Coup De Main is a New Zealand magazine, launched in 2009, that focuses on music and fashion.
InterviewClaire Boucher good-heartedly says, for what must be the 39th time today. For any artist agreeing to do a three hour photoshoot in the midst of a busy touring schedule with Laneway Festival around Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia, it would be far too easy to succumb to jet-lag, especially when working around the clock with little to no days off. But not Boucher, known best under the moniker of GRIMES — an artist who not only released a critically acclaimed album last year, but also has a live show like no other, and at her core is deeply passionate about every aspect of her career and her art; something that is obvious when in her presence for any length of time.
Boucher's 2015 Grimes album, Art Angels, is no ordinary album. It's not simply a collection of songs track-listed together, it's a brilliant masterpiece that Boucher wrote in full, produced in full, played every single instrument heard on the album, and also created every original artwork to accompany each song on the record. Boucher has also directed and art-directed each of the album's music videos to be released so far — there are more on the way, her brother, Mac Boucher, has promised — and even contributed her own custom animation to the visually spectacular Kill V. Maim's video. In an age where collaborating is considered imperative for musicians to chart and the music industry exploits short-cuts to success by pairing much-hyped producers with ascending artists, Grimes exists as an independent entity with Boucher orbiting her own solar system, choosing to create autonomously.
Grimes has an artistic integrity like no other, yet still, is unmeritedly subjected to scrutiny over everything "Grimes". Every move she makes is questioned, and every lyric is over-analysed to the point where its meaning becomes lost. Music has become something of a weird anomaly in the arts world when it comes to consumers — myself, included — expecting artists to offer official justification and rationalisation to accompany their art. It's bizarre to consider. No-one ever questions a visual artist behind the meaning of their work, so why have we become so accustomed to pressing a musical artist to explain the meaning behind their music? And why is there such a deep sense of entitlement about this?
Lyrics are so often deeply personal, it's what separates music from other art-forms. It's why when you hear Grimes sing on Flesh without Blood the universally relatable lines, "And you had every chance / You destroy everything that you know", one can't help but absorb those words and link them to your own life. And although Boucher revealed after the release of the song via Twitter that, "Flesh without blood isn't about a breakup! I don't write about love anymore", it's easy to translate her words to fit a different context of your own choosing. And therein lies the problem. The disparity that now exists between the public — or the Internet, rather — deciding the meaning behind a song, and the actual meaning it holds for the musician.
"The things they see in me / I cannot see myself", Grimes sings on California, alluding to problems that she's had with the press — including misunderstandings of songs and numerous news articles written based entirely on her Tumblr posts. It's a no-win situation for artists when questioned by music journalists about the meaning of their music — they're portrayed as "difficult" if they're not forthcoming with anecdotes about how a song was written, or its true meaning. And when music is consumed by a critical mass, its meaning can be stripped and changed altogether, with online commentators endlessly debating the meaning and construction behind each song. These unfiltered and unverified online posts can even lead to misinformation in some instances — which in the case of Art Angels, has induced a widespread misconception that the Grimes song California samples Rihanna's Pon De Replay, with numerous websites and album reviews stating incorrectly that it does.
The kindness that I first encountered during Coup De Main's Grimes cover-shoot, continues when we reconnect over the phone at a later date with Boucher. She thanks me for waiting for her to go through airport security, calling me from a gate lounge ahead of a long flight — leaving Laneway Festival in Perth to fly to Berlin, with a stop in Abu Dhabi on the way — and also apologises for eating a brownie at the same time as our call.
Art Angels is a testament to Grimes' immense artistic talents, from Butterfly (written from the perspective of a butterfly in the Amazon while trees are being cut down), to SCREAM (which features Boucher screaming alongside Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes), and the ultimate empowerment song, Venus Fly (featuring Janelle Monáe). Kill V. Maim is another one of the album's many stand-out tracks, a song written from the point of view of a gender-bending, time-travelling version of Al Pacino's character from The Godfather II, because, Boucher says, "I had watched the movie the night before I wrote the song". And why not? Writing from other perspectives isn't something she thinks too much about during her songwriting process, Boucher explains, "It's not really that serious... I think anyone does that when they write any song. Beyoncé wrote Single Ladies, and she was obviously married to Jay-Z when she wrote it. I think a lot of times when people write songs, it's not just 100% of their lived experience or whatever".
The album also features a sequel song — World Princess part II being the follow-up to World ♡ Princess from her second studio album released in 2010, Halfaxa. When questioned about the link between the two songs, Boucher says, "I just felt like it was a really iconic song title, and I just wanted to use it again, and obviously thematically it really works with what the lyrics of the song were talking about. I always wanted to make a World Princess part II, I don't really know why. But it just seemed like a good song for it".
Art Angels comes at a significant time in musical culture — the state of the music industry is in such a place that artists are expected to release an album at least every two years in order to continue their career, and stay relevant in the eyes of the media, and their fans. This cyclical album roll-out is particularly important in a musically oversaturated world where fans are so fickle, and can forget about an artist easily. The reality of being a casual musician is much harder once you've earned a sizable fanbase, and Boucher has experienced the worst of this. Since the release of Visions in 2012 and the critical acclaim that followed it immediately following, the press and fans alike, were so anxious for new Grimes — they demanded it. Similar to George R. R. Martin being urged to rush-release a new book in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series, Boucher was berated over and over for taking too long to release a new album.
But can you put a time limit on art?
Boucher firmly believes the culture of releasing albums has changed due to the mainstream music community, stating, "I think that's mostly the result of the mainstream music community, because I think most musicians, like, most straight albums that were actually written by the musicians — like The Fragile took five years, Downward Spiral took three years, Tragic Kingdom took three years. I think there's a culture where artists are just buying songs and not writing them, which leads to people just putting out albums every year, and that's just not really how it works if you're making your own stuff — and I think it's kind of unhealthy. Because it's a LOT of pressure, everyone's like, "Your album's taking so long, your album's taking so long", it's like, actually... I wrote Art Angels in like a year. This is way faster than most albums that are written by people who do all their own stuff".
When Boucher was working on Art Angels, she set her own deadline. After being rushed to create Visions in only a few weeks with pressure from management weighing down upon her, Art Angels was a more leisurely process — taking around a year to fully write. She says, "I kind of set a deadline, basically. I knew I wanted it out before 2016, so I think it was the end of August or something where I had to have all the songs done. I just sort of imposed a deadline upon myself at some point".
Boucher's immense creativity is fostered further through the artwork that accompanies the physical release of Art Angels, with one piece of artwork accompanying each song on the album. Some of the pieces are obviously linked to their song — Life in the Vivid Dream and California both have the titles drawn on them — but some are more perplexing. The artwork for Pin features a monkey, a killer whale, and an eagle, because, "It's a song about killing innocence I guess".
We spoke further about the creation of these art-pieces, and whether they were created before or after the recording of the album. "It was kind of different in every instance. Like there were some that were super... like the Venus Fly artwork for example, that's a painting I made for Janelle [Monáe] before I met her. And so it was definitely like that seemed like the right one for Venus Fly. Some of them were kind of re-appropriating old paintings that I'd done after the fact. The World Princess part II one too is obviously, the painting is very reflective of the song. So it's kind of half and half maybe, I had a bunch of paintings and then I was cutting them up with songs, then when the album was coming together I sort of finished the rest of them, and decided to make them coincide with the music".
Her artistry is something she explores in every facet of her life, and she reveals that someday she would like to be involved in the making of a full-length film. We should be so lucky. Just check out the credits for the Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream short-film music videos — "Written, directed, edited, coloured, and art directed by Grimes" — and you'll be next to petition for a Boucher-involved movie. Personally, I'm holding out for a vampiric gangster mob film with Kill V. Maim as the opening sequence — bring on The Oscars in 2017 (I hope).
The importance of a good live performance cannot be undervalued or understated. Every artist is judged on their live show — by fans, by the press, and also by other artists. Whilst making small talk with other acts on the 2016 Laneway line-up for New Zealand, I'd always ask who they were planning on watching themselves during the festival run. Unanimously, Grimes was the favourite of all, her peers showing her great respect — most noticeably, Goldlink and members of Health side-of-stage in Auckland, and the elusive producer SOPHIE, parked front-of-stage at Laneway Sydney.
Seeing Grimes live is an altogether other-worldly experience. Despite having seen her thrice throughout this year's Laneway stretch, it's a show I'm unfailingly still in awe of. Boucher is not only the frontwoman for her live show — athletically running around, as well as singing and dancing alongside her back-up dancers — but she also triggers all the live sounds for the show. There's also no denying that her tours and shows have the most inventive names ever — with the Rhinestone Cowgirls Tour, Ac!d Reign Tour, and March of the Pugs, serving as a testament.
Boucher is forthcoming about wanting to keep the show as it is currently, when I ask as to whether she would ever want to tour with a full live band. "No — the show's got a lot of live instruments in it already. I feel like it's pretty hard, everything is so sampled and so effect-ed, it would be almost impossible to recreate it with... I don't know, all the basses are synth-basses, so what would I do? Hire a bass-player and have them play the bass? It would just be weird. I don't think it would work".
The live show is so imperative to Grimes, that there's no way to do a stripped-back or easier version of it, and each night, Boucher brings a boundless energy to the stage. It looks like an exhausting show to put on, but she does it night after night — she once played 52 shows in 53 days; I'm tired even thinking about the reality of that — and, even if she isn't at 100% full health, as any human is bound to feel now and again.
The intensity of SCREAM is totally transformed live, with Grimes taking centre-stage, rapping not in Taiwanese, but in Russian, and screaming at the top of her lungs in each chorus. It's an act that sometimes shocks those in the audience, but simultaneously impresses.
Another highlight of Grimes' current stage-show occurs when her back-up dancers disappear from the stage, and a single spotlight shines down upon her, making Boucher look particularly angelic. Performing a cover of a well-known Latin song called Ave Maria — a song usually reserved for performances by high school choirs — Boucher reworks it into something distinct and "Grimes". She opens the song entirely a capella, dispelling any unfounded assumptions that Boucher hides her voice behind production when performing live.
When you go to a Grimes show, you'll notice the array of talented women, also performing live. HANA currently performs as Boucher's back-up singer and occasional guitar-player — as well as being a talented solo musician in her own right who often opens for Grimes — and Alyson Van and Linda Celine Davis, are two dancers that travel the world with Claire. They're responsible for the choreography in any Grimes performance, which injects another layer of energy into the show. Their individual talent is further showcased during their individual solos, as well as their inventive use of props — laser-pointers, ribbons, and Sai (a Okinawan martial arts weapon), which all contribute to the overall spectacle of a Grimes show. And all of the lighting? That's all also programmed by a woman.
Boucher says, "I'd like to have all women on stage, for sure. In the past when I've had guys on stage, people just assume they're the producer and stuff. But, honestly I just hire the best people, and a lot of them happen to be women".
The cost of being a musician on tour can take a personal toll — it's an overwhelming experience being in a different city every day, and working relentlessly 24/7 — but the only cost that Boucher voices major concerns about, is the environmental cost of being on the road. It's something she's been vocal about in interviews, and even, deliberately, has chosen a minimal stage back-drop consisting primarily of just a camouflage net.
Explaining the ways she consciously tries to lessen the environmental impact of Grimes tours, Boucher says, "We try to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible — even just the fact that our production on this tour can technically be folded up and thrown into one duffle bag, so it's not that heavy. And the crew is kind of reduced on this tour, a lot of people are doing double jobs which is good. But yeah, it does stress me out quite a bit. I probably won't be touring as heavily in the future... that's why stuff like the [Laneway] sideshows are good — playing to as many people as possible somewhere".
Boucher's passion for preserving the environment is reflected in every aspect of Grimes — with her management requesting real plates and cutlery to accompany any food served during her Coup De Main photoshoot, and a pitcher of water to be available instead of individual water bottles and disposable products.
Obviously a subject that Boucher cares deeply about, I asked her for five everyday things that anyone can — and should — improve upon in order to make a difference to the environment.
Boucher recommended via e-mail:
"1. Call ahead to hotels and ask them to only put the bedding and towels that you need in your room, since they legally have to wash everything in your room, even if you didn't use it.
2. Carry a stainless steel water bottle instead of buying water bottles.
4. Reduce dairy and meat intake.
5. Don't leave the tap running when you brush your teeth".
The accessibility of music production and music recording — especially in regards to its relationship with privilege — is also something that concerns Boucher. So much of music, and the success of music in the modern music industry, depends on money. If you can afford certain gear, or if you can afford to rent out a recording studio and hire an audio engineer, then you're more likely to succeed. It's a very real issue that Grimes is inherently aware of — and led to her in 2013 publishing a tutorial via Tumblr that recommended affordable microphones and set-ups, as well as giving people a basic outline of how to use the music software, Ableton.
I ask Boucher about the problem of privilege when it comes to music-making, and she ponders, "I think that's one of the big issues in music right now, is that it's only really... I think it's just really hard to be involved at all if you're not coming from money. On artists that are signed too — even like hiring a publicist is really, really particularly expensive, I think for most people. And most press won't write about you unless you have a publicist. So I think, especially, if there's any way to alleviate financial burdens on newer acts, from a gear perspective or a recording perspective, it would be super helpful and give a voice to some people who aren't as privileged".
If there's anyone in the music industry who I'd want to learn from, Grimes would be the one — and she freely imparts the most important lesson she's learnt in music production over the years. "There's a couple of things. You don't need a lot of low-end in the vocals, and you don't need too much... well, maybe not everyone, but for me, it was really hard to learn how to chill out on the low-end, because too much low-end can actually just be kind of annoying, and not sound good. Like when you're starting out you're always like, "Yeah, the more bass the better, as much bass as possible all the time", but that's definitely not the case".
Her involvement and care for fellow musicians in the industry also extends to the 2015-formed Eerie Organisation — started by Boucher and her partner, James Brooks — which helps up and coming artists; providing support and advice for those who are unfamiliar with the industry. Nicole Dollanganger was the first major artist to release music through Eerie Organisation — though they don't describe themselves as a record label, more as a platform — last year, with her debut studio album, Natural Born Losers. About working with Boucher and Eerie Organisation, Dollanganger told Coup De Main over the phone that, "Claire and James are just living angels. They are so knowledgeable and their intentions are completely genuine. They've always been genuine and authentic. They even said to me, that labels, if you don't know that world and all the ins and outs of it, can be completely overwhelming. Their intention is to support what they love and that's completely admirable".
As well as creating her own bodies of work, Boucher has also worked with other writers and producers — one of those being Jack Antonoff (of Bleachers), who has also produced for Taylor Swift, and co-written with Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen. Grimes features on the Bleachers song, Take Me Away, and the pair also wrote Entropy together for a Girls soundtrack. Boucher has also just signed to Antonoff's new publishing company, Rough Customer. In a statement released to media about the new signing, Antonoff said: "I wanted to start a publishing company to work with friends who are making important work. It really couldn't be more special to start things with Claire. She's one of my all-time favourite artists and a wonderful person. Her work matters on the highest level and I feel deeply proud to know her, have worked with her and now be involved here as well".
One of Boucher and Antonoff's writing sessions from several years ago also led to her being listed as one of the co-writers of Troye Sivan's song Heaven (on his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood) — despite Boucher not actually being directly involved with Sivan or his record. When asked, she disclosed, "I think I had just done a session with Jack, like, a couple of years ago, and he sampled my voice and then reversed it. When he was in the session with Troye, I think they used the sample — for top-line — but then re-recorded over it. I wasn't actually there at all. It's just one of those weird things".
In addition to strong working relationships with many of her musical peers, her relationship with fans is equally as reciprocal. Grimes fans are something special, and in Sydney recently, a fan bedazzled by hand a custom jacket with Swarovski crystals (spelling out Grimes), asking me to deliver the jacket to Boucher. Needless to say, Boucher happily posted about the jacket on her official Instagram account. The relationship between Boucher and her fans fosters creativity like no other fan-base, with her Tumblr being not only a space for sharing her favourite Lana Del Rey songs (Without You is one, and the lyrics to Ride now feature in her Twitter biography), but also for the re-blogging of fan-art and 'zines made in her honour.
I remember the first time I ever watched the 2010 film, Inception. It absolutely blew my mind. And although the movie ended leaving audiences confounded and perplexed, with the meaning of the ending completely up in the air, Christopher Nolan has never outrightly stated what the film's ending signifies. And part of what makes the ending of that film and so many other films, so memorable, is that eternal intrigue and curiosity. So perhaps we should treat Grimes in the same way, and never expect to fully understand everything about her, or even hope to. After all, the Oxford dictionary defines "art" as, "Producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power". Instead of trying to unravel Grimes, let's simply appreciate her.
Interview by Rose Riddell.
Phtographs by Garth Badger.
Make-up by Lochie Stonehouse.
Hair by D&M Hair Design.