Performing and releasing material under the title Grimes, Claire Boucher has emerged as one of the most transfixing figures in contemporary music. After gaining intense blog adoration for initial cassette releases Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, Grimes broke through into widespread acknowledgement with the release of Visions in 2012. The album consolidates the tantalising slingshot between steely robotics and the warmth of humanity that was explored in earlier works, while at the same time possessing undeniably danceable attributes. In the middle of a nine-hour road trip from Toronto to Philadelphia, Boucher recounts what has been an undeniably transformative start to the year.
“Sometimes it’s really stressful, thinking that everything you’re doing is going to be evaluated,” Boucher states on the sudden immense attention. “We played this one show at South-By that was really bad, and it turns out it was streaming online and 140,000 people were watching it. But it was definitely one of the worst shows I’ve ever played. It was one of those moments where you think, ‘Oh my god, what the fuck have I done?’ But you just have to let it go.”
Visions marks a sonic leap from Grimes’s previous two full-lengths, approaching a level of clarity achieved by fellow Canadian The Weeknd. “I’m really into hi-fi. The album could be more hi-fi, it’s not radio-slick. Definitely one of my goals is to be a really good producer. I just want to always do weird stuff, but I want to be able to do radio-quality stuff as well. And I’m definitely working towards that – getting better at making it sound professional,” she assesses.
With credits producing Visions, as well as designing the stunning cover art, the question is raised whether Boucher could be creatively fulfilled without being a performer herself. “I like being able to not work for someone else. I like the fact I produce visual art for the project of Grimes, and I produce the songs I have written. I don’t know if I’m a good enough producer to produce for other people, but maybe in the future. Graphic design is something I’m interested in, but music is something that I care about a lot more, so I’d rather do that,” she muses.
The clip for Oblivion, one of the standout cuts from the record, comically juxtaposes the dichotomy of gender, with Claire placing herself within the testosterone-charged environment of the sporting arena. Though explicated within the video, gender archetypes are a notion that Grimes’s music rises above. “I think about gender stuff a lot, but I also don’t want to think about it a lot. It’s a really male dominated scene, and one of the reasons why I make music is because it makes me feel really powerful. At the same time, some of my influences are artists like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey – really dolled-up, ‘girly’ music if you would call it that. I don’t think music is ever inherently girly or masculine. I guess there’s that aspect of it vocally. Then production-wise I like to have a lot of huge drums because it feels so violent, physical and aggressive – mixing those things together. But I want to make music that’s genderless.”
Similar to how Prince created the Camille alter-ego in the ‘80s with pitch-shifting, Grimes often delves into extreme registers – from Transformers-like baritone to chipmunk squeals. “There’s the whole biological thing – women have higher voices, men have lower voices. But voices are voices, their tonally rich and evocative than any other instrument. I don’t really like to think about things in terms of gender – it can be alienating when music is supposed to be inclusive. It’s where you can communicate in a way that isn’t super-literal, you’re not saying anything except expressing pure emotions. Gender is about delineating roles, music is about not having roles and just appealing to humanity. I feel that they’re the antithesis of each other. I don’t want to think about in terms of ‘I’m pitching down the vocals because it sounds masculine,’ or ‘I’m pitching up the vocals to sound feminine.’ It’s about how voices sound beautiful together,” Boucher reasons.
Though ostensibly the antithesis of humanity, Boucher feels her exploration of the digital is a statement on humanity within modernity. “Well I feel like humanity is heading in this direction of cyborgism. Everything that digital that exists was created by humans. Computers are a natural thing, they’re a natural extension of the human brain. They couldn’t exist without humanity. Digital sounds, to me, are very, very human. They’re almost alienating because there is this human intelligence behind it, without human emotion. It’s a universal sound that anyone can make, because it isn’t reliant on a physical body. For instance, where we were talking about masculine and feminine – women have a smaller vocal chords or whatever so they make a higher sound, whereas anyone can make a bass drum sound. It seems very human to me, but that kind of inhumanity can create something scary. Like I talk about create that powerful bass, it’s cool because it’s something more than human, something more than a biological human can create,” Boucher ponders. “I think that’s really interesting, combining this electronic music with layers and layers of rich vocals. It creates that weird, uncanny feeling that it shouldn’t be happening but it’s happening anyway. I think that’s really beautiful."
One of the more interesting points of discourse on Grimes’s sudden rise is the story which was uncovered by Pitchfork earlier in the year, involving Claire sailing a homemade boat down the Mississippi with a full supply of live chickens and potatoes.
“I didn’t want that story to come out, somebody just found that and posted it. Nothing in that article is true, everything about it is fucking wrong – which is why I’m pissed that it’s out there. It’s not accurate at all, but whatever,” she reveals. “The only thing in that story which is really true is that I lived on a boat for a little while.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK
Visions is out now on 4AD/Remote Control.