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Grimes: ‘I always feel weird selling art’

text:  Samuel Fishwick

photo:Nicholas Maggio

ES Magazine, 26.02.2016

She’s the pink-haired fury signed to Jay Z’s label but Grimes — aka Claire Boucher — doesn’t want to break music’s mainstream. Instead the alt-pop star is resurrecting the art of DIY recording and wooing fashion’s power players in the process.

Grimes is bouncing between the bed and the floor of a nondescript Berlin hotel room, laptop in hand, her oversized purple shirt flapping as she stalks the room in search of better Wi-Fi. From her screen, my pixelated face stares back at her. ‘We could try the Skype call without video,’ I garble. ‘We need video,’ says the Canadian musician, settling into a lotus position on the floor. ‘I need people’s mouths moving, otherwise I can’t understand what they’re saying.’ Dressed down in sweatpants, her bleached-blonde hair tied up in a topknot, she swims into view. This is what a night off looks like. ‘I’m just wearing pyjamas. Jesus, I’m not even wearing underwear.’

Grimes — Claire Boucher to family and friends — is wound tight as a spring after a 28-hour flight from Melbourne. It’s been a whirlwind few months. The release of her album Art Angels last November catapulted the 27-year-old from queen of the indie scene to mainstream stardom, scooping NME’s Album of the Year with its otherworldly synth hooks and infectious beats — think Kate Bush meets LCD Soundsystem, with a side of J-pop thrown in. She’s been signed to management at Jay Z’s Roc Nation since 2013, where her stablemates include Rihanna and Kanye West. She’s also been on a headline tour since September, ticking off the US, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia, with a European leg that takes in a sold-out Brixton show next month. Elton John recently ranked her alongside Ed Sheeran as one of the young artists he most admires.
The fashion world has embraced her with similar enthusiasm: Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière used her to soundtrack his A/W 2015 show; Karl Lagerfeld dressed her in Chanel for the 2013 Met Gala; Donatella Versace has named her as one of her favourite artists and invited her to play at her Versus Versace parties. Not that all this commercial recognition has compromised her artistic integrity. A quintessential indie auteur, she still records for the small independent label 4AD, writing and producing her own work, playing all her own instruments. When she and her ‘people’ clashed over her unshaved armpits in a round of press photos last year (she wanted them in; they didn’t), it was ‘Big Jay’ who signed them off. ‘He’s pretty open-minded,’ says Grimes, a just-discernible lisp on the ‘s’. ‘The company is really into artistic freedom. I think he’d feel horrified if he ever felt anyone at Roc Nation was not having freedom. And I think that’s rad.’  

She isn’t used to the gravy train. ‘I always feel weird selling art,’ she says, rushing to the door as a plate of vegan spaghetti arrives, wolfing it down between rapid-fire answers. ‘The fact that Art Angels was going to cost $10 caused me so much stress,’ she says. ‘It’s a good fire under my ass, though, to feel the pressure of not wanting to disappoint someone who’s paid for something.’

I wonder if her leap into the cultural mainstream from indie music’s left field gives her a different take on pop’s top table. ‘There’s always going to be the upper echelon. That’s where the money is,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if that’s a bad or a good thing. It’s never going to be perfect. Especially when you’ve got people making money off it — I mean, it’s always going to be inherently f***ed as a machine.’ Does she think the music industry is unrepresentative? ‘It’s hard to say. Indie music can be very white and very male, and at least in pop you have the Beyoncés and the Kendricks and the Taylors. With stuff like the Grammys, it has to be monetised otherwise it wouldn’t exist.’

Grimes, who is of Québécois, Ukrainian, Russian and Italian descent, lives in LA and grew up in Vancouver, the only girl out of five children. At 18 she began studying neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University, with a minor in Russian language. Her success as a musician meant she began to miss classes and ultimately she was kicked out. Although her parents are divorced, it’s all happy families at home. ‘Most people have terrible step-parents, but both my step-parents are really f***ing cool.’ She pauses. ‘I feel terrible saying this, but the divorce didn’t really affect me. Maybe I’m a sociopath.’ But although the talent is genuine — genius, in fact — there’s more to Grimes than meets the eye. ‘People see me as this pink-haired faerie girl,’ she says. ‘But I’m pretty bro-y. I mostly wear trousers and I only realised the other day that concealer and foundation are different things.’

Her personal life is something that’s ‘not open to the public’ — although she’s said to be dating LA-based musician James Brooks. But for all her Versace trenchcoats and Dr Martens boots, the public gaze is not something she wears comfortably. ‘I think,’ she hesitates, ‘I was always a very ugly person until recently. I had terrible hair and bad skin. So the whole thing is pretty odd.’ Her image frowns in the centre of my screen as she struggles for the right words. ‘It’s just… my self-identity is so strongly based on my abilities as an artist and as a producer and an engineer, I’m allergic to the idea of ever being evaluated on my physical appearance. When people are like: “Marry me, Grimes” — I’m like, AGHHHGH. Like I can’t… it’s every day. Marry me, marry me. It’s so weird.’

She used to be associated with drugs, telling the music publication CMJ that she was on them while producing her 2012 break-out album Visions. Since then she’s been clean — and that’s a point she’s keen to drive home. ‘I’ve had a couple of very close friends die related to complications due to drug abuse.’ She pauses. ‘It can’t be part of my life any more. And I don’t want it to be part of Grimes either, because whether I like it or not, people do what I do — or think what I do is cool. If you meet kids after a show and they’re like, “Yeah, Grimes, I want to do drugs with you.” It’s f***ing scary when 13-year-olds are like that. You’re like: “Oh my God, I’m like ruining the world.” ’

When you scratch beneath the surface, her songs often bleed achingly sad, dressed up as upbeat techno pop. The video to her 2012 single ‘Oblivion’, which music magazine Pitchfork described as the song of the century so far, sees Grimes dance giddily among half-naked jocks and screaming crowds at an American football game. It’s a haunting melody with the bittersweet refrain ‘See you on a dark night’, but it’s not one of lost love. The song was inspired by an assault she suffered, which left her terrified of men. She pauses as she tells the story: ‘I was just a bit shell-shocked, I think. I feel like making a video was cathartic, like doing a voyeuristic thing in a traditionally masculine space.’

Grimes is as tough as the combat boots she rocks. But occasionally she lets her vulnerability creep in. Beyoncé’s Super Bowl-stealing show was ‘punk as f***’. Has she met her? ‘Once or twice. I don’t like meeting my heroes, though. You have to be cool. You don’t want to say dumb shit to Beyoncé.’ It’s another ‘punk’ she’s looking forward to meeting in London. ‘I love Jme so much,’ she gushes about the London grime MC. ‘It think his name sounds rad.’ She’s a huge fan of the capital’s grime scene. Her own nom de guerre is — you guessed it — taken from the genre. She stumbled across it in the early days as she tried to define her sound on her Myspace profile. ‘It’s like the new punk. Jme doesn’t even have a label or a publicist. I think he does his own videos, too. I really feel akin.’

Then there’s that darkness to Grimes that glints beneath that whip-smart frenetic exterior. She struggles to sleep after shows and has taken to using a skipping rope before them to burn off energy. ‘I have terrible insomnia. I stay up all night and just worry. You get sick, because if you’re only sleeping two or three hours a night, you just do.’ What does she want to do when she quits? ‘Oh, I would never retire,’ she grins, a heavy, drawn-out beat falling on the last syllable. ‘I’d rather just die than not have anything to do. But I’d like to have a big bookshelf. Comics — and all sorts.’ She sighs. ‘I just want to sit in a dark room and make beats, and people see me as this elfin princess.’ Grimes is right — she does need video. This girl shines so bright she needs to be seen to be believed.

Grimes’ Brixton Academy show is on 10 March. Her album Art Angels is out now