Cover Feature

The genius of Grimes

Grimes exists on another planet, while everyone else revs up their rocket engines to play catch-up. The word genius is thrown around too lightly these days. Here’s one, right here.

“Sorry, I have so many beverages here!” exclaims Claire Boucher suddenly, attempting to juggle a mug full of coffee, and an elegant wine flute. Distracted every so often by a mountain she can glimpse out of her Adelaide window, and in the process of taking ‘Art Angels’ on tour for the first time, Grimes is, as she puts it herself, in a “mildly insane” mood today, having just awoken from a nap. “This is water, not wine,” she qualifies, quickly. “I just like the look of the glass,” she explains, studying it. “I feel like I’m in Sex and the City or something.”

A couple of years ago, the idea that Grimes was a potential subscriber to Carrie Bradshaw and co.’s hapless romantic adventures seemed unlikely. Squirrelled away in darkened basements, making bizarrely twisted - and yes, overwhelmingly zeitgeisty - sounds, Claire Boucher struck as an incredibly serious musician. Though she remains a true perfectionist, obsessed with every microparticle of her craft Grimes is also becoming a rocket-fuelled cultural hoover with no limits. Less pop, and more endlessly fascinated by popular culture itself, anything is game for absorption into her retina-bashing slash movie meets sci-fl flick universe; everything that emerges out the other side is life in the vivid dream, enhanced and larger-than-reality for reasons beyond everyday comprehension. It’s an ability very few artists possess. In each generation, you can count people like Grimes on one hand.

‘Art Angels’ - Grimes’ fourth record, and her first since her breakthrough third, ‘Visions’ - sees her taking on more ferociously varied facets than ever before. From the gender-bending vampire mobster that runs riot spitting football chants over ‘Kill V. Maim,’ to the record’s bizarre, garish, no-fucks-given clashing of all genres going, ‘Art Angels’ is a little like Grimes’ beloved Game of Thrones in scope and ambition; if it were set in a gaudy, futuristic neon wonderland instead of Westeros. Though she still readily admits to battling against stage fright, Grimes’ live show is a saturated glimpse into the world she’s designed, letting rip with fast-unfurling, cathartic screams. Designers these days are tripping over one another to photograph her fearless Adidas sandal and sock combinations, and in the studio, Boucher’s dark days of Adderall-fuelled writing binges have been disowned and left behind. Now, she operates from a studio in her home. Everything is entirely on her own terms.

Originally, Grimes was conceived as a sort of alter-ego; a space-dust flecked girl band controlled by Claire Boucher The Producer, safe and hidden behind the curtains. Grimes itself has grown enormously in scope in the last couple of years, taking on ever more technicoloured variations. Claire Boucher, meanwhile has emerged gradually from her mysterious control box. Though one especially infamous character from the programme that inspired her multiple beverages today, Sex and the City, might not feature as one of Grimes’ voices, per se, she’s a definite influence on how Claire Boucher conducts herself these days, all the same.

“Samantha,” Grimes announces, naming the Sex and the City character she identifies most heavily with, without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s her crass nature,” she qualifies. “I appreciate her lack of giving a fuck. I relate to it. A lot of times I get in trouble are a result of not giving a fuck…” she adds, changing tact, “and then people taking it out of context.”

Several times today, Grimes alludes to this frequent knack for “getting in trouble.” Really, though, she’s talking about her words being sensationalised, and her caution is fair enough. With ‘Visions,’ she set an entire agenda and influenced a whole trail of lesser imitators; her knarled, blooping nightmare-scapes being hawked by every aspiring weirdo out there with some free time and a copy of GarageBand. Part and parcel with that came a great deal of critical recognition, and also constant scrutiny. An artist who started out making weird, crunking noise-pop about obese cats in the warehouses of Mile End, Montreal, suddenly found her flippant, off-hand remarks turning into bold-letter headlines on pop’s biggest gossip websites, and alternative music publications alike.

The genius of Grimes
I don’t wanna succeed on the basis of cute naivety, or endearing failure or charming lack of knowledge. I want to succeed because I’m good. Grimes

Most prominently, there was the dramatic non-saga of the ‘scrapped album,’ and Grimes’ ‘panning’ of her one-off song ‘Go’. Originally penned at a songwriting bootcamp, she was toying with behind the scenes writing; worn down by her constant visibility in the public eye. Though the song was ultimately turned down by Rihanna - who is signed to Grimes’ management, Roc Nation - Grimes liked it enough to put it out there anyway. The media machine painted an entirely different picture; the sort of scene that depicted Grimes chickening out of a whole new direction, simply because a portion of her fans weren’t entirely keen. It’s a ludicrously untrue twist on events.

“I’m going to discuss a thing I’m not supposed to discuss because it always gets me in trouble…” Grimes starts, that notorious word rearing its head once again. She shrugs, and continues anyway. “Me and my friend Blood Diamonds were writing ‘Go’ for another artist [Rihanna] and the process of pretending I was someone else at that time, I had so much fun making that song. I realised I had this terrible feeling of constraint, that everyone’s always judging me, you know….” she trails off. “Because they do. They still do.”

Fast-forward from the media ruckus surrounding ‘Art Angels’’ creation, and Grimes silences the lot in a swift fell. Hurling herself into a swimming pool, Grimes returned as macabre, pastel-drenched Marie Antoinette, her bloodied gowns staining the crystal-clear waters.“Got a doll that looks just like you,” chides ‘Flesh Without Blood,’ nodding - but only nonchalantly, in a half-arsed, unbothered way - towards people’s expectations and the inaccurate figure ‘Visions,’ and the churning media cogs, created. Forget everything you thought you knew about Grimes.

“People were like, ‘oh it’s so cute and naive,’” Grimes says of ‘Visions’ today. “I don’t wanna succeed on the basis of cute naivety, or endearing failure or charming lack of knowledge,” she says, firmly, “I want to succeed because I’m good.”

The genius of Grimes

It’s a mission that Grimes takes incredibly seriously; from the making of ‘Art Angels’ itself to the relentless months she spends working on her complex music videos. Blowing almost all of her advance on the most high-tech home studio set up she could muster, she set about poring over complex production techniques, physical string arrangements, and crisp, in-your-face high fidelity. She had a drive to reach new heights. “I kind of went insane during it,” she admits. “It’s mentally difficult when people are like, ‘oh she’s so cute, she screws up, she always hits the wrong button, it’s so lo-fi and you can tell that she doesn’t have good equipment’” she says, before putting on a high-pitched, whinging voice in imitation, “neh neh neh.”

She keeps coming back to the idea of transforming herself into something menacing and downright scary, a monstrously ambitious artist to whom patronising adjectives like “cute” will never stick. It’s no more pronounced than in the monstrously brilliant Janelle Monáe-featuring ‘Venus Fly,‘ from ‘Art Angels’. “What if I cut my teeth? Cut my hair underneath my chin,” she asks, or rather proudly threatens, before demanding “why you looking at me?!” Tinny, timid, super-trebled melodies rev into life, the whole thing growing into clawed, fearsome rebuff of objectification.

“In retrospect I see more pathos in [‘Art Angels’] than when I was actually making it, about that kind of stuff,” reasons Grimes. “I’m in a weird situation..” she starts, “where if I always say and do stupid things, I get a lot of attention, but I actually fucking hate it. It’s really distressing to me. I’m in a constant state of distress because I’m always… there’s always a new thing, you know?”

“People think... she must want attention so much, and it’s like, no,” she continues, start-stopping sentences. “I feel really disassociated when my hair’s a normal colour, shit like that. Shows are still a nightmare for me,” she admits. “You wanna make art, and you wanna make music. The art and music I admire is really character-centric. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Bowie, Prince, whatever... there’s this core character. I kind of need that, but at the same time it’s really uncomfortable to have this much attention. There’s always this inherent tension where you’re like, no, leave me alone,” she says, “but also, I am completely embedded so deep, with my personality, in this work,” she trails off. “It’s weird.”

“Most people ask me,” she observes, putting on a comedy British accent. “'Do you want to be like Katy Perry?’ Sorry,” she laughs. “Anyway.”

There’s no denying that Grimes is one of these rare magical characters that Claire Boucher - still sipping from a seemingly bottomless mug of coffee - personally admires. The aesthetic she paints mashes together pastichey combinations; androgynous Al Pacino-type mobster vampires, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World comic books, the Russian poet Pushkin, ‘Lord of the Rings’, Enya, the music for ‘The Legend of Zelda’, and Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic ‘Dune’. Out of breath yet? Grimes is dizzyingly vast, and yet it’s unmistakable.

The idea that all of this bold, boundless expression marks Grimes turning into a Pop Star, she says, confuses her no end. Judging by the liberal smattering of swear words she drops into conversation around the subject, it’s also an assertion Claire Boucher clearly finds annoying. Vehemently dedicated to keeping full control over every single aspect of the Grimes project - from hand-drawn album covers, to self-directed videos - and signed to independent label 4AD, she actively distances herself from the smoke and mirrors of cookie-cutter singers performing songs written by a ten-strong team.

“It depends,” concedes Grimes. “If you classify David Bowie and the Ramones as pop, yeah Grimes is pop. But if you’re talking Top 40, I do think it’s pretty different from that. The means to the end are extremely different in particular.”

“When I made ‘Visions’,” she laughs, “I thought it was my sell-out Britney pop moment! I didn’t think it would succeed, either. I remember A/B-ing [comparing sound quality] with a Britney song, and being like, 'this is just totally as good as this Britney song, I’m so great!'” she remembers, visibly amused.

“This is really embarrassing...” Grimes starts, before, typically, shrugging and continuing her thread anyway, “but I didn’t know who Mariah Carey was until I was like, 24. I went on this cross-country road trip with my dad, and he was like, you have to get into R&B, so he got me into her. There are a lot of hipster Mariah Carey remixes, like Burial and stuff, and I remember listening to it. It was really hip at the time that I first started making music. I was like, 'why aren’t there any actual bands like this? Why don’t they get actual singers, and make original songs instead of doing these hip remixes?' That was kind of my thought.”

The genius of Grimes The genius of Grimes

Grimes is not pop music, in that she does not imitate anything that has come before her. Instead, studying the world - complete with all its ugliness, brashness, and macabre unpleasantries - she’s something unclassifiable on the fringes while setting the entire agenda. “It’s weird to me that people think ‘Art Angels’ is a poppier thing, because in terms of the actual process, I was trying so much harder to make pop music when I made ‘Visions,’” she says. “I was actively trying to make pop music when I made ‘Visions’. With ‘Art Angels,’ I wasn’t.” At approximately this point, Grimes decided to give an almighty “fuck you” to all convention, for good.

“To me, [‘Art Angels’ is] an emo rock record,” Grimes says, changing tact entirely seriously. “I was listening to Queen and Bowie, My Chemical Romance, Le Tigre,“ she lists “and I thought people might think it was my rock record. I was so confused by the response.”

Garish, neon-hued, and screaming with a breathless cramming-in of every feasible influence, ‘Art Angels’ takes everything that Grimes loves - from the hellish paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, to J-Pop, and Russian ballet set designs - and throws it at the wax. From the twanging hoedown vibe of ‘California’ - think Dolly Parton on a mad one at Comic Con - to the merrily chirruping intro of ‘Butterfly’ ‘Art Angels’ is, in the best possible way, a little bit uncool.

“That was a goal!” exclaims a delighted Grimes.

“I wanted to stop being seen as a hipster thing, I guess,” she explains, referring to the whole pastel-grunge, synth-pop aesthetic that ‘Visions’ became an integral part of. “I actually don’t mind hipsters,” she clarifies, “hipsters are rad. But I didn’t want [Grimes] to be seen as a thing that existed because it was cool. It’s the same thing as the cute thing - ‘oh, Grimes, because it’s cool’. No, no, it’s not cool, and it’s not cute.”

“I really wanted to make a Baby Bash song,” says Grimes, talking specifically about ‘Art Angels’ closer, ‘Butterfly’. For the uninitiated, Baby Bash is a smooth-crooning 90s rapper - again, not especially renowned for being cool. This goal - naturally - led Grimes into a mess of old Japanese jazz compilations, and it was there that she discovered ‘Penguin Dancer’ by Masayoshi Takanaka. She ended up sampling it for ‘Butterfly’‘s introduction. “It sounds like a kids TV show theme song,” she says excitedly. “I want ‘Butterfly’ to be a really all-ages song, like a kids TV vibe song.”

The genius of Grimes
There’s always this inherent tension where you’re like, no, leave me alone. Grimes

‘Butterfly’ - vaguely about a curious little minibeast who discovers air travel for the first time - feels like a symbolic launching off from the record where Grimes finds her wings. Having seized back the narrative, trampling all over it with trebled-up riffs, Grimes concludes ‘Art Angels’ by saying one thing - “I’ll never be your dream girl.” It’s the one headline in the entire world she wants written in bold.

So, where on earth does Grimes go from here? Nowhere on earth, to hazard a guess; more likely, she’ll wind up in some other distant musical galaxy, creating daring, experimental, and boundary-pushing art out of the meteor dust whizzing around her super-charged neurons. As Boucher’s beloved Frank Herbert - who wrote Dune - pointed out; “beware of heroes”. Rely on your own judgement instead, make your own mistakes, and question everything. It’s a mantra that Grimes follows to the letter. Blazing her own trail, and flinging open the door to a whole new realm of possibilities, Grimes is a genius alright. What’s more, she’s only just getting started.

Live photos: Daniel Boud / DIY. Additional design: Louise Mason / DIY.

Grimes’ new album ‘Art Angels’ is out now via 4AD. Taken from the March 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe to DIY below.

As featured in the March 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Scroll down to get your copy.

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