grimes: weird science
After three years of intense highs and lows, the quixotic auteur explains why she’s coming back down to earth with her most personal album to date.
Text Owen Myers
Photography Roe Ethridge
Styling Robbie Spencer
The last time Grimes saw me, I was dressed as a chicken gimp. I’d responded to her Twitter call-out for fans to dance at her upcoming shows, and at London’s 2012 Field Day festival I downed a vodka, shoved on a fluffy white dress and PVC mask and bounded on stage as the space-gun synths of Claire Boucher’s bedroom pop project blasted out to 7,000 Londoners and hit them in the heart. To witness her metamorphosis was incredible: she’d arrived a couple of hours before, bundled up in her parka with sunglasses on, having had no sleep and in desperate need of coffee, and now she was like a pop idol from another dimension with the magnetism of Morgan le Fay. Flinging off her cap, Boucher seemed to have gained a new life-force from the screams, lights and smoke as she drenched her burnt-orange hair with water, offering another bottle to me. She smacked her hand down on the sampler to drop the beat, and grinned like an eccentric engineer having a eureka moment.
Three years later, I’ve ditched the clucky costume and am reunited with Boucher in New York. Walking down Fifth Avenue towards the Guggenheim Museum, she wears a once-bright, now-faded loose vest depicting the comic book superhero Ms Marvel, and a plaid shirt that she’ll later pull off to use as a makeshift blanket. To glance at her, perhaps the only clue that the 27-year-old isn’t still a punk playing basement shows in Montreal is an Alexander Wang sneaker bag slung over her shoulder, an item created from classics reworked for a new purpose. In hindsight, it may not have been the best idea to visit one of New York’s top tourist destinations on a Sunday in summer, but it’s easy to forget that the low-key Boucher is kind-of famous.
The queue snakes out the door at the museum, and she starts getting asked for selfies before we can even get inside. “I can’t believe you’re here!” gasps a blonde teenager from Europe, pulling out her iPhone as the DIY pop powerhouse pulls a nervy ‘Where do you want me?’ grin. Does this happen often? “If you go to certain parts of Brooklyn it can be weird,” says Boucher. “You get recognised but you’re not in danger. There’s not going to be a swarming. I’ve only had swarmings a few times.” She’s looking forward to playing a Dior-sponsored gala at the Guggenheim in November, and quickly darts past a bottleneck of tourists to peer up into the spiralling chasm of the atrium. It is epic in scale, but imperfectly suited to live acoustics. “I see what they were saying about the sound,” she frowns.
Boucher has always had a perfectionist bent, and is in the habit of pushing herself to extremes to realise her musical multiverse, whether sneaking into the motocross to mosh with jocks for her breakout video, “Oblivion”, or cloistering herself within blacked-out windows to record her last album, Visions. With a wildly creative and often subversive aesthetic, she’s created some of the most unique records and videos of the decade, drawing from easily recognisable and esoteric styles to create an ultra-modern audio-visual amalgam. As a result, she’s become an icon for those that like to blur boundaries, binaries or both, speaking to an audience unusual in scope for an artist on an indie label. In pop’s hallowed hall, Boucher may be the one with the home-dyed fringe and odd socks, but it’s hard to deny that she electrifies the room.
As we cross Central Park, Boucher happily chats away, words spilling from her mouth like a cranked-open jelly bean machine. She always seems to be testing out new connections and configurations of ideas, prefacing grand political statements with “I don’t know if this is an argument I believe in, but…”, or describing a new song as “if No Doubt did Studio Ghibli”. Talking to her isn’t stressful, but her pace can feel intense. Apparently the human brain has 100 trillion synaptic connections; with Boucher you can believe it.
If you look through her millefeuille of vocals, you’ll find a highly attuned eco-consciousness on Grimes’ new album, which has been through working titles of Fairy, Avalon, and Queen of the Night (after Mozart’s supernatural anti-heroine from The Magic Flute, not the Whitney Houston classic). Boucher can’t reveal the final name of the album, planning to make this announcement the day before it hits iTunes in October. “Lyrically, it’s more political and less abstract than before,” she explains. “Like, really trippy free association about nature and shit. There’s a song that’s from the perspective of a butterfly in the Amazon as people are cutting down trees; there’s a song that’s from the perspective of angels who are polluted, so they’re crying polluted tears. I feel like it’s more about the Earth. I think I was more in society when I was making it, so it feels more grounded.”
Most artists on the verge of global success see dollar signs. Boucher saw the devil. “Just before the Visions cycle started, I had my tarot done three times in a week,” she says. Every time, the cards showed the devil – a powerful arcane symbol of excess, overindulgence and bondage of any kind. As the release of her career-defining album propelled her to worldwide prominence as Grimes, the prophecy was realised before her eyes. In a sense, she’d always thrived on being too pop for indie and too indie for pop; now, the world was catching up. In a series of short, sharp shocks to the system, she played sold-out shows around the world, partied with politically dubious princes and, with her eclectic pool-slides style feted by the fashion community, DJed for Donatella. As Boucher’s visibility increased, suggestions that she relinquish creative control of her music came pouring in from, say, dance producers who wanted “an indie chick on their beat”. She always declined.
Boucher has collaborated with artists in the past, such as Mike Tucker (AKA Blood Diamonds) on EDM summer jam “Go”, Jack Antonoff, and ex-boyfriend Devon Welsh of Majical Cloudz, but a track falls short of being “Grimes canon” if it’s not written and produced by her alone. Sitting in the mottled shade by Central Park’s Belvedere Castle, the sunlight catches Boucher’s face as she sips her citrus cooler. “If I was just doing vocals it would be, like, bang-bang-bang,” she says. “The production is what takes a long time. I’m a weird artist, because I’m held up to the standard of a bunch of pop singers by my fanbase. A lot of people who love Grimes love Lana (Del Rey), or Charli (XCX). I don’t want Grimes to be some kind of pristine pop star when I’m not. I don’t think the music was ever that pop.
”Yet judging by her new song, “Flesh Without Blood”, Boucher may have a problem on her hands. Following this year’s hook-driven demo “REALiTi”, it’s a soaring, instantly replayable power-pop kiss-off (actually directed at a female) that could well have been written by a crack team of Swedish pop masterminds. “I don’t think it sounds like the current Top 40,” she says, sceptically. “You’re the first person who’s said that.” Whether she likes it or not, it seems primed to be her “Umbrella” moment, cementing her trajectory from cult phenomenon into a pop superstar. The question is: does she want it to be? “OK, so this is how I feel.” She takes a deep breath. “I hate that all music right now has to exist in the context of the Top 40. I just want to make music that’s good. Some good music is pop, some good music is not pop. Everyone is so driven by career stuff now – ‘Can you reach the most people? Can you get on the radio?’ It’s just like, maybe I don’t give a fuck?”
A self-ruling spirit runs in the Boucher family’s blood. The second-oldest of five siblings, Grimes Jr spent much of her childhood in the mountainous wilds of British Columbia. “My grandparents live out there,” she says. “They are survivalists. They have their garden where all their shit comes from in case there’s a war from America.” Describing herself as a “weird kid who drew a lot”, Boucher attended a strict Catholic school with a blanket ban on the teaching of science – let alone evolution. Always inquisitive, she remembers “getting in trouble very early on because I questioned God and shit like that”.
Moving to Montreal at 18 to study psychology (with a minor in electroacoustics) at McGill University, Boucher was not particularly dedicated to academia, but found an education in the city’s burgeoning indie community, particularly the scene around local loft venue Lab Synthèse. “She was fun to be around,” recalls Emily Kai Bock, who started a zine with Boucher called Beaubien and went on to co-direct her phenomenal “Oblivion” video. “She was shy and creative, smart and interested in weird things like deep space and learning Russian. I lived at Lab Synthèse at the time, where I made performance-art pieces using our friends as actors, and Claire played violin behind the stage.
”In addition to singing backing vocals for lo-fi pop prince Sean Nicholas Savage, Boucher began to create music of her own around this time, lifting the name ‘Grimes’ from a Myspace genre she’d never heard of and putting out the Dune-inspired Geidi Primes in 2010 on Arbutus Records. But in a city where everyone mildly left-of-centre seemed to be in a band, Grimes was in danger of getting lost amid the noise. Still developing her sound, Boucher took speed while making music with a friend one day. When he came down, she was still up, so she pulled an all-nighter on GarageBand, crafting the shuffling, spectral “Weregild”, which opens with her enticing her cat to mew (“Say something for me, Voignamir!”) and would later appear on her next album Halfaxa. Finding a sweet spot between her lo-fi aesthetic and pop structure, all of Grimes’ sonic signatures were in place. “I was like, ‘Wow, this song’s so much better than anything I’ve ever made!’” she told Dummy at the time.
“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anyone taking drugs as an important part of being creative, or feel that it’s necessary,” she says today. “Because it’s not. Sometimes I play shows and there are a bunch of 15-year-olds in the audience with their parents and I’m like, ‘I can’t continue to romanticise this in public.’” All the same, she doesn’t mind people knowing that narcotics played a part in kick-starting her creative process. “I think it’s good to be a little transparent. It’s the truth. If anything, I actually feel really proud that I’ve gotten to a lot healthier place in my life. You can either keep being a dick and fucking around with your health, or you can get healthy because you need to play shows every day and it’s really hard. I think it’s good that there’s an obvious trajectory. You can look at pictures of me from two years ago and I look so much less healthy than I do now. I’m not trying to pretend that anything didn’t happen.
”Transparency comes easily to Boucher, as quickly becomes clear if you follow her online, where she’s always keen to start a dialogue with those that may or may not be like her. Sometimes she’ll give practical advice, like when she wrote an Ableton tutorial for amateur musicians, or sometimes it’s more political, as in the Instagramming of her body hair. She follows through in her work, too, whether giving a platform to internet kids like Brooke Candy in her “Genesis” video, putting unknown Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes on the beat (riotous new track “Scream”) or inviting fans to dance on stage with her. “Claire has started a cultural revolution of sorts,” says Candy. “Rather than ripping us off, she shone light on us.”
Boucher is secure enough in her position not to be threatened by others, but it continues to be a private battle. Following the success of Visions, she attended a number of sessions at Californian ‘writer camps’, where teams of songwriting wizards shape the sound of next year’s Billboard Hot 100. In an environment where it felt like art could play second fiddle to commerce, she not only hit a creative impasse, but was disrespected and sidelined by male co-workers. “You get good people, but there are just some bad people,” she says, looking downcast. “I went into a work situation with people being sexually creepy. It was more the engineers at the studio. You might be in there with someone cool, and then an engineer says, ‘Here’s my number,’ and I’m like, ‘Can you not give me your number while I’m at work and you’re supposed to be working for me? For real?’ I’d like to be able to go to work and not be asked on a date. I’d like to go to work and be allowed to touch the computer.” The experience inspired a ‘diss track’ on the new album. She will, at least, have the last word.
“The fact that I have to fight to be allowed to do my own work is crazy,” she says. “I became super-feminist in reaction to the industry. It’s not like I came in and said, ‘This is my thing.’ I mean, I fucking love Kathleen Hanna, but feminism is not what motivated me to become a musician. The reason I have fucking armpit hair is… I don’t actually like it, aesthetically! I’m just too busy to deal with it. I am a working woman.” She says her “life has been significantly easier” since Miley Cyrus started posting pictures of her armpit hair this year.
Like Cyrus and her high-profile Happy Hippie Foundation, which helps homeless and LGBTQ youth, Boucher’s views seem to align most closely with intersectional feminism, which accounts for other cultural factors such as gender, sexuality, race and class. On a personal level, she doesn’t relate that strongly to female gender identity in a traditional sense, writing earlier this year on Twitter, “I vibe in a gender-neutral space so I’m kinda impartial to pronouns.” Today, she echoes that statement. “I just want to be a human being. I don’t want to have to be gendered all the time, and having the constant discussion about feminism really genders me and makes me just feel so much of… something that I have never really identified with.
”Hyper-aware of how her presentation is perceived, on any given day Boucher may remind you of a thrift-store Juggalette, the telekinetic daughter in Tarkovsky’s Stalker clad in her babushka, or David Bowie circa Aladdin Sane. “She’s pluricultural in the way she dresses,” says Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière of Boucher’s unpredictable eye. “She’s a hybrid girl: techno and hard, but at the same time classical and soft.” While she’s never relied on a stylist to shape her image, Boucher has a synergistic relationship with designers. “As a musician, I get where they are coming from, because they’re on rolling deadlines and have to create new shit all the time. Fashion as a whole can be a corporate entity, but the actual designers behind it are creative people who are under a lot of pressure, making stuff and then being judged for it publicly. I mean, when people judge my shit they aren’t judging a song I bought” – the writer camps are still playing on her mind – “they’re judging my life.” Does it feel like laying your heart out on the table? “Yeah. It’s your heart, and your skills, and your ability to perform, and your charisma.
”The lyrics of Boucher’s songs are often emotionally charged, but sometimes the cloak is so iridescent that you don’t immediately notice the dagger lurking beneath. “Oblivion” was written after an incident of sexual abuse that she experienced in Montreal a few years ago. “I was literally in tears when I sat down to make that song,” she says. Four hours later, she had translated her trauma into a digital-age cult smash with a message that reached millions (18m on YouTube and counting). “For me, that’s the best motivation for music. You’re turning emotional existence into a product that people can understand, and you get a high off that. I think the first reason I make music is that it’s a therapeutic way to deal with things. I always make the best shit when I’m upset. If you start off really upset and you work and work till the sun is rising and you are finishing, you can tell it’s really universal and it’s this great thing… That high is unbeatable; that’s the greatest fucking high on planet Earth.
”A week later on Skype, Boucher is at home in LA and appears pink-haired in front of a wall collage of pop-culture heroines: Pamela Anderson snarling, Beyoncé in a balaclava, Lady Gaga regally reclining. She’s putting the finishing touches to an art book inspired by tarot cards to accompany the vinyl release of her new album – and this time, the devil won’t be rearing his horned head. She quickly turns round her sketchbook for a flash of a graphic illustration that still has the old album title, Fairy, at the top. The self-created ecosystem around her work may be as eclectic as ever, but on her new experimental pop odyssey, the gloves are off as never before. “I think my music used to be more escapist,” she says. Visions didn’t really acknowledge reality, but this record is more about looking reality in the face.” Leaving Claire Boucher in her shrine to pop icons, there’s a look in her eye that tells me this may not be reality as we know it. She returns to working on the arcana of her own design.
Grimes’ fourth album is out in October