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Grimes: ready to fly

Kickstarting her own DIY pop revolution, we visited the Vancouver star to talk insomnia, neuroscience and sheer sensuality

Taken from the April 2012 issue of Dazed:

Grimes 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 Montreal 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 stepbrother. 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 shit is vapid but you can hear that the people who made that song were having a great fucking 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 shit 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 fucking 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 shitty 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, the Montreal 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 Montreal, “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 fouryear 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.” 

“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” – Grimes

However it was Darkbloom, last summer’s split LP with Montreal artist d’Eon, and specifically the video to album track “Vanessa” that really catapulted Grimes to an international stage. 

“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 shit 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?”

Hair Tomo Jidai at Streeters using Shu Uemera Art of Hair; make-up Gemma Smith-Edhouse at Streeters using Chanel; photographic assistants Jordan Grant, Philip Dunlop; styling assistants Elizabeth Fraser-Bell and Charlotte Dennis; hair assistant Michiko Yoshida; make-up assistant Rachael Dove; digital operator Devin

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