Grimes: "There’s no time to be repetitive”

Canadian bedroom-pop prodigy Grimes reveals the lengths she’s willing to go to realise her vision

Feature by Mark Shukla | 29 Feb 2012

Pop music is a powerful and dangerous commodity. Like the prima materia of the alchemists, it has been rectified, calcinated and commixed with countless other genres through the ages in an attempt to distil new and vibrant forms. Of all possible combinations, the marriage between pop and that which is known as ‘goth’ is one of the most potentially volatile. If the Gods are smiling you might happen upon something akin to Disintegration-era Cure; but get your proportions wrong and you could end up with a pool of Rasmus all over the studio floor.

It was, perhaps, with the historical difficulty of such a marriage in mind that certain listeners came to regard Grimes’ 2010 sophomore album, Halfaxa, as something of a thaumaturgic sensation. Produced by Montreal-based Claire Boucher, here was an album that not only managed to reconcile pop and goth, but also synthesised classical chant with modern R&B and electronic influences.

For her forthcoming album, Visions (aptly named in reference to medieval Christian mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen), the 23-year-old has delivered a record which foregrounds her pop tendencies even further, without compromising its predecessor’s alien beauty. It’s a captivating record; one that has already garnered significant hype from both the critics and the blogosphere at large – not that Boucher is letting it get to her head.

“I’ve stopped reading my press because I think it’s bad for your psyche. I used to, but it definitely changes the way that you make music. It got to the point where I was doing all these weird things; I was making these fake bands so I wouldn't have to worry about Grimes – so I could psychologically stop worrying about what other people were thinking.”

Boucher’s splendid isolation extended to the recording sessions for the album itself; a three week period of “self-imposed cloistering” and “psychic purging” during which she blacked-out her windows, avoided human contact and ate almost nothing.

“Fasting is actually an incredible thing to do for your brain,” she enthuses, “it just creates incredible lucidity. It was like I knew what I had to do and I just felt like I could work for hours and hours. There were definitely periods when I think I worked for 24 hours or more without stopping – just in the same spot, totally focusing so hard on one thing... At a certain point (the music) kind of develops its own sort of mantra-esque life.”

Whilst this may sound like an abnormally grueling process for a producer who rates Mariah Carey, Aqua and TLC among her favourite artists, Boucher’s brutal work ethic paid off when 4AD offered to release the record outside of Canada. “[Signing with 4AD] is probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in my life,” she says. “It’s like the weirdest, most unrealistic situation I can imagine.” And while working with such a prestigious label will undoubtedly bring Grimes a great deal more exposure, Boucher recognises a need to be mindful when playing the media game:

“I’ve definitely been thinking about that a lot. I’m definitely concerned about it being, like... I don’t want it to get too sexy. I want it to be tasteful but I still want it to be cool and I want to try to do things that are really different. There’s a lot of fine lines to be walking and I’m just sort of trying to structure that as carefully as possible. I would like the work to be critically acclaimed, but at the same time if it wasn’t it wouldn’t change anything about how much music I make or the kind of music I make... It’s improved my mental health significantly since I started doing this – especially since I’ve been able to stop working any other jobs. Now I don’t have to do anything else I pretty much spend 100% of my time working on Grimes in one capacity or another, unless I’m socialising. It’s stressful but I think it’s super important to pursue something you feel passionate about.”

Not only does Boucher cherish her opportunity to take her music to an international audience (“It’s like this high school dream,” she coos. “All these places I would never go...”), she’s determined that her enjoyment is reflected in the work she creates: “For me the number one thing about music is that it should feel really good to make and it should feel really good to listen to, and so that’s what I pursue. Everything on this album for me has a lot of heart. My older albums were really just fun-time experimental stuff. But I want to make music that means something, at least to me.”

The music of Grimes may vibrate with a kind of transcendent ecstasy, but Boucher admits that much of her inspiration is drawn from her experience of its polarity. When pressed to identify the album’s primary emotional catalyst, she replies: “Just loss in general, I think. A lot of the best music that I write, I write when I’m really upset and that’s definitely pretty intentional. That’s definitely a thing. Visions was a really intense record to write because of the process of getting there. There was always this feeling that I needed to get away from Montreal, and then I went on tour for like the whole year, and I became incredibly homesick. I broke up with my boyfriend because I was never around. When I came home I didn’t know anybody anymore and I was just like, 'fuck, I wanna leave again.' Definitely one weird thing about music is that it led to this kind of homelessness that’s a little strange.”

This sense of never quite feeling grounded is something that seems to bleed into the critical evaluation of her music, with ‘alien’, ‘celestial’ and ‘otherworldly’ being adjectives commonly used to describe her work. While this may be attributable partly to her penchant for icy electronic synthesis, it’s undoubtedly Boucher’s sinuous four octave range which is the primary cause; her vocals bearing comparison variously to the sublime melisma of Lisa Gerrard, the excrutiating dreaminess of Julee Cruise and even the seductive giddiness of K-pop artists like Girls’ Generation and T-ara:

“When I first heard K-pop I was like, whoa, this sounds like Grimes more than a lot of stuff I’d heard before. I just love dance music. I love high pitched girl vocals with tons of overdubs. I love the way Korean sounds – it’s a really cool language. There’ll be a bunch of random stuff I don’t understand then they’ll just say one word that I recognise, like heart or love or something [laughs]. Plus the visuals are so great, they make videos for every song. I mean Girls’ Generation have, like, 37 videos. That’s crazy.”

Crazy or not, it’s a standard of industry that Boucher believes she can match, having committed herself to delivering a video for every song on Visions: “There’ll be a pretty intense quality difference between some of them,” she says, wryly. “The ones I do myself – especially the ones where I use my mom’s point and shoot camera, which was sometimes my only video option – will be really ghetto. I think it’s really important to work with other people on videos; just developing something with another person, ‘cause I never get to do that in music. The thing about working with people in film is that they definitely are more qualified than I am. So it’s interesting to have a team where everyone’s doing the thing that they’re best at. It makes a really good product in the end.”

As Boucher grows steadily more animated in her responses, it becomes obvious that for her, Grimes is a project without limits:

“Everything I do, all the visuals and everything I do, it’s working with the music. I care about music, but the thing I care most about is crafting a complete work, and the visual part is a huge part of that for me. I mean I love making music videos, I love it almost more than making music. It’s one of the most fulfilling things ever. It’s so fun. I want to work in video art and, you know, be recognised for that too. There’s just so many options... so many things that I still have to do. There’s no time to be repetitive.”

As talk turns to live performance, Boucher reveals that her own appearance is the one element of the Grimes aesthetic that she has mixed feelings about: “I like the idea of actually manufacturing a pop star becuse I’m lazy and I’d prefer not to have to get dressed up and go do stuff," she jokes. "I’d rather make someone else do that. A lot of the things about me that seem really fashionable are really just the result of tons of favours from my friends, just lending me clothes. It's funny that some people think I have this high fashion image or whatever [laughing] – not that I do. Anything like that has been cultivated by other people.”

With the interview winding down, we inquire about a recently uploaded video of a spotlit Grimes performing a mesmerising acoustic paean inside some kind of cavernous, pitch-black edifice. The ukelele with which she accompanied herself “was a one-time deal,” she stresses, but Boucher recalls the circumstances of her performance with glee:

“We went down into the basement of this crazy abandoned building – this is Montreal in the dead of winter, like negative 40. It was great but my fingers froze so it was really hard to play. People kept having to blow on my fingers, it was so painful. If you watch closely you can see a piece of the roof fall and hit me in the head as I’m playing [laughs]. That was really fun!”

As a barometer of grace under pressure, you’d have to say that the ability to withstand sudden head trauma without breaking flow is a pretty robust indicator. It’s certainly a fine illustration of Boucher’s focus and good humour, but it also serves as a broader metaphor; a reminder to us all of the importance of retaining our own poise and integrity as the old structures – be they political, economic or intellectual – crumble around us.

We’ll drink to that.

Visions is released 12 Mar on 4AD. Grimes plays Glasgow's Berkeley Suite on 7 May .