Grimes The Accidental Pop Star
Published Feb 27, 2012No matter how tech-savvy she appears when producing music, conducting live performances or directing music videos, Claire Boucher refuses to join the 21st century and own a cell phone. "If I had a phone I would literally be answering the phone and text messages all the time," she explains from her father's Vancouver home over Google phone on her laptop. "That's one of the reasons why I got rid of my phone in the first place. I was having a nervous breakdown because I didn't have a life. Everyone I work with hates me because I don't have one."
For Boucher, relinquishing a phone is one of the few ways she's been able to keep some control of her life. "Everything I do is the exact opposite of what I want to do," she says. "I feel like I'm getting deeper and deeper into this insane thing I accidentally ended up doing. But it's pretty fun. It sounds like a complaint, but I just feel like I'm simultaneously Phil Spector cracking the whip and some poor girl being forced to do what he says. They both exist in my brain."
In the last few months, Claire Boucher's audio-visual project Grimes has received considerable attention in advance of her new album, Visions. She topped both NME's "20 Most Exciting New Bands of 2012" and Gorilla Vs. Bear's "Cool 2k11" list, was included as one of Stereogum's "50 Most Anticipated Albums Of 2012" and received the much-sought-after "Best New Music" rating from Pitchfork.
And then there was the announcement that arrived on New Year's Day that she had signed a worldwide deal with the esteemed 4AD Records, arguably the perfect fit for her surreal style of pop. (In Canada she will remain on Montreal's Arbutus Records, the label she has helped grow.)
No matter the accolades, the Montreal-based producer knows not to let the hype get the best of her. So, when she's called the coolest person in music by a taste-making MP3 blog, Boucher reacts with a self-deprecating tone. "I laughed and then thought I definitely wasn't as cool as Azealia Banks," she admits. "It's really nice of them. Gorilla Vs. Bear are my biggest supporters and I owe them a lot. But there are people on that list that are way cooler than I am. No one should ever get too comfortable with an idea of who they are. Press decides that you are this kind of meme, and that's how bands get fucked over." (Words one Lana Del Rey is currently living by.)
Grimes has described her multifarious music as "post-internet," but has recently abandoned the term, likely because it's followed her around like a bad stink. She told the Guardian that by "post-internet" she meant "the neurobiological difference between people who were born after the internet became a common, household thing and people who had their adolescence without exposure to the internet." Luckily for her, the term didn't turn into the next trip-hop or (gulp) witch house, the ill-fated subgenre that even Grimes has been mislabelled as.
Her third album, Visions, deserves its own genre, if not to celebrate her uniqueness, then to help people understand her ― for lack of a better word ― vision. The way Boucher sees it, the album incorporates influences "as wide as Enya, TLC and Aphex Twin, drawing from genres like New Jack Swing, IDM, new age, K-pop, industrial and glitch." That's definitely a tall order to fill, but her unique patchwork calls to mind the shapeshifting work of innovators like Animal Collective, Björk, Black Dice, the Knife and Kate Bush, whose influence seems obvious to everyone but Boucher herself. Last year she tweeted: "I don't listen to Kate bush, nor have I ever."
Truth be told, there's little to her music that is comparable to the work of others. Her trademark is her voice, which fluctuates between angelic falsetto and infantile cries, while her production is haunting, melodic, theatrical, danceable and spellbinding. It is a widescreen glimpse of what the future holds for pop music. And pop is where Boucher feels she belongs.
"I think what pop is lacking is experimentation and meaning," she explains. "Pop shouldn't be lowbrow and contained. A lot of music tends to be really accessible but emotionally limited, or pretty experimental. When I make music the number one priority is to feel good and then challenge listeners secondarily. I want it to be interesting and experimental because otherwise what's the point in doing it if you do the same shit every time?"
Visions finds that middle ground by introducing an array of unusual ideas and tethering them with the coherency and hooks that were missing from her previous releases.
"This is the first album that had a lot of intention behind it," she declares. "And it was the first album where I was able to think of something I wanted to do and do it. The other albums were more accidental. I would screw around and just keep the first vocal take on the record. This was also produced on a deadline, unlike before. I think the structural stuff just comes out of me obtaining an understanding of music, which is why it seems more accessible, but I really just think it's more coherent. Instead of just ambient, aimless mush, it's 'I'm going to bring back the chorus because I understand what a chorus is now.'
"Visions is the first album I've made that I felt okay about," she adds. "When I finished it I thought, 'this is a sick album.' Whereas, when I finished the other albums I didn't want to play them to other people, I was too nervous about them. It marks the point about me feeling competent about being a musician."
Becoming a musician was an unattainable idea during Claire Boucher's teenage years growing up in Vancouver. But when she began studying at McGill in Montreal, Boucher found herself assimilating into the city's vibrant music scene. She became part of a DIY arts community that gathered in the fertile Lab Synthèse, an illegal loft space used for gigs and recording, among other things. Though police shut the space down in November 2009, the seeds had been sown. (As for her studies, Boucher says, "I got kicked out and then tried to sign up for school in January of 2011 and it was not possible unless I paid a fine and reapplied. At that point I just saw it as an interference in my life.")
"All of my friends are musicians and slowly I became one because it seemed like the thing to do at the time," she explains. "This gave me the access to someone showing me how to record something. And all of the gear I used was just what my friends had. I'd say, 'How do I do this?' and then someone would show me. Like Raph [Standell-Preston] from Braids, I used the same pedal and keyboard as her. I really have to credit a lot of other people for how I learned to make music."
Boucher found that one of the only things she could offer friends in return for their assistance was grub. "With [labelmate] Flow Child, I traded him some food to come over to my house and show me how to use his sampler," she says. "I think I gave him a bunch of canned chickpeas. It wasn't a bad deal."
Like many amateur musicians, Grimes cut her teeth recording with Apple's GarageBand software. (She admits that she used it to record Visions, which is "really embarrassing," but has since moved on.) It was Animal Collective that inspired her to begin making loop-based music, which she was able to master in no time.
"I had this light bulb moment where I was listening to Panda Bear," she explains. "I realized what a loop was and how simple making music was if you based it off loops and just started doing that right away."
The first Grimes release was Geidi Primes, a hand-packaged cassette limited to 30 copies but offered as a free download in January 2010 by Arbutus Records (it was reissued on CD and vinyl in Europe via No Pain In Pop in 2011). Boucher describes it as "just a record I made that only 20 people knew about," however, blogs like Gorilla Vs. Bear were quick to pick up on it as "an essential go-to late night jam." A second full-length, Halfaxa, quickly followed in October, and again, garnered praise from around the globe.
"The first real attention I got was definitely through the internet versus playing live. A touring band might be way more popular in Canada first, because people are seeing them and they're building an audience that way. For me, I built an audience through the internet."
Because her internet profile was growing like a weed, Boucher felt compelled to tour. Credit a trip to Austin, Texas to play South By Southwest for not only introducing her live show to crowds outside of Quebec, but for also encouraging Grimes to put a real performance together.
"Those were my first real shows," she confirms. "Before that it was an extremely secondary thing I did when I had time. I considered myself at the very bottom rung of my abilities, like I could barely play a show or even put one together. There is a difference between a recording artist and a touring musician. I couldn't play an instrument. I don't know shit about music, but I know about production. Performing has been a huge trial between my manager and me. It's something that I just had to learn how to do, both physically and emotionally, because I am super introverted."
A split 12-inch with labelmate d'Eon titled Darkbloom in April 2011 marked her third release in just over a year. Featuring the single "Vanessa," the video for which she directed, the EP arrived at a key moment for her: the opening spot on Lykke Li's North American tour, which she describes "a pretty big wake up call." Though she was still trying to find her footing as a performer, Boucher says she couldn't miss an opportunity to play in front of a few thousand faces each night. "The average attendance was about 20 people on the tour I did before that, so it was definitely a whole new ball game and a shock to the system at first," she says. "I was absolutely not prepared, but I do feel like that tour turned me into a musician."
Having played shows worldwide, Boucher says getting on stage still isn't something she's comfortable with. She would rather be in the studio instead of facing crowds and managing keyboards, pedals and vocals all at once.
"I consider myself a producer," she says. "I just sing because I can't pay anyone else to do it. Most of the time I'm singing on stage I can't even hear myself. It can be a nightmare. If I could play live where I'm just DJing I would love it. But the singing makes performing difficult for me. I'd love to be a producer for someone like Rihanna, just write songs and then let her go."
With Visions, Grimes is definitely being thrust to the next level. And while performing (and possibly even getting a cell phone) might be sacrifices she has to make, she's ready for just about anything.
"There is definitely an awareness that people will hear Visions," she says, "whereas the first couple records I wasn't even thinking people would be listening to them. It was me saying, 'I made this record Seb [Cowan, Arbutus Records owner and Grimes's manager], do you want to put it out?' I always feel the need to intellectualize my music to justify it. Like, I dropped out of university, so I need a good reason to do this. I think about that a lot."