Interview With Grimes

Interview With Grimes

The Montreal musician comes clean on multitasking, dancing girls and breaking up the boys' club.

By Madeline Coleman March 4, 2011

Grimes (right) will tour Mexico with D'Eon (left) this spring. Photo by Sadaf Hakimian.

Claire Boucher is worried about being a jerk. The Vancouver-born, Montreal-based musician—more commonly known as Grimes—is about to head out on a four-month tour that will take her through the United States to Texas music fest SXSW, before heading over to Europe. "I actually don't really know the full itinerary," Boucher admits, "because I'm an asshole and I haven't been as involved in this as I should be."

She could forgiven for not thinking that far ahead—after all, she has been awfully busy lately. Last year she released two albums, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa (Arbutus Records), both awash in samplers. The internet fell in love. "Her voice sounds really different live," whispered a young woman to her friend at a recent Grimes performance. That reaction makes sense; Boucher admits that she recorded both albums with minimal equipment and little understanding of how she was "supposed" to make music. Her songs swoop from dark and foreboding to crisp pop beats, and her vocals follow suit: falsetto one second, guttural the next.

Boucher's last show, at Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture during Nuit Blanche, featured three ghoulish dancing girls in white face make-up, and digital wall projections courtesy of artist Tyson Parks. She has a penchant for face paint and hair dye. Boucher is a chameleon and a charmer, and—full disclosure—she designed the poster for Maisonneuve's winter launch party. What a gal.

Tonight, March 4, she plays at the launch party for Concordia University's Art Matters festival at Espace Reunion (6600 Hutchison, Montreal, $10 at the door). Doors open at 9:00 p.m. Catch her before she starts her campaign of world domination.

Madeline Coleman: What's the situation going to be at SXSW? Are you just playing the one show?

Claire Boucher: I think I'm playing nine shows.

MC: Nine shows?

CB: Yeah, it's pretty heavy. I think it's supposed to be not very much fun, but a really good opportunity. I'm playing like three shows a day, so I'll probably just be really stressed out. But there's free food and free alcohol, so I'll probably be drunk, and well fed, and stressed out.

MC: The last show that you played at the CCA, you had a full outfit that you put on and some girls dancing. But when you take the show on the road, how much of that are you going to be able to do?

CB: Not very much of it. Especially in a festival setting, you have no sound check, you don't really have time to set up. You just go onstage, play for twenty minutes and get kicked off.

MC: How do you feel about that?

CB: It's a bad way to perform. It's not just enjoyable and usually the sound's really bad. It's a good thing to do for your career, but it's not fun. It'll be way more fun to tour down and tour back. I mean, it's a really good way to meet people, and it'll be fun because it'll be crazy and hot, and I think everyone's going to be feeling kind of intense because it's really intense for everybody to be there.

MC: I think that's an aspect of being a touring musician that people don't think about: adapting your show. You used to always tell interviewers that you didn't know anything about music—obviously, you do know something! When you first started performing live, how did you have to adapt your music?

CB: Honestly, I can't say I don't know anything about music anymore because that's not true (laughs). But at the beginning it was, and now it's just something they still write in articles because they always write the same things about everybody. At first I just used samples because they're easy to use. It was the only way I could play a show at all. I wasn't proficient enough to work with a band—I wouldn't have been able to direct people—and I wasn't proficient enough to play all myself. Now I'm trying to incorporate me doing more shit live, and less shit being on the sampler, and having the only shit on the sampler be stuff that it would be impossible to play live.

MC: And you have so much going on at the same time. I've seen you lean over and press buttons on the equipment with the same hand that you're holding the microphone with.

CB: (Laughs) It's kind of intense right now. I kind of want a guy that could do all that shit, but I like seeing shows where the person is doing everything, because I feel like as soon you add more performers people start to assume something different. I mean, look at Zola Jesus—not that I'm her biggest fan or anything. Everyone assumes you're a band. They don't think you're a solo project anymore.

And not that I'm a hyper feminist or anything, but I feel like if I had a guy doing the instrumentals and I was singing, it would look like, well, a guy was doing all the instrumentals and I was just singing. I rarely see female artists where that isn't the case. And I don't want to be just a singer, so I feel an intense desire to do everything, even if it's ridiculously complicated.

MC: Do people respond differently to you, as a woman doing everything herself? I feel like there's still such a stereotype of female solo artists as doing only these singer-songwriter kinds of things, not playing with samples.

CB: Yeah, people bring it up a lot, which I think is kind of stupid. If I were a guy, they wouldn't bring it up. The guy that sold me the sampler was shocked that I was a girl. The music industry is kind of a boys' club. I guess people don't like to think of it that way. Not that I'm really adamant about changing things. I feel like the best way to change it is to not make a big stink and just do a good job.

But I think people definitely respond differently, and people always seem surprised that I would do it on my own. A lot of times I'll show up for a sound check, and the sound guys will not do anything because they think that my band hasn't shown up. I have to be like, "Um, excuse me, we really need to set up."

MC: Whereas if just one dude showed up, they might not be like, "Where's the rest of your band?"

CB: It's hard to say. When I went across Canada [last summer], the smaller the population of the area that you're in, the greater the issue you'll have with that kind of thing. And it depends on where you're playing; if you're playing in a bar, usually the sound guy gets confused because he doesn't see that very much. But if you're playing some kind of cool loft space—not that people are still so into cool loft spaces—they'll usually be more accustomed to that kind of thing. They won't feel like it's a social problem.

MC: And it shouldn't be. That's also why I liked how at the CCA you had three ladies to be your "dancing girls," but they weren't necessarily doing a sexy dance.

CB: I wanted them to be really feminine and still really beautiful, but also weird. I feel like there's lots of traditional ideas about femininity that shouldn't be discarded just because they're associated with, well...I feel like it's a really hard conversation to have because I don't know anything about gender studies at all (laughs). I feel like there's a lot of female musicians who totally reject ideas about femininity whatsoever, both in their music and their image, because they don't want to fall into ideas about the female performer as a puppet.

But I also feel that that's kind of sad. One thing I like about the dancing girls is that I feel by presenting them in such a way—as horrific or intimidating in a non-sexual way—they're still obviously really pretty girls. It bridges that gap between the two extremes: an acceptable, artistic way to be feminine.

MC: I also think it's funny. I don't know if you would call it a joke, but people get it—being a female performer, having dancing girls, instead of some dude that has dancing girls.

CB: For the performance in general, because it's inevitably gonna fuck up, I try not to take it seriously. It would be cool to have male dancers, too. I'd love to have a bunch of really blonde-haired guys, really pale, doing really staccato dance moves.

MC: You also filmed a music video recently with some of the same dancers. Is it ready to watch?

CB: No, it's not going to be released until April. I really like the aesthetic of dance. After music, dance is definitely my favourite art form, and I really want to strongly incorporate it into Grimes as much as possible.

MC: Will you be doing any dancing yourself?

CB: I can't! It's too hard to do it myself. I'm more into doing choreography than dancing. Simultaneously, I'm more into songwriting and production than I'm into performing music. I don't actually really like being in front of things. I like controlling situations. When I'm older, I'd like to write songs and do production, like Timbaland or something—not actually be the person that performs everything. I'm just doing it myself right now because I don't want to be some Phil Spector-esque slave driver with my young pop stars that I'm forcing to do what I want!

MC: I like the image of you as Phil Spector.

CB: That's what I'll do when I grow up. I want to produce girl groups—audition people and make them go into bands, and write all their songs, and produce all their shit, and make up their choreography, and shoot their music videos (laughs).

MC: Would you ever want to work with other musicians right now? You have so much of your own stuff going on.

CB: I feel like working on my own shit right now and being successful as possible will lead to opportunities in the future. I feel like while I'm young and healthy I should do it all myself. I do like doing it—I just don't want to do it for more than five years.

MC: You do have to deal with being in the public eye. Your music is getting more and more attention. How does it feel to know that people in other parts of the world are listening to your music?

CB: It's kind of weird, but the best thing is that I got this email from a teenage girl that was like, "I ran away from your home and I listen to your music." But otherwise I don't really understand it. I mean, I live here. It's hard to comprehend something like that. It's best to just not think about it.

MC: How do you feel when you play shows now?

CB: I'm pretty confident, if the sound is good. I don't really trust sound guys. I try as often as possible to get Seb—who runs my record label—to do sound because he's really good at it and he knows my set-up really well.

MC: Have you also been working on new music recently?

CB: Yeah. I really want to put an album out in September, so I'm working on that right now. It's going really good, but I still need a lot more music. Ninety-five percent of my show is unreleased music. But the last two records that I recorded, I recorded before I'd figured out how to play songs live, and most of those songs are really shitty because they're really old. Halfaxa and Geidi Primes were both recorded when I didn't have confidence and I didn't really know what I was doing. I couldn't even really use those samples, because they're such shitty quality. I would have to rerecord that shit—I would have to remake those songs.

MC: So are the songs you play live different from the records, because they just have to be?

CB: Yeah. The way I record music, I would need a choir of people to play my songs as they sound [on record]. I can't do violin solos when I'm live. That would be utterly ridiculous.

MC: But awesome!

CB: It would be so attention-seeking if I were to just bend over and pick up a violin.

MC: People would go crazy. Maybe that can be your wild card.

CB: Maybe I should figure out how to do that, actually.

MC: Lately, I feel like a lot of the music you're playing live has been really poppy. Would you agree?

CB: Well, I always make music that's opposite to how I feel. Like, Geidi Primes is pretty poppy, and Halfaxa's pretty dark. It's opposite to the weather, too. Right now, I'm cold and depressed, so I make really happy music. When I was really hot, overheated and at my dad's wedding and feeling good in the summertime, I made Halfaxa, which is depressing and dark. The music I'm listening to right now is gospel music and happy music, because it makes me feel less bad about living in Montreal in the wintertime, where there's no green.

MC: It's so rough.

CB: It's rough as fuck, but I guess everyone else feels the same way. Solidarity, because everyone feels so crappy.

MC: Some of your new songs almost have Janet Jackson moments, and I mean that in the best possible way.

CB: I love Janet Jackson. Right now, I'm listening to primarily Mariah Carey, and Michael Jackson, and Ashanti, because it's all I can handle right now. There's probably more of that influencing my music than there should be.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Journeys at the CCA: The Architecture of Migration
—How to Run a DIY Party Space (Without the Cops Shutting You Down)
—On the Audibility of the Aurora Borealis

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