“I had come as far as I could go with a certain kind of distortion”: St Vincent shares the guitar story of Daddy’s Home

Annie Clark’s most organic album yet saw her learning to appreciate ‘wiggly lines’ guitar playing, leaning into the vibe, falling in love with wah pedals, and saw a Coral Sitar take the place of distortion on Daddy’s Home.

“I just get curious about other things. There are so many things that I want to try and still so many things that music has to teach me.” Annie Clark is mulling over the notion of recording an album that isn’t a serious stylistic shift from the one that came before.

From the jazz-spiked indie-rock of her 2007 debut Marry Me to her self-titled commercial breakthrough in 2014 and her ascent to superstardom on a wave of latex, square-wave fuzz and electronic beats on 2017’s Masseduction, Clark’s muse has proved as restless as it has been captivating.

All of which brings us to her latest, Daddy’s Home. St Vincent’s sixth solo album is another stylistic shift but the real surprise lies in the nature of it. After the hyper-processed guitar sounds and pounding beats of Masseduction, Daddy’s Home shows us a side of Annie Clark that we haven’t seen before. Heavily channelling the vibes of the 1970s pop music that she grew up adoring, the angular riffs and crushing fuzz have been replaced here by delicate clean tones, a languid, almost improvisational flavour, and lashings of sitar and wah.

Even by Clark’s standards, it’s a left turn. But it’s one informed by what came before. “I think it was a response,” she tells us after taking a quick detour to grab a blanket and settle in for our conversation. “The guitar playing and the style on Masseduction was a lot of right angles and this record has way more wiggly lines.”

“I was like, ‘How do people normally do this? Oh yeah, they sing something and then they play something’. Let me try to do that!”

Clark’s playing has always had an almost mechanical quality to its precision, but from the first Prince-y chord stab of album opener, Pay Your Way In Pain, there’s a freedom and looseness to proceedings that sound almost improvisational.

“I mean, every melody was an improvisation at some point,” she jokes. “But, yeah, I was improvising, just jammin’ in my studio. It was very fun. On previous records, I was invested in writing guitar parts that were complicated, underneath vocal parts that were also complicated. They were like syncopated puzzle pieces working together. But it would take a lot of practice to get to the point where it was effortless and fun.

But in this case, I was like, ‘How do people normally do this? Oh yeah: they sing something and then they play something, and then they sing something again and then they play something’. So it was like, ‘Let me try to do that’, and not have these things necessarily be like interlocking puzzle pieces, but have them be more call and response.”

Lounge act

Daddy’s Home is far from a classic-rock record but, as with everything St Vincent has done in recent years, its mood and vibe – from the guitar tones and the gear used to achieve them to the artwork and even the outfits worn by Clark when promoting it – are all perfectly calibrated to reflect the 1970s lounge-act aesthetic that the album captures

“That’s probably the music I’ve listened to more than anything. Those records from the early 70s, they were like my education,” Clark says of her motivations for tapping into such a specific time and place. “I always liked the Rolling Stones but I never really got it in a deep way until making this record. I think some of my interests and musical values were a little different then. But this kind of music has vibe, and space, and it’s all about feel and people playing in a room. I don’t think that I was ready actually to like that kind of music back then.”

“I’m not a big personal fan of the ‘formless jam’. It doesn’t really interest me. It’s very fun for the players involved and not very fun for the listener”

The Stones are perhaps more of a philosophical than a sonic touchpoint. But listen to tracks such as Live In The Dream and you’ll hear Pink Floyd pulled through the St Vincent prism, while the title track wears Clark’s love of Prince firmly on its wide 1970s cuffs.

“That music is music that I’ve listened to more in my life than anything,” she explains. “When I think about that, it’s the music that has been the most influential to me ever and yet I’ve never really touched on it. I think, again, I probably wasn’t ready in some ways to touch on it until now.

“Maybe it took me having a vibe and willingness to think about it less like a classical composition and more like, you know, I hate to say the word but jam-y? Jam-y with form,” she corrects herself. “Jam-y within song.” For Clark, that’s an important distinction. “I’m not a big personal fan of the ‘formless jam’. It doesn’t really interest me. It’s very fun for the players involved and not very fun for the listener, in my experience.”

St Vincent
St Vincent cradling her brand new signature Music Man model, Goldie

Foil’s gold

In addition to championing the guitar as a vehicle for relentless creativity within the realms of pop music and beyond, Clark’s other invaluable contribution to modern guitar culture can be seen strapped around her neck every time she walks out on stage. The Music Man St Vincent model is less a signature guitar than a contemporary phenomenon – when Clark revealed the guitar for the first time at Taylor Swift’s LA residency in 2015, nobody, not even Ernie Ball, was prepared for what came next.

By the time Swift had posted a photo of her, Clark and Beck checking out the guitar backstage, dealers were already clogging the phone lines at Music Man HQ and the company’s website had almost crashed under a tidal wave of interest. And that was before a single guitar had even been sold. It was clear that Ernie Ball had a hit on its hands.

The guitar was officially launched a few months later at NAMM 2016. Things have only snowballed since. It’s been used by Jack White at one end of the scale and Willow Smith on the other. There’s been an affordable Sterling version and limited-edition colour runs have pushed the boundaries further, not least the 2017 Masseduction collection, which featured a neon-orange variation with leopard-print plastics.

The latter doesn’t exactly fit the character of Daddy’s Home. But fortunately, the guitar has received another new evolution in Goldie. This new variant of the St Vincent model sports the same fundamentals as the regular guitar but softens things somewhat: the scratchplate is smaller, more traditional; the finishes more restrained; even the names of the three finishes on offer – Cashmere, Velveteen and Silk Charmeuse – feel like they were plucked from a 1970s furniture catalogue. But which came first, the guitar or the vibe?

“This record is totally the inspiration for the guitar,” says Clark. “I was going back to a lot of the cleaner, chimey, direct into a console tones that I feel like I did a lot of when I was playing old Filter’Trons and Harmony guitars with the gold foil pickups. It’s kind of an homage.

“GOLDIE IS Genuinely a whole new guitar. The other one is definitely more like a burly rock monster, and this is more crystalline and vintage”

I played the prototype of the guitar quite a bit [on the album]. We made some slight adjustments here and there but, yeah, it’s genuinely a whole new guitar. It just has a very different feeling and a very different sound for where I am now, y’know? The other one is definitely more like a burly rock monster and this is, I would say, more crystalline and vintage.”

Key to this sonic departure – and the reason for the guitar’s name – are the aforementioned gold foil pickups: specifically a trio of new Music Man gold foil mini-humbuckers, which sit proudly in Goldie’s okoume body. The pickups are a nod to Clark’s pre-Music Man days, when she could rarely be seen without a vintage Harmony Bobkat. Nostalgia for the unique sound that those pickups offer was part of what spurred the development of the new guitar.

“I love them,” she enthuses. “I love them. I’d taken a break from them and they’re back and, oh, it feels like home! I think there’s a sensitivity to them and there’s a dynamic range within them that’s really fun to play with. They are – and I just keep repeating the word – crystalline, and high and chimey and bell-like. But it’s not abrasive. I just think they’re versatile and make this a bit more of a sensitive instrument… I’m sure the term ‘sensitive’ is really going to move these guitars, right?!”

But the differences between Goldie and the OG St Vincent model don’t stop there. In keeping with its classic disposition, Goldie has ditched the unconventional switching for a more typical five-way layout, a concession to players who found the original options a little confusing. Additionally, in a first for a Music Man production guitar, the headstock has also been reversed.

“That was an aesthetic choice mostly,” Clark explains. “Because one of the things you find when you make an unconventional guitar shape is that the balance becomes really important – the aesthetic balance of things. And so between changing the shape of the pickguard and offsetting and changing the angle of the pickups and the headstock, I just wanted the whole thing to just look a little bit more balanced, even in its off-kilter shape.”

St Vincent
“I just wanted the whole thing to just look a little bit more balanced” – Goldie differs from previous St Vincent models with a reversed headstock.

Sitar star

If there was a single sound that summed up 2017’s Masseduction, it was the chainsaw-like riffs of the title track. But Daddy’s Home doesn’t just tone down the distortion, it practically does away with it altogether. Instead, Clark turned to a very unlikely source to add a touch of dissonance and grit to the album: a 1967 Coral Sitar.

“I went to visit Jack [Antonoff, co-producer] in the studio and we were just working on some other things, and I picked it up and was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting!’” says Clark. “And what it did, because it has that brittle but evocative texture, it kind of took the place of distorted guitar, because it has a massive amount of poke to it but it has a different feeling.

“Y’know, the song Down, in another life, on another one of my records, that would’ve been like some heavy, heavy riff. But this time, I was like, ‘Actually, if I just play this on my Coral Sitar, this is kind of cool and tough and bratty’. But bratty without being like, nu-metal, y’know?

“I had come as far as I could go with a certain kind of distortion. I went all the way around like, ‘No, guitars need to sound like synths!’ to come back to, ‘Oh, this is really fun, to just play guitar that sounds like guitar’. It Felt Fresh again.”

“It can take the place of something really distorted and it just has more character. So it was fun to use and then it became a real staple on the album, and especially because there are aspects – I keep saying that the record is like 17 per cent psychedelic, so it definitely puts the flag in the ground in terms of psychedelic texture.”

Another leftfield hallmark of the new album is its unabashed use of wah, something that Clark has come to very late but clearly became enamoured with during the making of Daddy’s Home.

“I love it,” she enthuses animatedly. “I love a wah! Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever used a wah before? I mean, I didn’t own one before this so I don’t think I did? But it was a lot of fun. Also, because I had come as far as I could go, in a way, with a certain kind of distortion.

“I don’t know if guitar tones have a whole lot of context and baggage but this felt like I went all the way around to come back to where I’m from, in a funny way? Like, I went all the way around like, ‘No, guitars need to sound like synths!’ and all of this stuff, to come back to, ‘Oh, this is really fun, to just play guitar that sounds like guitar’. It felt fresh again.’”

Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent Goldie
The three flavours of Goldie: Cashmere, Velveteen and Silk Charmeuse (Image: Ernie Ball Music Man)

Stay on target

It’s difficult not to get swept up along with Clark when she gets carried away talking about guitars, and it’s clear that the instrument remains at the core of who she is as an artist and a person, just as it has almost since the start.

“I was really obsessed with guitars from the time I was young,” she explains. “My uncle is an amazing guitar player, Tuck Andress [of jazz duo Tuck & Patti], and I remember when we were growing up, we had his old student guitar, which was a Kay, and the action was so high. I still can’t play it, the action is so high! It’s still in the closet somewhere at my mom’s house.

“So that was around, I was just curious about it. I would beg my mother to buy me cheap toy guitars – y’know, guitars that didn’t actually play but that were $15 at Target. I was just really besotted with them. I would make them, y’know, as a craft project, and again, those didn’t play either but they were for the vibe!”

What truly lit the fire beneath Clark and saw her take the leap from craft guitarist to full-on player was being exposed to Hendrix for the first time. “I think one of the first moments of being like, ‘Holy shit, this is it – this is everything’ was hearing Hendrix doing All Along The Watchtower,” Clark recalls. “That was just like, ‘What is this feeling? How can I climb inside this and never leave?’ I was 12, I guess. A friend’s dad had a white Strat that he was very proud of and he showed me how to play Manic Depression and I was like, ‘Woah’. Then
I begged my parents for one of my own.

I feel that I have these really interesting gaps in my knowledge. Like, I can barely read music, but I could analyse and diagram a Mingus chart, y’know what I mean? Like, ‘Why do I know this, but I can’t do that?!’”

“I think the first thing I had was a little classical guitar and I was like, ‘This ain’t it’. I wanted an electric guitar so I traded that up for, I think it was a Peavey Raptor. It was one of those with like the amp built-in, the whole thing. So, Peavey Raptor, that was my first guy and then, after that, I think I graduated to a Cherry burst Epiphone Les Paul, which I played for a while.”

Following the Epiphone, Clark’s arsenal received a more unusual addition. “This Japanese company called Moon made my uncle a recreation of his ’48 or ’47 L-5 and he gave me that because he wasn’t using it. That changed the way I played. I started becoming more of a fingerstyle player with that, and developed some kind of cockamamie technique that way.”

Clark is self-deprecating about the development of her playing abilities. Suffice to say, her skills were such that she earned a place at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. Like fellow Berklee alum done good John Mayer, she decided that ultimately formal musical education wasn’t for her.

“I feel that I have these really interesting gaps in my knowledge,” she reflects. “Like, I can barely read music, but I could like, analyse and diagram a Mingus chart, y’know what I mean? Like, why do I know this but I can’t do that?! I definitely have enough to go like, ‘We’re going to play this m7b5 and then go to this, and it’s modally different’. I have enough to get by. And I have good ears.”

“I think one of the first moments of being like, ‘Holy shit, this is it – this is everything’ was hearing Hendrix doing All Along The Watchtower. That was just like, ‘What is this feeling? How can I climb inside this and never leave?’ I was 12″

The issue that Clark – like many other musicians before her – had with music education, however, is its perhaps unavoidable focus on the quantitative at the expense of the unmeasurable.

“The thing that happened at Berklee is that the things they can teach you can be helpful to being an artist but they cannot teach you how to be an artist,” she insists. “And the things they can teach you are quantifiable and can be very athletic. Like, ‘Wow, this person is the best hard-rock player in 2021’.

“But they didn’t invent hard rock. Artists did that. The athleticism was definitely rewarded. Being an artist, not so much. Because that’s not really something they can teach. Unless you have something to say with the tools that you have honed, it doesn’t matter. So that’s kind of where I was like, ‘I don’t know about this place…’ It’s really good for some people. It absolutely is. But for what I wanted to do, I didn’t need any more of it.”

St Vincent
All Portraits: Alan Del Rio Ortiz, Stylist: Avigail Collins, Hair: Pamela Neal, Makeup: Hinako Nishiguchi

Slow show

With her 2017 tour for Masseduction, St Vincent reached new heights in terms of spectacle, theatre and controversy. Clark took to the stage solo and proceeded to perform the entire gig alone, her voice and guitar accompanied by nothing more than a backing track and a surreal multimedia presentation on the screens behind her.

NME described one of her London shows as, “one of the most divisive gigs of the year” – and you sensed that was rather the point. Daddy’s Home however, feels like it will have a very different live production and, unsurprisingly, Clark already has an idea of how she’s going to tour it, even if sold-out arena gigs still feel a way off yet.

“When I was touring Masseduction, that’s a record that really lends itself to a high-gloss, crazy multimedia experience,” she reflects. “Overwhelm the senses, look over here – and that was that kind of album, so it worked. But it was also in the midst of a production arms race for touring bands, I feel.

“It was like, ‘Oh, you don’t have a spaceship? Then what are you doing?’ But with this record, it really is so much about performance, just people playing music. My hope is that, when we are able to actually come back and play music for people, what people will really want is to just unwind and hear good people play good music, and just play.”

“I don’t feel particularly interested in condemning anybody or anything, it’s more like life is complicated, and people are complicated”

It’s an interesting observation but one that no doubt fits the general mood of Daddy’s Home. It makes sense that the live shows should strike a less provocative and confrontational tone when, lyrically, the record eschews the barbed critiques of society that have often been at the core of St Vincent’s work, opting instead for empathy directed towards its flawed cast of characters.

“I wanted to write a record about people doing the best they could to get by,” says Clark, “and I could write the record because I’ve been almost every one of the characters in it: I’ve been the girl on the train looking worse for wear in last night’s clothes; I’ve been the girl at the holiday party; I’ve been around the block and across the street, as they say. I don’t feel particularly interested in condemning anybody or anything. It’s more like: life is complicated and people are complicated.”

That’s never been more true than it is right now, and through its warped 1970s-inspired lounge-act lens, Daddy’s Home takes all that into account. “I could study humanity and write about its facets and contradictions for the rest of my life and not get bored,” she adds. “But it’s probably subconsciously a reaction to the culture we’re in now, where algorithms incentivise outrage. We don’t want to be ruled by that. We have to make room for compassion and critical thought and empathy, and all those things.”

Daddy’s Home is out now on Loma Vista Records. The Music Man St Vincent Goldie is available for preorder.