which (St Vincent) won a Grammy in 2015, and even if you missed her haunting performance with Sufjan Stevens at the Oscars earlier this year, you’ll probably know her for her famous love life. In particular, her 18-month relationship with British model and actor Cara Delevingne.“It was just weird,” says Clark of being thrust into the spotlight as half of that high-profile couple. “People don’t generally have that kind of interest in musicians – unless you’re a super-pop-star – but suddenly people felt entitled to know my every action. It was a lot.”
The relationship ended in 2016 (neither has ever said why) and Clark later briefly dated the actor Kristen Stewart, but the attention that came with Delevingne was on a different level.
“It was just bananas,” she says. “I remember being in a high-speed chase through London. I was thinking: ‘This is a Princess Diana-style situation, somebody could get killed.’ And for what? To get a picture of a sweet girl, a kid [Delevingne is 10 years younger than Clark] walking into her mother’s house?” She sighs. “I realise that we have an insatiable appetite for celebrity culture and news, but is it really worth anyone dying over? That’s ludicrous.”
Being Delevingne’s paramour and plus-one (and rumoured fiancée) meant sitting front row at fashion shows too, alongside the likes of Kate Moss and Sienna Miller. I ask whether she enjoyed that aspect.“That’s a whole to-do – a lot of sitting in hair-and-make-up chairs, and getting on and off aeroplanes.” She doesn’t sound exactly wild about it.
But the former couple collaborated on Clark’s projects too: Delevingne sang on the chorus of her recent single Pills, a deceptively perky, jingle-like tune masking a dark subject matter.
“I love her voice. She’s one of the most naturally talented people I’ve ever met,” enthuses Annie. Is there anything Delevingne can’t do, I ask? “No. She’s so wonderful. I’ve never met a person more charismatic. I’ve never seen a person walk into a room and command the attention, not because she’s trying, just because she burns brighter than everybody else,” she says. “And she is just fundamentally a good person. She’s uncorrupted by fame.”
It sounds as if they’ve managed to remain close. “Yes, I’ll love her for ever and ever,”says Clark, without a trace of self-pity.
This weekend she’s in London, performing at All Points East festival in Victoria Park alongside Nick Cave and Patti Smith. For the rest of the year she will be crisscrossing the globe for festivals and gigs in Australia, Slovakia and Canada, via Japan, Norway and Germany.
This itinerant lifestyle must make relationships tricky, I suggest. “It makes them unconventional,” she says, equably. “I don’t think I’ve ever lived in the same city as someone I’ve dated. Frankly, it takes out the tedium. So some might argue it’s a better way to live.”Conventionality isn’t really her colour. Marriage “never seemed aspirational. It didn’t even really occur to me. I never felt like: ‘I can’t wait to meet the person who’s going to complete me’, or any of that nonsense.”
She shakes her head and, I suspect, behind her Chanel shades she is rolling her eyes.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the youngest of three girls, Clark’s upbringing was relatively unconventional, too. Her parents split up when she was three years old; her mother, a social worker and avowed feminist, moved to Dallas, Texas, with the girls, while her father stayed in Tulsa.
Over time, the new families her mother and father forged merged – she now has four sisters and four brothers. “And I’m really close with them all,” she says. She was recently in Mexico City with one sister, and Jack is not only her assistant but her housemate in LA.
Within the walls of the Clark home, politics were progressive, but beyond them, not so much. “I learned how to shoot a gun when I was seven – that was just part of growing up in Texas,” she says. Moreover, as a woman in a deeply conservative state, “a lot of the definitions of femininity that I grew up with were not things that I abided. I had to get out.”Eschewing labels of gay, straight or bisexual, today Clark identifies as queer. “Because queer, to me, feels like encompassing a mindset too – it’s ideological and political, not just about who you’re sleeping with.”
She left Texas to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out after three years to join the band The Polyphonic Spree, before recording her first solo album as St Vincent in 2007. Her stage name comes from a Nick Cave song, a reference to the New York hospital in which Dylan Thomas died.
Having not yet been pulled up for asking a predictable question, I gingerly approach a sensitive subject: in 2010, Annie’s father was jailed for 12 years for fraud. For a moment, the mood gets tense. “Hey, Jackie, we’re talking about Dad now,” she calls over to her brother, with a hollow laugh, before turning back to me, composed once more.
She visits him once a month. “It’s horrible. The best version of it is horrible,” she says. “He’s always had a very active mind, and he’s a big reader. He’s always been very in shape, so he works out. He is getting through it.”
It has brought Annie up close and personal with the brutal US prison system.
“It’s deeply corrupt and it’s hideously racist,” she says. “It’s an extension of America’s hideous past as a country built on slave labour, and it’s another means of systematically oppressing people of colour. People get insanely steep sentences for low-level drugs offences, while pharmaceutical companies make billions.”Her views on the behemoth US pharmaceutical industry pop up on Masseduction too, in the form of that single, Pills, which has the lyrics: Pills to wake, pills to sleep/Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week/Pills to work, pills to think/Pills, pills, pills for the family. “In some ways it’s an indictment of the US pharmaceutical industry, but it’s also just a very true personal experience,” says Clark. “Antidepressants really saved my life.”
She has had, she says, “a constant, deep psychic dread my entire life”, but things got worse in 2014, while making and touring her album St Vincent. “I had to be on, always, and wasn’t ever getting the time or giving myself the space to get my bearings. It was just: ‘OK, another stage? Put me on. Another plane? OK, great.’ Up, down. So I went and got some very legit pharmaceutical help.”
Later, she adds: “Now I deal with things in a different way. I still love touring, but I am more thoughtful about how I do it.”
Clark is the first to admit she’s never had an off-switch; she says she has three modes: “monastic fantastic”, “athlete” and “going bananas”.
Monastic fantastic is where she sequesters herself in her studio in Hollywood, or her home in New York, to finish an album, and spends her days recording, meditating, doing Pilates. “It’s very creative, but it’s also about energy conservation,” she explains.
Athlete mode is still disciplined, getting stuff done: gigs, interviews.
“And then, going bananas is when you’ve been an athlete for too long and you’re fucking bored,” she grins.
After six months spent in athlete mode, touring Masseduction solo – just her and a guitar – Clark’s summer-festival dates are “a whole new creative to-do”, with a full band and accompanying videos. Filming the videos involved “getting slathered in lube to wear a lot of latex, having a leaf blower in my mouth … And we rented a praying mantis – his name was Ricardo,” she says, fondly.On stage she is also known for her subversive costumes, often made of latex. “I thrive on being uncomfortable,” she says. “If I’m in latex, that means I’m sweating, and if I’m sweating then my core is warmed up and I’m singing better.”
Given her sense of aesthetic, it’s not surprising to learn that she is branching out into film directing, preparing to shoot an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, reimagined with Dorian as a woman.
“I’m a storyteller and this is just another mode of storytelling,” she enthuses. The first draft of the script, by David Birke, who wrote the recent hit film Elle, is waiting for her at home. “I’m so excited,” she beams.
Is there anything else significant going on at home, I wonder? Is she dating anyone? She pulls an inscrutable face.
“Dating ... What does that even mean these days? I mean, I’m not on any apps.” And what, I ask, about children? “I have one question,” she says. “If I was a dude, would you ask me that?”
I would and I do, I assure her, and name a few famous men I have recently quizzed about their family lives.
“OK, I appreciate that,” she says. “My question comes from years of uncomfortable interviews.”
The night after we meet, I see her perform in downtown LA. It’s the first show with the full band and Clark, in a red leotard and orange thigh-high boots, is mesmerising, while the films, shown on huge screens, are dark, weird and wonderful.Every ounce of Clark’s impressive discipline is clearly playing off. But, I reflect, on my way home, I’d really like to see her go bananas.
© The Daily Telegraph
The album ‘Masseduction’ is out now.