Grimes: A Series Of Observations From Oyster #108

“I think a lot of journalists have tried to turn it into a big conceptual art piece, but it is what it is.”

Mysterious and extremely likeable human Grimes hung out with us to talk clickbait journalism, her obsessive process and the complicated mythology of “Grimes” for Oyster #108: The Origins Issue. Read the full profile by writer Laura Bannister right here, right now. 

One November many years ago, a friend of mine had what they would later describe as their “first proper sex” (upon probing, this occasion gained legitimacy over previous forays because “we both came, and he was like a boyfriend I guess.”) They were in the basement of a Frenchwoman’s house and there was no door, only a curtain, meaning they had to be very quiet, keeping puffs and pants to a minimum. The soundtrack, which was meant to do what all sex soundtracks do — heighten activities inside the room, disguise them to outsiders — was played via laptop speakers. It was Grimes’ 16-track Halfaxa album, which had just been released, and with its witchiness and glitchiness and all-consuming eerie gloomscapes it made the whole experience “very fucking intense”. (This, of course, is what Grimes’ music does. You play it alone and with not-so-strangers, you play it through headphones and at parties, because it elicits something other music doesn’t. It’s hyperactive, jubilant, weirdly cathartic.)

***

It is evening, summertime, and Grimes — real name Claire Boucher — is late (with apologies) to her interview and photoshoot, presumably because she is in the middle of a demanding tour, or because it is peak hour. When she arrives with manager and label rep in tow, everyone waiting in the studio quickly gets to their feet: an editor, a stylist and her assistant, an effervescent nail artist who has a beauty spot above her lip (and who I am more than a little transfixed by). We all stand up and shake hands with Grimes, because if there’s such a thing as music royalty in 2016 then this slight Canadian is probably it. Boucher’s hands are as dainty as you’d expect of someone routinely deemed ‘pixie-like’ and she flickers each of us a smile as she takes in her surroundings. I wonder how many rooms like this one — filled with lights and unfamiliar clothes — Boucher and her entourage have visited this week.

I should note, before we get too much further, that it’s hard to know if she should be referred to as ‘Boucher’ or ‘Grimes’ in print. Descriptions of the 27-year-old artist oscillate between the two. I ask and she insists the difference is simple: a demarcation between musician and stage name. “It’s not really a conceptual thing,” she sighs, hands outstretched as the nail-artist applies a set of pre-prepared acrylics. “It’s just — well, the job is Grimes … I think a lot of journalists have tried to turn it into a big conceptual art piece, but it is what it is.”

Boucher tells me it’s the same with songs — especially those on her latest album, where tracks like ‘Kill V. Maim’ (written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather II) aren’t really about employing alter egos. It’s a narrative tool, nothing more. “I think the media likes the idea of alter egos, but I’m just making the song and the song has a theme. Like ‘Man Down’ by Rihanna — Rihanna doesn’t live in Jamaica, it’s just the song. It’s not like there’s this alter ego [who resides in Jamaica that] she’s reliving each show. You know what I mean? There’s not a version of Taylor Swift that is 22 and comes out every time she plays ’22’.”

I do know what she means, even though she recently said sort of the opposite. In a mini-documentary released by The Fader last December, Boucher opened with the following: “At first I guess there was just Grimes. I don’t technically have control of her narrative anymore; she very much exists in pop culture right now. Grimes, as one person, cannot represent more than a couple of ideas. That’s why I started developing some of the other characters, like, really abstract from who I am and how I am. You can start being an actor, adding in more voices, and understanding that not everything has to reflect you. The art angels are the face of it; more like superheroes, more like villains. They are performers and I’m the producer-writer.”

Before adopting her stage moniker — which incidentally she borrowed from the grime genre, having noticed it on Myspace and liked the way it sounded — Boucher was studying arts and science (or maybe neuroscience, it’s never clear) at university in Montreal, with plans to become an astrophysicist. (She was later kicked out for non-attendance, largely due to that burgeoning music career.) Before that, in primary and early high-school, she took pre-professional ballet lessons but stopped after she shaved her head and evolved into someone markedly different from her peers. In her teens she did ordinary and less-ordinary side jobs, waitressing and being a busgirl, undertaking the “pretty good gig” that is freelance mural painting. “It was like $15 an hour, mostly schools and community centres. I usually had a brief. They’d be like, ‘It has to be a dinosaur with this and this and this.’ They’d have [reference] pictures. It was a chill time.”

But by 2011 or 2012, Boucher recalls, she was making enough from performing that her music — off-kilter, dark, ecstatic, masterfully multi-layered — constituted her primary income.

I wonder how blissful autonomy felt. She shrugs, “It was pretty easy in Montreal because it’s a really cheap city … It felt good.”

Between 2010 and 2013 Boucher released three LPs: Geidi Primes, Halfaxa (the sex one) and Visions, the latter of which was named by NME as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The making of Visions, like much of her career, quickly became shrouded in myth, morphing with each repeating. Offhand quotes in interviews were spun into new, more radical retellings. In the now-common Public Version of events Grimes transmuted into an ascetic, locking herself in a room and blacking out the windows, binging on Adderall and barely sleeping, determined to meet the record label’s deadline. This is all, as far as I can tell, true, but often accompanied by a quasi-spiritual sense of sacrifice and weightiness that Boucher never really intended. Her audience, however, clings excitedly to stories like this — you only have to find the forums in which to witness it.

For the musicians of now, even the fiercely independent ones, interaction with fans is unpredictable and compulsive and more often than not happens via a screen. Things that normal, non-famous people enjoy — like posting photos to Instagram — can morph into comment battlegrounds for strangers with too much time. To read the comments left below videos on YouTube is to be offered a glimpse of hell’s most blistering depths — to understand how Trump has a real chance in the US Presidential campaign, to see the kinds of photos vehement climate-change deniers choose to represent themselves (national flags, top hats, close-ups of Golden Retrievers). Those beneath Boucher’s official clips span the possessiveness of fandom to the vituperative drivel of keyboard trolls. For certain admirers — the kind who’ve fashioned blogs to aggregate their Grimes knowledge — she is more than a very good singer or songwriter or producer, she is a synth-pop Tumblr queen worthy of worship.

From user n g n, posted under the video to ‘Oblivion’: “She could just as easily be an alien witch priestess from the future come back to offer up some much needed guidance and she chose this mantle to optimize receptivity. Our benevolent guardian angel. The otherworldly aura she emits is surely open to opposing origin theories.”

From Michael Fanning, below the same clip: “There is no other artist to compare her, in a centric world of copies she stands out as the Messiah. Till I hear about her spacecraft beaming her up in a guttural scream of glory I will entertain the sane notion she is a higher form of human.”

From user Blue Cadum, who is not herself Grimes but whose profile picture is Grimes: “I just realized my dreams twoo [sic] weeks ago: to see Grimes in Paris for her Acid reign tour and sing Genesis in front of her while she is performing it. It was in Paris at Le Trianon, Friday March 4th 2016. I love her even more.”

Boucher is a product of the Internet era, so this breed of swivel-eyed adoration is expected. She grew up within a very specific cultural milieu, where publicly logging one’s career successes and disappointments is not considered unusual and nor is being environmentally and politically vocal (“I would love a female president,” she tells me as we discuss her Instagram endorsement of Bernie Sanders, “but [Hillary] gets paid to speak by Goldman Sachs. We need someone who’s radically going to be against that.”) For the duration of her time in the public eye she’s been dubbed an inveterate controversialist, even for tiny socially conscious decisions like refraining from the use of plastic cups and bottles. Grimes posts to Tumblr, and a news piece is spawned.

The tension between oversharing, like many born in the 80s or 90s are prone to, and maintaining the clipped, press-savvy answers of someone in the public eye who has been burned one too many times becomes manifest throughout our conversation.  For instance: “You’ve talked about condescension in studios — male producers and engineers assuming you don’t know how to do anything yourself. I’m wondering if after discussing that publicly you ever hear from those people again. Does the treatment change after you speak out about it? Do you get an apology?”
“No. You still pretty much get the same bullshit. I’d say it’s actually gotten worse.”
“In what way?”
“Not in ways that I can speak about publicly.”

Other avoided anecdotes are seemingly innocuous. There’s a question about meeting one’s idols — if any have impressed like Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin did in 2014, when they held hands for almost a full minute at Comic-Con.

“I don’t talk about anyone in interviews because it’s only ever led to drama.”

I should add that Boucher, while distant, is always polite. She’s apologetic about the clam-ups. Later I think about being endlessly scrutinised  — sexualised, infantilised, beloved, critiqued and misquoted, my language and body policed — until I feel very small.

***

“I can play any instrument, possibly,” Grimes later tells me, a statement both impressive and suspicious. “It’s not hard. It’s one thing to play an instrument well, but I think I could pick most up and play them, except maybe horns and flutes. Like, there are techniques you need to learn to make a sound out of the flute.” (As an aside, I mention this anecdote to two musicians and they’re inclined to think it’s possible.)

Mastery of all the world’s instruments aside, you’d be hard pressed to name a musician who works harder. Boucher does almost everything herself: writing, recording and full production, illustrating album covers, playing various instrumentals. It would have been faster to hire session musicians for her fourth full-length album, Art Angels. Instead she learned the guitar and violin and recorded the parts alone. She is highly obsessive, technical, and fastidious with details. For those employed in regular industries, clocking in and out on time and never getting sandwich crumbs in their keyboard, Boucher’s studio shifts, which sometimes add up to 16 straight hours, are almost unfathomable. It takes between one twelve-hour day and two weeks to make a song — they’re only finished when showing them to others doesn’t induce hyperventilating. “‘Kill V. Maim’ was probably the most amount of time I’ve spent on one — twelve or 13 days,” she says, acrylics clicking. “I re-did the instrumental from scratch numerous times and I re-did the vocals at the end.”

For the very-busy Boucher, slumber is rare and cherished. At one point before the photoshoot, while the stylist mills around us prepping punchy orange floral jackets and Disney Princess-ish dresses and hooded jumpers designed for stoners or people who want to look like stoners, I ask Boucher how she’d most like to refuel before making another album. What would satiate her non-musical appetite? Would she go back to university? Would she go make a lot of art? “I dunno,” she says quickly — she always speaks quickly — “Probably sleep. That sounds awful, but I’d probably take a month and sleep. Stare at the ceiling. Lie down and do nothing. I have insomnia, so it’s not that the [touring] schedule is so bad, but by the time I get to sleep I have to get up in a couple of hours.”

The schedule that looms over Boucher is relentless. It stretches into the foreseeable future and even beyond that. Our interview takes place in early 2016, and Boucher says, with the deadpan expression of someone who has just enrolled in a PhD, she’ll be touring until September. And touring, of course, is always more than just touring — more than electric, dizzying shows in front of fans who have paid with their own money to watch you do the thing you love. It is also interviews with people like and unlike me, a million journalists whose names she couldn’t possibly remember, people with voice recorders and notepads and illuminating questions such as “What does it mean to be a woman in music?” and “Do you enjoy playing live?”

This is what’s in store for her as the months tick by: more of the same. Everyone demanding a little bit of her, taking whatever they can. Boucher gets up from her stool and is led down a hallway to a much bigger room where she again takes a seat. A hairstylist addresses her bleached tresses with interest. Her manager waits at a white table, surveying the tableau vivant from a distance. Grimes is here for a few hours and then she will be gone, on to another state and gig, going through the now well-known motions. In each place she’ll become irrevocably knotted up in the narratives of strangers. I say ‘Grimes’ to my friend and they remember fucking in a room without a door. I mention the name to my housemate and she thinks back to one New Year’s Eve, topless and high in a bathtub with friends (the ‘Oh my God, no you have beautiful tits’ sort of high), ranting about how she’d like to copy Grimes’ then-pink hair or the sugarcoated cornrows Brooke Candy throws about in ‘Genesis’. Weeks after our interview, during a show at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, reports emerge of Grimes’ on-stage electric shock — or something else involving faulty tech equipment and clear physical pain — and spasmodic smartphone videos, ones that show the actual moment, are posted and reposted by fans. An Irish art student captions her jolty 15-second clip: “…you really did make my life.”

Words: Laura Bannister

Photography: Simon Eeles
Fashion: Coco Adorjany
Hair: Pete Lennon at Company1 using R+Co
Make-up: Samantha Patrikopoulos
Nails: Nella van Veenendaal at N.P.A.A. using OPI
Photographic Assistants: Bjorn Johnson & Jesse Lizotte
Fashion Assistant: Miguel Urbina Tan
Special thanks to Pix On Location.

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