Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, does not want this. She is uninterested in being a cover subject. She has had enough of fittings, photo shoots and anything that isn’t specifically about the process of making music. And she is forthright with this information. “I feel like the media has killed Grimes,” she says halfway through our phone conversation, “[what with the] degree to which my craft and my project has been belittled and turned into something unrecognizable.” Why then, I ask, is she speaking to me? “I set it all up; I have to follow through. But these will be my last interviews ever, probably.” Boucher adds: “No offence to you—I’m sure you’re super nice.”
Grimes, 27, has just released her fourth album, Art Angels (Eerie Organization/Crystal Math). It follows 2012’s Visions, a trippy, danceable art-pop album that gave the Vancouver-born, Montreal-forged, L.A.-based visual artist, producer and musician a boost in profile and art world credentials. She has entranced fashion folks (Vogue has featured her multiple times, and she’s been dressed by Dior, Rodarte and Louis Vuitton) and big music alike (Jay Z signed her to his Roc Nation label after Visions blew up). Rabid fans revel in her witty, wry, political presence on social media. (Sample tweets: “i bet robin thicke doesn’t actually have a big dick,”and “joan of arc was the only person of either sex to have ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.”) Now, their nearly four-year wait for her new record is over.
Art Angels is, like Visions before it, weird, synthy, beat fuelled. But a lot of the less accessible, noisier elements (submerged vocals, cacophonous mixes) have been cleared away in favour of a purer pop, and her ascendant skill as a producer, beat maker and lyricist is evident. Boucher writes, performs and produces her own songs, and sings on most of them. “Singing is the thing I’m least confident about,” she tells me. This time around, she opened the record up to two vocalists: Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes and singer Janelle Monáe, whom she idolizes. “For me, the part that’s fulfilling is working on the instrumentals and the beats and the music,” she says. “It’s really, really important to me to be the producer and be in charge. That’s what I get meaning from.”
Boucher is plain-spoken and hard-working, and finding those puritanical attributes in a weird, arty kid who came up in Montreal’s avant-garde scene is intriguing. This play of opposites is everywhere in her world: she says she laughs “quite often,” but largely at dark things like death and funerals; her favourite songs are “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and “Hey Ya!” by Outkast; and she immerses herself in pop culture but refuses to become it. She is a tiny person, but huge, too. Speaking to me on the phone, first from an Uber on the way back from a fitting and then from her home in Los Angeles, her ferocity is evident. While most of us pepper our speech with ums and ahs, Boucher speaks fluidly and firmly. The word she uses most is “definitely:” she “definitely got lost” in making Art Angels, and her hope for the record is that you do, too; living in Los Angeles “definitely helps” her career, though Montreal’s “where my heart is;” and there is “definitely” a lot of grossness inherent in the beauty industry, but she distinguishes that youth-obsessed business from the fashion world. “I think you can still be really interested in style without giving a shit about what you look like.”
She loves fashion’s massive female presence. “So many amazing designers are women, and so many powerful people in the fashion industry are women. Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Rodarte—for me, especially as someone in independent music, it’s a great resource and a great thing to be collaborating in because it’s pretty universally positive.” And fashion loves Grimes. This is partly physical—she’s slight and slim, perfectly suited to sample sizes—but it’s partly the flash of defiance in her eyes when she wears whatever she wears. And while Boucher has been known to style herself, particularly onstage, she has more recently become comfortable being dressed. She was seen in head-to-toe Vuitton front row at the house’s spring ’16 show; in a short leopard Vuitton number at the Met Gala (which she kitted out in crystals and topped with double bouffant buns); and, on occasion, otherworldly Rodarte ensembles. Her exact look is hard to categorize (which is how Boucher likes it), but her vibe is something like punk rock fairy princess on acid. Regardless, you notice not just the clothes but Boucher in them. It is a dresser’s dream.
Further evidence of her fashion bona fides can be found in the video for the lead single from her new album “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream,” which was styled by the mono-monikered Turner (who has also dressed people like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and actress Rose Byrne)—with explicit guidance from Boucher. The video also exemplifies the Grimes world view, aesthetic and work ethic: a lush, beautifully shot, almost-seven-minute epic that depicts Boucher as multiple characters, including a tennis-playing Marie Antoinette who is eventually stabbed and eaten by the other characters.
“How do I say this without sounding crazy?” Boucher asks, laughing. “I feel like the version of Grimes that exists publicly is a kind of Marie Antoinette character that everyone thinks is this pop star, but it’s an obnoxious, terrible thing I can’t relate to. I wanted to make this video where another character or other characters would all kill her. So I guess that’s the basis of the music video—you know, killing Grimes.”
Mac Boucher, Claire’s brother and a burgeoning filmmaker in his own right, was the video’s director of photography. The Boucher household in Vancouver, where Claire grew up, was a fairly strict one—their father woke them early to jog each day before school and their grades were closely monitored. As the eldest kid, Mac says, Claire was the most put upon. She was a creative child, with a visual-artist’s eye, and moved to Montreal after high school to pursue her post-secondary education in neuroscience and philosophy. It was there she fell in with the creative weirdos that make up the music and art scenes in the city and began putting out albums. Mac recalls returning from studying abroad in Asia a few years ago to find his sister’s career in overdrive. “I came back into this shock wave of excitement,” he says. When Claire left for the first Grimes tour of Europe, Mac went along to shoot it. They’ve been working together on music videos and film projects ever since.
The future of Grimes is a question mark for Boucher as Art Angels finally makes its way into the world. Her discomfort with the lack of control she has over Grimes overshadows her successes. Having to manage the brand is now part of being an artist. “I think music is a really sacred thing,” she says, “and it’s really dangerous to turn it into too much of a job.” I ask how that outlook might affect her relationship to her management at Roc Nation and Jay Z, for whom music is definitely a job. She bristles. “Where I’m at in my career right now, I need a manager of a certain level to just deal with the crazy amount of stuff coming in. At the end of the day, any decisions I want to make in terms of my career or my business or my art are mine. Roc is really good about protecting that.”
After the Art Angels tour, she says, she is considering non-musical endeavours. “Maybe I’ll finish my degree. Maybe I’ll go to culinary school,” she says wistfully. “Once I’m done with this, I’ve gotta take a break or I’ll never make another record.” Mac can’t picture his sister leaving music behind completely. “When I’m at her place, she’s making music all the time. I think it’s something she’s never going to let go,” he says. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if she—or any artist who’s had pretty major success—steps away from the spotlight for a little bit.”
A week after we speak, on an unseasonably warm November night in New York, I mill about in a crowd of arty hipsters, black-clad Manhattan nightlife mainstays and Zoolander-esque fashion folk inside the main hall of the Guggenheim. It’s a fundraiser sponsored by Dior and meant to attract a younger set interested in the museum’s future, and Grimes is the featured musician. Lake Bell walks by; Mamie Gummer leans on one of the banisters, hugging a patterned shawl around her. The champagne flows. It’s a maximum New York moment. Eventually Grimes and her dancers sneak through the crowd and up onto a curtained central platform no more than a few feet in diameter. The drapes fall away and the room turns to regard the tiny figure, her long hair dipped in pink and purple, a Dior jumpsuit folded down and tied at her waist to reveal a utilitarian tank top. Grimes performs an eight-song set, operating the equipment haphazardly taped down around her like a mad scientist’s lab, reaching over and through the stands, her own body and her dancers to twist a knob, adjust a setting, create a sound. It’s highly calibrated and tightly controlled, but it has a loose, whimsical quality, too. During a reworked version of “Scream,” the album cut of which features verses in Taiwanese from Aristophanes, Grimes tilts her body toward the crowd and lets loose a guttural, heart-wrenching wail. Some of Manhattan’s elite retreat, but a girl in black lipstick and a leather cap throws her body around, unthinking, just feeling. That’s who Grimes is for.
Hair: Luke Chamberlain, Oribe, Forward Artists.
Makeup: Jenna Anton, Jed Root.
On-set producer: Melinda Rodriguez.
Editor: Briony Smith.