“I just like to think about dying, whether or not I’m going to die. This record is, ‘what if I died tomorrow?’”
Claire Boucher is in an odd place. Only two years ago, the then-22-year-old transplant from Vancouver had become a fixture of the Mile End/Outremont warehouse scene in Montréal before deciding to make a name for herself as a musician. Despite being very new to the process, her music, under the name Grimes, has attracted significant attention from the press, including our own site. Depending on your take, she’s either taking a more elegant and more upbeat approach to the dark pop of recent years, or she’s continuing the trend of making an experimental, danceable form of music in a distant, yet tactile, manner. All of this is backed by a voice that switches from childish and modest in one measure to mature and boisterous in another.
When I met her at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco prior to her decent set at Noise Pop, she still appeared new to the whole thing. Her demeanor, while casual and cordial, felt ill at ease with the notion of talking to the press, and she acknowledged as such. Talking backstage in a windy loading dock, we talked about possible sources of inspiration, both in title and material, for her new album Visions. We also discussed working live with a backing band (her first with this current tour), recreational drug usage at the border, comics, and how she really does not want to be seen as an amateur sound engineer.
Let’s talk about Visions first. You put up a tweet a couple days ago, a retweet of someone calling your music “A sonnet to the bad future of the Japanese version of Sonic CD.”
Did I really write that?
No, you just retweeted it.
I’ll be honest, I had taken all my clonazepam when I crossed the border a few days ago because I didn’t have a prescription. So, a couple days ago, for about 48 hours, I have no memory of.
What’s the clonazepam for?
Eh, recreational. [Laughs]
Happens, I guess. Still, with what I mentioned in mind, especially with the general response to Visions, including tweets like this, what do you feel about it?
It’s super varied. I feel like there’s a couple different types of Grimes fans that interpret it totally differently. So there’s more the Lykke Li type fans, who are all, “We like pop music.” And then there’s sort of the more experimental fans that I feel like are more my peers.
So, more the Lizzi Bougatsos fans.
Yeah, something like that. It’s hard, I don’t read any of my press. I really don’t know what people think … of my music except when I’m speaking with my friends and contemporaries because we all just throw stuff off each other. I feel like I’m out of the loop.
So there’s a lot of things I do, like imitating Mariah Carey and Beyoncé and stuff like that. And I think they are really beautiful and strong examples of powerful, gorgeous, and hyper-feminine (if in a cookie-cutter sort of way) figures.
Well, it’s a good idea. You put your head into too much press, it just drags you in.
Yeah, and it sort of influences you. It’s like when the hippie culture started getting sold back to the hippies. The Internet creates this “idea” of you that you then feel like you need to fit into. I just don’t want to get sucked into that. I just never want to try to make music that sounds like my other music, or try to appease my fans. It shouldn’t be about that.
Going into production, what was your setup? I know you were doing this in your apartment…
I was using a Roland Juno-G, Line 6 M9 vocal processor, and a BOSS VE-20 vocal processor. I used GarageBand, but I only used it for tracking. I use Logic now. I really need to make clear that I no longer use GarageBand.
It’s OK that you used GarageBand, especially if you used it for a demo or something.
But you can’t export lossless, though. I feel like the record could have been more hi-fi.
[Suddenly, loading doors rattle]
Don’t mind that.
It’s just a stage… And then suddenly, the doors open and people are looking at us and I’m all “What the hell?”
Moving on, what would you say was your state of mind when you recorded this?
There’s always a number of state of minds. That general anxiety and constant self-evaluation/being totally out of my mind.
Going back to setup, you mentioned a couple vocal processors. Do you have a certain preference for that?
I just felt that GarageBand didn’t have good vocal effects.
Well, that’s obvious. You mentioned some specifics, I think it was a Line 6…?
Yeah. It’s a guitar pedal actually, but still…
At the time I made the record, I think I went crazy, because I didn’t sleep for up to five or six days sometimes, and I was taking tons and tons of amphetamines. The whole thing is kind of like an insane prophetic glossolalic devotional piece or something.
Speaking of your vocals, you seem to fluctuate a lot of the time in your tonality and inflection. What inspires you to do that?
I just do what feels good. I don’t try to think about it, really.
So it’s more random and not some specific personality.
It’s definitely not random. Music should just really be projected in a way that feels good. Not what the best thing to do is. I feel in the back of my head I know what the best thing to do is. I never sit down and and think, “Now I’m going to sing like this,” or, “Now I’m gonna try and end like this.” It’s always after the fact where I think, “Well, my influences are really obvious here,” or, “I’ve listened to a lot this there and it comes through,” da da da. Or occasionally, I’ll be trying out stuff like…I remember seeing some interviews saying how Enya produces her own vocals, so I try to do a lot of that.
So you’re big on singers like Enya and Elizabeth Fraser.
Yeah, Claire Hamill, too.
Does it bother you when people note or talk about your lisp?
It used to. But I’ve gotten over it. I’ve accepted my fate.
One thing I noted in looking over the artwork, there is this phrase in Russian [но я предупреждаю вас, что я живу в последний раз] that translates roughly to “But I warn you that this is the last time.” Is there any significance to that?
I think it was, I just got a bit crazy with that record. I don’t know, I just like to think about dying, whether or not I’m going to die. This record is, “what if I died tomorrow?” At the time I made the record, I think I went crazy, because I didn’t sleep for up to five or six days sometimes, and I was taking tons and tons of amphetamines. The whole thing is kind of like an insane prophetic glossolalic devotional piece or something. But it’s also obviously totally done in this pop way because that’s what I know. That’s how I interact with music.
But at the end of the day, what I want to make music about is not explicit or something that I really want to speak about. That’s why my lyrics are really obscure. And I do have trouble giving interviews for this reason: Rationalize something that is the most irrational way a human being can express themselves. That’s why it’s a beautiful thing, because it’s irrational and non-explicit. So you’re asking me to explain something that is the thing I do to not be present.
The quote in Russian is from [Anna] Akhmatova, who is one of my favorite Russian poets. I identify strongly with her artistic presence, and the way she sees herself in the world, at least as far as I get from her writing. She is one of my icons. There are a few icons that this record is written for, one of them being her, another being Hildegarde von Bingen, who I wrote my thesis on. Hildegarde von Bingen splits a lot of her work into these visions that are supposedly a dialogue with God, and I really like that idea of creating music in an semi-religious, anti-ego sort of way. Except, obviously, I’m not religious. I exist totally in this modern world. So I like mediating these two things.
So you’re translating to fit within the language of the context?
I don’t know if it’s the past so much as the religious state of mind, if that makes any sense. Human beings are predisposed to complete irrationality or a desire to believe in something that is inexplicable, and potentially even devote themselves to that. That’s what religion is, and what people have always fallen back on. I was raised in a super-Catholic environment. Now I’m not religious, but I do have the memory of how either a religious mindset or being religious works. A lot of my favorite composers and artists were really religious, and I think when you’re creating art that isn’t about your life, it’s about a higher human consciousness or higher state of being that might not be human or might not be conscious. I think that’s really beautiful. But then there’s the fact that I play dance parties and exist totally on the Internet. I feel like I’m getting totally abstract here.
No, no, you’re fine. One thing to came to mind when I was coming over here was that you live in Montréal right now, I’m assuming Mile End or something like that…
Yeah, I mean, I don’t live anywhere right now, but when I did live in Montréal, I was on Parc and Van Horne.
Anyway, before that, you were based in Vancouver. How much do these two places play off each other in terms of state of mind and this music?
Well I think Vancouver was pretty formative for me, both in terms of the fact of being imbued in Asian culture and also nature. Also, the whole goth/industrial scene that was there when I was growing up kind of made me who I am, and caused me to identify as, “I’m into music, I’m into alternative. That’s me!” Some stupid immature teenage shit, but at the end of the day, that’s how I came to be.
Now, Montréal is where that shit kind of turned into something more tangible. I moved there, my friends started a venue, there’s all these venues, illegal warehouse parties, spaces. I just lived a block away from all these places, [went] there all the time, and [was] constantly around people jamming, dealing with gear, and all this other stuff. Eventually, it was like, “We need some backup vocals! Come on, you’re a girl, you can do it,” and it turned into me trying some stuff on my own. So it was definitely being part of that scene that was the impetus to actually do something. I guess that’s where both of those locations kind of fit in.
You refer to Montréal in the past tense. Where do you intend to go after this tour?
Moving to Los Angeles, baby!
Going into your live setup, you’ve had Born Gold as sort of your backing band during this tour. Could you describe your current setup now in regards to that?
On my end, the Juno-G, the two pedals… I make the backup vocals, obviously. My backup singers are my loop pedal, and my main pedal is for main shit. I also use an SP-404 sampler. I’m running my vocals through Cecil [Frena, Born Gold], who is doing more vocal processing. Calvin is playing electronic drums. Eric is extra keys plus noise plus I think some percussion. I let them jam because they’re really good, so it’s getting increasingly jammy.
So that’s how you would describe working with them?
Definitely, like, super psychedelic and great. It’s way better, I wish they were my permanent band, because they’re fucking amazing. I start the set with me; I play two songs, then they come on, and it just makes everything so much bigger and better. People immediately start dancing when they come on stage because it’s so much louder and [there’s] so much more percussion. They’re good at that: They’re fucking Born Gold, they can make dance music like that.
“I think when you’re creating art that isn’t about your life, it’s about a higher human consciousness or higher state of being that might not be human or might not be conscious.”
And has that helped? If I recall these things correctly, you started out on your own.
I think it just makes me a lot more confident as a performer, because the audience isn’t just focused on me. It’s definitely a psychological thing. I’m going to be really depressed when I have to go back to not having a band.
Perhaps you should start one again.
Well, the kind of people I want to be in my band have priorities. The kind of people I want to contribute something cool to the live set are doing their own shit. I can’t ask them to, and I don’t want to just pay for session musicians, because I want someone who’s going to do something weird.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your artwork. Going over interviews and other things, you seem to emphasize using black-ink drawings in your art. What put you to that?
I just have a real history with comics. I used to work at Drawn and Quarterly. My mom used to be a comic book publisher. So I’m just, deep in my heart, a super comic nerd. I’m also a Charles Burns fan. You can definitely see in my work he’s a huge influence for me. But I’m also totally obsessed with Hieronymous Bosch at the same time. So my thing is bringing together super medieval panoramic shit through a Charles Burns-ish filter, and then making it really psychedelic, and super feminine and violent and scary. I forgot what we were talking about, sorry if I’m rambling.
Any particular comics you enjoy right now?
I’m actually opposed to comics right now. I have a very complex relationship with comics, but as of right now, I’m opposed to comics. But they still influence me a lot.
I wonder why…
It’s because I’ve been drawing since I was little and that was just my style. I mean, I started drawing because I was trying to imitate anime, and then I got into Dan Clowes and guys like that.
And how would you say that incorporates into your other work, say your music and production?
I don’t think it incorporates because it’s all from the same brain I feel like there’s a feeling that exists in all the work that I do, whether it’s my art or my music or my video art.
Going back to something you mentioned briefly intending towards a feminine ideal, is there something specific you go for, or is it just general?
I guess I just feel like a lot of women who consider themselves experimental musicians don’t want to embrace traditional ideas of femininity. I mean, I do think it’s a construct in a lot of ways, but I don’t think that makes it not beautiful. So there’s a lot of things I do, like imitating Mariah Carey and Beyoncé and stuff like that. And I think they are really beautiful and strong examples of powerful, gorgeous, and hyper-feminine (if in a cookie-cutter sort of way) figures. But I like to take aspects of that aesthetic that are really great and funnel them through noise music and stuff like that. The idea of the pop star really does appeal to me, even though I want to do it in a different way.
I just read the other day, you did a track for Cadence Weapon titled “88.” How did that come about?
He actually took the track “Eight” off Visions and cut it up and reproduced it. However, I would produce for him in a second. I made some remixes for him that he hasn’t put out and I don’t know why.
Yeah, I heard he’s trying to do a once a week thing like the Flaming Lips.
Well, he hasn’t put out anything in three years because his label is super aggressively not letting him do shit. He has so much music, like gigs of unreleased music, and he should start putting it out. I think he’s just sick of being trapped by his label.