St. Vincent's Interview Disquiet Illuminates Issues Of Control

St. Vincent's Interview Disquiet Illuminates Issues Of Control

If artists wish to sit out the press cycle, then they should…

St. Vincent’s new album is without doubt her most personal yet.

The songwriter – real name Annie Clark – attempts to process and channel the feelings of her father’s incarceration, with ‘Daddy’s Home’ dissecting what must surely remain an enormously turbulent event in her life. Speaking to the Guardian on its announce, she termed the lyrical matter “flawed people just doing our best to get by” before stating of her father’s time in jail: “I didn’t have any perspective on it. It was just this horrible, festering wound.”

Indeed, it was a wound she had no intention of inspecting – until her father’s incarceration was dug up by tabloids in 2016. That her trauma should be broadcast by the press in a manner out-with her control perhaps goes a long way to explain the events of the past 24 hours.

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UK journalist Emma Madden interviewed St. Vincent earlier this year for an as yet unnamed title, and the conversation – thought fraught – seemed to sit within the normal boundaries for a somewhat press-phobic artist. For context, St. Vincent’s last album cycle saw British journalists invited to sit in a pink box, and when the question displeased her Annie Clark either sat in silence or played a voicemail memo.

Following the interview, St. Vincent’s team then attempted to spike the piece. The title OK’d this move – presumably after a back and forth – with Emma Madden then taking the step of posting what is seemingly the unedited Q&A on her own blog, with an introduction outlining a personal take on her experiences. 

Cue bedlam. If spiking the piece was designed to silence the comments St. Vincent made during the Q&A, this move ensured that a global audience went raking over the transcription for any detail, any sign of what had occurred. Some – including Jezebel, who Emma Madden offered comment to – saw “great questions”, while other commentators saw the continued focus on Annie Clark’s father, and her opinions on the jail system more generally, as being unfair.

Ultimately, the plain Q&A isn’t a great way to assess the conversation. For one, Emma would undoubtedly have framed the remarks using research and other pieces, constructing a write-through that would offer greater analysis, and perhaps further empathy. For another, it’s impossible to tell tone during the conversation – would repeated questioning in an urgent tone unsettle a songwriter dealing with a “festering wound”?

Quickly, the piece took on a life of its own. Going viral, the journalist then shielded her social media, before the piece came down. What emerged was the dynamic of control, with Bandcamp’s Jes Skolnik warning: “The key problem with music journalism (and culture journalism in general) is the inextricability of marketing from the whole process.”

Yet are St. Vincent’s concerns truly rooted in marketing here? In a broader sense, both journalist and artist are seeking aspects of control. From the perspective of the writer, access to artists has been trimmed down to something utterly non-existent to the way music criticism existed even 10 years ago. Where once artists were permitted to drop their guard, now interviews are done on shaky mobile connections while they scuttle from airport to venue, or perhaps in a hotel lobby in a specially allocated half hour.

For an artist, too, the issue remains the narrative – in essence, the stories they tell about themselves – and how they can prevent this from being twisted. In the case of St. Vincent – someone whose lingering trauma would, we suspect, be better served through conversations with a therapist than a music journalist – perhaps silence would be the best answer. Fiona Apple, after all, managed to construct an album that dominated social media in 2020 despite not having an active Twitter account. As ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ proved, sometimes low-key is the answer.

What the past 24 hours of social media discussions illustrates, though, is how deeply journalists care about their craft. It’s not padding, it’s not waffle around nice photography, and it’s definitely not an adjunct to a marketing plan – it’s their creativity, something that deserves a similar level of respect to an artist project.

The interview process should be about give and take, about two people meeting on an equal setting. St. Vincent has every right to her narrative, just as Emma Madden has a right to hers – you would hope that when the dust settles something more positive, and illuminating will emerge.

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St. Vincent will release 'Daddy's Home' on May 14th.

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