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In Bed With St. Vincent

A candid conversation about creativity, depression, and her new horror movie

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

St. Vincent is splayed across a bed, exhausted.

This is the result of hours spent being shuttled from one laborious press junket to the next at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. After our interview — her last of the day — she has to shower and prepare for her YouTube showcase here in Park City, Utah. When all that’s over then, finally, she may get some rest.

But St. Vincent is no stranger to busyness. In between her acclaimed, self-titled album and the forthcoming untitled follow-up, the genre-defying singer-songwriter decided to try something new last year: She made a movie.

Plenty of gifted musicians have made the cinematic pivot out of vanity or boredom. Something different is happening here. Shedding her stage name in the process, Annie Clark’s interest in filmmaking doesn’t come across as feigned or impulsive.

Her enthusiasm is evident in XX, a trailblazing, all-female horror anthology created by Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, and Jovanka Vuckovic. Divided into four shorts, Clark’s contribution details a children’s birthday party gone awry. Real housewives, a rotting corpse, and an unhinged Melanie Lynskey are included. It’s an inherently subversive political act, the first of many steps to combat the boys club within horror.

Clark understands the underlying intentions of XX — to illustrate the paucity of women in horror by, simultaneously, promoting women in horror. However, she’s careful to avoid getting mired in a familiar dialogue about gender inequality. So we don’t have it — or as least not exactly as you’d expect. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why do you think we circle the “women in film” conversation so frequently?

It’s a catch-22. I’ve sidestepped the question in music so often because there’s something inherently insulting in the question to me. Somehow I feel a little bit freer in this medium, speaking about it. But I also have no experience to speak from and the only experience I’ve had with making a film was that the [director of photography] was female, all of the costume [team] and a lot of the crew were female. For all I know, that’s just how things are.

The other elephant in the room is that the arts are not a meritocracy. I mean, nothing’s a meritocracy, but certainly not the arts. I’m not speaking about gender in this, but it happens all the time in any entertainment industry where you have the workaday people who’ve been slaving away for a long time and then finally get successful later in their career, and you have people who get famous at 12.

Where were you on that spectrum?

I just slowly grew. At all points of my career, I was so excited to be doing what I was doing that I was sort of naively not focused on anything resembling stardom.

What do you mean by naively?

I think that there are probably people who are way more savvy about the imaging and the marketing. There are a lot of people who are really good at that. You know what I find very strange? Airlines, like all airlines now, when you’re boarding the plane and when you land, they immediately turn on music. It’s a very strange idea to me that there would be some kind of music that pretty much everyone would like. I’m not a superstitious flier and I fly all the time and it doesn’t bother me at all, but it would really bum me out if a certain adult-contemporary song was the last song I heard before I went down in a blaze of glory.

What music is playing? This is why I wear headphones.

It’s just aggressively middle-of-the-road. It’s weird and it just feels like capitalist propaganda. Even in airports now, there’s always music, although I will say Terminal 8 at JFK will put on some Tears for Fears. And JetBlue will actually have a song that you’re pretty psyched about hearing, ’80s hits.

Eighties hits have kinda crossed into the modern mainstream.

Yeah, like, if the last song I heard was “Rich Girl” on an airplane, I’d be like “OK.” I get it, that’s a hilarious way to sum up my life.

Are you always this honest?

No, I’m just lying down. Don’t you feel posture informs so much of how you interact with people? I’m lying on a bed. It’s the most honest I’ll be.

How do you feel about making the pivot into film?

I really just had fun making it. I think there’s a kind of lack of pressure because it’s not my primary medium.

The stakes were low?

Well, no, the stakes were really high. I wanted it to be great, obviously. There’s no reason to even do the endeavor if you’re not going to do it well. I definitely worked hard on it and did my absolute best, but because it’s this new world for me, I just tried to make something that I really liked and thought was funny and hoped for the best. Just crossed my fingers.

<em>Melanie Lynskey in “The Birthday Party” from ‘</em>XX’ (Courtesy Magnet)
Melanie Lynskey in “The Birthday Party” from ‘XX’ (Courtesy Magnet)

How do you think it turned out?

I think it’s funny, I hope. Melanie Lynskey was a gem. She’s so great. I was thrilled because there’s a scene that would always make me cackle, even watching it over and over and over again. It’s where she’s found her husband dead, her daughter has wet herself, and she’s helping her daughter get into a new costume and she has taken a shower curtain and cut three holes out of it and just kind of put it on her as a makeshift ghost. She finally consoles the daughter and says, “No, you look really scary,” after she was like, “No, I look stupid,” and the daughter just does this jump start, like, “Boo!” and it’s this big, actual scare. And she kind of does this “run along” thing and there’s a fraction of a beat and then Melanie just breaks down, and it’s just an expression of the purest grief. It makes me laugh so hard, because it’s so dark. It’s just so deeply depressing, and I think those things are funny.

Is that your approach to dealing with grief — laughter?

I think it was Jung who said, “If you’re not suffering, you’re neurotic.” I think it’s important to suffer in this culture of pathologized suffering. We’ve pathologized suffering, and suffering is just a natural part of the human experience, so if you’re processing grief I think it’s absolutely necessary to suffer and cry or do however it is you process it. I think you get to a point where you look back at things in your life or things from your childhood, and they’re just so dark that they’re funny. Making art is a great way to process things, because you’re processing the unknown, the unconscious. And you learn about yourself when you do that and you learn what you really think.

Do you think the art is a better representation of what you think than speaking?

It’s a stylized version of what I think, sure. It’s deeply considered, whereas having to talk about it after the fact can be difficult. Sometimes the work is deeply mysterious to you and you don’t even know how to talk about it. It’s funny, people are always punishing people because they remind them of other people. If you’ve had some trauma in your life, some people really get stuck in a moment. It’s important to remember to unstick yourself, remythologize.

Punishing people for being like other people, that’s a good line. Someone recently told me this quote: “The whole world is a hospital. You’re either a doctor or a patient.”

I don’t know if I agree with that.

I don’t know either.

I think that’s a little binary. I think people can be both things.

I feel like I’ve been both.

Yeah, for sure, same.

You?

Yeah, absolutely. Which part of it surprised you? That I would be a doctor or a patient?

The superficial reading — the surface look — is that life seems to be going pretty well for you.

It’s faceted. I think part of working a lot and part of the reason I did just go go go go for so long was definitely outrunning depression. I think that it’s important personally to stay stimulated, working, as kinetic as possible. It gets confusing sometimes when you’re in the midst of writing, and writing is solitary, and you have to go to uncomfortable places to make sure that what you’re doing is honest.

And deeply connected to you. How you actually feel …

Yes, and so it’s hard to parcel out the isolation that you need to be a writer and what is depression. It’s a very fine line. Where does one end and the other begin?

Do you ever think, “Why writing?”

It probably [chooses] you. I don’t mean that as, “There’s an interventionist god who said, ‘You, child, I bequeath you this laptop.’” But, you know, it’s a calling, because nobody would do it if it wasn’t.

What’s the quote? “I hate writing. I love having written.”

Absolutely. Writing is painful.

It’s the worst, but when it’s done …

“Look at that. Would you look at that?” I think Philip Roth has quotes about absolutely hating to write.

Since we’ve spent a good portion of this conversation talking about grief, you have a story to play us out?

Here’s one: I was thinking about this because it was Christmas recently and I was back visiting my family and I have nieces and nephews. You get to a certain point when Christmas is totally about the kids. It’s about, “Oh, look at the joy on their faces and look at the wonderment.” It’s so sweet, it’s really sweet. I remember being 7 and I would spend Christmases with my dad and my stepmom, and it was Christmas Eve and I was writing out a Christmas list in crayon, which probably included, like, Reebok pumps and a basketball. That’s probably what I wanted.

You played basketball?

I loved basketball. I was a point guard for a winning elementary school team, undefeated four years in a row. Not a big deal. I had my peak at 12. Just didn’t want it enough after that, really.

Back to Santa.

So I’m 7 years old, writing, “Dear Santa,” and my stepmother comes in, who was quite a bit younger than my dad and didn’t have any kids of her own, and said, “What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m writing my Christmas letter to Santa.” And she looked at me and she said, “Are you kidding? Santa’s not real.” She shamed me for believing in Santa. So that’s like hilariously brutal.