Annie Clark needs oat milk. The request arrives quietly and politely just before we speak, a hushed nothing off-handset before she picks up the phone and greets me brightly. Does she need any of mine, perhaps?
“Oh, it’s crucial,” the 39-year-old riffs back to me from her studio in LA. “Could I borrow some? Would you do that? I need to reach my maximum caffeination, and I haven’t met my quota for the day. Oat milk’s an integral part of it.”
If it seems like a wholly unremarkable exchange between a musician and a journalist, you may be unfamiliar with the various tales of Clark’s mercurial attitude to press interviews over the past decade or so. Previous set-ups have included requesting interviewers crawl into a small space to “challenge” both parties, playing pre-recorded answers to boring questions, asking the interview if they “enjoy doing this,” or simply refusing to answer at all. The result has largely been a proliferation of beard-scratching discourse about who or what constitutes the ‘real’ St. Vincent, or the ‘real’ Annie Clark, and how much one might inform the other.
Across gardens, harbours, invisible towns and fountains that empty the world, Cate Le Bon’s sixth solo album charts out territories beyond the locked-down rooms of Reykjavik and Cardiff where it began life, beyond even the mercurial world outside of them. While certain records from this era will no doubt bear the mark of the zeitgeist more than others – Charli XCX’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, Sleaford Mods’ ‘Spare Ribs’ – ‘Pompeii’ will be better remembered as an excursion from the banal than a documentary of it.
Pete Wentz is driving around LA, speaking to me over the phone about his newly-launched range of jewellery and apparel, Ronin. As far as rock star business enterprises go, it’s certainly extravagant, and the website’s description of the rings, pendants and hoodies held therein – “born out of the idea of wandering, a samurai without a master, and the free dreams that accompany facing the world on your own” – adds to the initial sense that Wentz’s professional career may have ballooned into parody, the kind of project Connor 4 Real from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping might have signed off on. “We would go and sample products in the jewellery district in downtown LA, learning why one gold looks more yellow than the other,” he tells me when I ask about it. “It’s been a really interesting learning experience.”
But then Pete Wentz, to borrow Lana Del Rey’s favourite American poet Walt Whitman, is large; he contains multitudes, and some of those multitudes just happen to involve samurai-themed lockets. Among other projects, he owns a clothing company, a film production company, a nightclub, and a minority share in American USL soccer team Phoenix Rising. “It scares me sometimes, watching him,” Patrick Stump once joked. “The two seconds you’re not with that dude he’s made 30 decisions that are going to affect our band for the rest of the year.”
Ah yes: he’s also, you may recall, the bassist in Fall Out Boy.
The pop star has barely been on stage for a few seconds before the screaming begins. At the front of the venue, diehard fans have cast off any prior nerves about seeing their idol in person; now all that tightly coiled energy is sprung into cheering, crying, jumping up and down, singing every word back to every song.
I close my eyes and picture the scene: BTS at Wembley, perhaps, or One Direction at the San Siro. When I open them again, the small stage is dominated by a slightly awkward young man, school tie wrapped around his head, occupying an early afternoon slot at Brighton’s 140-capacity Komedia Studio.
“I’m not gonna match you,” Amanda Palmer once sang on ‘Ampersand’, a paean to the importance of retaining your own identity, “’cause I’ll lose my voice completely.” On the 16th June 2015, the day that Donald Trump announced to the world that he would be running for US president, Palmer was already anticipating a new voice shaping the next chapter of her life. Her son would be born exactly three months later.
It wouldn’t be the last time that a major political event juxtaposed with personal events in the artist’s life; more recently, her new album ‘There Will Be No Intermission’ was recorded as the Kavanaugh trial was playing out across the world. “We were literally glued to our phones in between takes, watching this cosmic battle of the sexes play out in Washington DC,” she tells me over the phone from upstate New York. “I’ll never be able to separate those events, the way I’ll never be able to separate the arrival of my child and the arrival of Donald Trump in my life; they showed up in my life at the same time.”
“That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one…”
As the black matriarch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Calpurnia seems light years away from the four teenage kids from Vancouver who carry her name. They’re young in a modern way, as one would hope: still goofy and wild, still piecing the world together between gym class and Fortnite. Nonetheless, just as Scout becomes fascinated with the scenes beyond her housekeeper’s gaze, the band have had to negotiate the world’s obsession with their own second lives.
After bringing their first singles together with two new tracks for a debut collection titled – what else? – ‘Scout EP’, the quartet are starting to get attention for all the right reasons. They’ve been picked up by Canadian indie label Royal Mountain, with Transgressive covering distribution across the UK and Europe. Their live shows are getting hot reviews across the board. Weezer even tweeted to say how much they loved the band’s cover of ‘Say It Ain’t So’. In other words, they’re proving to be a whole lot more than a casual side-project for their lead singer, Hollywood actor and Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard.
Upon hearing 2015’s critically adored ‘Have You in My Wilderness’, it felt as though some of Julia Holter’s sharp edges had been smoothed down. It felt strange in places, still identifiably Holter, but stranger still was the impression that something like ‘Feel You’ could sit happily on a Radio 2 playlist. Three years on, the artist returns with ‘Aviary’, an album grander in scope, bolder in execution, and replete with jagged edges.
“Can’t take all these memories,” Robyn sings one hundred seconds into her sixth album, “don’t know how to use ‘em.” It transpires that the swirling synth arpeggios of ‘Missing U’ are something of a musical outlier, but the sentiment is one that permeates every strand of Robyn’s artistic DNA: the ability to use those bittersweet memories more effectively than any other musician working today.
It’s late morning on the outskirts of Castelbuono, and the old ladies have started dancing in the water. At the edge of the pool the instructor has turned on a stereo, sending a stream of radio-friendly reggaeton and Latin pop bangers across the hotel courtyard and out into the mountains, a collection that does not feature ‘Despacito’ but which could feasibly arrive at ‘Despacito’ at any moment.
Towards the end of the class, something strange happens: the music moves into an ambient mix of what sounds like both Enya and Italy’s answer to Perfume Genius, and le danzatrici begin holding hands and floating in concentric circles, a death ritual played out in a sun-kissed leisure complex in the Sicilian mountains.
Imagine my disappointment when I was informed, tears still wet on my cheeks, that this was not the opening ceremony of Ypsigrock Festival 2018, but a weekly hotel aerobics class, and that I would have to travel further up into the mountains to watch the actual, scheduled selection of live performances. Reader, I was incensed and embarrassed in equal measure.
“In the dark,” Hilary Woods sings, “our stars shine.” For an artist thrust into the spotlight at an early age – it’s easy to forget that Woods was still a teenager at the time she was touring the world with JJ72 – her spirit comes through most vividly in the dimly lit scenes that make up ‘Colt’, the immersive debut album she’s releasing on Sacred Bones. Following a couple of similarly stark EPs released over the years, it feels like an honest document for a musician more at home with the piano, more at home with something still and contemplative than indie-rock bravado.
Not that she couldn’t do both if she chose to; at this point, it seems the artist is capable of just about anything she puts her hand to. Between raising a daughter, studying for a degree, and occasionally performing in bands, Woods also spent a great deal of time painting, and one imagines her working from the same palette that her music draws from: pitch black, pallor white, bruise violet. Perhaps. Perhaps she just paints sunflowers.