Grimes is an outspoken pop electronica artist who has delighted critics, confounded listeners, and driven the Internet wild. Here, the rock star delivers some straight talk on sexism, her Catholic childhood, and Taylor Swift
The first time you hear Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, you’ll probably ask yourself a couple of questions: What in the hell is this music, and why would anyone listen to it? Her voice is high-pitched and freaky, like a robotic Minnie Riperton—or even Minnie Mouse—and her backing instrumentals sound like Nine Inch Nails put into a blender with Enya. But then you won’t be able to stop thinking about her. You’ll find yourself watching and re-watching her mind-bendingly fascinating videos, Google-stalking her backstory, and humming her songs while you brush your teeth. Grimes is the kind of artist you become obsessed with, the kind whose music transports you to a weird and shadowy world you never want to leave. And the critics agree: her latest release, Visions, was named one of 2012’s best albums by NME, Pitchfork, The Guardian, and The New York Times.
Grimes is that rare musical artist who actually seems like an artist, with all the eccentricities that come along with that title. The 25-year-old Vancouver native grew up in an ultra-religious Catholic home, studied ballet extensively, and moved to Montreal in 2007 to attend McGill University. That’s when she started making a name for herself in the city’s arts scene, with the spare, synthesizer-heavy tunes she recorded in her bedroom and released onto the Web; she still writes, records, and produces her electronic albums at home on a shoestring budget, using mostly scrounged-together equipment. Boucher soon got expelled from college for skipping class too often. In 2009, she and a boyfriend made national news after they constructed a houseboat out of scrap materials and sailed, along with a flock of live chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes, partway down the Mississippi River. (They would’ve gotten all the way to New Orleans if they hadn’t been arrested for unlawful camping and alcohol possession.) The following year, the Web took notice when she released Geidi Primes, a sci-fi concept album full of references to the movie Dune.
Part of what makes Boucher so compelling is her almost compulsive need to tell the truth. Boucher’s Tumblr (actuallygrimes.tumblr.com) was, for a long while, a space where she’d speak her mind on topics ranging from sexism to her undying love for Mariah Carey. In February, after the music blog Pitchfork copied large swaths of her Tumblr for a post of its own, she famously deleted almost all of her site, leaving only the message “im out because i need some semblance of a normal life in order to be happy. bye internet <3” (a move which, of course, set off even more press attention). Luckily, her fans can still check her Twitter account, @Grimezsz, where she tweet-binges about her obsessions of the day, be they Russian literature, video games, or Bieber. Boucher’s aesthetics, both on- and offstage, are also attracting plenty of notice. Her music videos, which she masterminds and directs, pack a visual punch; in “Genesis,” wearing a hat that reads “PUSSY,” she wields a massive medieval sword in an apocalyptic desert landscape, flanked by a gang of lady friends who look like ravers with a serious fondness for Mad Max.
Early this year, Karl Lagerfeld invited her to Paris to attend Chanel’s run-way show, and Boucher made an entrance her way, showing up in a Japanese-Goth-fairy-princess outfit that set her far, far apart from the typical Fashion Week attendees. And while she’s got modelesque beauty, she isn’t interested in selling her sexuality. Boucher has said, “Beauty fades, and then you’re fucked if that’s what you’re known for.” The singer’s also known for being outspoken about her unconventional work habits, gleefully talking publicly about taking speed, fasting, and isolating herself from her friends and family for weeks on end in order to craft her third album, 2012’s Visions. The result was a spooky, experimental collection of lo-fi electro beats, looped keyboard melodies, and her signature falsetto vocals. She’s now hard at work on her much-anticipated fourth album, but Boucher—whose speaking voice, incidentally, is completely normal-pitched—took some time out from recording at her home studio in the wilds of British Columbia to talk to BUST about her crazy, captivating musical creations.
What kind of kid were you?
Just insane. I’m actually shocked that I was never put on ADD drugs. I was hyperactive, and I have a movement disorder called restless leg syndrome, and when I was a kid, it was way worse. I was just annoyingly always in motion.
When I learned that you did a ton of ballet when you were young, I was surprised. That’s such a regimented world, and you seem like such a free spirit. Why did you stop?
I stopped because everyone was hitting puberty, and it was clear that I was completely different from everyone else in dance. [laughs] I shaved off all my hair. I was like, I’m gonna start grade eight with a Mohawk. That was the beginning of the end. But I really like anything intense. People think I’m loosey-goosey, but actually, I’m an obsessive workaholic. I really like work that involves a cathartic intensity.
You’ve talked about being raised in a super-religious Catholic household. How do you think that affected you later in life?
I think it’s the reason I became a bad teenager—it was a reaction to my religious elementary school. But in a sense, being so reactionary caused me to get interested in weird music and alternative stuff. So I’m kind of glad that I was raised religious.
What’s a normal day like for you?
Well, it depends. Right now, I’m recording, so I get up at around 7 or 8 p.m., I drink tons of coffee, and play video games with my brother and my boyfriend for about an hour. Then I go downstairs and work until probably 2 or 3 p.m., and then I go to bed.
You go to bed at three in the afternoon?
Yes. [laughs] I just completely become nocturnal.
You live in rural British Columbia. What made you decide to base yourself there instead of someplace that might be better from a career standpoint?
I tried to stay in New York and L.A., but if I’m not completely out of a city, then the press never ends. Basically, I had to move to the middle of nowhere to avoid doing it. At a certain point, it’s like, “If I don’t actually make more music, then what’s the point in doing all this?” I just don’t want to get lazy, and I don’t want people to perceive me as one of those artists who has some success and then rides on that for as long as possible. This way, no one can get mad at me for not going to parties, ’cause I’m, you know, in the woods.
Your rep said you didn’t have a cell phone, and the whole BUST staff gasped. What’s that about?
I just don’t like it when people can contact me all the time. The only people who have my landline number are journalists, my publicist, my manager, and my dad. I don’t like having interactions with people unless it’s face-to-face. It’s really hard for a lot of my friends, or people in general, to understand.
There are lyrics on Visions that are very dark, and when I first heard them, I was like, “I’m really worried about this girl.” How do you feel when you look back at the person you were on that album?
I think it’s just a good encapsulation of how I was at that time, which was just depressed and crazy. But I think I’m always kind of depressed and crazy. It seems like you’ve had these periods of partying and go-ing wild and pushing your body to extremes.
Have you abandoned all that now that you’re more beholden to people like managers and executives?
I think it’s more that I’m growing up. Before, Grimes was just this fun thing that I did. Then I had this realization that [making music] could be my life, and I might not need to work in a coffee shop. And that definitely involved pulling my shit together. When I look at artists I admire, they’re not wasted and falling over. They’re doing everything and being awesome.
"Whether we like it or not, we live in a sexist society. And there’s a prevailing feeling in society that stuff that young girls like is not artistically valid."
Your personal style is constantly morphing. How important do you think self-presentation is in terms of your art?
I think it’s very important. I mean, if the music isn’t good, then it doesn’t matter what you look like. But on the other hand, whatever you look like, you’re creating a context for your art. With that in mind, I want to create an image that’s simultaneously interesting and beautiful, but not super-sexual or particularly feminine.
You direct your own videos—what was your vision when you were making “Genesis”?
I wanted to make an anime Tarantino version of the way my childhood brain interpreted medieval Catholicism. When I was a kid, religion was like a terrifying horror movie. Flaming swords, and Lucifer getting kicked out of heaven and sent to hell, and massive battles, and people getting turned into sand. The song “Genesis” is kind of about nostalgia for losing my religious beliefs. I miss that feeling, so I wanted to re-create it.
Speaking of “Genesis,” I heard that Lena Dunham is also a fan. Actually, she said recently that you’re her favorite modern musician, which—
Really? When did she say that?
In Entertainment Weekly in January.
That’s fucking insane! I love Lena Dunham! That is so crazy! You have no idea how crazy that is. Oh, my God.
Yeah, she said, “I saw a video she did [“Genesis”] that was haunting. When I found out that she directed it, I was like, ‘This person has complete control of her universe, and a total vision for an odd way that the world could work, and I love it.’”
Oh, man. My roommates are going to freak out when I get off the phone and tell them.
Who are you obsessed with lately?
Probably Taylor Swift, for similar reasons. Because I used to really hate Taylor Swift, then when I found out that the title of her album Red was a reference to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, I was like, “Well, that’s pretty smart.” I listened to the album seriously, and I was completely blown away. Then I looked at the credits on the album, and [saw that] she basically wrote everything herself. I feel like people don’t respect her as much as they should, because they see a blonde girl and they dismiss [the music].
Before you could support yourself with music, how did you make a living?
I haven’t ever been able to keep a job for more than a year and a half. In Montreal, I would just take a job, do it until I had enough money for a little while, and then quit. I did some weird jobs. The weirdest was acting in this Can-Con [Canadian sci-fi convention] movie. I’m not going to tell you the name, because I don’t want you to find it. I also did a lot of postering, which in Montreal is the worst job ever, because it’s negative 40 degrees, and the flyers are blowing out of your hands and cutting you with paper cuts, and your hands are purple ’cause it’s so cold.
When you’re working on music and videos, how important is creative control?
A hundred percent. I feel like if I didn’t do it, it’s not Grimes. When everything was happening with Visions, everybody was trying to come in and say, “We can get a real producer.” And I was like, “I don’t want other people. It might not be as good if I do it, but if I don’t, how can I ever learn?”
You recently deleted everything on your Tumblr page, and there was a big hubbub on the Interwebs. What was that all about?
I started the Tumblr very explicitly being like, “This is not official. This is the place where I’m going to have my weird rants and say what I feel.” So I wrote some crazy rants, but then they kept getting picked up by websites as news stories. Eventually, I kind of freaked out and overreacted, but if I had known I was writing things that were going to go on other websites, I would’ve done a better job, you know?
"I want to create an image that’s simultaneously interesting and beautiful, but not super-sexual or particularly feminine."
How affected are you by criticisms of your work?
Most of the criticism about me on the Internet involves my physical appearance or really unfounded stuff. I stopped reading comments or press a long time ago. I like criticism from the right people, but when people are just talking shit about my eyebrows, I don’t need to be engaging with that.
The music industry is quick to sort people into categories, and I’ve seen people ask you a lot about being a “female performer.” Do you feel like a “female” performer?
Yes and no. Yes only because people seem to shove that in my face a lot. I’ve never been more aware of the fact that I’m a girl. In Montreal, girls produce music, and I never even thought about it as strange until I left the scene. So in the broader sense, yes, I feel like a female musician. Also, I never really identified as a feminist until I started doing this.
Why do you think you need feminism more now than you did before?
Because, whether we like it or not, we live in a sexist society. It’s not always super-overt, but I think it’s the reason critics don’t like Taylor Swift, for example—because her music is marketed to young girls. And there’s a prevailing feeling in society that stuff that young girls like is not artistically valid. I also don’t want it to be so incredibly discouraging for women who want to produce their own work. It seems like a lot of people want to take over, in ways that don’t happen with my male friends. And if I swear or talk about drugs, it’s front-page news. But all my male friends swear and talk about drugs in interviews all the time, and no one could give two shits.
What are your big, crazy dreams for the future?
I want to direct a full-length film of Dune. I liked the David Lynch version, but everyone knows that he didn’t care about it. I just feel like there isn’t really a great Dune movie in the same way that there’s a Lord of the Rings movie, you know? I think by the time I’m 50, it’ll be time for another Dune movie, and I’d love to make it. That’s the dream of my life.
By Molly Simms
Photographed by Amber Gray
Styled by Yana Kamps
Makeup and Hair by Amanda Greenwood
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2013 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Top photo: 39 BLUE FLORAL DRESS AND BLACK LACE DRESS BY BROOD, BARNEY’S NEW YORK; SAFETY CHAIN CHOKER BY EDDIE BORGO, EDDIEBORGO.COM; PAVE CONE BRACELET AND PADLOCK NECKLACE BY EDDIE BORGO, HOLT RENFREW, TORONTO, ON; GLOVE BY JACOBA BY GUINEVERE VAN SEENUS, JACOBACOLLECTION.COM.
More from BUST