On the wall of Mark Gatiss’s office hangs the old Wilkie Collins mantra “Make ‘em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait”. Certainly the cliffhanger that closed Sherlock’s first series - the laser sights of Moriarty’s snipers trained on Sherlock and Watson, Sherlock’s gun aimed at a pile of explosives - adheres to that golden rule. “We’ve had hate mail from people who have said, 'You bastards, you bastards!’” Gatiss recalls gleefully.
Grimes: 'In my life, I'm a lot more weird than this'
Claire Boucher wants to play it cool, but as her alter ego she just can’t help standing out. Meet the woman making the most exciting pop on the planet.
Published: 31 October 2015, text: Rachel Aroesti.
Claire Boucher sighs. It’s the sort of sigh that comes with an eye-roll and exasperated sub-vocal muttering. A sigh that, despite her best efforts, she can’t quite seem to suppress. She does it the first time when she hears which songs I’ve been allowed to listen to on her closely guarded fourth album Art Angels, a hyperactively eclectic record that piles up pop and dance tropes into gratifyingly alien forms.
“Oh, whatever, it’s fine,” she smiles, when I ask why she groaned at the mention of California, a faux-saccharine, addictively syncopated country-meets-K-pop track about the media’s treatment of female musicians. “It’s kind of a shitty song. It’s not a shitty song. OK, I’m already doing it.” Moments later, when I ask if the PR spiel was correct in its claim that the album title is a reference to archangels, she sighs again.“Sort of… The label has all these weird ideas. They wanted to put this corporate graffiti in Paris,” she winces. “They were like, ‘‘It could be graffiti but it could be Grimes graffiti.’ I was like, ‘No!’” She mimes despair. “Stop!”With Grimes, 27-year-old Claire Boucher has never made any secret of the fact that what you see is not what you get. When she released her last album Visions in 2012 – a collection of phantasmal, banging electropop that sounded as if it had been fed through both a rasping old desktop and the prism of a dream – its rapturous reception took the Vancouver native from cult concern to internet darling (Oblivion, the album’s best known song, was last year named Pitchfork’s track of the decade so far). At the time, Boucher spoke of Grimes as a business venture – a sort of Svengali-meets-singer deal in which she played both parts, exploiting her own self for her own ends. It was an idea that highlighted her creative clout, but it was also a coping mechanism, forming a pop-star proxy to deal with the invasiveness of fame.
“There are things I would never say in interviews that are my opinions. I’m way more political than I am publicly – significantly more extreme,” Boucher tells me when I ask how the Grimes persona manifests itself on occasions such as this (that is, being asked questions by a stranger while perched on the bed of a London hotel room). “There’s lots of people I hate,” she says. But Boucher is struggling to keep up anodyne appearances.And it’s not just the sighing. See also: her views on bombastic live shows (her upcoming Ac!d Reign tour will apparently be a pared-down affair). “I’m like, ‘Do you understand how fucking bad it is for the environment for everyone to be having 20,000 lbs of lights and this giant fucking fake set of New York?’ U2 had that giant crab – that’s fucked up.” She pauses. “I’m not shitting on U2.”Of PC Music, the London collective whose uncanny valley take on the top 40 of their childhoods provides a contextual touchstone for Art Angels, she says, “It’s really fucked up to call yourself Sophie and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer [and] there are so few female producers,” she begins, before trailing off again. “I think it’s really good music. I probably shouldn’t have said that…”As an enterprise, Grimes has always seemed like a scuffle between creative abandon and calculated moves: what happens when a highly inventive mind attempts to construct a consumer product. The Grimes aesthetic – discordantly multi-coloured hair, not-quite-trendy clothes, album art that looks as if it was done on the inside of a ringbinder during double maths – I’d already describe as pretty unselfconscious-seeming. But Boucher insists her visuals are designed to appease the public.
“In my life, I’m a lot more weird than this,” she explains. “Grimes is more palatable for humans. If it was up to me maybe I’d wear a moustache or something,” she continues, as I start seeing her less as a hipster making bleeding-edge pop, more a kindred spirit of Vic Reeves.“I try to make it digestible to a degree.” Why? “That’s what I’m interested in seeing. I create a thing that I wish existed in the world, versus my own full unabashed creative expression.
In Art Angels, Boucher has produced something that manages to be both more jarringly bizarre and viscerally accessible than Visions ever was: wild ideas and incongruous references distilled into layered and irresistibly danceable pop songs.Visions was a record Boucher has said was born from a panicked, sleep-deprived fortnight. “My management was really crappy at the time and he’d set a release date before I’d even recorded the album. He was like, ‘The album will be coming out at this date,’ and I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I have no album!’ And he was like, ‘Well, you better get to it!’”.Art Angels, meanwhile, was made in controlled and leisurely conditions. “This time I made tons and tons of music and handpicked what I liked. I need unlimited time to make as much crazy shit as I want and then work backwards.” The album sounds like something that has had time lavished upon it, too, not least because of its mind-bending range.
Boucher has always claimed to be “post-internet” – of a generation whose fluid genre-identity was made possible by free web downloads – but has also claimed that Grimes was a more traditional pop project. I’m curtly informed that is no longer the case: “Pop is just another genre. Some of my songs are influenced by pop music. Some of them are not.” Now, she says, “the whole purpose of Grimes is that it’s genreless. Trying to constantly put a genre label on it makes no sense and then you are always eating your words two months later. So, why bother?”
She says the thread that binds her work together is not genre but her own authorship. “People keep trying to be like, ‘We’re trying to pin down the Grimes style.’ If you haven’t realised by now, you’re never going to be able to.”Still, I’m tempted to categorise Art Angels as belonging to my favourite genre: music that makes your eyes water, your heart beat faster, and prompts feelings of mild concern for everyone involved. “I like music that might make me feel uncomfortable the first time I listen to it,” she agrees. “I think that’s good, that’s important; sometimes it never gets better but sometimes it gets great.”Nowadays, when music has begun to imitate fashion’s tendency to reconstruct itself out of a relentlessly remembered past – dredging up the most hideously uncool trends, those being the ones that feel most refreshing (and Art Angels contains more than a hint of the Eurodance aped by the aforementioned PC Music) – how do you go about genuinely disconcerting people? “There’s no fully new sound, I think,” she says. “All music right now is seeing how crazy you can get with the genres. I feel like so many people are focused on the 70s to now. I’m curious about music in the year 1100. I think that’s really interesting – combining that with electronic stuff.” That might sound like a pursuit worthy enough to warrant a government grant, but with Grimes you imagine it would genuinely be great.
Boucher has other means of locating roads never travelled, too. One tactic is to transform dance music’s parasitic tendencies themselves. “In the early days I was like, ‘I love Burial – what if it was an intentional vocal instead of samples?’” she says. “I’ll hear some totally fucking crazy remix and I’m like, ‘But what if it wasn’t a remix? What if there were people actually making music like that and it wasn’t a Mariah Carey vocal being sampled?’” For Art Angels, Boucher blocked out all popular music for a year. “I just don’t want to sound current. If I sound current, it’s because I made the new current.”Boucher’s oblique approach to songwriting is partly a result of her coming to the world of music from the sidelines. She attended a school that specialised in creative subjects, but studied art and avoided music completely. “My mom had me do a violin lesson, and the lady told her, ‘Claire will never be able to play the violin, she’s too bad.’” It wasn’t until university in Montreal, when she was hanging out with friends – they were in bands, and one coerced her into singing backing vocals – that she began to suspect her music teacher might be wrong. “It was much easier than I thought to hit the notes. Later on I got one of my friends to show me how to use Garageband so I could start recording myself.” Out of those sessions came her 2010 Dune-referencing cassette-only debut Geidi Primes, released via Arbutus Records, the label that formed a cornerstone of the Montreal synthpop scene in which Boucher had been socialising. By 2011 she had released a second album and toured with Swedish singer Lykke Li, before signing to British indie 4AD in 2012 and releasing Visions.
Despite being managed by Jay Z’s entertainment corporation Roc Nation since 2013, Boucher did pretty much everything on Art Angels herself. It was a decision partially motivated by the treatment she receives in the male-dominated world of recording studios, but she also wants to draw attention to a more insidious male influence in the music industry.
“It’s of interest that we never hear anything where no men were involved,” she says. “But we hear things where no women were involved. [My album] was mixed and mastered by a man. There’s one mastering engineer who is a female, Emily Lazar. I don’t know any female mixers,” she says.“The whole record was produced, engineered, written, performed by a woman, which is pretty rare. I don’t know if I ever heard a record like that, fully, with vocals on and stuff.”Even so, Art Angels doesn’t need all-female production to qualify as one of the most innovative and interesting records of the decade so far: it looks as though Grimes will be among the most brilliant musicians of her generation regardless. Sigh.Art Angels is released on 6 November on 4AD
Aside from Marko, David has always been my guide, believe it or not, even if he decides to take his sweet time and watch me struggle a little before stepping forward. I have a feeling he’s always admired my stubborn fight. LOL On Paul’s birthday, the night I spilled my drink all in the name of Marko, I was pretty tossed and decided to lay down in the spare bedroom. I’ve been working with dreams and when I closed my eyes I envisioned myself in a bar. I was waiting for Marko and Paul to show up and as I fell asleep it became an actual dream. However, it was David who turned up and slid into the seat beside me. He asked if I would mind his company instead, and I said no way! Why would I mind? He had a look of concern on his face and I knew he was concerned about me, but I told him I wanted him to answer a few questions for me. Unfortunately that’s all I remember of the dream, but I was thankful he was there to talk.