GRIMES. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID J. ROMERO
Grimes is Claire Boucher, a Vancouver-born Montrealer whose enigmatic sound has seduced and puzzled critics; "ethereal," "indecipherable," "gauzy," and "otherworldly" are just some of the ways she's been described. And it's no wonder; the petite 23-year-old's imposing range meanders from catchy pop beats to crepuscular soundscapes and Hildegard drama. While Boucher cannot read music and has only been performing as Grimes for a couple years, her homespun sound of drum machines, keyboards, and R&B references has nonetheless catapulted her into an entirely new arena. Halfaxa (Arbutus Records), her latest album, has earned praise and comparisons to How To Dress Well and Gang Gang Dance, and her self-directed video for the song "Vanessa"—which Boucher explains is "psychedelic for what it is"—has made the rounds on music blogs. After a whirlwind introduction to South by Southwest's patently consuming schedule (11 shows in 4 days), she's now on tour with Lykke Li. "I have an intense desire to constantly make music, and I don't feel that way about anything else," she told Interview after her show last week at Webster Hall. Boucher, who was wearing a beaded dress by Montreal designer Renata Morales and bleached baby bangs, went on to talk excitedly about her sudden rise, her double life, and some of her lesser-known Disney Princess influences.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: Largely, the music writing that's out there about you is focused on how non-specific your sound is and how your influences are wide-ranging; the word "ethereal" is used a lot. Was that your intention?
CLAIRE BOUCHER: Yeah, I mean, I think people just ask those questions because they're easy and obvious.
CHEW-BOSE: In your words, how would you describe your music then?
BOUCHER: I mean, I think my sound is post-Internet. People my age had the Internet when they were kids. So I think I just had a really diverse musical background, but from a really young age. People who are 30 and older don't have that—they were raised with genres of music. But people my age had everything all at once, and that's why get Animal Collective and all these weird medley bands. Because genres are sort of disappearing, people just use bands as reference points. And if I were to describe my sound, I'd just say it's "modern?"
CHEW-BOSE: But you obviously love singing, so who did you sing along to growing up?
BOUCHER: Christina Aguilera, you know, crap like that.
CHEW-BOSE: We all did. Who else?
BOUCHER: Mariah Carey. I was really into Disney soundtracks, like Mulan and Pocahontas.
CHEW-BOSE: When you're performing onstage, you're Grimes. How do you prepare? Is there a specific mood you channel, or as soon as the music starts, it's immediate?
BOUCHER: It's different every time. Tonight, I was probably more caffeinated than is probably a good idea. Usually I drink a beer, take five lozenges, drink tea, and do a hundred or two hundred skips on the skipping rope, and then I go.
CHEW-BOSE: So now you're based in Montreal; why do think there's always so much groundbreaking music coming out of there?
BOUCHER: Well I feel like Montreal's this sort of weird anomaly in Canada, because it's pretty hard to leave Canada economically, but all of the cities that provide metropolitan benefits are very expensive, like Toronto and Vancouver. But Montreal is really cheap - so it's pretty much the best place to be if you're trying to be an artist, because you don't have to pay a lot of rent. Nobody I know has a steady job, at all. Nobody. And we all just work on art all the time, and it's really dark and depressing most of the year, so you work on art even more.
CHEW-BOSE: So in the Montreal music scene, what's your everyday artist life like?
BOUCHER: Well I sort of lead a double life because I attend McGill University, or I recently got kicked out of McGill University for not attending. I was studying general Arts and Science degree, but I was in the electro-acoustics program, which is like psycho-physics, which I love. It's the physics of neuro-biology, specifically related to music, and I have a lot of really good friends who study that. And then I have my music friends; I live with Marilis, who's my publicist and is heavily involved in the label. My manager lives on my block; four of the apartments in my apartment complex of seven are people I know. It's a really close-knit community, and almost everyone on these few blocks are artists or graphic designers, because we live right on the cusp of a warehouse district.
CHEW-BOSE: You've suddenly gained a lot of momentum; what's that been like?
BOUCHER: I think the big development for me was on our tour down at South by Southwest, because it was just too crazy, and I didn't go any the shows except the ones I was playing. The band I was playing with was called Doldrums, and the guy in that band had such a lucid philosophy about what music was and why we're doing it, and I was kind of getting stressed about press, and things getting weirder. I had to restructure my ideas about why this is necessary why this is a good thing, and that I do really want to do this. Also finding a balance between pop music and my background, which is goth, metal, and industrial. I used to play smoky warehouse parties to lots of drunk people at midnight, and I don't want to lose that.
CHEW-BOSE: How did you start playing those parties?
BOUCHER: I moved to Montreal before I started playing music. I was 17 or 18; as soon as I graduated from high school, I just left Vancouver. I guess because people perceived my first two records as dance records, which they're not, at all, but I kept getting asked to play these parties. But I didn't know how the hell to play music live so I'd play weird ambient stuff, and people would be like, "What the fuck?" So I started playing more dance-oriented music. I think that's why my sound is a lot more upbeat now.
CHEW-BOSE: And now you're opening for Lykke Li? What's that like?
BOUCHER: Pretty crazy. It's pretty intense. I've not played for this many people in my life. This is a really big jump, because I only just started playing music. I have no idea what I'm doing. It's psychologically intense, but I think it's important to do things that you're not ready to do, because you'll just get better and better.
CHEW-BOSE: Since this life is fairly new, how do you wind down or return from having to suddenly play at Webster Hall or be away from home for stretches of time?
BOUCHER: We chill out, drink—well, I can't really drink. All the things that make me happy, I can't do because they wreck my voice, like eat yogurt and smoke weed.
CHEW-BOSE: Because you're still figuring out life as a musician, what other aspects of your life have influenced your sound?
BOUCHER: I've always had this problem where I'm just a little too crazy to deal with academic life while being an intensely academic person, and the I kind of had a breakdown a couple years ago and was homeless in America.
CHEW-BOSE: Where do your songs come from? You sound upset in a lot of them.
BOUCHER: Yeah, they're mostly from a place of me being really upset, and weirdly, that's probably why they sound really happy a lot of the time. [laughs] I've always had this need to constantly be putting something out. I did ballet for 11 years, and then after that, really intense into visual arts, and now I'm really intense into music. But this is the one that I feel most connected to. It's very escapist for me, but at the same time it's not about avoiding reality—I want to make things more real, but not always have to deal with the crap in my life, if that makes sense?
CHEW-BOSE: Is there anyone you're really interested in working with?
BOUCHER: I'd really like to work with Physical Therapy, I think he's super sick.
CHEW-BOSE: Anyone else?
BOUCHER: Anybody? Nicki Minaj!
CHEW-BOSE: Does it ever get lonely not having a band?
BOUCHER: There's definitely solitary aspect to not having a band, and there are times when I wish that I did. Ultimately, this is something I would really need to do on my own; I couldn't work with anyone else, I think—it's really personal project. And I like that fact that I can be lying in bed trying to sleep and then getting up at two in the morning and recording. That's big for me. I need the control and spontaneity, and not have to rely on anyone, and not have anyone rely on me.
GRIMES WILL CONTINUE TO TOUR WITH LYKKE LI THROUGH THE END OF THE MONTH. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER MYSPACE.