Some thoughts on St. Vincent and women in music

For some reason I didn’t really like female vocalists when I was younger; I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it was a pre-adolescent and adolescent identity thing – a lot of the music you like when you’re young is aspirational, is by people you want to be like in some way, or reflects (or, perhaps more likely, influences) character traits you (want to) see in yourself. And boys are taught not to want to be women, not to identify with them. It wasn’t until I was 20 or 21 and started getting into PJ Harvey that I started to really get into women as musical artists, beyond a dabbling with Björk and a love of 60s women-as-vehicle-for-song (Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick). 90s women, the ones making records when I was really getting into music, were strange, frightening, sexual things that I didn’t understand – Björk filtered through because she was essentially a space-alien when positioned next to anyone else, so far beyond ‘other’ that she became an innovation rather than a woman, and thus I could deal with her.

The last twelve years have seen me try to redress this balance, but it’s an almost impossible thing to do. If I were to go along our music shelves and figure out the proportion of records by female artists across the whole I’m pretty sure it would be less than 10%. Sadly, I suspect that 10% is probably quite a high proportion against the average.

On Friday night we drove to Bristol to see Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent. We got into her a couple of years ago with Actor, and eagerly awaited her new record this year. Strange Mercy hasn’t fully kicked in with me yet, but Actor was a slow burner, which wormed its way to being probably my most-played and most-enjoyed record of 2009 over a period of several months. In my experience these are the best records, the ones I enjoy the most, the ones I find the deepest layers of satisfaction in.

At one point last night I heard a couple of guys, who I think were in their late 40s, talking about Annie Clark’s guitar playing. One of them said (and this is as close to verbatim as I can recall) “I’m not sure how much is her, and how much is coming from that guy on the synth.” Now I’m not sure exactly of the context of their conversation, but I didn’t take this as a point about the varied tone and texture emanating from the fretboard being so skillful and unreal as to be unlike a guitar (“no synthesizers were used in the making of this record” as Kitchens Of Distinction used to say); I took it as meaning “I’m not sure girl could play guitar that well; it must be that guy doing it in secret for her”. A song and a half later, Anne let rip a vicious guitar solo that could only be emanating from her fingers, which pleased me no end.

Caroline Sullivan reviewed St. Vincent’s London gig, a couple of days before we saw her in Bristol, for The Guardian, and recalled a similar comment – “She plays like a man!” – only this time from a woman. I bumped into an old friend outside the gig in Bristol, and spent the evening catching up with him between songs. At one point he compared her to Kate Bush; I couldn’t agree, because I don’t hear her as sounding anything like Kate Bush. But what else have we got to compare her with? At points the sounds she produced from her guitar, the dreamlike wash of noise interspersed with savage, metallic slashes, reminded me a little of Nick McCabe. But only a little.

Emma and I talked about her virtuosity in the car on the way back; neither of us could think of another woman with a similar approach to the guitar who wasn’t also just a nameless member of an all-female band. I don’t know the names of the musicians in Warpaint or Electrelane (I don’t know the names of Wild Beasts or These New Puritans off the top of my head either though, to be fair – which probably says something about my 30-something capacity for being interested in the people in bands, which is greatly reduced from when I was 15 or 20). Even PJ Harvey, awesome axe-wielder that she is (or perhaps was, as she prefers an autoharp these days), isn’t quite a virtuoso – she’d never solo like St. Vincent, and has commented on not practicing guitar as a method of keeping fresh as a songwriter. Marnie Stern comes to mind, and googling turns up a few “best female guitarist lists”, but often the results concern “hotness” rather than skill. This awesome list approaches the idea seriously though – but I barely know any of the names on it, to my shame. (Although, as I just mentioned, that’s not necessarily a gender bias. I’m also, on the whole, not that into guitarists / technical musicians…)

Anyway. Onstage Annie Clark was striking. I didn’t want to write about her appearance, because that shouldn’t matter, but her eyes were astonishing (Emma seemed impressed by her hair, too). I’ve seen people refer to her as beautiful before but never been struck by it in pictures. In the same room, albeit from some distance away, I could see what they meant. More entrancing than her eyes, though, were her fingers; from where we were we could only really see her left hand, but they moved so quickly and precisely, dancing delicately around the fretboard. When I caught a glimpse of her right hand, her fingers seemed to barely touch the strings enough to produce any noise at all; perhaps this was the problem the guy behind me had?

Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.

I wanted to write something about the inherent gender bias in music; it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately following various Twitter conversations with Masonic Boom, who has a thorough, sophisticated, and enviable grasp of the multi-layered psychological politics at play; She’s pointed out my culpability with regards to several pretty outrageously sexist things I’ve said / written, which simply don’t seem sexist (to men) on first contact because the linguistics, (pseudo-platonic) mythologies, assumptions, and imagery that makes up the discourse around music is so pre-loaded. Not a single woman came up in ILM’s Producers Recording Engineers, and Studio Wizards poll, for instance.

Listening to I Want To Be The President by Electrelane. It’s awesome. You should hear it.


6 responses to “Some thoughts on St. Vincent and women in music

  1. Robert Fripp. Of course.

  2. Oh, Nick-paws. Thank you for the name-drop. And on one hand, I want to say that it pleases me that someone listens to my rants and actually thinks through the topics I raise and engages with the issues I problematise. I’m really glad that you are listening to and challenging the assumptions made by the dudes you criticise in this review.

    I mean, that phrase “she plays guitar LIKE A MAN” is absurd to me, not just because it’s sexist, but because, honestly, it’s meaningless. What, exactly does it mean to play guitar like a man? Which man? Johnny Marr? Jimi Hendrix? Yngwie Malmsteen? Django Reinhardt? Kevin Shields? Bert Jansch? Jimmy Page? Which guitar-playing women ~don’t~ play like men, and play like women instead? Kristin Hersch? Joan Armatrading? Jennifer Batten? Emma Anderson? Sarah Utter? Debbie Smith? Vicki Peterson? Micachu? (See, I was a guitar afficianado once upon a time.) What does that even mean?

    But… at the same time, I have to confess that it’s really kinda eye-rolly for me, when I read an article by a male writer who decides to use a review of a female artist to leapfrog into his discussion of Women In Music. Because 1) female musicians can get very very tired of that discussion. That just once in a while, it’d be nice to be evaluated on their music, and just their music, rather than being the centrepiece of a thinkpiece where the writer talks about Women In Music because that is, in point of fact, another facet of sexism – that ~only~ women provoke The Gender Discussion (why is it, that when you go to a rock gig, and there are 12 ppl in 3 bands onstage, and every single one is a man, that *doesn’t* bring up The Gender Issue? why is that?) and that women get Othered by being discussed in terms of their gender first, rather than being judged on their abilities. (You know, like men get to be.) And 2) how freaking ridiculous and absurd would a Men In Music thinkpiece be?

    Because I am actually going to write that article now – not in parody of this review, honest, because I hate feeling like I’m picking on you specifically when I am actually rlly rlly glad that you’re engaging with these issues, (when many men tell me they Just Don’t Exist). But because I want to imagine that bizarro-universe where the Men In Music article could be a real thing in this world.

    Other than that, nice review. So yes. Sorry for being that annoying woman who complains when ppl don’t talk about women, then complains about the way ppl talk when they do talk about women. But I’m sure you expected that of me. 🙂

  3. Hi, new reader from brasil!
    Great review, I remember reading an old interview with Clark about ‘playing guitar as a man’…and she said she’s no different, she’s got 10 fingers to play like everybody else. I think that a good comparison to Annie’ skills on guitar is surely Anna Calvi. She is also a virtuoso and plays great solos.

  4. Pingback: Albums of 2011 | Sick Mouthy

  5. Pingback: Albums of 2011 | Sick Mouthy

  6. PJ Harvey
    Kim Deal
    Tina Weymouth
    Kate Pierson
    Nina Simone
    Brazilian singers with the smoothest voices ever.

    And that’s about it. Call me a misogynist, I hate to admit that in music I am. 2% of my music collection at most. Shame on me.

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