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St. Vincent | Finding New Sounds in a Golden Era

St. Vincent | Finding New Sounds in a Golden Era

For the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Annie Clark, St. Vincent is more than just a stage name—it’s her vehicle for exploring new worlds. Each album is a reinvention. She jumps from aggressive electro-pop to indie rock to psychedelia, tweaking her guitar tone and songwriting with every incarnation. Her album covers and stage shows transform to match, giving a visual element to each new sound. St. Vincent is constantly evolving, impossible to pin down, but always held together with a single artistic vision.

So maybe it’s no surprise that her signature guitar, the Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent, has proven similarly versatile since its original 2015 release. Embraced by artists like Jack White, The Linda Lindas and even death metal bands, this guitar has taken on a life of its own—and St. Vincent couldn’t be more excited about it.

We sat down with the artist at the storied Capitol Records Studio A, where she performed a track from her 2021 album Daddy’s Home. We spoke about the new record, the Sennheiser MD 441-U mic she’s been loving on tour, the new Goldie model of her signature guitar, and how they all help bring people together through music.

Daddy’s Home has this whole aesthetic world around it, from the music to the lyrics to the album cover—how do you go about creating that?

I like to build worlds. I make a record that is its own sonic space, then style myself and the show to be of the same world. For Daddy's Home, the world is very much inspired by the early ’70s musically. This down-and-out sleazy world where you had an amazing confluence of music. The Velvet Underground, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder making these fusion records that were groove-based and cool, but also telling the story of what was going on culturally. I'd always loved that kind of music. I wanted to immerse myself in it for Daddy's Home

It's also a reaction to the last thing I did (Masseduction), which was very digital and modern.

You just came off the tour for Daddy’s Home. How did you go about styling the show to match the world of the record?

I went to Disneyland for the first time, and I saw the It's A Small World ride. I was like, "That is awesome." None of the technology was new or flashy or anything. It was just practical. I decided I wanted to make this tour like It's A Small World, but set in down-and-out, downtown New York City, in 1973. I have these set pieces that can move, like community theater—but in a good way. Scrappy. You can see the seams which, again, all ties back to the music. It's not polished. It's not perfect. It's performed and real.

The song you’re playing today, "…At the Holiday Party,” definitely captures that vibe you’re talking about, through the music but also the setting and characters. Can you tell us a bit about that track?

"…At the Holiday Party" is kind of my modern version of The Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," but from a more feminine perspective. The narrator sees a loved one at the holiday party, a little drunk, a little early, with just a little crack in their expression that shows their pain and vulnerability. They’re doing what we all do, which is try to hide or compensate for our pain with distractions, whether it's fancy things, or drugs, or the internet. I've been on both sides of that, so I can write about it honestly.

There's this amazing groove and build to the song. Can you tell us about the process of developing that arc, discovering it and how it manifested in the studio?

"…At The Holiday Party" was the first song that I worked on with Jack Antonoff for Daddy's Home. I told him I wanted to make something down-and-out downtown. Sleazy, not perfect, not mechanical. Just kind of vibe-y and human. I played him what I had, and he goes in with a Wurlitzer, and I pick up an acoustic guitar and play that part at the top. I called my buddy Michael, the musical director for Steely Dan, who definitely knows the world I’m referencing. He came in and laid down some horns. By the end of the day, it was like, “Oh, yeah. This is the vibe.” I had discovered the palette for the whole record. From there, it was just us vibing at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

We’re in another legendary studio today—Capitol Records Studio A in Los Angeles. How do spaces like these play into your creative process?

Big, iconic studios like the one we're sitting in right now, I hope they never, ever, ever go away. There’s so much history. When you think about the amount of iconic music that has been mixed on this console, all of the words and songs that have been sung into the mics here, that's a kind of history that you can't replicate. And there's certain sounds that you can only get in a room that is shaped like this, you know, that has the wooden floor, that has the angles. You can't manufacture something like that.

It's amazing that we can be self-sufficient, recording in a bedroom or a home studio, and that’s a very crucial part of my process and always has been. But there's just something about the gear, the space, the vibe that I think makes people rise to the occasion. You have the ghosts of everyone who's ever worked here in the room, from the engineers to the artists to the producers who made the records that influenced you. You're trying to be part of that legacy. That inspires you to be great and put your best foot forward.

Electric Lady was this center of gravity for a lot of recording artists in New York City in the ’70s—you mentioned Stevie Wonder earlier, for instance. How did making an album in that same studio help you connect to the world of Daddy’s Home?

I was definitely inspired by the ’70s era of recording. It's a golden era. Recording technology in the ’60s was cool but it was largely mono, but in the '70s, the floodgates opened up. There was new technology, and engineers and producers and artists had more tools at their disposal to make things more hi-fi. And you couldn’t enter the recording sphere with a laptop in your bedroom. You had to earn your way into a room like this, and when you showed up, you had your A game on. You had been working on your craft for a long time. So things sounded good because of the technology, but also because culturally, there was a system, be it economic, be it social, that really loved music. So great artists could make great records, try things and push boundaries, and people were excited to hear it.

You chose a special microphone for your performance today, from the famous Capitol Records mic locker.

When I heard that I had the opportunity to sing into the Neumann U 47 that Frank Sinatra sang into, I was like, "We'll do that one."

Did you sing into any vintage mics when you recorded at Electric Lady?

For this album, I used an RCA 77. It’s an old broadcasting ribbon mic from the ’40s that I love.

What about live shows? What mic did you use on this tour?

The Sennheiser (MD) 441 is the coolest. I love that mic for live. First of all, it looks cool, you know? Bowie doing Young Americans in the ’70s—obvious touchpoint. That's the mic. So I wanted to use it for the shows because it sounds great, but also because it feels very “of the era.” It's very flat and present. I never want to go back to anything else.

You also played a new "Goldie" version of your Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitar on this tour. Have you been surprised by the popularity of the original St. Vincent model?

One of the most surprising things about seeing it played by other people is the versatility. I've seen total death metal people play it. Country, straight-ahead pop, rock.

I was so excited that The Linda Lindas play this guitar. First of all, how rad are they? To see people carrying the torch of riot grrrl and punk, and putting their own spin on it for a new generation? That's what this thing is all about: Generating material that inspires other people to do their own thing, and then it goes on and on and on, forever. The whole point was to make a new tool for musicians, and because we made a new shape, the canon of music that will be made with this style of guitar is in its infancy. It's just gonna expand. It's generative. It brings people together, because they get to be part of a lineage, while creating something new.

It was also cool to see Jack White play it on SNL. He's such a guitar freak and gear freak. He knows his stuff inside and out. So, I felt honored that he was like, "This one. I like this one."

How has creating a signature guitar had an effect on your own playing?

How I'm playing on my last two records was really influenced by the design and sound of both models of the guitar. I played the original on Masseduction, and that model was this beefy rock monster, so a lot of the guitar stuff on that record is heavy mini humbucker. As we were making the Model II, the new Goldie model, I was recording Daddy's Home. So, it's more single coil-y, more of a vintage sound. The tone is inspired by some of the old pawn shop guitars I used to play, like the Harmony Bobcat, that had this vintage-y gold foil tone that’s more about time and space, and patience and bending, and psychedelia.

This new Goldie model—what are some key updates?

The main tonal difference is the new pickups. The gold foils make it, frankly, a different instrument. It has that vintage sound. It breathes a bit better.

A few other things we did to the Goldie are cosmetic. We switched the headstock to make it more harmonious with the off-center shape of the body. I also changed the shape of the pickguard. On the first iteration, it kind of covers and bisects the whole top half of the body, and that's cool, but I think this new one is just a little bit more classic. It has that retro-future thing that guitar companies in the late ’60s and early ’70s were going for.

How did you choose the new colors?

When I make a record, there's a full creative brief. It’s like, here's my color palette. Here's the this. Here's the that. It’s just how my brain works: Here's the vision. Here's the bible. Go forth. So, the colors for this guitar were inspired by that Daddy's Home color palette.

Do you have a favorite pickup position on the Goldie?

This surprised me, because I thought I would be a middle-of-the-road girl, but I've actually been really excited about the bridge pickup setting. Tonally, it has remnants of a Strat® or Tele®, but it's not. It sounds like its own thing. I was just on tour for two-and-a-half months for Daddy's Home, and ended up using the bridge pickup the most for live.

St. Vincent with signature Goldie guitars and pedals

St. Vincent is known for diverse guitar tones, from really out-there stuff that doesn’t even resemble guitar anymore, to the more vintage sound that appears on Daddy’s Home. Can you take us through how your tone has evolved?

On my early records, I was never sure how to orchestrate the guitar in a way that serviced the song. So, I would use all kinds of effects to make the guitar sound like a synth or a noise instrument. With this latest tour, I have been going into the phase and wah, these effects that, ten years ago, I never would've touched. But now I'm like, "Phase and wah it is. This is exciting again." Moog delays, running guitars through outboard gear, messing with the tape—but I’m also into just a great guitar plugged into an amplifier. If it sounds good, it is good.

What’s on your pedalboard right now?

When I was working on the tone for tour, that was just me in my studio. I must have tried 100 pedals. Like, full mad scientist kind of thing. “How's this chorus? How does this fuzz interact with this overdrive? Wait, that wah, should that be here?”

I'm constantly messing with the order, but also picking the best pedals themselves. I found the famous BOSS VB-2, which Prince used forever, and a solid TC Electronics phaser that has the parameters just right. Then I have an Electro-Harmonix chorus pedal, the one that Kurt (Cobain) would've used on the Nirvana records. And I always have my Moogerfooger delay on, even if it's just the tiniest bit. Even if it's barely perceptible, it thickens up the whole thing.

We’re especially impressed by this unique pedal. It’s based on a Peavey Decade amp?

So, for the longest time, Queens of the Stone Age were very secretive about their guitar tone. It's a bitching guitar tone, right? But the secret was this Peavey Decade—the amp that you get as a kid, that probably comes in the box with your first guitar. It's this little, little amp that sounds so good, this hidden gem. They used to be $200. But then Josh Homme was on a Mark Ronson show, and finally was like, "Okay, I'll tell you. It's the Peavey Decade." Now they're like $3,000, instantly. Anyway, a guitar tech I work with, Jason Moser, builds pedals and synths. He built the Peavey Decade into its own little pedal.

Let’s talk about the tour that just ended. How did it feel, being on stage in front of audiences again?

Being on tour was the best. I didn’t even realize how much I had missed it. I got to have moments onstage, especially with certain songs, the ones that are very heart-on-sleeve. I would sing to someone in the front row, look in their eyes and have this exchange of our mutual humanity, like, “I'm so glad to be here. You're so glad to be here. Wow. We've all been through a lot. What a miracle it is.” That’s my feeling: What a miracle.

And the musicians I was touring with, the Down and Out Downtown Band, are just unbelievable. Truly some of the absolute best musicians on the planet today. Mark Guiliana, who is “the dude” in the jazz world, but also played on Bowie's last record, Blackstar. He brings so much to the music. We get to reinvent it every night onstage.

With so many experienced musicians onstage, how you handle the role of band leader? Musically, interpersonally, what’s your approach?

Getting to play this show with this group of people was one of the biggest joys in my life. We all had fun, onstage and offstage. There was a lot of trust. I try to let people be themselves, let them bring their best and not make them feel stifled. It’s about allowing them to rise to the occasion and have their own imprint, their own personal stakes invested in it. And that's great for so many reasons: For morale, the feeling of camaraderie, their own personal fulfillment, but it also makes the music better, you know? It just does.

For instance, we were about halfway through the tour, and I started to notice I was doing similar things in certain moments. I wanted to do something that scares me. In the pre-band huddle one night, I was just like, "Hey, everybody. Take a risk tonight." And the risk, that's whatever that means to them. That's very personal, what the idea of “risk” is to them. But after I said that, the whole thing just expanded even more. And it was magic. Eight people onstage—no tracks, no nothing, high stakes, anything could happen.

You’ve talked a lot about your band, your producer, other people you work with on creative projects. How is that sense of collaboration important to you?

Every artistic medium, on some level, is a team sport. With rare exceptions, nobody makes a film by themselves. It’s a team of people putting their best foot forward, all coming together behind, hopefully, a cohesive enough vision that they want to be there and add their strengths and their talents to it. You're in the moment with a room full of other people who are in the moment. They want to go somewhere, and it's your job to take them there and also go there yourself. Like, hey, everybody, let's go to outer space together. Let's spend an hour and a half just being free.

But it takes collaboration. The rule is "Yes, and?" You take the idea and add onto it. It's not "no." No. "No" stops everything. You might not get to the place that you're trying to get to with the first idea, but that first idea is gonna have a little catalytic situation with another idea, which is gonna lead you here, which is gonna lead you here, and next thing you know, you have what you were trying to say. You have the vision.

Does that feeling of community extend to the audience?

So often, regular life is not about being free, not about community, not about connection. Live music connects us. All those people in one space, getting to dream the same dream for an hour and a half. I don’t know any other word for that than “magic.”

Scientists have studied the effect of music in a live setting on people. It increases their empathy. This isn’t just a theory. This has been studied. You play a show, people feel empathetic, people feel connected, and then they walk back into the world. That's got to have permutations everywhere. That's got to have tentacles in how they treat their friends and loved ones when they come home. And then that has tentacles. It's a fractal spreading of freedom.

What do you think gives music this power to bring people together?

Music brings us together in that it expresses the ineffable, the thing we feel deep down inside that we don't even know we feel. Music speaks to something so eternal, that when we connect to it, we can connect to our deepest selves, and other peoples' deepest selves, and be free.

Keep up with St. Vincent.

Live music connects us. All those people in one space, getting to dream the same dream for an hour and a half​. I don’t know any other word for that than “magic.”

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