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Being St. Vincent: Annie Clark on The Nowhere Inn

You know Annie Clark better as St. Vincent, the avant-garde guitar god who’s gradually emerged as her generation’s most daringly chameleonic rock star. But, frankly, you don’t know anything about either of them, at least not with certainty.

That’s the basic setup of “The Nowhere Inn,” out Friday from IFC. A vicious metafictional treatise on constructs of fame, identity, and authenticity, the Bill Benz-directed film opens as a straightforward music documentary, with Clark’s real-life friend Carrie Brownstein (of rock band Sleater-Kinney and TV’s “Portlandia”) agreeing to film her during her Masseduction tour, on-stage and off, to deliver an all-access portrait of the real Annie Clark.

Then things take a turn for the bizarre, though fans of St. Vincent’s mercurial art-pop will be less surprised by this than audiences unfamiliar with her work. After all, a certain zany ambiguity is key to the appeal of Clark’s larger-than-life alter ego, whose fixation on performing and puncturing various archetypes has driven much of the silvery, shape-shifting music she’s made since 2011’s Strange Mercy

Materializing out of the indie-rock ether that somewhat shrouded her first two releases, that record cast the musician as a tranquilized housewife, adrift in a sea of bruised ballads and buzzing guitar. 2014’s “St. Vincent,” meanwhile, found her playing a near-future cult leader, pivoting into baroque art-rock; 2017’s Masseduction continued this progression, positioning St. Vincent as a manic dominatrix. Most recently, this year’s Daddy’s Home escaped into the glam sounds of early-‘70s pop-rock and funk; its black-and-white cover has the musician sporting a blonde Candy Darling wig and stockings. 

Role play, in other words, is second nature to St. Vincent. But in “The Nowhere Inn,” as Brownstein aims to capture the individual behind the idol, she’s most stymied by Clark’s damnable normalcy. Held up against the commanding in-concert pyrotechnics of Clark’s latex-clad domme de guerre, she admits, tour-bus footage of her friend landing double double-word scores in Scrabble doesn’t make for that compelling a story. (Amusingly, though, given the consummate kink of Masseduction, Clark’s console of choice is a Nintendo Switch.)

Once Brownstein asks Clark to kick things up a notch, she obliges by unleashing her inner pop-monster—which sends the pair careening down a hall of fast-fracturing psychological mirrors, each one reflecting a persona more dubious than the last. Whether Brownstein is filming St. Vincent’s romantic trysts with a camera-ready Dakota Johnson or documenting a comically fringe-heavy family gathering in Texas, “The Nowhere Inn” lets audiences into Clark’s private world—a funhouse version of it, that is, that’s been warped beyond recognition by her diva in residence.   

Speaking by phone just two days after St. Vincent hit Chicago’s Union Park for a headlining set at Pitchfork Music Fest, Clark discussed “The Nowhere Inn,” the nature of artifice, and loosening her grip to collaborate with Benz and Brownstein on one of the fall’s most surprising films.

I should start by saying I was lucky enough to catch your Pitchfork set this past weekend. It’s always such a blast to see a St. Vincent set live. What’s it like to be back on the road?

Thank you. That's very sweet. Yeah, the shows are so fun. I love everything about that. But it's weird. It’s still, you know, the touring industry. And shows are crawling right now. I think we need communal experiences like that. We need permission to go crazy and flip the release valve, but it's just really complicated. Weird times. The touring industry is still just testing the waters.

Does one get used to being on stage in that way?

The more comfortable with it you get, the more you can play with the energy coming from the audience, as well as your own, and be 120% present. I wouldn't say getting comfortable with it means it gets dull. It's always exciting. 

You’re best known as a musician, though I was familiar with you as a filmmaker prior to “The Nowhere Inn” thanks to “The Birthday Party,” a darkly funny horror short you co-wrote and directed as part of 2017’s all-female horror anthology “XX,” which I loved. 

Me too!

While you didn’t direct “The Nowhere Inn,” you wrote, produced, starred, and also scored it alongside Carrie Brownstein. Was it always the plan for you to wear all those hats?

At the end of the day, I feel so lucky. I got to write and co-star in a film with my friend. It's so rare to get to have creative collaborations that are just truly fun the whole way through, and really just so deeply, deeply open. Like, “What about this? What about this? What about this?” And I think that collaborative spirit is [palpable] throughout the film. 

As far as the scoring of it, I was sort of like, “Oh, wait, should we get to score it?” And then I was like, “Oh. Shoot, I think that has to be me.” [laughs] It wasn't like I shot my hand up, right? It's just like, “Oh, yeah, shoot, [I’m] the only person who makes sense to score it.” What's really exciting to me is the theme song, and the songs that Carrie and I co-wrote for the film. Those were such a joy to make.

Tell me about that collaboration. “The Nowhere Inn” climaxes with its title track, which explores the film’s themes of artifice and authenticity in this grand, suitably cinematic key. How did you and Carrie approach it?

Well, Carrie and I actually wrote that song in a day. “The Nowhere Inn” is a metaphor for the purgatory limbo space that people can get to when they let ego drive completely and when they believe their own mythology to the point of desolation. And because we knew what the movie was, the theme song got to be metaphorical but also descriptive; the first part, lyrically, is me talking to the driver, [a scene that also opens the film,] so we could follow the road map of the movie and reference it in the theme song. And the theme song has the same logic of the film, which is episodic and a dream logic. We’re here, here, here, here, here, and then we're over here, then we go here—it's just a twisting, turning shape. 

I first saw the film at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where Lana Wilson’s Taylor Swift documentaryMiss Americana” was the opening-night title. This question of artificiality and authenticity within music/concert docs was already at the forefront of my mind, and then your film posed and subverted that question brilliantly. How do you feel about the genre of music/concert docs, just writ large?

Well, I think they're very entertaining! I really do. I enjoy the music/concert doc as a genre, for sure. Originally, I thought I wanted to make some kind of actual, straight-ahead doc: “Here’s concert footage, here’s me.” But then I brought Carrie in, thinking, “Well, we should shape it. We should make interstitials that are a little more fun.” And the thought process behind [it,], when I was considering doing a straight-ahead music doc, was, “Okay, I’m commissioning this work. I’m the one who gets to give the story, I sign off on the story,  and I sign off on the behind-the-scenes things I want you to see.” And I kept following this road down the logic of these musician docs, and then I was like, “Wait, that’s propaganda.” [laughs] 

Because all of them purport to be looking behind the scenes, and there is that, but there’s also a wizard in charge. And that wizard is the artist. I didn’t want to purport to be telling the truth in something that is just as manicured as a narrative film. I thought, “Let’s just script it, because I think we can get at these questions I want to explore in a more truthful way if we script it than if I’m performing myself and sculpting the idea of myself.” The trick with this is that I think, most of the time, music docs are intended to endear people more, to humanize the musician more. I’m not sure I came at this with that intention. It might do the opposite. But that’s okay—it’s art.

To expand on that, what was it like to “perform yourself” on camera in this setting?

Well, it’s a funny thing. I’m an I-can-only-see-what’s-two-feet-in-front-of-me person, sometimes. And so it didn’t even occur to me that I was going to be “acting” until a couple of days before we started shooting principal photography. It was like, “Oh! I guess I’m acting in this. Can I act? I don’t know!“ It was all a pretty instinctual performance. 

But I had a certain level of deep comfort in some ways with the material, because Carrie and I wrote it together and I knew the point of each scene. We wrote me to be more boring at the top than I am, and we wrote Carrie to be more passive than she is at the top, but it definitely gets at a certain truth of touring, a truth of me, and a truth of Carrie. 

As far as the acting part of it, I gave it less-than-zero thought, and I probably should have. I didn’t even think about whether I could or couldn’t do it—which is how I approach a lot of things. I just say yes, and then I figure it out.

I should pause here to congratulate you, given that today is the 10-year anniversary of your record Strange Mercy.

Yeah! The Internet told me that.  

This idea of transformation, a constant and unpredictable evolution of self, is present in all the art you make, including “The Nowhere Inn” and Daddy’s Home. Looking back on Strange Mercy 10 years later, what does it mean to you now, and who were you then?

Oh, man. I mean, yeah, I love that album. I wrote that album in what was the darkest part of my life—at that point. I was grappling with the fact that my father had just been put away in prison. I just watched a bailiff f**king take him away. And I was just reeling from it and doing what I do, which is write through the pain and try to make sense of it in some ways, personally, through writing songs and self-expression. It feels like not that long ago, and it feels like 70 years ago, too. It's funny. But I love that record. That's a record full of heart and pain and beauty. 

Thank you for sharing that, and you have my sympathies for all you went through with your father’s incarceration. Daddy’s Home was inspired by his release from prison, and “The Nowhere Inn” addresses his incarceration as well. Did these projects feed each other in some way?

Not exactly, no. We shot “The Nowhere Inn” in spring or summer of 2019, and I finished the score for it that fall. And I was already working on a bunch of music, but then there was the sudden release of my father from prison. It was earlier than expected, which was great. But I guess I started writing Daddy’s Home a few months after I wrapped the score for “The Nowhere Inn,” at the end of 2019. It did bleed together a bit. I just think there’s something very cathartic about taking the thing that is the most raw in you, or the thing that you feel a certain amount of shame about, or the thing that—when you think of it—just gives you that sting of anxiety, and just absolutely putting it right out there in the work. It makes it less of a monster.

In “The Nowhere Inn,” you have this line, “From now on, we’re only going to shoot things I can control,” and Carrie Brownstein replies, “This is a documentary.” That impulse to control one’s every image, to be behind every shot, feels very aligned with directing. At one point, you’d planned to direct a gender-flipped reimagining of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” as a feature. Is that still happening?

Uh, it turns out that things in Hollywood sometimes stall out. I’m not really sure. I don’t know. I have no idea.

More generally speaking, then, how do you feel about that idea of controlling one’s image as it pertains to making music versus making movies? 

On “The Nowhere Inn,” I was not in any way in Video Village asking for playback. I trusted Bill and I trusted Minka [Farthing-Kohl,] the cinematographer. It was like, “No, we're making a movie. And Carrie and I wrote it, I'm starring in it, but I'm not micromanaging.” I'm letting people do their jobs. 

And that's the thing. You work with people who you trust and who are going to make you better and push you. I wasn't in any way micromanaging that part of the filmmaking. I was just being a diva and a monster on set—ask anyone. [laughs] No, just kidding. 

What was really so much fun for me was collaborating. I don't feel as exacting [with filmmaking] as with, say, the Pitchfork show you saw. I creative-directed that and worked with the set designer and was sitting in. We were in rehearsals, and I'm watching the band rehearse, yelling lighting cues to the lighting person, giving revolve cues to people, doing blocking with the singers and everything. You give it shape. And then you work with people who are great and can take the seed of what you're trying to do then run with it. It’s a balance. 

“The Nowhere Inn” hits select theaters and digital platforms this Friday.

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