Grimes: The Triumph of a Self-Made Oddball

Jay Z–approved cyborg-pop auteur produces her own songs, headlines festivals and wants to be the new Trent Reznor

Signed to 4AD and managed by Jay Z, Grimes represents a new breed of pop star. Credit: Theo Wenner

When Claire Boucher, 27, who writes, records, and produces music as Grimes, decided to show off her unshaved armpits in a recent round of press photos, her PR team went into crisis mode. This was not the image they had in mind; they wanted her quirky but groomed, wild but not too wild, more feminine than feral. Boucher saw it another way.

"I was like, armpit hair! Yes!" she says, sitting cross-legged on a couch in the Los Angeles headquarters of her record label, 4AD. She is wearing an oversized black T-shirt bearing the name of Ronda Rousey and fresh white sneakers, with her long hair, brown at the roots and magenta below, twisted into two braids. She looks like Wednesday Addams headed to a rave. "Everyone else on my team was like, no way, no armpit hair, absolutely not," she says. "So in the end we sent the shots to Big Jay."
 
Big Jay is Jay Z, who signed Boucher to his RocNation management company in 2013, shortly after her 2012 album, Visions, made her a critical darling, rising star and big festival draw. Soon, she was spinning legendary house parties in Ibiza, attending the Met Ball in Louis Vuitton and appearing in fashion's front row.

Jay Z, a self-made mogul, may have been inspired by Boucher's scrappiness: She made Visions entirely by herself in under a month, locked in a dark room with only GarageBand, Adderall, and whatever food friends thought to bring her. She made all the beats, sang all the vocals, played all the instruments, and drew all the album artwork in the intricate pen-and-ink style of a girl who spent her entire childhood tracing anime books. Boucher says she made Visions "at such a psychotic pace" to meet a deadline set by her then-manager. But even in that short span she made something both defiantly weird — the big song off Visions, "Oblivion," features an eerie, child-like voice trilling glossolalia over thumping beats you feel in your chest — and addictive, like a house party in a Gothic castle.

Buying into the Grimes project, as Jay Z did, means buying into Boucher's fiercely guarded independence: She often calls herself "an auteur" without sarcasm. Boucher sees Grimes as an alter-ego, an avatar she inhabits when she wants to take on the world. Her love of graphic novels and Japanese animation led her to create a new kind of superhero: the woman who makes music without ever watering it down. This is a fight Jay Z supports: When the team sent him the armpit photos, he immediately approved them. "He just said, 'Yes, let her keep the hair,'" says Boucher with a smirk. "He overruled everybody. It's just good to have an artist at the head of the management, because, like, he's an artist. He gets us." 

When Boucher talks, it's like listening to the Internet out loud. She clicks open one conversational tab after another and it's your job to keep up. One moment she will be extolling the merits of Rousey ("She's so psychologically intense!"), the next she will be giving home hair-dye tips ("Get the Manic Panic kind, like the super bleach. Then use the purple toner"), and the next she will veer into a more somber place, talking about how she got so depressed one night last year that she did tequila shots until she was dizzy, and decided to write a sunny pop hook in the witching hours to stave off the blues.

Boucher's new album, Art Angels, is even more jubilantly all over the place than Visions. Some of it sounds like straight-ahead radio-ready pop. "California," the song that came out of that tequila-fueled all-nighter, recalls, of all things, late-period Dixie Chicks (Boucher is a huge fan; she says that when she met Natalie Maines she "had a panic attack"). "Artangels" has an exuberant mid-Nineties girl group feel, the kind of swirling uptempo track that might accompany a makeover montage in a rom com. Some of the record feels closer to the noise rock she started out making, like "Kill Vs. Maim," an almost metal track that nods to Korn (which Boucher calls her "soul music") and Rage Against the Machine. Some of it sounds like alien music of the future. "Flesh Without Blood," which Boucher calls "a diss track about a false friend," undulates in Doppler waves; Boucher says she layered on "so much Enya synth shit" to the last song, called "Butterfly" (a bubbly parable about an insect seeing an airplane for the first time) that she kept crashing her computer.
 
Raised in Vancouver (her mother is a former prosecutor and now edits the Vancouver Observer; her father works in the business side of biotech), Boucher was the only girl out of five children and leaned into her eccentricities at a young age. She drew up drawing, studying Akira books and thinking she might one day become an illustrator. Still, her parents pushed her towards practicality, and so she moved to Montreal in 2006 to study neuroscience at McGill University. While in class, she began making noise rock on her computer, teaching herself how to manipulate 808s and singing breathy la-las into "this shitty microphone." After seeing the category of Grime music as one of the choices on MySpace, she decided she liked the word and adopted it as her own.

Soon Boucher was so enmeshed in becoming Grimes that she dropped out of college to make music full-time. "My dad still sometimes calls and asks if I can finish my degree," she jokes. "My parents understand what I do now, more or less, but they still get mad when I swear on the Internet. They are like, 'Your grandmother might see this!'"

Swearing on the Internet, ironically, is part of what made Grimes a phenomenon. After Visions came out, Boucher started finding herself at the center of news stories for what she said and did on Twitter and on her Tumblr. In April 2013, she posted a manifesto called "I don't want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living," which soon went viral. Traveling around the world to do DJ gigs, Boucher had found that often men wouldn't let her touch their equipment. "Or they would say, 'Grimes is just DJ'ing off an iPod,'" she says. "I'm sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men," she wrote, "rather than a request to be included and respected." The post was met with so much so much vitriol online that she temporarily deleted her Tumblr account.

Boucher realized that expressing herself had made her a target — of those offended by her accusations of sexism in the music industry, those who accused her of going mainstream after Visions exploded, and those infuriated by a post she wrote about her love for pop artists like Psy and Mariah Carey. "It started getting extremely hostile," Boucher says of the online atmosphere. "And then men would get weirdly colonial and condescending, offering to 'help' me produce my next record, trying to take my shit."

She says that she also came under critical fire as her fame grew for her collaborations with the fashion industry — she appeared in a campaign for Alexander Wang and started popping up at the Paris shows and other glamorous events — but says that her intense fascination with clothing has much more to do with her love of art than any byproduct of celebrity. "The first time you get to see a couture handmade dress, you're like, 'holy shit,'" she says. "Once you get to work with great photographers and great stylists and shit, it's like the first time you hear Mozart after only hearing 'Chopsticks' on the piano. It really changes your perception of what it is as an art form. I used to do work with theater design and I was always studying shit like that. I love the designer Poiret; his work looks to me like an Aubrey Beardsley painting." Some fans experienced her interest in that world as a kind of assault. "People would be like, 'You're a sellout!' Going from being a very unpopular introverted person to dealing with all that, it was obviously a mindfuck."

As she talks about the three-year break between albums, Boucher is curled up in the corner of a king-sized bed inside the Soho Grand Hotel. It is sweltering in New York, and she's in town for a few days to meet with her record label and finalize details for a video shoot. Her summer vibe falls somewhere between cozy dorm-room and stylish wastrel: casual black hoodie, leopard-print shorts, ripped stockings underneath. Her hair, which changes colors weekly like a mood ring, is an ombre sunset of bright orange to watermelon at the roots, framing her face in a sherbet halo. She looks like some strange combination of crust punk and anime heroine.

After an exhausting tour for Visions, Boucher retreated to the mountains of Squamish, British Columbia, where she wrote a batch of songs that never quite congealed into a full record. "It wasn't enough of a progression," she says of this infamous "lost" album, which she makes clear was never complete — and definitely not, as some reports have it, a dubstep record. Boucher decided she needed a change of scenery, so she moved from Canada to Los Angeles with her boyfriend, musician James Brooks of the band Default Genders, and released a series of excellent one-off songs — including "Entropy," a collaboration with Bleachers' Jack Antonoff; and the single "Go," an R&B-flavored track she and her friend Mike Tucker, who records as Blood Diamonds, wrote with Rihanna in mind.

But when it came time to make Art Angels, Boucher again recorded entirely alone in her home studio (though she did mix the songs with Madonna and U2 producer Spike Stent). She's glad she took her time. Whereas Visions "wasn't really finished when we put it out," Art Angels is the first Grimes album she says she can listen to without cringing.

Even as she cops to making a handful of "rococo pop" songs on the new album, Boucher is adamant that she isn't a pop artist. "Pop music is made by teams of people," she explains. "I make independent music. Not just because I want to exist in the alternative, but because I think it's important not to be artistically indebted to anybody if you want to stand for something. I want people to start thinking of me like Trent Reznor."

You can see Grimes' delightfully oddball brain at work in her first video from Art Angels, which mashes up the songs  "Flesh Without Blood" and "Life in the Vivid Dream." Boucher came up with the concept and directed the video herself at the kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (her only other collaborator was her brother, Mac Boucher, who did the saturated cinematography). In the video, she plays a variety of characters, including her wastrel "metal" persona Screechy Bat, a bloodstained Marie Antoinette, a creepy angel with a wonky eye, and a Chaplinesque tramp dancing on a table in a kelly-green fedora.

Boucher said she was excited to inhabit all of her different personae (and to explode things; she says in a future video she plans to "blow up her childhood car.") Her videos are a way to merge the Grimes project and her artistic prowess; the videos allow Boucher to engage with as many new sides of herself as she can dream of, of always playing dress-up in different characters in order to explore and play with expectations. When she is touring, she says, she brings out yet another avatar — the person who comes on stage in "a shirt that all ripped and disgusting ... is not even really Grimes. The live show is more of my evil characters."

Boucher says that being in electronic music is so prohibitive for most women because many studio spaces can feel bro-ish and alienating. "You have to go into the studio and it's three in the morning, and there's like 20 guys and everyone's drunk," she says. "It's kind of weird. Now I have the luxury of being on a label and being able to afford to buy my own equipment and make my own studio, but most people don't have that luxury."

In an industry where women represent just five percent of the total producers, Boucher's commitment to producing her own music isn't just essential to her unique sound, it's a political act. And it is also what may make her a new kind of icon. "When I was a teenager, I looked up to Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson because there weren't women I could relate to," Boucher says. "I just wanted to be a producer. I never wanted to be the frontperson. But because I ended up doing it myself, I got in too deep and now this is who I am. It was really hard for me to visualize this career for the longest time, because it didn't exist."

This fall, Boucher launched a musical "collective" called Eerie Organization, to put out the work of fellow female musicians. The first Eerie album comes from Nicole Dollanganger, whom Boucher will take on tour with her this winter. Boucher is, essentially, putting her money where her mouth is. "I love pop music; I adore pop music," she says. "But if music even by female artists is being ciphered through a male point of view, there should probably be situations where that isn't the case."

Back in Los Angeles, she takes a long sip from the steel water bottle she always carries (Boucher is big on the environment; she infuses her music with messages about animals and saving the planet, and drives an electric car she brought with her from Canada). Then she says, with a sigh, "You wonder if maybe there would be less pop music that was just about sex and love if it wasn't always women in a room with a bunch of dudes." 

A few weeks after our last meeting, Boucher posts a picture to her Instagram, the place she tells me she is most authentically herself online ("It's pure visual semiotics," she says. "And usually when I am on there, I am baked"). It is a list of credits for her record, with "Claire Boucher" listed as the producer of every single song. The caption read "Fillin out tha paperwork."
 
When Boucher released the song "Scream" in late October, she tweeted that "Scream is my first 'producer track', the terrifying and beautiful Aristophanes is the lead vocalist, and grimes did the screaming." Boucher put out the propulsive, creepy track as a kind of response to the web chatter surrounding the "Flesh Without Blood" video; some indie elitists decried her work as too pop, too commercial. One commenter wrote "this is bubblegum pop designed for her 15 year old Tumblr demographic." By putting out the unrelenting "Scream," Boucher seems to be saying, "You think you have me pegged, but you don't." 

This is the secret power of Grimes: The character keeps shape-shifting, subverting expectations. In an email, Boucher said she feels an almost spiritual high about her latest accomplishment. "I'm not explicitly religious, but I think this album is about God. I feel lot more in touch with something scary and omnipotent." Even though she's aware of her own fearsome power, Boucher was surprised upon releasing her new album that others felt it too. "Thank u everyone for being so nice," she tweeted just after Art Angels hit the Internet. "I'm crying right now cuz I thought everyone was gonna hate it."