Life After the Vivid Dream: How Grimes Almost Got Sick of Herself
An interview with Claire Boucher about her evolution, Art Angels, and how the media ruined Grimes.
“Oh my god,” yelps 27-year-old Claire Boucher, leaning forward in a fancy armchair in the corner of a London hotel room, gesticulating with stick-and-poked hands. She's telling me about one of her favorite podcasts, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which looks back at historical events through an unconventional lens—questioning whether Alexander the Great was as bad as Hitler, or at what cost did the Mongol Khan’s usher in the modern era. “I just listened to this one that was about the Punic wars, which is Hannibal—like, basically the Tunisian empire cross-invading Italy in, like, whatever year that was… I should know, since it’s like an eight hour podcast, but it’s just really cool shit like that. I listened to one before that that was about World War II from the Soviet perspective. Sorry, I don’t need to go on tangents about this...”
Grimes has been on something of a tangent for the past three years. Although her new album Art Angels is her first fully formed project in that time, she's been a constant omnipresence ever since 2012’s breakout album Visions put her on the map as one of the most interesting new voices in pop culture. In the last year in particular she's been covering magazines and quoted in news stories with fierce frequency, and that's caused a few issues.
In profiles, Grimes is commonly misrepresented as the manic pixie dream girl—a “former ballerina goth” who spells fairy with an “e,” probably had a DeviantArt account, and has hair dyed three different colors at any given time; an avid Tumblr user who reblogs Sailor Moon .gifs and dresses like she’s about to attend a My Chemical Romance gig in Westeros; a fantast whose music exists in the weightless realms of “cute” and “quirky.”
With Boucher, though, what you see and what you get are famously different things. Look a little closer and you’ll find that the state of reverie in which Grimes’ world appears to exist is rooted in harsh realities that Boucher herself approaches hard-nosed and with an analytical mind. If anything, she is more accurately described as a visionary than a dreamer.
Unsurprisingly, then, much of her time seems to be spent setting the record straight, whether it’s about the infamous “scrapped album”—which was widely misreported to be the result of negative fan reactions to 2014 single “Go,” an EDM-inspired banger she released herself after it was turned down by Rihanna—or the role amphetamines played in the making of her 2012 breakout album Visions (“I don’t want that to be part of my narrative, and if it has to be, I want people to know that I hate hard drugs,” she wrote in a Tumblr post that has since been deleted). Perhaps as a consequence, she's quick to foreshadow potential headlines and counterbalance herself. So after her outpour over Carlin’s podcast she immediately tries to balance the books:
“I don’t, like, love violence, “I’m not like ‘ohhh, violence!’” she says, her voice miming bloodthirsty enthusiasm, “It’s just a very interesting side of humanity. Most of the time you’re like ‘wow, this war just didn’t need to happen’, but wars are also when a lot of technology is created and humanity often takes great leaps forward during wartime or directly afterwards.”
The hardest battle Boucher faces is the struggle to be recognized as both the public-facing pop star, Grimes, and the technical mastermind behind the scenes. An architect of her own illusion, she's always handled every aspect of the production and packaging of her work, and the same goes for her new album. Boucher wrote, produced, performed, and engineered everything, designed the artwork—and Art Angels also welcomes a new range of instruments into the Grimes repertoire, including guitar, keys, drums, ukulele and violin, which she learned to play for the record, plus 14 unique illustrations to accompany each track.
The creative stronghold she has over her art is not only impressive to the point that it makes you feel like human trash for not even managing to attend all of your Year 5 recorder lessons, it’s also essential to her beyond a creative level. “It fucking sucks walking into a room and have everyone assume that you don’t make your own art,” she says. “So much of my self-esteem comes from the fact that I’m like, ‘yeah, I make my shit,’ and the fact that I get asked on almost a daily basis like who made my shit—it’s like really emotionally difficult. You start to second guess yourself.”
After working for a long time in the wilderness of British Columbia, pushing herself to write the follow-up to her critically acclaimed breakout album Visions, Boucher relocated to LA with boyfriend James Brooks (whose own musical projects include Elite Gymnastics and Default Genders). “There’s definitely times where you’re like ‘I am not a machine’,” she explains, “I was like fuck it, let’s just move to LA and hang out with our friends.” In the end, Art Angels ended up being made in a year at their house there. “I just spent a week like going to restaurants and the beach and then it was just so much easier to work after that, after I’d kind of given up on like, you know…”
Here, she starts and stalls several sentences about art perhaps being “easier” or “right” when it comes effortlessly, but hesitates to commit to the sentiment. Instead, she offers a comparison with her own work ethic more broadly. “For most of my life, and most of the things I’ve done in my life, it’s like if you put in this much work you’ll get the result, and art isn’t like that. So I get very frustrated. I’m like, but I’ve been in here for like a year! Why?!”
Boucher’s frustration that a good work ethic doesn't always mean good art is deep rooted—her background is made up of a hyper-athletic family that counts Olympic champion figure skaters in its tree, years of pre-professional ballet training, Catholic elementary schooling. She moved from Vancouver to Montreal in 2006 to attend McGill University, thinking she was going to be an astrophysicist but ended up taking a double major in philosophy and neuroscience with minors in Russian languages and electro-acoustics (when the Grimes project began to take off, though, she was eventually expelled for missing almost a year of class). This push-pull between being raised in an environment defined by discipline coupled with a natural tendency towards escapism acts as the backbone for her artistic identity: the former propelling her strict work ethic and the latter characterising the surrealism of her work. A lot of the seemingly weird or random lyrical and visual content of Grimes’ music is the result of Boucher processing the influences of her personal and family life. Feelings of fear and anxiety are often present in her songs, camouflaged by the playful and inviting nature of the plate they are served to us on. “Oblivion”, for example—a woozy and certified floor-filler which currently sits on over 19 million views on YouTube—is based on her own experience of sexual assault and being afraid of men in the aftermath.
As for Catholicism, Boucher found her own holes in that at a young age (“I got in a lot of trouble for it too. I was like grade two or three, just like “how do you know?” and they were like “DON’T ASK THAT” and I was like “Oh… that seems kind of... exploitative”), but religious imagery is still something that plays into her work. “My first engagements with music and even my first engagements with visual art were in church. Like, when I was in kindergarten and pre-school, the church I went to had all these fucking terrifying images of like Christ being brutalised and devils killing people. It was really disturbing as a child to feel like somebody can read your thoughts.”
Art Angels is an obvious play on archangel (an angel of high rank), although the title is perhaps where the parallels end. “I’m not really a religious person now, but religion is very comforting to me,” she says, “Religious iconography and imagery is my peaceful place, kind of.” Similarly, her family have cooled off on it now too. “My mom ended up marrying a Hindu guy and yeah, they’ve become very chill, which is kind of shocking to me but also great. I think I might have like destroyed their…” she breaks off her sentence again, laughing.
Like myself and many other teenage girls, Boucher went through a Wiccan phase around seventh grade. I wonder if she has any theories about why that is? “I think it’s just opposite of the white Christian patriarchy. Especially if you were raised in a distinctly religious environment, it’s kind of the antithesis to what you grow up with. I think it’s kind of alluring this idea that you might be more powerful than an adult man.” Then she segues into telling me about The Mists of Avalon, a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley relating the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters like Morgan le Fay and Guinevere. But every recommendation from Boucher comes with some sort of caveat, and sure enough, “The woman who wrote it ended up raping her daughter or something, it’s really fucked up [Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter accused her of child abuse in 2014, fifteen years after her death] so I don’t want you to Google it and be like ‘oh, Claire told me to read this…’ but you should still read it.”
It seems stressful being Grimes—constantly having to self-edit as she speaks, eager to share the things she feels passionately about whilst being very much plugged into the volatile world of online criticism that might get it twisted. For a long time, she used Tumblr as the main platform to voice her opinions on anything from witchcraft to sexism, politics, porn, the environment, and animal rights. Plucking an example out of the bountiful archive, I remind her of the time she uploaded a photo of herself eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch (a limited edition flavor to accompany the release of Anchorman 2) with the caption “one day hiatus from veganism is being had starting NOW”. Despite best efforts and good intentions, the vegan police pulled up to give Boucher a heavy handed ethical pat down—even DIIV had a pop over Twitter. As I’m rehashing this particular series of unfortunate events, Boucher is laughing. “I was just trying to illustrate a point,” she says, “I feel like with veganism there’s so much body shaming and food shaming, and I feel like—especially as someone who has such a large contingent of young women in my audience—I was just trying to be like... I think it’s important to make it more healthy and inviting than just to be like ‘fuck you if you ever ate a fucking something with butter on it!’”
When media outlets began using her posts as fodder for news stories and what she deemed to be taking her words out of context, Boucher deleted swathes of posts off Tumblr and threatened to remove the whole page entirely. She says that once people realized she had opinions, they kept wanting soundbites from her.
“Everyone is always like ‘how do you feel about feminism? how do you feel about feminism?’” she starts, “and it’s like maybe I don’t wanna fucking talk about feminism, maybe I just wanna be a female producer, because it’s like even being a female producer is so rare it drives people fucking crazy. It’s like my sheer existence is like a political act, I think, to a lot of people. It’s not to me.” In regards to constantly being gendered, always having the word “female” placed in front of the word “producer” as if one has anything to do with the other, she says, “It’s like, maybe the reason there aren’t so many other people besides men feeling like they can produce is because people act like it’s a fucking bomb that’s exploding.”
Grimes began as both an escapist alter ego and a public-facing persona for Boucher, but the making of Visions propelled her from a fantasy shield to a reality, one that became loaded with expectation. Now, Grimes is one of several alter egos that appear on Art Angels. Others include a “Harley Quinn type crazy thing,” which, she explains, is essentially her stage persona, and a vampire mobster, which came to fruition as the result of an obsession with The Godfather. “I watched it repeatedly, but I couldn’t stop being like, the only thing that would make this better is if they were vampires,” she says, before going into detail about how she wanted to make a whole movie about vampire mobsters that spanned thousands of years before conceding that she could “probably only get enough money from 4AD to make a music video for this.”
“It’s just that the media kind of ruined Grimes,” she says when asked about her reasons for introducing new characters, “Grimes that exists in the media is very unrecognizable to me, so it was more free to write from another perspective”. What’s the difference between her interpretation of Grimes and the media representation of Grimes? “Grimes is just not a douchebag."
Arriving three years after Visions, and one year after announcing that she had scrapped an entire follow-up because “it sucked”, this new record not only had to live up to the last but also be worth scrapping a totally unheard album for as well. But Visions was made in extreme circumstances. A combination of being in a bad situation with her management and literally needing to get the record out to make rent meant that the whole thing was written and recorded in one solitary, three week binge. With those pressures lifted, Art Angels was a very different project. “I never set out to do anything. I think that’s one thing I’ve realised about myself,“ she says. “There’s a lot of songs where I’d spend like two days working on them, like this song is 'for the record', and then I’d be like okay, now I’m just going to make some music for me, and it would take half the time but that would always be what I end up making it onto the record.”
Still, Boucher is a perfectionist, and she says starting over was worth it. When she dropped “SCREAM”—which features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes and is the first track Grimes has produced on which she is not the lead vocalist (instead, her presence is felt in the beautifully terrifying metal screams behind Aristophanes’ bars)—she encouraged people to listen to it on "a good system aka not laptop speakers" because "the bass was exhausting to perfect." It’s in this regard—the technical work that goes into producing Grimes’ music and how much of that work she has authorship of—that Boucher is most often and most crucially underestimated. “There was a point last year where I was like maybe I just suck, maybe everyone just asks who’s gonna make my album because I’m not good enough to,” she says, putting emphasis on the word suck like it’s been stuck behind her teeth for ages, “It starts to get in your head. I think something society needs to work on as a whole is understanding that women can use technology and it’s not weird.”
From the time we spent in a room together, talking, I can tell you that Claire Boucher is someone who becomes most animated when discussing something she is passionate about. She drops the f-bomb more frequently when touching on a topic she finds frustrating, and will begin her answers with “yes and no…” in an effort to assure whoever’s job it is to listen won’t pick one side and ignore the other. I can tell you she hates going to the doctor “to an extreme degree” and reads a lot of nonfiction about medieval Mongolia, which she’ll admit to cautiously before deciding it’s embarrassing and switching to “cooler” material (in this case, the Ronda Rousey autobiography). Beyond that, it’s difficult to say. But with an artist like Boucher, the fun is less in being able to say “yes, I get it now” and more in letting go of the need for definition. Instead, fully submerging yourself in the unlikely combination of influence and imagination that makes up the part of their world they have chosen to make available to you. Were there any unfulfilled ambitions for Art Angels? “There’s so many things I wanted to do on this record that I didn’t get to do,” she says, “I still never made like any kind of celtic reggaeton or anything like that. But there’s future records, I guess.”
In principal, the world of Grimes is not unlike the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—which is just as much a satire of nineteenth century advances in mathematics as it is a children’s story about one girl’s journey into a universe custom made to be as frustrating as possible. Carroll, equally a logician and mathematician as he was a writer, was a fan of good old-fashioned algebra and Euclidean geometry, and the introduction of abstraction, to him, seemed like the result of people making things difficult on purpose, so he skewered them in fiction. Most readings, though, revel in the nonsense of a hookah smoking caterpillar and assume it’s all one giant metaphor for drug use. Similarly, the Grimes I am meeting today is far from the Don Quixote of experimental pop she is frequently portrayed as. The playful nature of her music on an immediate level can sometimes belie the seriousness underneath, but Grimes—along with her newfound alter egos—aren’t just random figments of Boucher’s imagination. They are carefully crafted characters of ownership into which she has poured elements of biography, technical prowess, and research. Art Angels is their stage on which to dance with reality.
Follow Emma on Twitter.
Art Angels is out now through 4AD and Eerie Organization.