2021’s mockumentary film, The Nowhere Inn, opens with a scene of St. Vincent riding in the back of a limo. The driver rolls down the limo’s divider and asks who she is. She answers, “Annie Clark.” He doesn’t know her. She states her stage name. He doesn’t know her. He dials his “music-loving son,” gets him on speaker phone, and asks Clark to sing a popular song of hers. No recognition. The bizarre scene ends with the driver telling Clark, “Don’t worry. We’ll find out who you are.”
It seems innocuous, or maybe foreboding, but it sets the stage for film's main theme.
If you’re unfamiliar, Clark is a singer, songwriter, and musician better known by her stage name, St. Vincent. She co-wrote and co-starred in The Nowhere Inn with Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame). The film’s premise is that Clark and Brownstein set out to make a documentary about St. Vincent. When Brownstein suggests that Clark’s off-stage persona is “too boring,” the lines between Clark, the person, and St. Vincent, the persona, become blurred. The Nowhere Inn suggests many questions about artistry, but at its core, it asks: who am I?
It’s a question that repeats itself in the creative industry. As artists, it's a question we've likely struggled with ourselves. Who is this personality that the public gets to access? Is it me in the truest sense or is it some veiled or modified form? If you use, or have ever considered using, a pen name, you've asked yourself this question. The answer doesn't always mean to minimize, either. For some, it's a method of emboldening; the introvert's answer to: can I?
One night after watching The Nowhere Inn , I ended up on YouTube watching this Kurt Cobain interview. Many of Nowhere’s themes end up repeated in that interview, and it’s no surprise. Take a look at these interesting parallels.
Early on in The Nowhere Inn, Clark spends much of her downtime away from the general public. When Brownstein asks to get a reaction for the camera as to how Clark felt “tonight’s” concert went, Clark asks if they can do the interview “tomorrow.” She’s tired. Clark is depicted alone, often in the back of her tour bus and on her guitar. She’s shown playing solo video games. Media interviews are displayed as awkward.
Then, there's the Cobain interview. It is a bit awkward. He's asked if there’s anything he reads often. It’s no surprise,
decades later, that Cobain answers, “Perfume by Patrick Süskind.” In his own words, Cobain describes the story as one of a protagonist who is so avoidant of society that he travels by night to avoid humanity. Both Clark and Cobain are either depicted in or describe the need for downtime and isolation, which leads to the possible conclusion that the drive for authenticity is linked to the desire to be alone. One step removed, and we’re back at the theory of obscurity. Yet, both artists know how to command a stage, leaving it all out there for the audience to emotionally devour.
There’s another moment in the Cobain interview where the interviewer asks what Nirvana’s songs are about. Cobain smiles, and answers honestly, “I’m lazy.” His songs aren’t always about anything in particular. They’re fragments of poetry that he struggles to ascribe meaning to when asked that specific question. When “Perfume” inspired the song “Scentless Apprentice,” it gave Cobain relief, and - a talking point.
There’s a similar sense of meandering in The Nowhere Inn. Throughout the course of the film, Clark and Brownstein write a song together, and while they can “hear” the music for this particular song, they can’t quite nail the theme. The movie itself unravels in a Lynchian way, making the audience feel very much like we’re on the outside of the joke being told. However, the joke, in this case, is interesting, moving, and has decent comedic timing.
And, shouldn’t we be on the outside of the joke? Maybe joke isn’t the best word here, but The Nowhere Inn certainly operates in a muted humorous style. If we’re to closely examine artistic celebrity, then I’d argue that of course, as bystanders, we operate on the periphery of someone else’s story. We’re on the outside looking in, and as fans, most likely enjoying the show. But, in both the Clark and Cobain stories, there’s a painful truth glimpsed from this other side. Where privacy is concerned, artists are continually forced to give something of themselves away.
There’s a scene in The Nowhere Inn, where Clark, offstage as St. Vincent, is asked by a fan, “Can I have a photo?” St. Vincent replies with a calm and cool, “No.” The fan replies with something to the effect of,”I appreciate her bravado.” St. Vincent is viewed in that moment as a character, and whether or not the fan received a photo, the exchange deemed her “larger than life,” thus gifting this moment to the fan. It was a choice in the moment who Clark was to be, what she had to give.
The same could be argued for Cobain.
In the end, all of this is conjecture, anyway. Who am I, but an outsider? I'm just a fan who watched a documentary or two, trying to make my own way, trying to decide who I am.
Love music? We suspect that's one of the reasons you're here. Put a beat on that heart. Shout out an artist in the comments. Celebrate your truest self.