The Music Week Interview: Insanity Group CEO Andy Varley

It’s a few days after Tom Grennan’s album debuted at No.1, and Andy Varley is still buzzing about the chart result for his team. “It was quite emotional for everybody, because we are such a family,” says Varley, CEO and ...

St. Vincent - The Music Week Interview

St. Vincent has long been one of the most revered and compelling artists of her generation, but with her spectacular new album Daddy’s Home she seems destined to go stratospheric. Here, Annie Clark, Jack Antonoff, plus her team at Silva Artist Management, Virgin Music, Loma Vista and Hipgnosis, outline their bold plans for the future… WORDS BY NIALL DOHERTY    PHOTOS: ZACKERY MICHAEL The new St. Vincent album is about freedom. Its title, Daddy’s Home, refers to Annie Clark’s father being released from prison in 2019, but there are other forms of liberation entwined in the 38-year-old Texan’s brilliant sixth studio record, too. Under its flowing grooves, a break from the tight rhythms of her previous work, there’s a sense that Clark is cutting loose from what’s gone before. Previously, personal themes in St. Vincent songs have been buried so deep you needed a codebreaker to suss them out, riddles locked in an enigma, dressed in a PVC onesie. That Clark’s new record is called Daddy’s Home and is about her daddy coming home (he was jailed in 2010 after being convicted of fraud) feels like an open goal so suspect you’re inclined to check the penalty area for booby traps. But this is all part of Clark’s new approach: pretty chill, open and chatty, and having a little lie down. “I’m horizontal!” she says, over Zoom Audio from her studio-slash-living space in Los Angeles. “It’s all a bit more light-hearted and fun,” she says of the campaign so far, “and maybe that’s just because I’m a little bit more light-hearted these days. It’s not a punish.” Even though half of Daddy’s Home was made post-lockdown, recording it was a process uplifted by a lack of tension, she explains. “It was truly just having so much fun playing music,” she continues. “I’d go in and sing a song in my studio, just for fun, just, ‘Oh, I wonder how my voice is going to sound today’, and the same with putting guitar parts down, just playing for fun and joy. That’s probably emblematic of the whole process.” Some artists can’t shake off the idea that a record won’t be good unless they’ve put themselves through a Krypton Factor of mental torture whilst making it, and Clark did wonder for a moment at the beginning of the sessions if there was something wrong when she was enjoying herself so much. “It’s not that any record is easy to make, because it’s not,” she explains. “But a lot of times the strife in the process is you getting in your own way and not some literal external force. It’s the ego games and self-loathing circus that gets in the way.” What has emerged out of this fleet-footed dance around her internal self is Clark’s masterpiece. A blend of languid ’70s rock, hazy soul and loose-limbed funk, Daddy’s Home doesn’t sound like it was easy to make and doesn’t sound like it was hard to make, either. When Clark talks about it, she uses words that have never belonged in the St. Vincent lexicon before, words such as “acoustic guitar” and “jamming”. If her 2017 mainstream breakthrough Masseduction was pop music with serrated edges, here the music is warm and welcoming, like pulling on your favourite hangover jumper.   It’s not that any record is easy to make, because it’s not, but a lot of times it’s the ego games and self-loathing circus that gets in the way   Annie Clark   As well as the changes in sound and approach on Daddy’s Home, there has also been much retooling behind the scenes. Clark joined Silva Artist Management’s roster in 2018 and John Silva says the record marks another artistic leap forward. “With Daddy’s Home, St. Vincent has redefined the paradigm of the modern rock star,” says the SAM supremo. “She’s not only reinvented her sound and vision once again; she’s created a masterwork that draws on the sounds of the early 1970s to chart a path to a limitless future.” Clark says joining Silva Artist Management is the best decision she’s ever made. “John’s combination of intelligence, care and tenacity – as well as the incredible team of people company-wide – allow artists to be artists and not just have hits, but decades-long careers, I’m thrilled to be in the ‘SAMily’. The company speaks for itself,” she says, before listing off some of her illustrious team-mates. “Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, Beastie Boys, Jenny Lewis…”  She is also the latest artist to join the burgeoning ranks at Hipgnosis, which acquired Los Angeles-based Big Deal Music Group – previously the home to St. Vincent’s publishing – in 2020. “I’ve been buying St. Vincent albums since Marry Me, so almost 15 years now, and each successive album has given us fans an incredible chapter of her life,” praises Hipgnosis founder and CEO Merck Mercuriadis. “It’s wonderful for me personally that Annie has become part of the Hipgnosis family just in time for what may be her most special album yet in Daddy’s Home.” There is no doubt that St. Vincent is a hugely vital artist. After emerging in 2007 with debut full-length Marry Me on Beggars Banquet, she became an indie star with two solo albums and Love This Giant, made with David Byrne, on 4AD, before making the leap to Loma Vista. She has played over 600 shows to more than one million people, sold 1.7m albums globally (over 200,000 of those in the UK) and notched up 653m streams globally (an impressive 55m and counting of those in the UK). She has also won Grammy Awards (Alternative Music Album for her self-titled fourth album in 2015 and Best Rock Song for Masseduction’s title track in 2019), and her last album went Top 10 in the UK (with 40,568 sales to date according to Official Charts Company data) and the US, but there is also something about her that renders the traditional methods of measuring success redundant. You need a wider lens than streaming figures and record sales to fully appreciate St. Vincent’s impact. She’s a special kind of talent where contradiction reigns supreme: you wouldn’t call her a rock star, but she’s a guitar-playing virtuoso who attacks the instrument with more punky ferociousness than anyone you could name in the 21st century. You wouldn’t call her a pop star either, even though she can be pop and she’s definitely a star. She’s a creative livewire who’s written some of the most standout music of the past decade, who crafts brilliant albums that come with an intricate level of world-building and has a diehard fanbase who pack out big venues around the globe.  “There’s not one metric we look at, you look at everything as a whole and you start to add it all up,” says Ryan Whalley, head of Clark’s US label Loma Vista. “The importance she creates in the marketplace through sales, through streaming, through press, radio, sync licensing, brand partnerships, how her touring grows, what billing she gets on the festivals. We add up all those things and that’s what gauges the success.” Whalley says the most important part for Loma Vista is what all those things bring to an artist’s career. It’s all about the long game. In the UK, Daddy’s Home is the flagship release for the newly-launched Virgin Music Label & Artist Services. “I couldn’t be more excited and proud to be entering into a creative relationship with St. Vincent with the stunning Daddy’s Home,” says Virgin Music UK MD Vanessa Higgins. “Annie’s one of the most innovative artists in generations, consistently reinventing not only her own sonic and visual identity but redefining the very concept of the modern rock star. The result is one of the most exciting bodies of work of any musical era, one whose diverse appeal has generated rave [reviews] from critics and fans alike, including a personal endorsement from Olivia Rodrigo, and collaborations with the likes of David Byrne and Dua Lipa.” “It’s a fresh, shiny new Virgin, isn’t it?” adds Jim Chancellor, Fiction Records MD and co-MD (alongside Michael Roe) of Virgin’s international operations, who has worked with Clark since her 2014 album St. Vincent. “What we’re bringing with the new St. Vincent record is pure class. It’s stylish, cool, funky, iconic, it’s confessional, it’s got groove. I just think it’s her best record so far. “St. Vincent has been a huge part of my life for the last seven or eight years,” he continues. “I’ve got a theory about artists, I think there are artists who make records and there are artists who don’t make bad records. And, she is definitely in that latter category.”       When Annie Clark was writing Daddy’s Home, she felt very conscious of anything that came across as too much like a judgement, wary of using her songs as an indictment of someone or something. “Maybe that’s because of the times we’re living in, in which we’re very obsessed with moral purity,” she ponders. “I don’t want to be obsessed with moral purity. I want to allow for the fact that everybody’s life is messy and human. Human nature is messy. I’m suspicious of myself when I write something that’s like, ‘You did this or you’re that’ or whatever. It’s a little lazy to just write a scathing judgement, I need to find the humanity.” She isn’t a saint, though, and sometimes the law just needs to be laid down. That’s how it goes on the seething Down, which resembles Nirvana’s You Know You’re Right being digitised into a synth-pop stomper. “Yeah, that’s a revenge fantasy,” she concedes, allowing herself one “fuck you” track per album. “That was the rare exception on this record.” After sessions with Masseduction producer Jack Antonoff at New York’s Electric Lady and LA’s Conway studios, the record was at a halfway point when lockdown happened in March 2020. Clark had been taking studio tips from her friend and collaborator Cian Riordan and continued by recording herself, Clark and Antonoff sending audio files to each other on opposite sides of the US. “I’d spent enough time on my own in my studio to where I could make good-sounding stuff,” she says. She also had the tricks that she’d picked up acting as producer on albums by Sleater-Kinney (The Center Won’t Hold) and Julia Stone (Sixty Summers) to call upon. Working on the former in 2019, she realised she possessed all manner of skills that she’d never previously had to verbalise. “There’s all these things you get to consider,” she says. “Things you don’t think about until you’re realising you need to explain it or apply it differently, whether it’s engineering bits or doing things on ProTools and then going, ‘Oooh, that really worked! Great, I’ll take that trick and use it myself.’” The next time she produces, she says, it will be on a project she can co-write on too, so she can double-down on the emotional investment. The creative spark between Clark and Antonoff is key to the new levels that she has reached on Daddy’s Home and Masseduction. They have only worked together for two records, but a deep personal and artistic relationship has formed between the pair. “I love Jack,” declares Clark. “He’s such a loveable dude. We’re almost exactly the same age and we both came up in the same way, indie touring in a mini van, then graduating to a Sprinter, the DIY thing. We have a lot of the same musical touchpoints or heroes.” Clark says that Antonoff brings a real focus on “songs with a capital S”. It’s rare that they would show up to work together with no ideas and then write a song from scratch; instead, Clark brings the track in and they bounce ideas off each other about where to take it. “He has a great insight on song and form and how to make sure there’s a maximum emotional impact,” she says. Over the past few years, Antonoff has cornered the market for forward-thinking pop. He has been a sparring partner for some of modern music’s most iconic female artists, including Taylor Swift, Lorde and Lana Del Rey. “There’s a small group of people who I work with, and I believe in them so deeply and I think you reach a point artistically where you’re sort of out of competition, which is how I see Annie,” says Antonoff. “It’s how I feel about Kate Bush or Miles Davis or Tom Waits, there comes a point where someone leaves the competition and is just cresting on their own fucking weird star or whatever. That’s how I’ve viewed Annie as long as I’ve known her.” Antonoff recalls them going for dinner before they began working together and realising early on that they shared a profound connection. “The big thing that we connected on was this sense of finding a way to cut right to it in the music and be in that conversation with the people listening to the music about the hardest, darkest, intense parts of life and then also to find whatever sort of humour there is in there,” he says. “I knew it when we first met and it’s actually becoming even more wild and a bigger experience with her than I thought.” Even Antonoff has been surprised at how open Clark’s lyrics are on the record. The title track, especially, is a literal blow-by-blow account of going to see her father in prison, comically signing autographs for people in the visitation room. “Even as someone who knows her, the level to which she’s candid about her personal life on this album makes me revisit some older lyrics in a totally new way,” he says. Something the pair don’t discuss when making music is streaming figures or whether a track feels like a hit. Clark states that, as she was writing these songs, it didn’t enter her thinking once. She has no interest in trying to unpick whatever dark magic it is that makes something a hit song in 2021. “As far as I can tell, there is no star-making machinery anymore,” she says. “It’s like the way that things get popular is a random song gets popular on TikTok, but only 15 seconds of it that kids like to dance to. I have no idea.” Instead, her focus is on making great songs and great records. “There doesn’t seem to be a centre of what popular music even is,” she says. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It has zero bearing on my thought process.”   You can reach a point where you’re out of competition, artistically... That’s how I view Annie Jack Antonoff   What she is involved in are the visuals and art around each campaign, the top-line for all marketing assets coming directly from her. Clark is the creative director of her team. She conceives how she’s going to look, and the overall feeling of everything. “I create a whole bunch of stuff and creative direct it with a really good, lovely, smart team,” she says. “I’m very involved with that as it applies to the digital strategy. I write the copy, but I’m not the one sending the tweet at 6am.” Jim Chancellor says that whilst many of the ideas around a St. Vincent album campaign do come directly from Clark, she’s always an inclusive figure with her team to get thoughts on her initial plans and then expanding on that. “It’s playing wingman to her ideas really, and then trying to help build that world around what she’s created in her head,” he says. Chancellor explains that Clark is adept at expressing how she sees the visual side of a campaign looking. “It’s quite tough for a lot of music artists to say, ‘Right, OK, the artwork should look like this,’” he continues. “But with Annie, you always get a really strong flavour of what she’s feeling and what she wants to project to carry the record.” The good thing with Clark, adds Chancellor, is that she gives the label so much to work with. “She’s come up with this whole new persona for Daddy’s Home, the Candy Darling look, the feel, the vibe, and all of that will help inform and carry the message and the music further than it would normally go.” He reveals that they have lots of amazing assets in their back pocket that they plan to utilise throughout the campaign, although he stops short of divulging what they actually are. He wants it to be a surprise. He hopes they will all help in fashioning St. Vincent’s most successful record yet. “I want it to be critically acclaimed and embraced by a bigger, wider fanbase,” he says. “To see her on top of festival bills and winning awards would be amazing.”     It feels as if the UK is one of the central hubs from which St. Vincent’s stock has grown, and Jim Chancellor says he likes to think that’s true. “She’s spent a lot of time here and she’s worked really hard here,” he says. “She’s definitely got a really loyal, dedicated fanbase here. But I think there are pockets of that all over the world, really. I’d like to think we’ve done an immense job for her and she’s fond of this country and feels that it’s a really important part of her becoming a bigger and better artist.” The label’s decision to herald the forthcoming record with street posters was a move that paid off, helping to ignite excitement among fans online. “You’ve got to get a bit more physical,” he says. “We’ve done a couple of campaigns recently where we’re going outdoors and some people might say that’s a bit mental, but in certain circumstances it cuts through it more because there’s so much traffic online. We saw the pick-up with people online saying, ‘Oh my god, have you seen this?’ It’s doing some of those what might be deemed older-school tricks to get the message across.” “The launch of the record could not have been better,” agrees Whalley. “I think it really showed where she’s at in her career and how everyone perceives her. She really got the red carpet treatment when we announced the album and that was tremendous to see.”   St. Vincent has redefined the paradigm of the modern rock star John Silva, Silva Artist Management   Daddy’s Home’s ’70s-styled vibes might give off the impression that this is a record more concerned with vinyl sales than streaming numbers, but Chancellor says all things must all be treated equally. “The vinyl thing has become more important over the last couple of years, but streaming is the way most people consume music,” he says. “You’ve got the sort of people who buy vinyl and listen to it on streaming and never play the vinyl, like it’s a collectible piece. And then you’ve got the old-school idiots like me who actually buy the vinyl and listen to it. You’ve just got to take care of everything really. That’s the tough job of the record label these days.” As for those festival slots he’s dreaming of, all Chancellor can do right now is hope that live activity is resumed in the near future. “We’ve just got to pray for live to come back,” he says. “It’s such a fundamentally important part of an artist like Annie.” Clark herself remains optimistic that live shows can at least form part of the campaign down the line. “I’m not completely convinced that no live [dates] can come into it, it’s possible that later this year, or 2022, it could happen,” she states. After the first wave of press about the record came out in March, Clark’s father received calls from his former inmate buddies congratulating him on the album he inspired. “He really is thrilled about it,” she says, adding that he keeps asking her, ‘So, when’s Daddy’s Home coming out?’ Recently, they listened to it together and her father started snapping his fingers and bobbing along to the music, impersonating a drunk hype man from a Steely Dan live album and saying “Mr Steely Dan!” as he did. “He’s a funny dude,” she says of her father. “He doesn’t seem cowed by his history or anything. He just kind of owns it and goes about his life. He’s a good hang.”   I’ve been buying St. Vincent albums since Marry Me, so almost 15 years now... Daddy’s Home may be her most special album yet Merck Mercuriadis, Hipgnosis   Clark says that part of the joke of calling it Daddy’s Home was that she never actually grew up with her father. Instead, she lived with her mum and stepdad in a “solid kind of quiet middle-class world.” Her dad gave her a real appreciation for literature and books and films and music, she says. From a very early age, she was obsessed with music and became besotted by the guitar before she could even play it, making her own using cardboard and rubber bands. “I was very drawn to the guitar as a shape,” she says. “The feeling that a kid gets going to a toy store, I would get going into a guitar shop.” Since she was young, she’s always just wanted to make things and, as an adult, that has manifested itself in a compulsive attitude when it comes to creating. Clark isn’t happy unless she has numerous projects on the go, ideally running concurrently. She almost had a nervous breakdown making Masseduction, a result of spinning too many plates at once. Whilst working on Daddy’s Home, she produced the aforementioned albums by Sleater-Kinney and Julia Stone whilst also making The Nowhere Inn, a film she co-wrote and starred in with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein. She is the sort of person who says yes to things and finds out on the job if she can do it. “It’s just morbid curiosity in a certain way,” she says. “There’s a lot of things that sound really crazy and terrifying. I was like, ‘Oh, you know, my friend Carrie and I, we’re gonna co-write and star in a movie.’ Have I ever really acted? No. Did I give any thought to the fact that I was going to have to act? No, I didn’t. I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, cool, let’s give it a shot.’ Why did I think I could do that? But it’s not that I thought I could do it, it’s that I didn’t even think about it.” Clark’s motto, she jokes, is “under prepare, over deliver”. Her most recent act of “say yes, work it out later” was accepting an invitation from Paul McCartney to rework the track Women And Wives for his covers album McCartney III Imagined. Taking a call from McCartney is part of the reason Clark doesn’t regret anything she’s done over her career. It’s the butterfly effect, she says, and any change to the past might mean she’s not where she is today. “If Paul McCartney called me, then I did something right,” she says. “I saw a +44 come up and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds exciting’ and I answered it. And it was Paul McCartney.” Clark usually has a little bit of a phobia about talking on the phone – she’s more of a Zoom person – but she says the former Beatle put her at ease. “He’s so lovely,” she says. “And he’s so Paul McCartney! You know, he’s just on the other line and he sounds just like Paul McCartney. It felt absolutely unbelievable, and another aspect is that he’s so charming that he really made it no big deal, it was just Paul, and, ‘Hey’.” Annie Clark’s regular end-of-album routine is to get some new equipment for her studio and move things round a little bit, which sounds suspiciously like the only way she knows how to end one thing is to prepare for the next. “That is what I do!” she says. “I think, ‘Maybe this will inspire something else.’” The first thought that came into her head when she completed work on Daddy’s Home was, ‘Oh, cool, now I can start on something else.’ Annie Clark never stops to admire the view. For her, the next thing is always the best thing.

The Aftershow: Gary Barlow

Gary Barlow brightened up lockdown with his Crooner Sessions series of online duets and gold-selling solo LP Music Played By Humans. Here, the Take That legend talks Elton John, Robbie Williams and his infamous acting debut...  The song that changed my life was… “Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode – 1981 I think it was, I’d have been 10. Once I saw that on Top Of The Pops, I wanted a keyboard. My music has never really reflected my passion for synthesizers, I do it as a hobby on the side, but who knows in the future? Anyway, I remember going for a meeting with Vince Clarke [Depeche Mode/Erasure]. I had a three-month stint in New York doing [musical] Finding Neverland at the time. NY is great for about six days and then I’ve had enough of it, but I was stuck there and ended up at Vince’s house in Brooklyn. He’s got a synth museum in his basement and, Christ, I was there all afternoon. We had a bloody ball!” I started the Crooner Sessions during the first lockdown… “I remember thinking, ‘God, this is going to be really tough for people and this is a time to entertain them’. The first person I called was Ronan [Keating], because he’s always game, then Beverley Knight, then Howard [Donald] – just a small group of people around me – and they were all really up for it. The views were incredible, the comments were amazing and, more than anything else, it was fun. Elton John always had to be the finale. We shot it five weeks before we posted it, so it drove him mad waiting!”  Elton John has been a constant presence throughout my career… “It goes way back to 1977-ish, when we first got a record player in our house. As soon as I realised I could play the keyboard, I wanted to sound like him all the time. Yeah, he’s talented and he’s ‘Elton’, but above all else he’s just a good guy – a good human being. He made contact with me very early in the ’90s and was one of the few artists who kept in touch during my little break [pre-Take That reunion]. I first met him at Wembley Arena in about ’93. He’d come to watch us with Paula Yates, who was on the road with us a lot, doing pieces for the Daily Mail and a few others. He was wearing a top-to-toe pink suit and they stood in the middle of all these screaming teenagers. He invited the whole band and our manager back to his house the following night for dinner.” Getting Take That back together was like... “Our first time around in that all of the bands that followed us had a blueprint to follow. We’d found it hard to get signed because it was all dance acts at the time and what we were doing wasn’t cool, so it was difficult to work out a plan. Of course, it looked like it was seamless, but it was just a load of guessing and hoping for the best. It was the same coming back – a documentary went out that people loved and then the repack of the Greatest Hits went in at No.2 behind Madonna. But that is what music’s like – no one really knows. We’re all just guessing, throwing stuff out there that we feel good about.”  Reuniting with Robbie Williams was… “In short, the perfect ending to a not very nice period. A lot of stories weren’t complete and a lot of things needed to be said, so when Rob came back it was just a huge relief to us all. We’d had this long [rivalry playing out] through the press and everyone knows how that ends – never very well. We just needed to be in a room with him and when we finally did that it was fantastic. These are people as close to me as family and when the five was complete, it was just perfect. We all reminisced and laughed a hell of a lot.” I’ll never live down my guest role on ITV’s Heartbeat in 2000… “Oh fucking hell! I swear that thing will not leave me. It’s funny, when it gets repeated on something like Gold, I get a cheque. And I got one this year for 78p, so it wasn’t even a financial decision! It was just one of the worst things I’ve ever done, it really was.” By James Hanley

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