Dazed is a British magazine, launched in 1991, that focuses on music, fashion, film, art, and literature.
InterviewGrimes is a new breed of pop star. The creation of 23-year-old artist Claire Boucher, her music comes from the most experimental of places — her latest album Visions was written in a three week, speed-fuelled period of solitude in Montréal during which she barely slept or showered — yet she counts TLC and Aphex Twin as equal influences and has toured with Lykke Li. She's an ex-goth who has the fashion world going gaga but dresses day-to-day like a grunge kid, in oversized rap t-shirts borrowed from her step-brother. Her left hand is covered in tattoos she's given herself, including the number 8 (her lucky number), an alien head and a line that traces her wrist like a bracelet. Further up her arm is her most recent hand-drawn tattoo: a Sierpinski triangle, a symbol of infinity. There's no smoke and mirrors with Grimes — what you see and hear is really what you get.
"Pop music is really interesting because it's an expression of sheer sensuality", she explains, sitting on a hotel terrace in her hometown of Vancouver. The sun has set but she doesn't seem to notice the cold in a battered fur coat that used to belong to her grandma, and big, black combat boots. "When I hear Toxic by Britney Spears... people say that s*** is vapid but you can hear that the people who made that song were having a great f***ing time. I would love to do that. That's the thing I think is really beautiful about pop music. I try and mix that up with other s*** because I like music that can be really challenging but, at the end of the day, Grimes is about what feels best".
Boucher is acutely aware of the balancing act she's playing: "I can make dumb f***ing hits all day. That's almost the issue — there is so much of that in my computer but that's obviously not how I want Grimes to be perceived".
How does she want to be perceived? She takes a sip from a mug of tap water, having refused anything from the mini-bar. "If there's anything that would mean something to me as an artist, I would want to be part of the cultural dialogue. Not just a meme or popular or whatever. Like when they're making documentaries about No Wave and they talk about those artists involved like Lydia Lunch — those people are now permanently part of the cultural dialogue. That would be my dream. I would rather have respect among a small group of people and be considered important and innovative than be widely successful and make tons of money".
With Visions, she is on the verge of having both. It's a powerful record that somehow manages to feel both avant-garde and accessible, that explores ideas of physicality and perception through a pop lens. She created everything, from the beats and lyrics to the cover art and videos. At the album's heart is Be A Body (侘寂), Boucher's favourite track on the album. It was written partly in response to Post Physical, Denver producer Pictureplane's ode to the internet age, and partly due to a newfound love of R&B following a tour with Brooklyn's lo-fi R&B crooner How to Dress Well. "It's probably the song on the record that takes most from the contemporary dialogue, I would say".
On the flip side, Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U) is as poignantly personal as pop can get: "Since I've been doing this I kind of had to end a three-year relationship. It's s***ty but I just can't be in a relationship. I'm at a point in my life when I couldn't sacrifice doing something like this for something like that. So that song's about choosing to make art and be successful as opposed to being gratified socially or in love".
That's not all Boucher has sacrificed for her art: "I have horrible insomnia and the only time I sleep is when I'm in a relationship. I went to bed way after the sun rose yesterday and woke up two hours later. That's just how I roll". The insomnia gives her a slightly hyper but endearing edge. She drops crazy stories the way other people discuss the weather.
"One of my favourite memories from high school is being accused of throwing a snowball at the Queen", she says, apropos of nothing. "She was driving through Vancouver for some reason. It was a snow day and everyone was outside. The teachers were like, "If anyone throws a snowball, the consequences will be huge". Everyone was obviously so amped up, waiting to see if anyone would do it. The Queen drove by and nothing happened. There was this big sigh of relief. Then this single snowball sailed through the air and hit the back of her car. Everyone erupted. It was like a madhouse. I was accused because I was a goth but I didn't throw it".
Another side effect of her insomnia is a nervous energy that means she runs everywhere: when grabbing a coffee from the counter; nipping to the bathroom; and, later that night, helping to get someone into the downtown club that her friend Blood Diamonds is playing at. The two of them make a striking pair: next to the broad, 6ft 7" frame of Blood Diamonds she appears even smaller but they have the same mischievous sense of humour, bouncing quips off each other and calling themselves brats. Against the mainstream backdrop of clean, corporate Vancouver, it seems like Blood Diamonds provides creative refuge to Boucher. He plays a lively set of tropical-ish synth-pop and she joins him on stage at the end for a K-pop song they've written together called Phone Sex. It's fun and energetic; the crowd love it. After DJing together she leaves at 3am but doesn't go to bed, instead spending nine hours editing the footage to her Be A Body (侘寂) video. Like she said, that's how Grimes rolls.
Visions is in fact Boucher's fourth album as Grimes but her first for legendary British label 4AD. Her debut, Geidi Primes, was issued on cassette by Arbutus Records, the Montréal collective/label set up by her manager Seb Cowan. Boucher credits him and Arbutus as crucial to her creative development. The two met in Vancouver but cemented their friendship at university in Montréal, "where everyone cool goes". Boucher initially studied Russian literature before transferring to neuroscience, which, in a roundabout way, also seems to have influenced Grimes: "I've studied the brain and music and we can measure the degree to which electronic impulses are sent off but there's no explanation for how that becomes music in your head. It's just a mystery. It's just magic". She got kicked out for poor attendance just before completing the four year course. She's nonplussed about it — making music's what matters now. Geidi Primes was Grimes at its most embryonic and Boucher seems a little embarrassed by it now. "I would never have made a Dune concept album if I had thought anyone was going to hear it", she laughs. Halfaxa followed, a much bolder, more mature album that found her skirting a rave aesthetic and first developing the Enya-evoking vocal layering that characterises Visions, fluidly slipping from a deep seductive burr to the high-pitched shrill of a creepy alien-child.
"Everyone associates Enya with their parents and dinner but she's crazy. Literally hundreds of her layers of vocals. She was one of my biggest inspirations, as a technician. She was really involved in the production of her records. She's like a genius in my mind", she says, going on to explain: "My voice is really the best tool I have because I don't play any instruments. It's my violin, in a sense".
"I hate Vanessa! I've always hated Vanessa. As soon as I'd made it I was like, I hate this!" she practically yelps and then laughs. Why? "It's an empty song. Vanessa was literally: I'm going to make a pop song. It had nothing to do with emotions". Conversely, she couldn't be more enthusiastic about the video to Vanessa, which subversively explores ideas of femininity. It's incredibly slick but was made on a budget of just $60 after fashion photographer John Londono encouraged her to try her hand at directing.
"If it wasn't for John, I wouldn't have even thought of making a music video. Until then I hadn't even thought of making an image or anything like that. I hadn't even thought of music as possibly being a career. But when Vanessa came out and that was a thing, I was like... Oh, that's actually a very powerful tool. It was really, really fun and really rewarding. That was a big step in me becoming more mentally powerful. That video changed my mind, my game or whatever. Previous to that it was like running shoes at all times. I've always had crazy hair and s*** but then it was like, why not make everything as beautiful as it can be? Why wouldn't you do that?".
While she notes that it could be construed as frivolous, Boucher is also conscious of the transformative power of clothing. She pulls a black beanie out of her pocket as if to demonstrate and slips it over her long, green-tipped hair. "I wear this hat because it makes me feel like a producer. It makes me feel legitimate constantly dealing with a bunch of guys. For some reason it's my macho hat. I can wear anything and then put this hat on and the boots and then I feel tough".
The transformation from her appearance at last year's South by Southwest festival is striking. With her hair scraped back and in denim shorts and a plain tank top, she looked young and vulnerable at the Gorilla vs. Bear and Mexican Summer showcase but held her own despite the stage swamping her. Just a couple of months later, following the release of the Vanessa video, she was touring with Lykke Li, marking a turning point in her most important evolution: not musical but mental.
"After playing a show in front of 4,000 people, which is pretty much the worst thing I can possibly imagine, it totally broke down all my inhibitions. Before I made music I had really bad social anxiety disorders, I had panic attacks all the time. I was really not a happy person. Since I've started making music it's the first time in my life that I've been a happy person".
Not that happy equates to easy. Boucher has battled, and beaten, intense stage fright to get where she is now: "The first year I couldn't finish a show, I'd be crying after every show. That was a big mental thing — every night this horrible looming thing of having to play this show. But there's something so alive about that. I'm really living a real life". The pain/pleasure thing? "Yeah, and everything being such a risk all the time. And everything being so unstable. It's like, what are we going to do tomorrow? It's very day-by-day. I think that makes time go really slow, which is really nice. When I think about things that happened a couple of months ago, it feels like years ago. I am so afraid of dying that I really want to live as much as possible". She laughs, but she's not joking.
In a throwaway comment in an interview late last year Boucher described her music as "post-internet", but then retracted it on Twitter when the term understandably cropped up in every subsequent interview. She was right though: Grimes personifies the 21st-century collision of cultural ideas and aesthetics, of the mainstream and the underground. With pop's dialogue having been for so long stuck in a tired, never-ending battle to out-sex, out-shock and outshine, Grimes has it in her to be a new kind of pop icon for our times — and she's never been more ready. "For me, music used to be escapism but now it's like, why do I need to escape from my life? Why can't my life just be amazing?".
Interview by Ruth Saxelby.
Photographs by Hedi Slimane.
Styling by Robbie Spencer.
Make-up by Gemma Smith-Edhouse.
Hair by Tomo Jidai.
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 Montréal 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 s***. 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 f***?"
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 s*** 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 s*** like that".
Moving to Montréal 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 f***ing 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 f***ing love Kathleen Hanna, but feminism is not what motivated me to become a musician. The reason I have f***ing 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 s*** 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 s*** 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 Montréal 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 s*** 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 f***ing 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.
Interview by Owen Myers.
Photographs by Roe Ethridge.
Styling by Robbie Spencer.
Make-up by Yadim.
Nails by Alicia Torello.
Hair by James Pecis.