i still think soul punk has an electronic feel to it though

My Favorite Albums of 2015 (So Far)

To say 2015 has been an INCREDIBLE year for music is an understatement. Every other week has been just a haven and music fan’s dream coming to fruition, so much so that this is the first top list of albums I’ve made that ISN’T in a particular order! This list encompasses more than just hip hop as well mind you so there’s should be plenty for any music fan to enjoy here. Sound off below on any of your favorite jams this year as well if you think I missed any!

Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly

As abstract and bold as ever, K. Dot manages to completely reinvent himself within the landscape of hip hop and the ever changing image of black men in America throughout his journey of coming to terms with his identity, humanity, and status as a whole, nailing every single concept he lays forward with absolute perfection. Whether it’s the ignorance wobbles of “Hood Politics” the gut wrenching suicidal thought of “U” the politically charged anger of “The Blacker the Berry” or the false hope of “Alright”, Kendrick brings in a well molded perspective that is solely unique to him, yet remains singular in his own way.

Jamie XX — In Colour

Leave it to the producer of The XX to make me like song featuring Young Thug (“I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times”) and make one of the best electronic albums in recent memory. Warm and immediately accessible and electrifying with tons of satisfying depth to them that make each and every song rewarding, tracks like “Girl”, “Gosh” and songs with his XX cohorts (“Loud Places”, “SeeSaw”) will stick with you (and in your head) long after you finish playing them. Jamie took his sweet time recording this album enough to put one of the biggest indie pop outfits in the world on hold to do so, and was rewarded handsomely in the end.

Hiatus Kaiyote — Choose Your Weapon

An interesting but underdeveloped album with a Grammy nominated song featuring Q-Tip later, this Austrailian neo-soul outfit has managed to craft their own signature sound with a bliss ho-hum one second and blazing electronic synths in another. The warm energy of “Molasses” juxtaposed with the beatnik rhythms of “Atari” with the eclectic mashup of all styles in “Jekyll” can leave you breathless trying to catch up to it all, whether it’s their frantic energy, Nai Palms soulful and beautiful vocals (where it’s at her best on “Fingerprints”) or the ingenious lowkey single of the year in “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk”.

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment — Surf

For those wanting more of Chance or more rapping, you gotta understand this: THIS IS NOT A CHANCE THE RAPPER ALBUM. However, it does bring Chance’s abundant joy into the mix with the debut of Surf. Tracks like “Just Wait” and “Slip Slide” showcase the other talent the group has to offer, while Chano shows no signs of faulting lyrically either, as “Miracle” and “Warm Enough” show that he’s more than apt to hang with some big stars (Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, Big Sean, Janelle Monae) in their space as well. Mixing live instrumentation with its eclectic styles keeps the record fresh throughout 52 minute listen.

Sufjan Stevens — Caroll & Lowell

Seven albums in, and not only has the most innovative indie singer-songwriter of his time manage to reinvent himself once again, but he brings forth what may be the best album of his career thus far His songwriting excellence shines once again on tracks like “The Only Thing” and “Should Have Known Better”, displaying the heartbreaking love Stevens had for his parents. Though the production is easily his most stripped down of his album, it’s this exact approach that makes it hit all the harder for it.

Vince Staples — Summertime ‘06

To think that a rapper who was only previously known for guest spots on an Odd Future record would make the best hip hop debut album since Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is still a wild concept itself, but even thinking his first album would be a double disc affair is even crazier. But as “Senorita”, “Norf Norf” and “Street Punks” are set to remind you, this record is serious business, and it’s even crazier that it all worked. No I.D. lends Vince some of his best production in years that hits you hard despite some songs being over in a flash.

Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear

Humorous and cynical, Josh Tillman’s knack for songwriting is still as great as ever. From the harmonic synths of “True Affection” to the soul influence of “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, the beautiful range shown throughout the album is one that immerses you instantly, and even a few that make you genuinely laugh at such politically charged tracks such as the self-deprecating humor of “Bored in the USA” (sitcom laugh track notwithstanding). The former Fleet Foxes bandmate has never sounded better.

A$AP Rocky — At.Long.Last.A$AP

After taking an extremely long break from the biz in London after exploding onto the scene (along with the surprising passing of his former mentor A$AP Yams), A$AP Rocky returns with his best commercial project yet with even crazier ideas, better songwriting and most spectacular production and guests to accompany him. From Miguel on “Everyday”, Danger Mouse as the executive producer, a reinvigorated Lil Wayne on “M’s”, Kanye West soulful production (and drunk ramblings) on “Jukebox Joints”, MIA on “Fine Whine” and even Mos Def closing it with “Back Home”, A.L.L.A. shows substantial growth while also retaining Flacko’s signature charm and flow as well. Excess that remain gully is the name of Rocky’s game and it’s never been better than it is here.

Leon Bridges — Coming Home

Music revival is one of the slipperiest slopes to cross in this day and age, as it can either win you acclaim or date your music and reputation from the start. Fortunately, Leon Bridges translates this old school love into a great album from start to finish. As the title track “Coming Home” transports you back to where artists like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding were surpreme, Leon makes the environment crackle like the jukebox it and other songs like “Lisa Sawyer” and “River” were meant to be played in.

Earl Sweatshirt — I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

Ever the loner in Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt releases his 2nd studio album that manages to be bleaker and more interesting than his preceding album. Surprisingly well produced by himself throughout (along with one Left Brain credit) songs like “Grief”, “Mantra” and another scene stealing Vince Staples verse on “Wool” create a dark atmosphere for a more livelier sounding, monotone-free Earl to showcase his lyricism and cynicism in one fell swoop.

Drake — If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late

Easily his most aggressive and confident sounding album to date, Drizzy managed to shock his audience with an album that nearly reinvents his sound while knowing what still can pull in radio plays at the same time. Whether it’s the hyperactive “Energy”, the catchy melody of “6 Man” and “10 Bands” or sheer boastfulness of “Used To”, “Legend” or “6 God”, Drake leaves no expense into making this project (still unclear what it should be referred to) one that may even be bigger than the album he on the way later this year.

Miguel — Wildheart

As Miguel opens the album with the words “Accept the new, don’t mingle on the “past”, Miguel manages to reinvent himself and blend a myriad of styles into one of the best R&B albums since Channel Orange. Breaking into bad boy gangsta of “NWA” with an appropriate verse from Kurupt, the disco like groove of “DEAL”, the sexy rhythms of “Coffee” and the Jai Paul produced “FLESH”, and his varied songwriting from the expressive freedoms of “A Beautiful Exit” or the aggressive, hilarious lyrics about wanting to fuck like they’re being filmed for a porno in “the valley”, Miguel’s idiosyncratic style knows no bounds, not even to himself.

Shamir — Ratchet

Shamir is one in a long line of pop aficionados (Charli XCX, M.I.A.) that is quietly reinventing the approach to the genre. However, it’s the dark and wonky sound that songs like “Call It Off” and “On the Regular”, the downtempo and melancholy feel of “Youth” and downright madness of “Make A Scene” make this an album that betrays normal pop conventions that embraces all the sleaze but shows that more emotional moments such as “In For The Kill” that help the fellow Vegas native wear his heart on his sleeve.

Oddisee — The Good Fight

Oddisee has always shown his strength as a producer yet always faulted on his rapping. Though as the song “That’s Love” shows, Oddisee has been hard at work trying to master his hands at both. “Want Something Done” highlight his frantic flow, with “A List of Withouts” bang some new age boom bap in many coming-of-age tales. Blissful, ambitious, and consistent throughout, The Good Fight sharpens his jazzy, free formed flow that leave him only more room to grow from.

My Favorite Games of 2014

I am perhaps acting a bit prematurely in posting my favorite games of the year now, but with all the tiresome negativity that has hung over gaming culture like a cloud lately, at times making it difficult for me to remember why I care about games at all, making me wonder if I wouldn’t be happier just walking away from them altogether, I just don’t want to wait another ten days to talk about the games this year that reminded me that I love video games and believe in their ability to contribute far better things to our culture than what they’ve so sadly been contributing lately. (This is also my own little personal gesture of counter-programming to the currently airing Game Awards, which I am not watching. They have a category called “trendiest gamer.” And some people wonder why games still aren’t taken seriously by most people.)

2014 was not a particularly strong year for games. There were many reliably, predictably solid big-budget mainstream entertainments, but, in my limited experience, anyway, there were few games that were truly exciting from a creative standpoint, genuinely innovative or unexpectedly meaningful or beautiful. But the two games at the top of my list are, I think, truly great achievements that play within familiar formats (adventure games and AAA action games) but deliver experiences that are, both narratively and mechanically, unusual, captivating and deeply moving.

10. Mario Kart 8

It’s a great, gorgeous Mario Kart game!

9/8/7: TowerFall Ascension/Samurai Gunn/Nidhogg

What a wonderful year for gleeful, frenetic, accessible multiplayer action. There was a real renaissance this year in competitive games that have the kind of depth that you don’t have to learn dozens of combos to appreciate. They’re about position and timing, and from incredibly simple mechanics they extract an exhilarating variety of thrilling situations. My favorite of the bunch is Nidhogg, for the thrill of its sword fights,  the strangeness of its environments, and for the glorious Commodore 64-ness of its soundtrack, its chunky visuals, and its use of color. 

6. Bayonetta 2

I may not think that Bayonetta is the sex-positive feminist icon that some think she is, but I do think she has starred in yet another extraordinary action game, a deliriously inventive and energetic epic with far and away the most amazing combat setpieces and the most satisfying combat systems of any game this year. 

5. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I could not believe the endless inspiration on display in the level design of this game. Almost every stage had some moment that made me laugh with glee or made my jaw drop in surprise. But what really makes Tropical Freeze special for me is the way in which it’s not just a bright, cheery platformer. As with the Donkey Kong Country games of the SNES era, Tropical Freeze has a number of moments when the visuals and music and gameplay come together to create something strangely, eerily beautiful.

4/3: Alien: Isolation/Dark Souls 2

I have never feared and hated an enemy in a horror game the way I fear and hate the alien in Isolation. I wrote recently about how, in its unpredictability and its invulnerability, its ability to strike at any moment, the xenomorph became a representation of some very real fears. 

Dark Souls 2 allows you to confront your fears in a different way. As I wrote in June

I like that in Dark Souls 2, there is no real escape from the despair. You are alone in a bleak and desolate landscape. While so many games get so bogged down in lore, rooting their events to a specific time and place that is not our own, Dark Souls 2’s dreamlike narrative simplicity—a curse, a king, a land in despair, ancient evils that must be overcome—lets your quest in it take on all kinds of symbolic meanings.

You see other players as phantoms; they are vaguely defined, can’t be touched, and disappear as quickly as they appear. Like getting bittersweet glimpses into a life you wish you could be playing a more real part in, but that you just can’t reach. Does it make you feel less alone, or more alone? Sometimes I fall asleep or wake up in this body that still often feels all wrong to me, thinking that the effects of a lack of touch can seep into your soul like a sickness, or maybe a curse. But maybe they can also be healed, someday, if you survive the quest.

You can call on other players for help, and then they can have an impact on your world, but it can’t last. As soon as they’re defeated, or you conquer the area’s boss, your companions are sent back to their own games, their own worlds. And I think about how everything is fleeting, how things end before they get started, how there’s no chance for real feeling, for real love, to take hold in our lives without time. But sometimes it can’t be escaped, the reality of facing time alone with our own soul before we can give ourselves to and find ourselves in others, overcoming despair, finding hope or giving up.

2. The Last of Us: Left Behind

There are so many things that make Left Behind extraordinary. It’s downloadable content for a AAA action-adventure game that makes concessions to the genre it’s operating in, with sequences in which you have to kill a bunch of dudes, but it is not primarily about this kind of violence. By using a flashback structure to keep the violent sequences entirely separate from the core story, Left Behind manages to focus on the wonderfully complex and believable relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley. Though Left Behind’s running time is brief, it gives us a strong sense of the multifaceted relationship between the two teens, and as they talk and argue and laugh and play together, as they tell each other jokes and ride carousels and take photos pretend to play video games together, the bond between them comes to feel more real than any bond I’ve ever felt between two on-screen characters in a video game. (I say onscreen because I think that last year’s Gone Home explored similarly nuanced, psychologically complex territory in its own, different way.)

The bond between Ellie and Riley isn’t just developed in cutscenes. The game takes mechanics that we’ve previously associated with fear and dread and brutality and recontextualizes them as the stuff of play, letting us participate in the moments they share. But the exceptional writing is also essential to our investment in these characters. Like real people, Ellie and Riley are scared and guarded, yearning to reveal things to each other but also terrified to ask for what they want. And when the two finally kiss, in a moment of honesty that Left Behind carefully builds up to and earns for its characters, the emotional release is extraordinary.

Left Behind leaves me haunted by big questions, real questions about grief and loss. What does Ellie do, what does a person do, with memories of love when faced with the possibility of never knowing love again? Do you find strength and joy in the recollection? Or does it just make facing your reality that much harder?

Left Behind is a beautiful and heartwrenching story about loss, and about the things that stay with you. It’s also a wonderful example of how AAA games can tell different kinds of stories, if they really want to.

1. Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3

The Daft Punk album Random Access Memories starts with the song “Give Life Back to Music,” which I think is what Daft Punk was consciously trying to do with that record: to give a heart and a soul, to give life, back to electronic music. I think Kentucky Route Zero is the adventure game equivalent. It is trying to recreate the feeling that people like me used to get when playing adventure games–say early Sierra adventure games–that we were actually in some sense coming into contact with another world, a world that existed there in the electron guns and cathode rays.

Tonight at the Video Game Awards, Sierra founders Roberta and Ken Williams received an award for the incredible work they did in shaping the adventure game genre. 

Kentucky Route Zero knows its roots. In act 3, you meet a woman named Roberta, a character who is clearly meant to recall King’s Quest creator Roberta Williams.

And then, in this game, in this computer game world that feels more alive with imagination than any game world in recent years, you enter a world within a kind of living computer called Xanadu. Xanadu suggests the early text adventures and graphical adventures that formed the genre KR0 half-exists in. 

It is, at least for me, as someone who has always had romantic notions about the worlds that exist inside computers, a transcendent sequence–one of a few transcendent moments in this act. It is a sequence that imbues not just KR0 but games in general with a sense of the magical, the inexplicable. The sense that there’s a ghost, a soul in the machine.

What’s really majestic, though, about Kentucky Route Zero, is the way that it imbues its own American setting, and, by extension, the America in which I live, with that sense of the magical and inexplicable. It’s an America in which people are lost, but looking. An America in which you never know what you might find out on the open road. Loneliness and friendship. Heartache and hope. Silence, music, or something that falls somewhere in between, something you think maybe you heard but you’re not quite sure, what with all the static on the radio.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game I can’t get out of my heart. I don’t know what it all means, but I know that it is speaking to me.

Grimes In Reality

Cover story: Grimes started as a fantasy project, then became too real. Now Claire Boucher is taking back control and showing the world that pop stars can be producers too.

Claire Boucher is behind the wheel of her white Ford hybrid, talking faster than we’re moving through space. There’s a faint ring of blue around her hairline—lingering make-up from an eight-hour photo shoot in Hollywood this morning—and her acrylic fingernails are clicking lightly against the car’s touchscreen, fussing with the levels of bass, treble, and mids. The plan had been for her to play me her still-untitled, three-years-in-the-making fourth LP in the car, but now, driving down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, she seems reluctant to let any of it play for more than 10 seconds at a time. “It just sounds so tinny in here!” she exclaims, repeatedly raising and then completely lowering the volume on a guitar-studded power-punk anthem called “Flesh Without Blood.” “They told me I’m not supposed to play all the songs. I hired these people to help me not fuck up with the press. Fuck! I just really want to play you these songs.”
Boucher, 27, is referring to Roc Nation, the Jay Z-helmed management company she signed on with in December 2013. She announced the affiliation with a Tumblr photo of her tattooed hands throwing up the Roc: “I’ve joined the x men,” the caption explained. There seemed to be a little bit of truth to that. Just a few years after its scrappy beginnings in the Montreal DIY scene, her conceptual pop project Grimes had landed Boucher on the brink of stardom, with a Billboard-charting, multiple-year-end-list-topping album in her 2012 breakout, Visions, plus fashion cosigns from Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen, among a dozen other big names, and the sort of fanatical cult following best measured by the scores of lovingly hand-drawn fan portraits she uploads to her Tumblr. There was certainly something superhero-like in her ability to pen charmingly off-kilter, globetrotting pop songs using rudimentary tools (she recorded Visions using Garageband)—and, as the budgets grew bigger and video treatments more involved, in the aesthetics of the Grimes character herself, which seemed to draw on an eclectic mix of heroes and antiheroes, from the 11th century polymath Hildegard Von Bingen to Marilyn Manson and Sailor Moon.
Today, though, riding on just three hours of sleep, she seems a little nervous, a little distracted. She spent the past week making a foray into professional acting that she can’t tell me very much about, and she only has a few weeks left to finish the new record, which is slated to drop this October on 4AD. In a T-shirt and shorts, her home-dyed hair piled into a scraggly white, green, and purple bun, she’s hardly recognizable as the formidable heroine triumphantly raising a sword to the sky in the video for Visions single “Genesis.” For one thing, she doesn’t really know her way around Los Angeles yet. Following six months of self-imposed exile in the mountains of Squamish, a coastal region of British Columbia, and some time in Vancouver, she and boyfriend James Brooks, whose own musical projects include Elite Gymnastics and Default Genders, relocated to L.A. just this past September. “I got to a place where I didn’t need to run away from the entertainment industry anymore,” she says of the move. “I just had to do that to make sure I could get to a place psychologically where I wouldn’t go insane.”

Boucher has lived in town long enough to have a favorite take-out spot, but not long enough to name a sit-down restaurant where she might hold a quiet conversation with a journalist. So we head to an Italian restaurant her publicist recommended. It turns out she’s also relatively new to driving—too new, I soon learn, to fiddle with the car stereo without accidentally driving a couple miles in the wrong direction, only narrowly avoiding a minor fender-bender while abruptly pulling into a turning lane. As we wait for the light to change to green, I comment to Boucher that driving in Los Angeles seems terrifying. “It’s not that bad,” she replies, swinging us into a side street so we can drive back the other way. “It feels good getting control of it.”
Like many studio rats, Boucher says navigating daily life can sometimes be a challenge. “It’s important to be cognizant of making sure that you eat every day, and eat enough food, and sleep at night,” she will tell me later, speaking of the athletic recording schedule she’s been keeping for the new album, which sees her pulling 12 to 16-hour studio shifts at a time. “[Remembering to take care of myself] sounds really basic, but for me, it’s not basic.” This morning, Boucher emerged from the studio wearing a brace over her right ankle—a sprain from jumping off a riser during her recent cross-country tour with Lana Del Rey, another seasoned architect of seductive, fictional worlds. Her ankle isn’t the only thing that has made the last few weeks of recording a test of endurance. Occasionally, during our time together, Boucher frowns and clutches her abdomen, plagued by a chronic stomach ailment she says has forced her to subsist almost exclusively on a diet of vegan burritos and spaghetti.
This March, Boucher released “REALiti,” a gauzy power ballad that seemed to grapple explicitly with the trials of daily existence, even as the neon-colored video, shot during a recent tour in Asia, showed Boucher leaping, twirling, and air-boxing her way through life: Oh, baby, every morning there are mountains to climb/ Taking all my time/ Oh, when I get up, this is what I see/ Welcome to reality. With its playful handclaps and crunchy synths, the song seemed like something of a return to form after 2014’s “Go,” a pounding, EDM-inspired club tune that she’d penned with Kansas City-born producer and longtime best friend Mike Tucker, aka Blood Diamonds, as part of mysterious songwriting project for Rihanna. The pop star didn’t end up using “Go,” so they released it as a surprise. But according to a New York Times interview from September 2014, the song “upset” a lot of Grimes fans: “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, Grimes is pandering to the radio,’” she explained. But the article’s subsequent revelation that Boucher had scrapped the long-awaited new solo album she’d been working on, while true, got misreported in the slapdash music blog headlines that followed, leading many to believe that she had tossed the LP because of negative responses to “Go,” even though the song had never been intended for the new record to begin with.
“It wasn’t so much a scrapped album,” Boucher tells me. “It was just [songs] that didn’t make it onto this album. Basically, I was doing a bunch of stuff, and maybe a bit before ‘Go,’ I was like, ‘You know, my life is getting a lot better. I’m going to put all this stuff on a hard drive and start again. There were just hundreds of songs—on this album that I’m making now, there’s at least a hundred songs that won’t make it onto this. I think all musicians have songs that don’t make it onto records.”

While Visions wasn’t Grimes’ first album, it was the first to find widespread acclaim, giving the delay between that 2012 success and her announcement this past March that a follow-up was on the way the appearance of a sophomore slump. Still, Boucher says that starting over was worth it. “Everything I made after that was 10 times better,” she says, explaining that the extra time gave her room to expand upon the electronic palette that Grimes had become known for and mine the ’90s rock and punk and nu-metal that soundtracked her adolescence. “I want people to feel, if they’re buying something, like I put my heart and soul into it and I improved myself as a person and a writer.” Boucher recorded and self-engineered every instrument on the new album herself, including guitar, drums, keys, ukulele, and violin—but she had to learn how to play them first, in addition to mastering a whole new battery of production programs and learning how to mic her own vocals. (On one track, she used the very same tube condenser mic that Taylor Swift did to record Red, a fact that Boucher, a longtime fan of the country-star-turned-pop-idol, cites with pride).
The “Go” misunderstanding still bothers Boucher, though, as do the many misunderstandings that came before, especially the ones that cast doubt upon her total and categorical authorship of her own work. Boucher’s Tumblr, beyond functioning as a kind of perpetually in-progress moodboard for the Grimes project—a hodgepodge of anime, cute animal pics, female pop divas, and mist-covered East Asian mountain ranges—logs the successive disappointments and controversies she’s experienced as a public figure, mostly at the hands of the same volatile internet that powered her rise. An entry dated April 23, 2013, when she was living in Squamish, lists several of them: “i dont want my words to be taken out of context. i dont want to be infantilized because i refuse to be sexualized […] im tired of the weird insistence that i need a band or i need to work with outside producers […] im tired of being considered vapid for liking pop music or caring about fashion as if these things inherently lack substance.”
That’s the other thing that makes the Grimes character something of a superhero figure: Boucher can’t seem to stop speaking out against the things that upset her, even as her earnestness frequently backfires against her. Whether she’s talking about the environmental perils of plastic bottles or explaining her reasons for declining the ALS ice bucket challenge (partly because she didn’t want to waste water in the midst of a California drought), even her non-music posts become fodder for music blogs. In February 2013, after Pitchfork recycled yet another of her Tumblr updates as a news story, she posted a follow-up to her original post: “my tumblr is not a news source […] i dont like it when what i say on here is taken out of context and posted elsewhere. its not a story and its not an official statement.” Then she deleted most of the posts on her Tumblr, and Pitchfork ran a news update about that.

A couple days in Boucher’s orbit, though, makes it easy to see why even the most well-intentioned journalist might have trouble getting her story straight. When you ask her about her childhood in Vancouver, or the time she spent touring the world following Visions, the gaps resonate just as loudly as her words—doubtless the product of her not wanting to “get into a situation,” to quote a phrase she frequently uses when she’s venturing into territory she perceives as dangerous. Formative career moments—like the first time she heard Mariah Carey and realized she wanted to make pop music—shuffle a few years forward or backward in her timeline, depending on the conversation. Long stretches of her biography fall prey to the sort of forgetting that comes with processing life’s hard knocks: “I think I, like, blacked out just a lot of that time in my life,” she says of the last few years she spent in Montreal. “It was really fucking awful.” Boucher peppers words like “insane” and “nervous breakdown” so liberally throughout her accounts that it’s hard to tell if she’s speaking literally or just talking the way she talks.
Partly because of the way she narrates it, it’s the larger-than-life aspects of Boucher’s story that stand out most: the French-Canadian grandfather who taught her how to shoot a rifle when she was in elementary school; the strict, hyper-athletic family that counts Olympian ice-dancers in its ranks; the Catholic schooling, and the years of pre-professional ballet training, and the locker hall bullies. A Wiccan phase in seventh grade petered out after she “got cursed”: “I was casting a spell, but the rosary crumbled in my hands, and it was really scary,” Boucher remembers. Ballet training ground to a halt when she showed up to class one day with a shaved head: “I think at some point in grade eight, I started smoking pot. I was just listening to System of a Down. I would show up to ballet, and all the kids would make fun of me, and no matter where I went everyone thought I was insane, so I was just, like, ‘I cannot be here. I have to do something so I cannot be forced to do this anymore.’” By the end of high school, these same contradictory impulses—the rigorous self-discipline of an art-form like ballet, combined with a longing for escape—would surface again in her projected career path. Boucher matriculated to McGill University in Montreal in 2006, thinking she was going to be an astrophysicist.
That didn’t end up happening, though the course load she tasked herself with was probably no less ambitious: a double major in philosophy and “the science side of psychology,” with minors in Russian language and a field called electro-acoustics, a realm of neuroscience concerned with the way the brain processes noise. “We did, like, psycho-physics and shit,” says Boucher. “I never took calculus, and you [were supposed] to take calculus to get in, so I constantly had to be teaching myself calculus behind the class. I mostly just tried to prove that I could.”
In retrospect, her attraction to mathematical problem-solving seems to foreshadow her present-day preoccupation with the technical aspects of music production. Still, science’s allure wasn’t strong enough to keep her on track for a career in brain research, especially after the summer of her junior year, when she left Montreal with a friend to live on a houseboat on the Mississippi River. The story, she says, was wildly blown out of proportion by the handful of local newspapers that picked it up at the time, though some of the finer details were true: “We did actually have chickens, but we gave them away because it’s not nice to bring chickens on a boat,” she says. “And then we had some ducks, but they escaped. Ach! I shouldn’t say this. We didn’t have a typewriter, and we weren’t trying to do Huck Finn. The main thing that’s true is the potatoes. We had lots of sacks of potatoes, but that’s not that weird.” Eventually, the cops caught up with them, and the boat was impounded.
Looking back, Boucher says this surreal interlude in her biography was probably partly a way of coping with some of the harsher realities of her life in Montreal: “a shitty job postering in sub-zero weather”; a breakup with longtime boyfriend Devon Welsh, who’d go on to have a recording career himself, as indie singer-songwriter Majical Cloudz. Perhaps most painfully of all, she’d experienced the deaths of two friends in the span of one year. One of them was David Peet, a fellow Vancouver transplant she’d met frequenting the city’s punk and industrial circuit as a teen, who’d recently moved to Montreal and opened the DIY venue Lab Synthèse with Sebastian Cowan, another pal of Boucher’s from growing up, and some other friends. Boucher lived a block away from the Mile-End district warehouse that housed the space, and she occasionally worked the door there. Before Peet tragically committed suicide in March 2008, he and Boucher had been thinking about starting a band together.

Boucher says that she cannot recall the year when she first started sketching rudimentary songs out on her laptop—only that she started taking music a lot more seriously following Peet’s death. “After that, I was like, I guess I should probably try doing this by myself,” she remembers. “I mean, it seemed wrong not to. It seemed it would be a failure to a person, I guess.” She set to work home-recording her first two albums as Grimes: Geidi Primes, an 11-track collection of dreamy, looping freak-folk inspired in name and subject matter by Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel Dune; and Halfaxa, which provided glimpses of the stronger melodic backbone and heavily multi-tracked vocals she’d later expand upon with Visions. Both albums came out in 2010, via Montreal’s Arbutus Records, the scene-defining, bizarro-pop label that Seb Cowan started after a series of police visits led Lab Synthèse to close its doors, in November of 2009. (Until October 2012, about a year before she signed with Roc Nation, Cowan would also be her manager.) After being put on academic probation for a string of absences, she dropped out of school in early 2011.
Around the time she released the homegrown clip for “Vanessa”—a poppy, angelic-sounding single from a 2011 split release with Montreal musician d’Eon that would become her first real breakout track—the idea of a “fake pop star” would emerge: Grimes as a fictional character played by Boucher, crooning songs that the real-life Boucher had written for her to sing. “I didn’t want to be a pop star—I wanted to be like Phil Spector,” she says, pointing to her natural shyness. “I wanted to be the person behind the scenes who no one ever had to look at—who just could be crazy and be a genius and have a performer fulfill their creative wishes. But that wasn’t possible, so I just had to do it myself.”
As far as creation stories go, there couldn’t be a more colorful one than the widely mythologized tale about the making of Visions, which she recorded during an extended, nearly sleepless Adderall binge inside her Montreal apartment, racing against a last-minute deadline. “It was, like, less than a month, but basically I did lock myself in a room,” Boucher tells me, for clarification’s sake. “I did do a lot of drugs. And I did not eat very much. And I blacked out the windows. But I also did sleep at times, and [former Arbutus employee] Marilis [Cardinal] brought me food and Devon [Walsh] brought me food and [local musician Matthew] Duffy came and visited me,” she says.
Years out from the experience, she says she’s past the period in her life where she’d willfully put herself through such ascetic extremes: “It’s not good to do. I’d probably die if I tried to do that again. It’s really bad for your heart, it’s bad for your mind, and it’s bad for your soul. Great moments of clarity came when I was not high.” Still, those ecstatic, quasi-religious transports remain key to her creative process, which, she says, is “halfway really intellectual and mathematical and halfway going so deep in my head that I just black out and don’t remember what I did.” When I ask her how one might get into that zone without drugs, she smiles. “I don’t know how to make this not sound insane,” she says, but “I guess you just have to get close to God.”
Visions sounded like a revelation too—when it came out at the top of 2012, as a joint release on 4AD and Arbutus, Boucher was entering a music industry in transition. For the first time in history, quirky bedroom musicians with nonexistent support teams were becoming viral sensations overnight, thanks to low-cost production software and the ability to connect with fans online. With its curiously pitched vocals, off-kilter club beats, and ecstatic pop climaxes, Visions felt like the sound of a generation of scrappy upstarts sort of figuring out how to make pop music as they went along. As glowing reviews rolled in and Boucher’s star rose, Grimes seemed to incarnate the heretofore impossible paradox of a DIY pop star—not just because she was becoming famous with music that sounded “weird,” but also because she’d honed every aspect of the project, from the vocals and the beats to the home-grown clothes and haircuts, entirely herself.
“I think she’s the patron saint of this generation, where everything’s possible,” Tucker explains to me over coffee. The internet has been kind to him too: after getting his own start on the DIY circuit, he’s currently a producer for the likes of Katy Perry and the K-pop star CL, as well as a protégé of Skrillex.

Ask Boucher how her life changed after Visions came out, and she’ll pause for a beat, tell you that story “is longer and more intense than any of the other stories.” The optimism of her early career has dampened after years of press drama, nonstop festival play, and the shock of being loved by thousands of people—very deeply and all at once—but not necessarily understood. There’ve been growing pains associated with both sides of the Grimes project—public face and behind-the-scenes mastermind—but the thing she’s struggled most with is the industry’s seeming inability to recognize her as both. “I think it’s just the constant, almost daily offers of people to produce your music for you,” she says. “I was raised in a house with four brothers. My dad was like, ‘You’re gonna be good at basketball. You’re gonna be the fastest runner. You’re gonna be good at math.’ I wasn’t raised as a boy, but I was not just raised as a girl. I don’t wanna say I don’t identify as a girl, but I don’t fucking give a shit about gender. And the thing that I hate about the music industry is all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Grimes is a female musician’ and ‘Grimes has a girly voice.’ It’s like, yeah, but I’m a producer and I spend all day looking at fucking graphs and EQs and doing really technical work.”
There were also threats to her physical safety, online and off. “I get threats constantly—all female musicians do,” she says. “People want to, like, rape and kill you. It’s, like, part of the job. One time I was backstage at a show, and there was this random guy in my dressing room, and he just grabbed me and started making out with me, and I was like, Ah!, and pushed him off. Then he went, ‘Ha! I kiss-raped you’ and left. Shit like that happens quasi-frequently. When I play a show I have to have, like, three bodyguards in front of the stage, and then I have to have bodyguards on the side.” Boucher’s fantasy pop star project had become her actual daily life, only to present unforeseen realities: “I think the real world was always just this thing I had to deal with, and then Grimes could be a thing which was how I wished it was,” she says. “Which is weird because [then Grimes became my real world], and now it’s becoming this whole other thing.”
By the end of 2013, the nonstop touring schedule had left Boucher on the verge of physical and spiritual collapse: “There was a point where I remember putting a hand up and grabbing a piece of my hair, and I could just pull my hair out,” she says. “I was, like, beyond exhausted, and I was just really unstable, and it was just super uncool. It was at the point where it was going to destroy Grimes.” Boucher severed ties with her management team and relocated to Squamish. “I had to let everything unfold without me,” she says, “and then I could come back to it once it had settled down, and I had gotten a team together that could handle it, and I had my mind under control and my business under control.” (Shortly thereafter, Boucher signed on with Roc Nation).

It was in Squamish that Grimes recorded “REALiti,” along with dozens of songs that never made it onto the new album. Looking back, she says that period of quieter, healthier living and relative solitude—while productive—wasn’t exactly the idyllic retreat she’d been hoping for. “I was just thinking about years of shit that I’d just never dealt with,” she says, referring to the whirlwind of death and heartbreak she’d left behind in Montreal. “Becoming a healthy person—that’s a really hard thing to do. Getting away from all that stuff and for the first time having to confront things and just being like, ‘Man, you have nothing to escape into right now: you cannot escape into drugs, you cannot escape into alcohol, and you can’t really escape into music because music is now your job.’ I kind of went through this period where I had no way of dealing with anything, so I was writing these really depressing songs, and nothing was fun at all.” That’s another reason why Boucher scrapped the album that she made: beyond the fact that it didn’t feel like enough of a sonic departure from Visions, it was simply a little too gloomy. (Still, she says she’ll “probably put it out for free at some point.”)
Since moving to Los Angeles, Boucher says she’s been “slowly integrating back into society.” The proximity to her management team has helped, along with a close-knit group of friends, many of them also transplants from the Canadian weird music scene: singer-producer Cecil Frena, aka Born Gold; Megan James and Corin Roddick from Purity Ring; Mike Tucker and his partner, the Atlanta-born singer HANA, who recently sung backup for Grimes on the Lana tour. She says her boyfriend, James Brooks, has also been instrumental in smoothing her transition back to earth. They met via Tucker three years ago, and Boucher describes his role in her life as a nurturing one, one that defies traditional gender scripts: “It’s interesting: the only time we ever fight is when I’m, like, too much like Don Draper,” she says, giggling. “He gets me up in the morning; he brings me breakfast in bed; he brings me coffee. He makes sure I eat. He’s not a housewife, but I wouldn’t be able to do this without somebody helping me with all the ‘life’ stuff. Everyone I’ve ever dated before this, there got to be a point where it would be like I had to either be less successful or break up with them. He’s not in the management team, but he does so much shit—like if I need something researched, if I need to know if something’s a bad idea or a good idea. If I’m Khaleesi in Game of Thrones, he’s like Tyrion. If I’m the Godfather, he’s the consigliere.”
Driving around with her in Los Angeles, you get the sense that Boucher is still finding her bearings. When I ask her to take me to a favorite local haunt of hers, she can’t think of anywhere to go—her house is off-limits, due to construction, and she says there’s usually “too many hipsters” hanging around her favorite burrito stand, meaning that she doesn’t want to put herself in a situation where she’s likely to be recognized. Eventually, we hatch a plan to wind our way up Mulholland Drive and gaze out over the city from a scenic lookout, only to abandon the idea after several missed freeway exits and confusing GPS directions lead us into a cul de sac up the side of a canyon. There’s a private driveway that looks promising, but Boucher is worried about getting caught, so we end up just pulling over to the side of the road and watching the sun go down over Hollywood, dwarfed by an endless expanse of green and brown hills and zigzagging roads.

The next morning, at a cinderblock-walled recording studio in the Arts District downtown, Boucher wears an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt and leggings covered in cartoon eyeballs. She looks a little more fresh-faced than yesterday, having slept 11 hours instead of the previous night’s three (she says she fell asleep on the couch upon arriving back home, and Brooks carried her to bed). Boucher tracked the majority of the new record at home, but she has spent the past few weeks working out of the vocal booth in a studio Tucker rented to work on new music of his own. Because bass from his beat-heavy productions tends to bleed through the wall, Boucher says she’s been starting her day after he leaves for the night, typically working through the late morning and then listening to her progress in the car. They’re strikingly modest digs for a musician of Grimes’ size, but she seems to have already made them home, lining the room’s bare surfaces with various framed photos of Dolly Parton, miscellaneous stuffed animals, and, because she’s been on a Genghis Khan kick lately, a tacked-up flag of Mongolia.
Around the time she and Tucker wrote “Go,” Boucher says she’d been seriously considering putting life in the public eye on hold to concentrate on writing songs for other musicians. What she didn’t anticipate was that trying to work with other people would only render her conviction in the Grimes project even stronger than before. “It was not just the Rih thing,” she says. “Going into studios, there’s all these engineers there, and they don’t let you touch the equipment,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, can I just edit my vocals?’ And they’d be like ‘No, just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.’ And then a male producer would come in, and he’d be allowed to do it. It was so sexist. I was, like, aghast. It made me really disillusioned with the music industry. It made me realize what I was doing is important.”
Listen to just a couple songs from the new album, and you’ll hear flickers of that righteous indignation. It’s there in the staccato rocker “Flesh Without Blood,” which crests into a gloriously skybound climax: If you don’t need me, just let me go. Another song—a “diss track about male producers” that layers helium-filled vocals over dense, tumbling breakbeats—draws inspiration from the final scene of Alexander Pushkin’s lyric poem Eugene Onegin. “It’s about a guy who acts like he knows everything and then comes back crawling on his knees, which has happened to me so many times,” says Boucher. Still another—a ferocious-sounding club track with twanging subs and planned verses from three female MCs whose names she isn’t ready to reveal—will be about “being too scary to be objectified.”
“They’re not all diss tracks, but there’s a lot of diss tracks,” Boucher tells me. “I think all my other albums were, like, sad. And this time it’s more happy and angry. I live in my own house that I pay for. I bought all this equipment myself. I control my own life now. No one has any say over what I do or where I go or when I do it.” This time around—perhaps because she doesn’t want to feel hemmed in by the Grimes persona—she’s says she’s also planning on rolling out some new imaginary alter egos: “Okay, there’s Grimes, but there’s other ones too now—and they’re like a girl group,” she says. “There’s Screechy Bat, who’s the metal one. There’s one that’s super vampish and sexy now—I don’t know her name yet, but she’s like the Ginger Spice.”
Maybe, for all her escapist misadventures, Boucher’s long and rocky relationship with real life has been leading her to this: to proudly owning the reality she’s been living for the past few years, that of a larger-than-life pop star who still does everything—from recording and engineering her own music, to editing and even color-correcting her own videos—like she’s figuring it out from her college bedroom. That’s why, in describing the unique, at times painfully paradoxical position she occupies in the pop world, she’s probably more inclined to align herself with Nine Inch Nails mastermind and inveterate DIY-er Trent Reznor than anybody else: “Trent Reznor started out making music on computers,” she says. “He was smart. He was into math. He was coming at it from an intellectual perspective and a scientific perspective. He made Pretty Hate Machine all by himself. That’s where I came from.” In returning to the alternative rock sounds she gravitated to in high school—not just in Reznor but also in mainstream iconoclasts like Marilyn Manson and Billy Corgan—she says she’s also coming home to the truth of the Grimes project: “Representing the alternative,” she says. “Not having to answer to a big label. Not having to answer to anyone artistically, but also being visible. I think being visible is important to me because I’m trying to represent something politically.” I ask her what she thinks that is. “That women can do technical work,” she says without missing a beat. “That I can be a producer and a pop star and also very experimental.”
Ask her the same question on another day, and she might tell you a different story—but that was the story she told me, and it’s a story that ends with Aristophanes, a Taiwan-based female MC whose music involves rapping slinkily in Mandarin over seasick, glitchy beats. Boucher discovered her a few months ago, on SoundCloud; she’s one of the mysterious collaborators slated to appear on the new Grimes album, and during the last hour of my visit, they’re scheduled to video-chat on Skype.
It’s 6PM in Los Angeles and 9AM in Taiwan, and adding to the surreality of the moment, they’re just e-meeting now for the first time—Boucher at her studio console and Aristophanes inside a sun-flooded apartment she shares with her sister in Taipei. Giggles and awkward silences ensue; the women volley simple questions back and forth in English for some time, two people at opposite ends of the earth trying to find some common ground. Then Boucher asks Aristophanes what it’s like being a girl rapper in Taipei, and the title of their collaborative nu-metal track, “SCREAM,” begins to make sense: “I think being female is sometimes so weird,” Aristophanes explains. “Sometimes at my gigs, the male MCs and producers will say, ‘That’s not rap; that’s not hip-hop.’ Maybe because they’re judging my skill. I can’t feel very comfortable hanging out with them, so I just stay in my home and spend more time on music.”

Posted: JULY 28, 2015