ART AND THE POP NARCOTIC Grimes

Talkin’ aesthetics with Claire Boucher, who gets down
and dirty on her major label debut, giving us Visions of an artist about to
break.

 

BY SELENA FRAGASSI

 

With a touch of Blade
Runner
, Run Lola Run, Virgin Suicides, and yes even Glitter, you might think Grimes hit the
Redbox while making Visions, the
Canadian singer/producer extraordinaire’s fourth album (and the first for 4AD
Records) – but you’d be wrong. In actuality, Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) spent
the three-week recording process locked in her bedroom deprived of food,
daylight, and absolutely any form of entertainment.

 

“I definitely derive pleasure out of extremely difficult
things,” she divulges over the phone, with a sadistic snicker in an
I’ve-done-this-before type of confession. “[The label] set a date for Visions and I hadn’t done any work at
all. I was like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ So, I blacked out my windows
and locked myself in my room in a self-imposed cloister. I worked on the record
all day, every day for three weeks.”

 

Well that’s one strategy. Not one you hear of from many
artists, but for Grimes, “It worked really well. If you deprive yourself of the
basics and are totally starving and totally dehydrated and so exhausted beyond
belief and haven’t spoken to anyone in two days, you make really good music
because you’re totally insane.”

 

When she starts talking about how long she had to hold her
pee, we totally buy it. This is a girl who’s crazy for her art.

 

“I have to actually call my manager and beg, please, please
give me the month of April off so I can start writing another record,” she says
in a way that almost implores us to help her defense. To call her productive
would be putting it mildly: in just two years, the 23-year-old has released
four records, which only begin to touch the surface of the “hundreds of songs”
in her repertoire. Yet whereas before, her project had an art house feel not
foreign to the creative community of her newly adopted
city of Montreal (she moved there from Vancouver in 2006), Visions is the first of her releases
that provides a set of rules.

 

“The first records I put out, there was no concept of the music industry or marketing or anything
like that,” she says of previous efforts Geidi
Primes, Halfaxa
and Darkbloom.
“Now there’s all this other shit that has to happen, like make a live show, do
interviews …”

 

The structure of being on a major label is in stark contrast
to her time with Arbutus Records, the home of her first three albums and part
of the larger artist collective Grimes found herself aligned with during her
teenage years. The label grew out of a warehouse performing space known as Lab
Synthese, founded by Grimes’ current touring manager in Montreal
in 2007 to support a burgeoning scene she compares to New York City in the ‘80s. “The city is in a
pretty big recession. No one has a job and mostly just make music and those
that don’t try to set up venues and parties and places for people to play.”
Hence, the birth of L.S.

 

“They started doing shows every weekend and you could get in
for free or at the very most $5, you could smoke and it would go ‘til 4 or 5 in
the morning. Anyone could play and there could be like seven bands in a night.”
Soon enough, Montreal’s
finest caught on and shut the place down but not the Lab’s spirit. “There were
all these bands that played there all the time so we figured why not start a
record label so that these artists can reach beyond the neighborhood of the
same 200 people. And that’s sort of how I started. I felt the pressure that if
I was on a record label then I needed to make a record.”

 

Although times have changed two years after her debut in
2010, Grimes concedes that having a “team” behind her has its advantages. First
they can take care of the grunt work she can so abhors: “I’m not involved in
the administrative stuff because I always fuck it up. I don’t have a phone, I
don’t answer my e-mails; I leave that to the others.” But more importantly
there are the resources to do what she really loves, even admittedly more than
making music: the music video.

 

“I love working on music videos and that’s definitely
something that’s come with the success. It’s a new art form that I have yet to
fully realize,” Grimes says, noting that when she makes music, the only thing
she really thinks about is its visual counterpart. One listen to layered tracks
like “Colour of Moonlight” and “Genesis” and you can start to see how quite
literally Visions became the singer’s
working mantra for the album.

 

“I’ll start the song and get ideas based on its structure,
but usually we’re limited by budgets so the music videos are more what we can
actually do than what would be the dream music video.” That she admits would be
“some crazy Hype Williams-esque thing with great cameras and lighting and whatever
the fuck we want. But that’s okay, though, because stuff driven by necessity
definitely has a vibe to it of energy and sincerity. It’s more difficult to
value something that’s going to be huge and high budget where you have to hire
people from AFTRA and you’re required to have catering because everything is
union and all this crap.”

 

She diverts herself. “I probably sound like some evil baron
or something – I’m definitely not opposed to unions. But there’s something to
working with friends and doing something … like there’s not going to be flying
monkeys or anything, but it’s got heart.”

 

When talking to Grimes, she has this mysterious way of
making you understand the greater world order whether she’s talking about
lighting unions or living in self-imposed restraints to achieve a great
consciousness. It’s all so Zen for someone who is after all, only 23, can
sometimes get a little Valley Girl in her speech, and who not too long ago was
kicked out of her university for not attending.

 

“I’ve always been bad at sitting still or following
directions in any extended way. I think I probably have an attention disorder
or something,” she says, of her schoolgirl woes before getting a little PSA
about the whole issue. “But I do think education is one of the greatest
luxuries and needs to be appreciated more. One of the reasons I didn’t reapply
to university after I got kicked out is because I wasn’t appreciating it. And I
definitely want to finish my degree, but want to at a time when I’m learning things instead of angrily doing
stuff because I really want to get the fuck out of school.”

 

 


Grimes – Oblivion by Arbutus Records

 

 

School or no school, Grimes is a student of the world full
of vast interests (the girl can talk Ghost
in the Shell
and Friends in the
same sentence) and hardening experiences (living in a bubble will do that to
you) she so masterfully blends into one of the most creatively daring albums to
emerge in the last three years. Visions is an album full of so many styles: it is at once stark white, encompassing all
colors of the musical spectrum, yet also dense in its spectral, geometric
shapes that twist and turn around every song’s corner. There’s an ethereal new
age vibe a la School of Seven Bells
on track “Symphonia IX,” while “Oblivion” goes Harajuku two decades better than
Gwen Stefani could ever do it.  The early
‘90s pop platform gets TNT’ed by “Vowels = space and time” that crushes Janet Jackson’s
dancehall rhythm; “Circumambient” beautifully assaults Mariah Carey’s screaming
female talent – in perfect homage of course.

 

“She’s one of the best singers of the last 100 years and I
hate that just because she looks really hot, she’s lumped into being just some
pop musician.” We’ve hit a sensitive spot. “Most of the music I would consider
particularly innovative or important in the last 50 years has been what would
be considered mainstream music. Even rap or hip-hop are not considered high art
even though they’ve completely changed the entire music industry.”

 

And here is the part where Grimes really gets us: “I listen
almost exclusively to Top 40 music and I’m not embarrassed by it. In my
opinion, it’s still great art so it doesn’t matter if it’s just blanket
entertainment.”

 

In Grimes’ opinion, women artists get a bad rap and no one
is immune, not even her. “It comes down to sex and race and presentation way
more than anyone wants to admit,” she says of the creative validation that
sometimes counterbalances the output and detracts from the point. “We live in a
super visual world. It makes music tangible and real and interactive.” Just
like everything else she does, suddenly Visions takes on even more meaning. While Grimes is no over-the-top Gaga, she wouldn’t
exactly be lost in a crowd. With her short Geisha bangs, heavy eye makeup and
fishnet tights tucked into Docs, Grimes has a savvy that even Style Rookie Tavi
Gevinson would admire – or steal.

 

“I feel the need to aestheticize everything; to dye my hair
and not necessarily look beautiful but interesting.” It’s a need that harks
back to her formative and authoritatively testing school years. “My elementary
school made us wear uniforms and it was the worst thing ever. Every single day
I’d wake up and I’d be like I’m so fucking depressed about my school uniform.
So I made sure the hair accessories were big and the shoes too. One time I had
platform shoes and it was a huge scandal. They sent me home.”

 

As stylish as she comes off, Grimes isn’t wasting her
current days picking out outfits for her upcoming national tour (a long-awaited
headlining jaunt after wowing audiences as Lykke Li’s opening act in 2011). Instead,
the singer has become invested in making the handcrafted affair as seamless as
the album she will be promoting.

 

“I’m trying to find a way to mediate between the two,”
Grimes says of her latest challenge, figuring out a means to merge her former
warehouse performance days with the current regulations of more, well, professional venues. “My booking agent
doesn’t like those more ‘out there’ shows, which kind of sucks.” Confirmed will
be two drummers (“I want it to be very aggressive and loud”) and absolutely no
covers (“I can’t do covers because I really can’t play music. I can only play
my songs because I know how they go”).

 

After the tour, it’s back to Montreal to (fingers crossed)
begin a new record, work on her side noise band Membrane, and perhaps embark on
a new career … as a film scorer.

 

“I would love to score movies – that would be my dream. In a
future world if I could just do shit like that and not have to be present and
have clean hair, it would make my life a lot easier.”

 

[Photo Credit: John Londono]

 

 

Go here for a Grimes video plus a review. Over at NPR Music they are streaming the new Grimes album, Visions, in its entirety.

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