Grimes is the musical alias of Montréal-based musician Claire Boucher. Boucher arrived in 2010 with two albums, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, freely available for download from local co-op Arbutus. Halfaxa was particularly impressive; the unknown artist issuing one of the best LPs of 2010. In 2011, Grimes released a split 12-inch with fellow Montréaler d'Eon, and impressed audiences at SXSW and CMJ. Buoyed by the eye-catching video for "Vanessa," Grimes profile steadily rose, and late in 2011 Boucher signed to 4AD On the back of killer singles "Genesis" and "Oblivion," her third LP, Visions, arrived early in 2012 as one of the year's most hyped —and best— albums.
Interview: February 24, 2012
Were you really studying neuroscience? Has music derailed a budding research career studying the brain?
"I don't know if I thought it was going to be my career-path, but it was definitely this field-of-study I was interested in, and if I wasn't making music it's possible I would still be pursuing it. It's just something that I'm also very passionate about, and that I feel like I could really throw myself into. The thing that really interested me at McGill —where they have an amazing neuroscience program— is studying music and neuroscience; basically trying to discern how waves of air can create an electrical impulse that can turn into an emotional response. That doesn't, in some ways, make any sense. Like, music is such an anomalous artform, it doesn't make sense in some ways; there no obvious sensory thing to respond to. Painting, there's something physically, literally there for you to see; cinema or literature is always appealing to this very direct emotion. But music feels super-abstract in comparison; it’s actually just in the air. Yet, somehow, it’s the most directly responsive of all the artforms. These are things that I still think about, that have really captivated me."
Are any of these philosophical ideas actually at play in your own production of music?
"I like thinking about the cognitive process that goes into any situation, trying to reduce anything to its actual impulses in the brain. Sometimes to the detriment of my own experiences. I like the idea of how pop music functions by taking these basic evolutionary facts about humans and just exploiting them. People love sex, people love bass, probably because it mirrors the heartbeat. So you take these things that go back a long way, deep in our evolutionary core, and then turn that into, like, Britney Spears. I find that so fascinating! I don't think about it that much when I'm making music, but there are basic production techniques that I didn't learn from some engineer, but that I knew from neuroscience. Like how a higher frequency will sound louder at the same volume than a lower frequency will, so I would know that a higher frequency could sit lower in the mix and still register at the same decibel level, for example."
Your music, structurally, really lacks those obvious emotional cues, the standard use of major keys and minor keys, uptempo and downtempo, et cetera.
"I don't really think about anything when I'm making music, and I don't think about other people; I'm just trying to appeal to my own emotional responses. I totally rely on my own visceral responses to decide on which whether or not it's good, whether it's emotionally present. Maybe I make it seem less formulaic in that way, because I'm not really trying to make other people feel things, just make music that I respond to. Most of the songs on [Visions] actually are about very specific things. I write the songs with a lot of emotional intention, but I just make the words really abstract so it's not ever about anything too specific, and maybe it doesn't come across to anyone else."
What were your beginnings in sound?
"My friends were all doing it, and it was something I really wanted to try. In the end, it really came down to a confidence thing. I had been singing back-ups for a lot of my friends, so I got that confidence, and then I just started doing it one day."
So had you not been a performative child, at all?
"It's definitely something that's only existed over the last couple of years. I had a pretty intensive period of ballet, but it wasn't anything like this. So it's pretty new, to me, performing."
What was it like suddenly becoming the center-of-attention, and bearing the psychological burden of having all eyes on you?
"It was really hard at first. It's definitely intimidating, but it's definitely something that I'm starting to feel good about. It's like a type of power that I've never really had. It feels good to be in control. At first it was really hard for me, really psychologically difficult. But now it's becoming this thing where it's super-empowering. It's given me so much confidence, it's so much easier for me, now, to just relate to other people, just be around them. Nothing to me is scarier than being on stage. So having to do that night after night, nothing is worse than that. It's the scariest possible thing! It's been really good for me, literally just confronting your fear and then doing it all the time."
How much of that change goes with playing for people who are coming out to see you, who are already on your side?
"It's definitely been a lot easier since I've, like, gotten fans. At first, it was just people who were at the show. You're an opening act, they expect you to suck; you're fighting against that, it's really difficult. Now, when I play, there's not that need to prove that you don't suck, I guess."
How do you feel about the 'post-internet' meme you accidentally founded?
"I think it's totally stupid. Well, it's just a stupid term that I unfortunately made up. The concept isn't stupid, it's a phenomenon that just totally exists. Because the internet exists. It's all around us on a daily basis, and it's totally informed the way people live their lives, the way they consume music, and the way that they interpret it, both as listeners and artists."
I feel like there hasn't been enough recognition of how much the world has changed, either artistically or, like, anthropologically. The change has been so radical, and people don't seem to have really stopped and considered the profound psychological and cultural ramifications.
"It's hard to say whether that's good or bad, either; it's probably a lot of both. I think the implications are huge, though; we're a totally different species because of the internet. The way that people interact with each other in the world is so different. The way that all things are consumed, the way that all culture is consumed. It's been very liberating for artists, obviously. People can promote themselves, and it's allowed a lot of independent things to grow; you don't need a lot of money to get people to notice you these days. That's a hugely positive thing. But the negative side is, yeah, people never going outside, spending all that time at a computer. I think in the end, it all ends up neutral, no matter how positive or negative some things might seem. If we all die of cancer from having spent our days sitting in front of radiating computers, maybe that's actually not a bad thing for the species? At the end of the day, 'good' and 'bad' don't really stick. Things just happen. It's just evolution."
I have pre-internet memories of being young, listening to bands where you had no idea at all what they looked like. Contrastingly, I feel like you're one of the most comprehensively-photographed artists I've ever been interested in. What's it been like having this visual image being such a part of how people interpret your music?
"I don't know. It's definitely really weird, and the last thing that I ever thought about when I started doing this. I don't actually like getting my picture taken very much, I'm sort of uncomfortable about it. But all my favorite artists have a really strong identity and idea of themselves. As much as it bothers me, it's also part of what I'm trying to do. Which is sell a brand. A really strong, cohesive thing that is Grimes."
Did you know what you wanted that brand identity to be from the start?
"When I first started making music, I didn't care, or think about things that much. As Grimes became more of a thing, I realized that I did have the power to create this musical identity like that. Then I started hanging out, in Montréal, with people like Doldrums, and they think about and talk about that stuff so much; about music-as-branding, about indie-pop stardom, about creating this super-maximalist over-exposed idea of what art is, and what their art is. That was a dialogue they were really into having: the future as indie-branding; taking this concept of celebrity and doing it from the bottom up. Having this celebrity, this identity that exists from the very beginning and never wavers. I'm really interested in the idea of these people who are huge celebrities, but no one even knows who they fuck they are. It's this incredibly postmodern way of approaching the idea of being a musician."
How has the world perceived the Grimes brand?
"I don't know. I don't read any of my press, because I'm totally terrified of people saying mean things about me. So I don't really know how it's been received; I only really talk with my mom and my friends about it. In a weird way, I care about the branding a lot. But I don't want to care about the press; I don't want to be a part of that, because I don't want to be too aware of myself. I want to be able to change and evolve and grow the project, and not feel confined about the public idea of who I am. Even though I really care about building that concept."
Have you been surprised by the success you've had?
"The success doesn't make sense to me. I feel like Grimes is weird music, it's not even remotely popular. But I like playing shows, I like being part of this culture."
So, my very favorite musical humans of the past year —the people I've listened to the most— are Sean Nicholas Savage, Mozart's Sister, Tops, and, well, you. Is that just a weird coincidence? Or is there actually something happening in Montréal?
"There is definitely something happening in Montréal. Most of the best music I know is coming from this same group of people. I feel like it's a really unique scene. Because all these people from Edmonton and Calgary and Vancouver, who all grew up on punk music and noise music, having migrated to Montréal and created this scene of their own. They've come from these places that're totally desolate and freezing; where there's nothing else to do. So everyone is just totally dedicated to working on their music, because they have nothing else to do, and they have these really individual identities and personal influences. But as much as it's about that isolation, it's also about the parties, where you play a show and all people want to do is come together and dance. I feel like it's the greatest scene in the world; everyone who I play shows with is totally amazing. And there's all this cross-influence between us: Grimes is totally influenced by my friends. So I think it's not a coincidence, there’s a real scene there that I hope will get a lot more attention soon."