What was motivating you then?
In a way, I was kind of an outsider, because I hadn’t had a record deal and I hadn’t had the access to make a proper record. My first record, Mellow Gold, a lot of it was four-track recordings. Odelay was the first time I got to work with real equipment in a studio with a producer. Part of me was exhilarated by that, getting to do all the things I ever wanted to do, but I also felt like it could be the last album I was allowed to make.
Why did you feel that way?
There was a real sentiment at the time that my first record was a one-hit wonder and that I was about to be over.
But you must have known you had more to offer than that.
Yeah, but you never know. I wasn’t going to make another “Loser,” you know? Other musicians have been good at that — they have a big, huge hit and they’re able to extend and expound on that idea and create iterations of something that struck a chord with people. They can ride that for a period of time. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel like I could do that. Maybe I didn’t think I could, or maybe I felt like it would be cheating to try to replicate that success. So I thought that, with Odelay, I would just try everything I always wanted to try and squeeze as much as I could into one album.
After Odelay was a hit, too, did some of that anxiety lift?
I don’t think it was anxiety, I think it was just realism. Knowing that the writing was on the wall. After that, I was just happy to be able to have my own equipment to record on. No matter what, I knew I’d be able to do that.
How does it feel to play songs from that album now?
Certain songs feel like they exist out of time — “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut.” Other songs feel more dated. We just played in Japan and if I play anything from that record, it goes off. Japan goes crazy. But if I play “New Pollution” in the Midwest, it’s not really gonna do it for them. There are certain places where certain records really hit hard. It’s interesting.
Last year at Clive Davis’s Grammy party, you performed David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” with the surviving members of Nirvana. How did that come about?
Dave [Grohl] called me and asked me to do it.
That was a no-brainer “yes” for you?
Oh, of course. I’ve known Dave for decades. I’ve known Krist [Novoselic] less, but I went to all the early Nirvana shows. I used to see them in bars. That band is such a part of the time I was starting to play music.
Was it surreal to front their band for the night?
Yeah, but it also felt very comfortable. They’re such a good band. I’ve played with so many musicians, and they’re so good. For me, it was a dream just on a musician level, just as somebody who plays an instrument and sings. It’s extremely noticeable and striking how good they are.
It’s been a brutal year when it comes to musicians we’ve lost, like David Bowie and Prince. How do you feel now that those major titans of music are gone?
Those are two of the biggest for me, of all time. It’s jarring and it just rearranges something in your personal world, losing people like that, especially if you’re a musician. They feel like suns that a lot of us are revolving around. And they were both huge surprises. It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t been said, but we were lucky to have them around. I’ve had a few conversations about it over the last year with other musicians, that we’re at a point where we really can’t take anybody for granted. I’m sure we all assumed that Prince would be here for another 20, 25 years, easily. Bowie, I thought we’d have another 10 or 15 years of his music. It’s an intense job. There’s a huge physical sacrifice to do this job. Not to say that other jobs aren’t intense, but I did read an article maybe three or four years ago that I showed to a few friends, breaking down longevity by profession, and musicians were at the very bottom.
Did you know Bowie and Prince well?
Not really. I hung out with Bowie a few times, and I helped him with some remixes, things like that. Did a photo shoot with him once. Prince, I’ve had a lot of run-ins with, but I never sat down with him and spent time with him.
There was always something mysterious and unknowable about Prince.
Yeah, I kind of kept my distance. I never make any assumptions that a) someone wants to meet me, and b) anybody knows who I am. You know what I mean? I hate to impose. At the Grammys, I did have the opportunity to say hello to him and tell him how much he meant to me, but it was very brief.
Did he take it in stride?
Well, it was onstage at the Grammys. You know, the music’s playing. But I was glad I got to do that, and I gave him a big hug, which I remember thinking at the time was really presumptuous and probably not welcomed by him. But after he passed, I looked for a picture of the hug online, and I found out that he had a huge grin on his face. So that gave me a real pang.
How did the invitation to perform with Taylor Swift on her tour come about?
She just reached out to me and asked me.
Were you surprised?
Yeah, I was surprised. I’d heard that she was having people onstage every night, but again, I don’t assume that people know who I am. Sometimes we’re all sequestered in our own genres, and I was happy and struck that somebody who’s coming from that level of pop success would reach out to St. Vincent or me. In a way, I like it, because I feel like these worlds are all so separated.
So was it a kick to come out at the Staples Center and perform with her?
Yeah, I have a lot of respect that she brought us out in front of that audience. And I know that a lot of that audience had no idea who I was. [Laughs.] I get it! But y’know, fuck it, that’s what it’s about. There’s a lot of divisiveness and separateness in this industry: “What I like is best, and I don’t like all that other stuff.” After a while of doing this, you start to realize that we’re all kind of doing the same thing. Maybe the music’s produced slightly different, and the artwork and the way it’s presented is a little different, but when it comes down to it, we’re doing the same thing, so it becomes more and more ridiculous to me that there’s such division in music. It’s self-imposed by marketing and business people.
As time goes on, as a musician, I don’t see myself as separate. But I’ve had that feeling forever. In the ’90s, I’d be hanging out with Busta Rhymes or Kool Keith, but I’d also be touring with Pavement and Jesus Lizard. There’s a certain point where you can strip away the other stuff and it’s just songs. Or, as Tom Waits says, we’re all making things with the air.