The four women chosen to join the remaining members of Nirvana – Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear – when they performed at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction last month each had a different way of seeing the band.
To Joan Jett they were descendants, to Kim Gordon they were contemporaries, to Lorde they were history. But to Annie Clark, better known under her stage name St. Vincent, they were idols. When they released the song she covered, the quiet/loud anthem ‘Lithium’, Clark was ten years old. Nirvana’s music is the music she grew up with.
“It was just so poignant and special to me to be able to play the song that means so much to me, and means so much to so many people, with the creators of the song,” she says. “Those guys, Krist and Dave and Pat, had not played ‘Lithium’ in 20 years, since Kurt passed. So to be a part of them revisiting that material and honouring that material was – I hate to say ‘a dream come true’ because ultimately, like everyone, I wish Kurt was still around, but I was certainly honoured that they asked.”
Clark may have grown up a Nirvana fan, but her own music sounds very different. Her unusual guitar style – experimental, percussive, sometimes reminiscent of King Crimson’s Adrian Belew – is expansive, and grows even further when filling the space of her own shows. She has a reputation for sounding even better live than on record.
“That’s a great reputation,” she says, “especially in this day and age, when it’s very easy to manipulate a record and idealise the record. But then it’s a whole other skill set to be able to perform and actually play the parts on the record and give them even more life. I think for me, the songs on the record, that’s just the starting point, and then live they get to take on a whole new life and dimension.”
Recent shows, like her performance at the Unstaged fashion event streamed online, have taken her set even further into that dimension. Clark bounced across the stage with jittery steps, bowed gracefully like a ballerina, thrust her palms out like a kung fu master. Her highly choreographed stage movements had an unearthly, herky-jerky quality that returned a sense of the unexpected to what is still just a rock show, where we’re used to seeing studied poses of guitar god-dom passed off as spontaneous expression.
“It’s all a particular bastardisation of high art like [modern dance performer] Pina Bausch,” Clark explains. “I’m ripping off her, but obviously it looks a lot different on my body. I appreciate that method in general of working where you’re referencing things from all over the place but making them your own.”
The members of her live band, including bass player Toko Yasuda and keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, joined in on the action, dramatically waving their arms in synchronised motions and hopping around to the music. These playful moments look like everyone’s having fun, with plenty of shared glances and sly smiles.
“They’re not as choreographed as I am,” Clark says of her band. “I’m not fully choreographed by any means, but they don’t move as much as I do simply because on a lot of songs they have to remain stationary at keyboards or drums – but they enjoyed incorporating that as well. It’s another way to challenge yourself, it’s another way to give people the best, most considered, produced show you possibly can.”
Just because her live show has such a great reputation doesn’t mean her albums are weak. Her collaboration with David Byrne on Love This Giant was a perfect union of their idiosyncratic styles, and the surprising third element of a brass band gave it a sound of its own. Clark’s first album since that project, simply called St. Vincent, restates her assumptions in their most complete form so far. It’s personal – ‘I Prefer Your Love’ is about her mother, ‘Rattlesnake’ is about trying to commune with nature by taking her clothes off in the woods, then being chased home by a snake – but by opening herself up like this she’s more relatable than ever before.
“I’m glad people like it,” she says. “I’m glad it connects with people’s hearts and weaves its way into their lives. I can only think of it from a bird’s eye view and think of how many records have meant the world to me and changed my life forever, and so to get to give back to that tradition in any way, small or large, is immense.”
Critics have been especially impressed, with several reviews giving her perfect scores and calling the album a triumph. It’s destined to feature prominently in the inevitable ‘Best Of 2014’ lists. Clark says she pays more attention to the reaction from crowds (“I play shows and get fan responses in real time”), but admits, “The reaction’s been great. I’ve been lucky enough to get to refine what I do over the course of four or five albums and get better at what I do and become a more powerful artist.
“I feel lucky to get to play music. It’s never lost on me that it’s a privilege to get to live your dream. And I got to play with Nirvana.”