Unless you've had your head under a rock this year, you'll certainly be familiar with certain young talented artist going under the moniker Grimes. Now touring Europe after the release of her third album Visions, she discusses her multifaceted career with Ponystep.
Here’s a scenario. A young music fan, let’s say male, late teens, decides he’s had enough of downloading music in his bedroom for now and wants to build up a record collection the old-fashioned way. Of course, he lives miles away from the nearest record shop and has heard stories about parcels of broken vinyl arriving in the post, so he jumps on a bus to the city. On the way there, he decides that he’s going to buy the new album by Grimes. He had heard his older brother talking about her, and though he’s not usually that fussed about female singers, he looked up her videos on the internet. He thought that Oblivion, the one with her singing at a Motocross Derby with pink hair and a boombox, was pretty great, and wants to hear more of her songs. In the shop, he realises that he has no idea what section to look in. Pop? Electronic? Experimental? It’s hard to say. She sounds a little bit like all of those, but then again, not really. After looking under “G”, he asks the man behind the counter, who takes him back to the alphabeticals and pulls out Visions. The striking cover features a black-and-white illustration of a distorted skull surrounded by obtuse symbolism. It looks familiar, and the fan realises that he had overlooked it just minutes earlier, assuming it to be a death metal release or something. This looks hardcore, but that isn’t what he expects the music to sound like. Confused and intrigued, he buys it, takes it home and listens to it. Then listens to it again. And again. And again…
While that episode was purely hypothetical, with Grimes it seems highly probable. The Canadian singer, producer and artist has been working hard to build up her fanbase and it is definitely working. If it is possible somehow to be both ubiquitous and mysterious, she recently seems to have cracked it. Known to her friends and family as Claire Boucher from Vancouver, the 24-year old has been working as Grimes for a number of years, using the alias to produce a growing body of work that encompasses music releases, paintings, illustrations and music videos.
Earlier this year, she released Visions, her third album, which offers up all sorts of sonic riches. A colourful blend of pop melodies, offbeat arrangements and skewed electro, the songs are shaped by her ethereal, almost childlike vocals. She has created something beautiful and made it seem effortless. Attempting to sum up her music in terms of genre is liable to leave you with a headache, so it’s probably best not to bother. Pushing the paradox even further are her artwork and visuals, which for her, are of equal importance to the music. Her colourful, sometimes sinister paintings provide a striking package for her records, and may be recognisable to those who have visited exhibitions of her work in the past. And with her handful of music videos currently racking up the view counts across the globe, it seems that she is well on her way. Though perhaps only she knows where.
Within seconds of our conversation, it becomes clear that any notions of Claire using her alias as a mask or shield was just a clumsy preconception. She doesn’t mind whether I address her as Grimes, though that is something she is getting used to as her public profile continues to rise. In person, she is disarmingly open, honest and enthusiastic about her work. We caught up with her in the midst of her European tour, where she has been winning over audiences with her ever-evolving stage show. She is in Oslo, the sun is shining and she is excited about the months ahead in what is already shaping up to be a pretty brilliant year for her…
Andreas Soteriou: How are things going?
Claire Boucher: Great. The tour is going well, I think that the live shows are getting better and better. I’m feeling more comfortable and getting into my groove on stage. It is an intense emotional investment, and it’s great that the shows can change so much, depending on the time and place. Sometimes people ask me to describe my live shows, but it’s hard. I mean, my reaction to the audience will be different at an 8pm show to 1pm or whatever.
Do you find it any easier to describe your music?
Well, genre doesn’t factor into anything, though I would say that my music veers more into a pop direction. Psychedelic pop, I guess. I want it to have different textures. It is very fluid, and can go in a lot of different directions and contexts.
You’ve left yourself a lot of scope there for exploring different musical avenues. That’s probably why people find it hard to categorise your work, or to say, “Oh, she sounds like this person”, or “She’s definitely influenced by so-and-so”.
Well, I don’t really think about music in terms of influences, it’s more about the individual. People like Michael Jackson and Beyonce… those chameleon characters are the ones that grab me the most. Then there are the outcasts, like Marilyn Manson. I’m not really into his new stuff, but I loved everything up until maybe 2003. Him and Nine Inch Nails really did a lot for popular culture.
How old were you when you found yourself drawn towards those characters and their music?
About twelve, I guess.
How have your musical tastes changed since then?
Well, I think that the music that I listen to still has that harder edge, but that’s not always what I look for. There is a band called Gatekeeper, who are great. And Outer Limitz! They did that song, I Kontact, which is a brutal kind of pop song.
Would you consider yourself one of those chameleons? You seem to play around with your persona in quite an enigmatic way when it comes to your videos and visuals. And you aren’t giving much away by releasing your work under a different name…
Well, Grimes is a moniker that I’ve used for years for all the art that I make. Obviously, the main focus is on music, because that brings the most notoriety. But I don’t feel confined to music, it really depends on the tools that I have at my disposal. If I used my own name, it would sound lame, like a folk musician or country singer. I definitely don’t want to be mistaken for that. I don’t dislike that music, but it has already been done, you know? That way of doing things with guitars and musicians… I am not part of that at all.
Music happened by accident, but when it became clear that I could make a living with that and my art, I knew that I had to work at it.
What do you feel part of, in terms of music?
I consider myself a vocalist and producer in the most modern probable sense. I’m not that traditional. I know I couldn’t be that good a musician because I can’t read music and have quite bad timing. I do play with some great musicians, and I like them to be able to improvise on top of the things I usually do. It is a social thing as well, so it is important to choose the right people for both those reasons.
Looking back on how your life has changed since Grimes began, does it feel that different?
On paper, it seems that I have left a lot behind, but I still feel the same, and I have the same friends. They seem happy for me and the way that things are going. They are mostly musicians as well, so I feel like they can understand my life. Music happened by accident, but when it became clear that I could make a living with that and my art, I knew that I had to work at it. I didn’t really plan it, but at the same time, I knew that I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere working shitty jobs and not seeing much of life.
What have been the highlights?
I get to travel a lot. My living standard has definitely improved! Not only that, but it is a real luxury to be able to make a living through art. That is the biggest thing.
The response to your new album must have played a big part in that. It was pretty instant, and it is continuing to build. Has that taken you by surprise?
I suppose. I mean, working on Visions was kind of the same as my other albums. It didn’t feel very different, because I am always thinking and working on music. It’s not like I stop one thing and then decide to start work later on something else. It hasn’t really been like that for me.
With the interest in your music taking off in a big way, do you find that touring, promotion and all the rest leaves you enough time to focus on your art and other side projects?
I have a month off in L.A. to work on music videos, which is like a dream for me. I might move there. I know a lot of people there, and it is very convenient. I can go there and have a life. I get a lot out of it. I spend time in New York as well, but I find it too stressful.
Success also has its own way of magnifying things. People start taking a lot more notice of how you look, what you say… Do you feel prepared for that?
Yes, that doesn’t really bother me. I don’t feel like I have some grand message that people should listen to.
What about your own personal philosophies?
It is important for me to stay creative. I want to be as much as I can be, and take this as far as I can. I want to be ambitious with this project and I feel like I am able to. Everything seems in place.