NME named Grimes the #1 Most Exciting New Band of 2012 — never mind that she's been making music since 2006, it seems Claire Boucher's time has finally come. Self-taught, the 23-year-old writes and produces all her own music, and her ethereal, somewhat creepy vocals create a sound that could be described as Mariah produced by Burial on PCP.
* * * *
You can judge an actor or musician's level of fame by how easy they are to access for a phone interview. If it's someone who's on their way up, you're often just given their phone number and told to call them at the appointed time. This is also the case when it is someone who is on the way down. Once I was supposed to interview Paul Reubens — the comedian best known as Pee-wee Herman — but before I could call him, he called me. A couple of times. I wrote down his number from the message he left me, and called him back later at home.
For a while after the interview, I kept the number on a pink Post-it note stuck to my computer: 'Paul', and then ten digits separated by three dashes. It made me smile when I was having a bad day. "Well, Kate," that pink Post-it seemed to say, "you've kind of made it — you do have Pee-wee Herman's phone number."
But no such thing will happen with Grimes. With the release of her third solo album, Visions, Boucher is the music industry's current crush. Though she is in San Francisco and I am in Philadelphia when we speak, the call is routed through Australia, the resulting bad connection serving as a sign that she is not an artist who is on the way up, but rather an artist who has arrived.
Boucher is handling the sudden spotlight with equal amounts self-assurance and wonder. "Sitting down and doing production is pretty standard for me," she says, "but this is the part that is unexpected: going places I never thought I would go, and playing in crazy locations. I went to Mexico last year to play a show; I did a lot of acid and went to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. There was nobody there, it was just me and my friends and we climbed to the top of these ancient pyramids, just totally ripped on acid." This isn't the kind of thing you normally hear in an interview that begins with a PR person reminding you that "you've got 15 minutes."
Boucher continues. "We're looking out on miles and miles of Mexican wilderness from this incredible ancient structure. I'm really, really, really afraid of heights, but just for that day only, I was not afraid. I just remember feeling really free about being so high — I mean, like, up in the air! Not on…" she trails off, laughing. "Like, high on a structure, and not feeling totally terrified. I was just, like, scaling the sides of pyramids and climbing. I don't know how high in the air I was, but it was so, so, so big. It was so cool."
Boucher grew up in Vancouver, a city that she describes as very segregated and weird, but also "kind of cool, because you can go to Chinatown and get a crucified lizard and tonnes of Pokémon cards." As a teenager she was what she describes as a "second-wave goth", meaning she dressed in black, listened to Marilyn Manson and The Smashing Pumpkins, and hung around being generally emo. "My high school was, like, suuuuuuper Sweet Valley High," she says, drawing her words out to emphasise them. "There were the cheerleaders and the jocks, and the goths and the smokers. Everyone had their clique. It felt like a movie. You had to identify strongly with one of the crews, so I became a goth."
She began making music on her bedroom floor while she was an art student at McGill University in Montreal, a school she was eventually kicked out of for skipping too many classes. "I pretty much worked on [music] in the middle of the night, because I was working and going to school also," she says. "I shared an apartment with a bunch of my friends. My roommate and I just had a curtain between us, and she hated me because I was always recording and she could hear everything. It was pretty basic. I didn't have any furniture, and just recorded with the mic on my computer."
Boucher's high-pitched vocals have the frequency of a hummingbird, soaring and darting above loops and beats that can occasionally sound like both industrial jungle and Top 40 pop. Visions has the same kind of beauty as an oil-slicked parking lot in the rain: shimmering rainbows that exist because — not in spite — of the underlying grime.
The album isn't easily categorised, which is exactly what Boucher wanted. "It is definitely an album that you could listen to alone when you're going to bed, but it is also an album that can be played at a party," she says. "It depends on what you want out of it, but that was kind of the goal: to make something that could go both ways. I think everything comes down to confidence. Anything delivered with confidence can be good. There is nothing that is bad. There is no genre of music that is inherently shitty. You can make something good if you approach it with enough gusto, and what I'm trying to do is combine the aesthetics of manufactured pop music, which obviously appeal to people super strongly — myself included — and make it more meaningful and more experimental."
Boucher's aesthetics are a strong part of Grimes. She illustrates her own album covers with ink drawings that take from heavy metal, skateboard graphics, aliens, drugs and everything else that influences your typical high-school hellion scrawling in the margins of her notebook. She has also talked of making a video for every song on Visions, and does much of her own choreography. "Grimes is really just everything that I do artistically," she says. "The visual art is part of it, but I feel like I'm just better at making music and can make more of a name for myself from it. But everything comes together to make it happen."
As for her distinct look — short, severe bangs that could be black, blonde, pink, or green; a penchant for unusual outfits; self-done tattoos; and paint smeared across her face — which has already made her a fashion-world favourite, she shrugs it off as a side note. "It's all just like decorations, it's not even that I think about it that much," she says. "It's just that I've always liked making clothes and trying to do something different with them."
A few years ago, the term 'pop' connoted saccharine princesses like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears: blonde nymphs coached for fame from an early age. Then Britney shaved her head and the rest of the world fell apart too. Now the pop stage is ruled by stars like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, the former exhibiting a very scripted darkness and the latter a painfully real one. It's not impossible to imagine Grimes fitting in there somewhere between Björk and Katy Perry.
Boucher is already at work on her next album. "Every album I make will be different. The main thing of the project is to not be stagnant," she says. "[The next one] is definitely dance music and it's definitely pop, but I think it's a lot more aggressive than Visions, and way more hi-fi." (Visions was famously recorded in GarageBand.)
To me, everything about Grimes seems futuristic, as though Visions is just that: a taste of what's to come. I ask Boucher what she actually thinks the future holds. "There might be an internet backlash, where people start reading a lot. I would like to see something like that happen." She pauses. "I honestly feel like the future is just going to be really fucking bleak and everyone is going to die of cancer. If we don't change things very severely and very fast, it's just going to be totally, totally fucked up. That's my opinion on the matter. It's not the most optimistic of opinions." She sounds almost apologetic about this, and I am about to assure her that it's OK — but then that voice comes on the line to tell us that the interview is over.