“I just want to be allowed to do my job and not be treated like an alien doing it.”
Claire Boucher aka Grimes is a very tiny person. She seems younger than her 27 years and is a bit scrappy looking in her leggings and oversized hoodie – and out of place in the back of this luxury limousine, the kind with tinted windows and screens in the front seats, driven through Paris by a professional chauffeur. The car is sent by Louis Vuitton, who flew her first class to Paris for the Fashion Week, and will take her to the fitting for the DJ-gig at their party tomorrow. The driver is obviously used to navigating the crazy Paris traffic, leaping into every free space and boldy taking corners as well as yellow lights. Our author Henje Richter dives right into the interview, as this drive obviously won’t take long.
You are a fashion icon, being here on invitation by Louis Vuitton, and very involved in the visuals for your art. How do you come up with your designs?
I usually ask myself: What is the craziest thing I can do with the resources that I have? We used our time here in Paris to shoot the video for “Califonia”. So we tried to find the craziest shit possible and improvise within that.
Without any planning?
Well, we had a basic concept and did research on the best locations beforehand. We ended up at a sculptor, where there were hundreds of terrifying statues and white powder everywhere. It was very surreal. It looked just like in Game of Thrones, when Arya was in that big room with all the masks – really scary.
Is improvisation important for your creativity?
Improvisations and limitations are both very important to me. I don’t like to have too strict of a plan, because if you have have one, and something goes wrong you, you might lose it all. I much more like to create a scenario and then let it unfold naturally, with my visuals as well as with my music. For example, I often keep my demo vocals, because there is a magic in improvisation that is hard to regain later.
Why is your new album called “Art Angels”?
It is a concept record about the idea of inspiration. I feel like there are these demonic spirits that control whether or not I get inspiration, and I have to do all these crazy things to get it from them. I hope that does not make me sound insane. I started to casually refer to them as the “Art Angels” and the album title is an ode to them.
And Grimes was the first of those spirits to appear?
Yeah… Grimes was the first character I encountered.
At this point, there is an audible sigh coming from Boucher, along with some resignation in her voice. Maybe she has been asked about her Grimes persona too many times before. Or could it be that she really is haunted by her inspirational demons and this is a sign of her struggle with them? But still, she keeps on explaining.
It all started in my live show, where I turn into this crazy character, a lot different from how I am off stage. It was freeing to slip into different personas and to take on different perspectives. Later, I tried to record songs as my live characters and to integrate acting into the recording process. It ended up being this crazy girl group of insane, demonic alter egos.
And some are angels and some are demons? Do the others have names too?
They are like angels kicked out of heaven. I think that would a good description. But their names are mostly abstract and it kind of feels weird talking about them. I don’t really want them to be out in public.
Does the idea of angels and demons stem from your catholic upbringing?
I think so. I remember as a kid, being so fucking scared all of the time. For example, when I wanted to steal some money from my brother, I knew that god would know. I had this insane neurosis about metaphysical beings being able to read my mind, it almost drove me insane. In my elementary school were all those pictures of demons killing people and Christ bleeding everywhere. It was terrifying! The scary church with its dark wooden doors was an intense aesthetic environment.
How do you relate to religion today?
I think that a lot of great art comes from religion, and this terrifying aspect of catholicism informs a lot of my own art. There are all of these demons that can read your mind, and if you think bad things you have to go an confess, and you get punished for your sins. It is kind of fun for me now, like a horror movie in my head. But as a kid, it was surreal and weird.
You said that you hope not to sound too insane, telling me all of this. How do you feel about being in the public eye, and being watched all the time?
I usually don’t read any press about me unless others alarm me to really bad misrepresentations. I mostly don’t even notice that I have an abnormal life: Most of my friends are my friends from before and we just eat food and talk about whales and stuff. But everything you every read about me on Pitchfork is definitely not true. They basically just harrass me, constantly.
Does the Grimes persona help you in keeping your private and public life separate from each other?
She does, and I think this is becoming more and more important to me. When I started doing this job, there wasn’t really a divide between us, but it kept on growing over time. The person I am when I am making music, going on stage or giving this interview has become very different from the person I am when I am watching TV, eating food or just chill.
Apparently, this was not Claire Boucher talking the whole time, but Grimes. But on the other hand, she refered to Grimes in the third person. It seems like the boundaries between the private and the public persona are not as strict as she would like to have them be. This may explain some of the troubles she has in controlling her public image, and why the next question almost gets an answer.
Would it be totally inappropriate then, to ask you about your boyfriend James Brooks? He had his projects “Elite Gynmastics” and “Default Genders”. Is he still making music?
Ideally, I dont talk about my private life. But James was originally going come to Paris with me. Instead, my brother went to shoot the video here. Now James still has never been to Europe! He is not publishing any music at the moment, though. But he is involved in Eerie Organization.
The artist platform you founded.
Yes. I feel like right now, there is not much infrastructure to support super-indie music anymore – at least not in North America. But for a new artist without any leverage, signing a label deal can be so destructive. I know so many people who are in shitty label deals with no money and no creative freedom at all. With Eerie, I want to protect them from the need to sign with the first label that approaches them. Artists can build up there and maybe have more opportunities later on. They can use my studio when I am away, James helps with the artwork and my brother does the videos. It is a bit of a cooperative in that respect.
Who is on Eerie?
I basically started it because of Nicole Dollanganger. When I met her, I couldn’t believe that she didn’t have a record deal. She is so talented! But the offers she had were really bad and exploitive and so I wanted to help her get some press and some hype. And now my friend d’Eon is thinking about putting something out on Eerie, as he isn’t sure whether or not he will continue to pursue music professionally. This way, his music gets out there at least.
We have reached our destination, and Grimes gets out of the car to do her fitting. The Beggars Group label representative who is with us says that she didn’t know about Boucher’s angels and demons story. When Grimes comes back after fifteen minutes, we will have to delve into some well known topics of hers, though they may be the more touchy ones.
We haven’t talked about productions on the new album. What did change since “Visions”?
Pretty much everything! I switched to Ableton, use live instruments now, have a proper microphone. But I like to figure out for myself how things best work together. When I added the guitar, there were a lot of frequencies that I was not used to working with. Electronic stuff is more controlled, where as live instruments made recording songs a lot more complex and time consuming.
Did you record the whole album yourself? How about the mixing and mastering?
I did record it on my own and played all the instruments myself. But I did not master or mix it. I mean, everybody has professionals to do that! I asked Spike Stent to mix it, as he is really diverse: He does pop as well as experimental stuff, worked with The KLF and Gwen Stefani. So he seemed great for the record: I needed a mixing engineer who was experienced with guitar rock as well as pop songs and noise… insanity.
Will the live show change too?
The live setup is a huge concern for me at this time. I can’t play guitar and sing at the same time, so for the European dates, my friend HANA is coming with me to play guitar. But I am not sure what I am going to do for the US shows. I might use live guitar sampling by running it through Ableton, so that it is quantized, and maybe drop a sample on top of it. I havent completely figured it out, but that is what rehearsals are for.
To me, that technical process sounds much more complicated than singing and playing the guitar. Would you call yourself a gear nerd?
Not really. I just think: What can I use to get this stuff done? I don’t obsess about different pedals and things and I know people who are way more into it than I am. If a plug-in can do the job, then I am okay with that. I am not a purist. I have still only have two amps, so if a plug-in can emulate a hundred more, that is a great thing.
But I gather, your equipment it more professional now.
Yes, but it is still pretty limited: I only have one compressor, two mics and two amps. It is not GarageBand anymore, but the possibilities aren’t endless. It is a very simple studio environment. But I have pretty decent monitors now, which help a lot. And I hope that after “Art Angels”, people will back off doubting my technical abilites. “Visions” hadn’t the same production quality as the new album and a lot of people were worried that I couldn’t get to a professional level.
You have repeatedly addressed being doubted as a producer just for being a woman. Do you see yourself as a feminist?
I am not political in that respect and I don’t know much about feminist theory. I just want to be allowed to do my job and not be treated like an alien doing it! People constantly asked me how it feels like to be a female artist. I mean, I am just an artist – I don’t identify as a female artist. It is exhausting when people assume the default artist is a man, so that when you are an artist and you are not a man, you have to be this new category of an artist. I just want to exist without people telling me about the body I was born in.
Did the attitude towards you improve in that respect?
Defintely. When you are vocal about it, then you keep pushing people away who are not cool about it. These days, my peers, my friends and even my audience are on the same page. It is a lot easier than it was a couple of years ago. There was a bit of a learning curve for me, on how to do things and whom to work with. But I feel less isolated these days, as I have a great scene of female producers around me now. For example, there is a song with Janelle Monáe on the album, and I really admire how she is in control of everything about her music, her life and her career. It is kind of what I aspire to be, and I hope that “Art Angels” will deal with all that.
With kindly support from Intro Magazine, Germany, where parts of this interview were published originally.