St. Vincent on How Her Love for Podcasts and Music Lore Led to Narrating Audible’s ‘History Listen: Rock’ Series

Annie Clark, better known to most as recording artist St. Vincent, first took a step out of rock ‘n’ roll and into “voice work,” as it were, when she wrote and recorded a compelling original audiobook, “Words + Music,” for Audible in 2020. Now she’s taking a step further into the realm of pure narration as the host of a new six-episode podcast series, “History Listen: Rock,” which premiered on the Audible service in January. She didn’t write the series, which is produced by Double Elvis, creators of the lauded “Disgraceland” podcast, among others. But f you’re a fan of St. Vincent’s through material like “Daddy’s Home,” there’s a good chance you’ll take to her intonations as she speaks into life some well-crafted mini-histories of rock, from the R&B of the ’40s and ’50s through folk, psychedelia, punk, metal and (the arena where she’s picked up her three Grammys) alternative rock.

Variety spoke with her about her love for the medium and some of the genres and artists covered in the new series, which can be found here.

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Was doing the autobiographical audiobook a few years ago the thing that was a gateway drug into narrating something that’s not about yourself?

No. I mean, honestly, I probably listen to more podcasts than music, so it’s just a genre and a medium that I am intimately involved with and intimately familiar with. So, you know, there’s certain things I’m aware of that, if I’m listening to a podcast, I cannot abide — like a dry mouth. I stay very hydrated. You’ve gotta have that Poland Spring, just right there at the ready.

No, really, I listen to so many podcasts, and I was also a fan of “Disgraceland” and some of the other Double Elvis things — that brand, shall we say, of podcasters. And I love narrating, and I’d love to do more of it. I was excited when they asked me to do it, and I learned things too, definitely, doing the podcast, so for sure that’s a two-thumbs-up for me.

It is a medium that I’m kind of obsessed with. I mean, I just consume an insane amount of them. But not the murder ones anymore. I’m good on on female pain as entertainment for a minute. That’s stopped feeling OK, personally.

Does developing a speaking style differ from the work any singer does to find his or her own voice?

It’s a bit more like acting. The only tool you have at your disposal is the tone of your voice, is the inflection, is the cadence. So in that way, it was a discovery, a little bit, using my voice a different kind of instrument. I found it really informative. I think everybody remembers the first time they heard their own voice back, on an answering machine or something, and went, “Ooh, I sound like that?” In terms of the actual narration part, I had a couple hiccups there. I was like, “Oh, no, just go a little lower.” The podcast voice is a little lower than my, natural chit-chat. It’s interesting to discover that. I was lucky enough that I was able to record it by myself in my studio, so I got to experiment and play and not worry if I messed up on some of the tongue twisters, and to make sure that the meaning of the words was never lost in my inflection.

I didn’t know if you were the kind of person who reads a lot of music biographies or just picks things up through other means.

I’m more of a person who has the kind of stories that you swap in the studio. And of course those are stories that don’t necessarily have a journalistic rigor that these do. But I definitely liked reading the Miles Davis autobiography by Quincy Troupe — I know thst sounds funny, to say that his autobiography was by Quincy Troupe. I found that very, very fascinating, and I recently read the Sammy Davis Jr. autobiography. But for the most part I kind of like to engage with it in a more organic way than necessarily reading autobiographies.

I’m not a historian. I am obviously very knowledgeable about what I know. But this is, I think, a nice overview for people who are fans of rock music, from a very casual fan to someone even more invested. Because you get the real stories and kind of the guts and the glory of the different scenes, and also so much of the roots of rock and roll. There’s so many things that it’s sort of crazy that they were even able to distill it down to what they were able to distill it down to. I think it’s a good, fun listenand overview for people who really care or are just casual listeners and just want to have a little bit more context.

Did some of the episodes appeal to you more than others? People would think, well, of course, she has a gravitation toward punk or alternative or glam, and maybe less so, say, Southern rock…

No — I mean, hey, I learned “Sweet Home Alabama” on the guitar when I was 12! I know it well. I’m well-versed in the classic rock staples.

Is there anyone that jumps out at you from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll as someone especially interesting or a kindred spirit?

Of the stories that we covered, I’d say there is no Prince and there is no Bowie without Little Richard. I mean, he was so slick, and such an incredible performer, and to be playing with gender and sexuality and all of those things at that time was just pretty staggering. You don’t have rock ‘n’ roll without Little Richard, that’s for sure.

How about the folk era?

I’m more a fan of the politics of that man-on-the-street style of songwriting than I am necessarily aching to put on an Arlo Guthrie record. But I appreciate its point in history.

There is an episode on what is described as psych-rock, and having seen your “Daddy’s Home” tour, where it feels like you mixed in some of that along with the soul-revue aspects, it seemed like you might have some affinity for those late-’60s sounds of early Pink Floyd and such.

I think harmonically, it really started to just blow wide open in the ’60s, whether it’s the Beatles or the Beach Boys, and then add a healthy dose of acid into that, and people were like, “I want to see colors that don’t exist yet,” you know? To me that music is very visual. I mean, you go, like, “This guitar’s melting, and then those drums are dripping, and then the bass is all swirling around with it…” I’m sorry, I’m going poetic with it.

Since you mentioned the Beach Boys, you just performed one of their songs at the taping for a “Grammy Salute” special (airing later in the year). How was that?

It was really sweet. Brian Wilson looks great, he really does. “You Still Believe In Me” was the song I sang, and I’ve always loved that song so much. It’s amazing to get to sing the song for the person who wrote it, to say thank you. I mean, I’m not supposing that’s some big gift. [Laughs.] “You’re welcome, Brian Wilson!” But just to honor and get to kind of do your best in front of the people who made it is very special. I did one last year when I got to sing “Court and Spark” for Joni Mitchell [at the MusiCares person of the year dinner]. It’s very moving personally.

Going back to the episodes of the podcast: You mentioned earlier that Southern rock is in your wheelhouse, or at least was part of the wheelhouse of growing up.

Yeah, it totally is. I mean, I’m a kid from Texas. I know the Skynyrd catalog. I’m a guitar player — you know what I mean? I know “Free Bird.” So of course that was just part of the canon. And Duane Allman, I always loved his playing. So I know it, yeah. To me, the sort of current Duane Allman is Derek Trucks. Jesus Christ, what a beautiful player. You see the sort of Allman to-Trucks kind of line. I’m a guitar player who doesn’t care that much about guitar, but I’m just truly just like, what a transcendental player, Derek Trucks. Such a voice. Oh man, what a stunning player.

Glam is something that people automatically assume is part of your background and what informed you. Did anything from that episode bring up any particular love of yours?

Yeah, I mean, I think I always have just thought of Mark Bolan as cool. I didn’t realize that there was such a major kind of backlash against him where the British press really kind of went after him. It’s Mark Bolan — what’s the problem? And I know he died young anyway, but it made me quite sad for Mark Bolan. As far as the Bowie glam era, obviously that is unbelievable and iconic. For me, I’m a kind of Berlin Bowie gal, if I had a gun to my head. I’m kind of a “Low” gal… or a “Station to Station” gal, shall we say.

But I mean, just the theatricality of it… it’s the age-old question of: What are you selling? Some people are selling you authenticity, and then some people are selling you a dream, selling you magic. And I’d rather be kind of in the latter camp. We’ve talked about this with “The Nowhere Inn” [her satirical film that deals with issues of authenticity]… So, I sell the magic.

Finding authenticity in showmanship is one of rock ‘and’n’ roll’s great tricks. And certainly something you’ve been able to do is write emotionally meaningful songs, presented in a way that takes you somewhere else other than basic street reality all the time.

I mean, that’s the call, to just absolutely go for the heart and go for the jugular. But with some acid dust kind of sprinkled on top, it’s more fun, you know?

Anything about punk, metal or alternative, as explored in this podcast, you would want to speak to?

Yeah, one thing from punk that I will say… You know, again, it’s not a complete history of anything. It’s really entertaining, bitesize chunks of a trajectory. But I wish we could have talked more about bands like the Slits or Siouxie and the Banshees or the Raincoats. So if anybody sees this article, also go check out the Slits, Siouxsie and the Raincoats, et cetera, et cetera, forever and ever.

Last summer you finally wrapped up several rounds of touring behind the “Daddy’s Home” album. Any quick promises you would want to make anyone for 2023?

It’s gonna be a great year. A great year. I’m in my studio right now.

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