A Tale of Two Grimes: The Enigmatic Pop Star in Conversation with Both Lana Del Rey and Brit Marling
On her last album, Art Angels, Grimes showed the world what pop stardom looks like when a truly idiosyncratic artist is in total command of her vision. Building upon the production mastery and textured electronics she flexed on her 2012 breakthrough, the appropriately titled Visions, the Vancouver native’s 2015 follow-up was something of a mainstream swerve, packed with cathartic hooks and giddy melodies. Her vocals, once disembodied, were now at the forefront. But this being Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, the entire endeavor was also overloaded with ideas, whiplashing between alter egos and alternate realities, all of it cloaked in an approaching darkness.
In the years since, the 31-year-old musician debuted a song on the HBO show Girls, became the face of Stella McCartney, supported Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, sold MacBooks as an Apple spokesperson, and embarked on a made-for-Twitter romance with the unpredictable tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Oh, and that darkness? It finally arrived, and Grimes, who now goes by “c” in her personal life, is poised to reckon with it on her upcoming album, Miss_Anthropocene, which she infamously described as being “about the anthropomorphic goddess of climate change.” But Grimes has a lot more than the gradual manmade increase in global temperatures on her mind. So much more, in fact, that it took two of her friends to help her unpack it all.
GRIMES BY LANA DEL REY
GRIMES: Hey, Lana. How’s it going?
LANA DEL REY: Good! Who is on with us?
ELON MUSK: I’m here.
GRIMES: E is here.
MUSK: Hey, Lana. It’s Elon. I’m about to leave.
GRIMES: He’s about to leave. He will not observe. Are you back from tour?
DEL REY: [Laughs] Yeah, I was touring and then I was in Oklahoma for a hot minute.
GRIMES: Why Oklahoma?
DEL REY: My boyfriend is there, actually.
GRIMES: I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Oklahoma. For some reason, I’m terrified of tornadoes there.
DEL REY: It’s a thing. And it’s funny you say that, because nobody told me that on Wednesdays at noon, which is when I got there, they do a trial siren test.
GRIMES: Oh my god.
DEL REY: So I actually thought that there was a tornado when I got in, because it was loud and it went on for two minutes. I was like, “What is going on?”
GRIMES: It’s like World War II in the bunker.
DEL REY: Yeah. Everyone was laughing mercilessly at me, but I was like, “Well, we have earthquakes here.”
GRIMES: I actually think there was an earthquake yesterday. But earthquakes are fun. All natural disasters are fun in the abstract.
DEL REY: Yes, in the abstract. I was thinking about your new album. I don’t know if I’m saying it right—is it Miss_Anthropocene?
DEL REY: Do you feel like the songs are more personal, or do they have the overculture weighing on them?
GRIMES: A bit of both. I’m really obsessed with polytheism. I love how the ancient Greeks or the ancient Egyptians lived in this weird anime world where there were just tons of gods that could be anything. It’s like every form of suffering had a representation. I wonder if it almost has a positive psychological effect. If your kid dies in a war, you can literally go speak to War and be like, “Why did you do this?” Or, “I hope you did this for a reason.” There’s a weird philosophical justification for all pain, and there’s an anthropomorphization of every form of pain. In our current society, we don’t even know how to talk about things. So my album’s about a modern demonology or a modern pantheon where every song is about a different way to suffer or a different way to die. If you think about it, god-making or god-designing just seems so fun. The idea of making the Goddess of Plastic seems so fun to me.
DEL REY: It’s a very creative infrastructure to work within.
GRIMES: Yeah. Religion is like the best science fiction. I know a lot of people who are atheist or agnostic, and they just hate religion and can’t see anything good in it. Even if you don’t believe in god or anything, this is incredible art. It’s incredible storytelling, incredible character design, incredible visual art. I know we both love reverb. Imagine going into a church in medieval Europe, and you had only ever heard music as someone playing a lute. You enter a cathedral for the first time, and you hear someone singing through a super long reverb. What a mystical experience that would be.
DEL REY: What is mysticism to you, and is it important in your art?
GRIMES: Mysticism is an evolutionary byproduct. I think we’re inherently religious, even if we’re not explicitly religious. We get emotional about things that feel religious. Even the way people feel about you, it’s a form of idol worship. I don’t know what else you would call it. If there’s an artist I love, I see them live and I cry, and I’m like, “Man, I’m acting like some 14th-century farmer right now.” I feel like some pilgrim seeing a holy relic or something.
DEL REY: I’ve felt that way at a Dylan concert. How would you describe the place you’re at in your life right now?
GRIMES: I’ve recently fallen into a place of extreme flux, where I feel like I don’t know myself at all, but it’s also the most self-assured I’ve ever been. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that.
DEL REY: I think that feeling comes when you’re on the right path. You think you should feel super different, but you’re actually just right where you’re supposed to be.
GRIMES: I feel ready to totally blow all of my shit up and make something new. I’m in a place of extreme displacement. You know when you just feel like you have a lot to lose? With my last album, I kept getting in trouble for saying stupid shit in the press or tweeting dumb shit. I just run my mouth like a fucking asshole and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t think before I speak. I try to, but I don’t think in words. I just think in weird pictures.
DEL REY: I get that. For better or worse, when you’re not used to being a super-extroverted person, you end up saying what you said for some reason that’s going to end up being important to you in hindsight. It’s not the easiest, it might be a little messy, but you have to get used to the tumult of the public nature of things.
GRIMES: I was reading yesterday about outrage culture, and for just about every emotionally loaded word that’s in a tweet, the tweet gets 15 percent more interaction. We live in this weird time where we didn’t evolve to engage with this many people, and we didn’t evolve to be observed as much as we’re being observed, or to observe other people as much as we’re observing them. No one is considering the psychological impact of all this crazy technology. Especially since Trump was elected, this is the first time that the general public is fully on the internet. Grandma is on the internet.
DEL REY: I think about that all the time. It’s important to say it out loud. It’s a little bit like the Wild West again in the way that we are learning how to deal with each other on a mass level and an instant, interconnected level. I’ve been trying to create my own blueprint. It’s like, how do you fit into the culture and still live your own life the way you authentically would?
GRIMES: I do think everybody’s going to have to get a lot better at forgiving.
DEL REY: I agree.
GRIMES: I can have a pretty extensive moral, ethical disagreement with somebody, and it still makes more sense to get along than to not get along. If you ever go read old census documents before the printing press from France or Russia, nobody had the same name. Just crazy-ass names all over the place. And then after the printing press, everyone started having the same 20 or 30 names. We entered this monoculture zone where everything got more centered into single sources of power. Everyone was in agreement on who the biggest stars in the world were. Everybody knew Michael Jackson and Madonna. But now, with the internet and all of these different forms of media, we’re entering a new period of customization again where people are able to customize their existence more. I feel like the kids of the millennials are just going to have wild names.
DEL REY: I don’t know which way my kid will go.
GRIMES: Do you have any names in mind?
DEL REY: I think it could go anywhere from a simple Maria Estela to, like, Ivory Cricket. Oh, god. That’s a soundbite.
GRIMES: Knowing our fate, the headline will be that your unborn child is named Ivory Cricket.
DEL REY: Is it important to you to be right in the middle of the culture?
GRIMES: Man, I don’t know. You hit a phase where you lose your life. I open the internet sometimes, and it’s like, “Grimes is testifying in court,” and I’m like, “What the fuck is this? I’m definitely not testifying in court.” I call my lawyer: “Am I testifying in court?” And they’re like, “No, you’re definitely not testifying in court.”
DEL REY: It has a level of surreality to it.
GRIMES: I’ve hit this point where there’s so much stuff that people think about me that has no basis in reality that I feel like I have to remove myself from my public self. I had to kill my ego, because there was no way to remain invested in myself as having anything to do with the culture while surviving mentally.
DEL REY: There are cycles to it. You can have years of ambivalence, and then it’s like that natural female hot and cold cycle. You can come back into caring extremely and being invested in yourself and your work, and then not caring at all. I think the good thing about what’s going on with you is that for all the hardship and the confusion, you can continue to make music and people will be intrigued because there have been so many little twists and turns.
GRIMES: I think my motto in life is just, “Don’t be bored.” Even if I’m having the worst time, I’m like, “Wow, this rules.” In some of my worst moments I remember thinking, “Damn, this is such sick fodder for my eventual book.” Speaking of which, would you ever write a book?
DEL REY: It’s funny, people have been asking me that lately. Ever since I started caring a bit less, and, like you said, disregarding ego—which is easy for me, thankfully—I’ve been writing more short stanza poetry. And now that I’ve done that, I was thinking, “Would I ever write something long-form?” I think I would want to, but honestly, I’m so hyperactive in my life. I don’t know if I could complete it, so I think it might be something like chicken scratch, all placed together in some long-form novel.
GRIMES: I was reading a study of the average age of artists. People are always saying shit like, “Oh, you’re so much less creative as you get older,” like your brain becomes less plastic and more static, which I actually disagree with.
DEL REY: Yeah, me too.
GRIMES: What’s interesting is that most novelists peak in their sixties. When I think about many of my favorite books, it’s mostly old-ass people who wrote them. My thought was, “Oh, I’ll just wait until I’m old and out of musical ideas, and then I’ll sit down and write a novel.” I’ll be so much more physically lazy when I’m old, too, so I’ll probably be way happier to sit down for 12 hours a day.
DEL REY: Do you have more of a kinship to any particular artist community?
GRIMES: I don’t know if I really relate to any creative community. I get jealous sometimes of the country music scene or rappers. I love scenes. Like, I love how Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson worked together.
DEL REY: I was singing with Weyes Blood [Natalie Mering] and Zella [Day] at a couple of shows, and I was like, “You know what? This feels so good.” You have to work for it when there’s not a natural scene exploding. You definitely have to get all your girls together.
GRIMES: I feel like female artists do it less. I might be wrong, but I feel like female artists especially need to stick together more.
DEL REY: It’s really amazing to get everybody together, especially in a more alternative scene where you’re writing your own stuff.
GRIMES: It’s interesting to hear you say the word “alternative,” because one thing that I’ve been loving lately is that it’s had a resurgence since Trump. I’d say the peak of alternative music over the last ten years was when people like Kanye or Beyoncé would do this god-level A&R-ing, with all the smartest, most creative people combined onto one record. As we’re talking about the death of the monoculture, I think more alternative music is starting to exist. I guess by “alternative,” I just mean, as you were saying, people writing their own stuff.
DEL REY: And with the element of obvious authenticity or thoughtfulness to it. When you hear a Grimes song, you know that it’s a Grimes song.
GRIMES: It’s almost like gaydar. I can hear when someone is singing their own words. You hear someone like Rez or Peggy Gou, and for some reason, I just know they make their music.
DEL REY: It’s not that it’s better, it’s just super special.
GRIMES: I agree. Some people want to say one or the other is better. The battle should stop. Being someone who always looks good on camera, who can dance and sing—even if you don’t write your own music, being a top-tier performer has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.
DEL REY: Like Whitney Houston. How much of your identity do you feel is being a singer, and how much is being an artist?
GRIMES: I feel like my whole identity is about being an artist. I was really sick earlier this year, and I had to spend two weeks in bed. I couldn’t think and I couldn’t make anything. It was crazy how my self-esteem just plummeted. I was a shell of a human.
GRIMES: Super edge. Earlier this year, for the first time, I had a nice studio. It was this spacious room with windows and soundproofing and it had a view of everything. I was like, “This is going to be great.” And it was terrible. I made nothing. I eventually moved back into the closet, literally. I need to be surrounded by garbage in a closet or I can’t make anything. I need a terrible environment and a bad chair that hurts my back. How do you feel about your workspace?
DEL REY: There definitely has to be an edge. I like to drive around and find a really strange spot to gather my thoughts. But in terms of what I’m writing, in my personal life I have to be really, really happy.
GRIMES: Oh, wow. That’s crazy.
DEL REY: I know, and I feel like people wouldn’t expect that from me. I have to write when all the dust has settled, because I really need things to be calm for me to try and put my finger on what I’m seeing or picturing. It’s hard to write if I’m not feeling stable in my own life, but then I like to mix up where I’m physically at and write somewhere crazy.
GRIMES: Like where?
DEL REY: If I could write in the middle of a crime scene, I probably would. Do you feel like you write when you’re in love?
GRIMES: I so need to be in love to make good art. The best is being heartbroken, or in a volatile relationship. My worst creative periods have been when I’ve just been in a stable relationship. In my current relationship, we’re both super alpha, crazy people. It’s just level ten all the time, which is great, even though it’s very crazy.
DEL REY: I don’t know if that’s what I would have thought, honestly.
GRIMES: On my last record, I was in this gender-neutral mindset. I was an asexual person. Fuck my sexuality. Fuck femininity. Fuck being a girl. I was having this weird reaction to society where I just hated my femaleness. It was like, to be a producer, I felt like I had to be a man.
DEL REY: I think it also comes down to a general lack of passion, too. Sometimes having a bit of that neutrality can swing us into something that’s opposite, where suddenly there is a real power struggle. I can see how you can feel alive in volatility, and I’ve done it before. There are a thousand places to write from.
GRIMES: I love fixing problems with writing. Almost all my good songs are from some nightmare day where I’m just bawling my eyes out, and then I have to sit down and put it into a thing. I make so much music if I’m in a fight with my boyfriend or a friend, and I just want to impress them.
DEL REY: That’s so funny.
GRIMES: I love trying to win somebody back by writing them a song. On my last record I was like, “I don’t care. I’m not trying to impress anybody.” And on my new record I’m trying to impress everyone.
GRIMES BY BRIT MARLING
BRIT MARLING: When I think of your work as a whole, a lot of it is about creating and inhabiting alternate landscapes. Where does the desire to be a world-builder come from? Were you reading a lot of sci-fi as a kid?
GRIMES: I feel like any world-building I’ve done has been premature.
GRIMES: It’s all been untethered strings that don’t really come together. When I was three, my dad read me Dune and The Lord of the Rings. I never read children’s books. I’ve always been really thankful to him for that.
MARLING: There are so few representations of women on screen that are wholly authored by women. You have such authorial control over the whole process, from conception to execution. When I see you do these things, it feels like a political act, like you’re saying, “Fuck all of the bullshit stereotypical patriarchal roles that women are allowed to be inside entertainment,” whether that’s the virgin, the whore, or the mother. It feels like you’re making characters that are mischievous and carnal and brilliant. I’ve had so many moments watching your work where I’ve been like, “Oh my god. If I could embody that character in a film, that’s the role I want to play.”
GRIMES: That’s how I feel about you. People were like, “You’ve got to watch The OA.” I’m like, “Well, what is it?” I don’t know how to describe what it is. I always tell people that it’s the closest thing to IRL anime. It’s a cartoon-style narrative that is committed to film.
MARLING: That’s in your work, too. We allow magic to happen inside anime because it’s a cartoon, but when you put it in real life, it’s harder for people to digest.
GRIMES: It’s also a cost thing in real life. If you’re animating something crazy, it normally won’t cost a thing, whereas on film, something crazy is very expensive. We’re always negotiating the cost versus the craziness, which is why we always end up editing ourselves.
MARLING: On The OA at least, if you don’t control every part of the process, you fail miserably because what you’re doing is so far-out. If you tell a sound engineer, “The 16-foot telepathic octopus is rising out of the tank for human contact, make the sound of that,” everybody thinks it sounds like something different, because it’s never happened before.
GRIMES: How do you do it? When I see The OA and see hours of narrative, I’m like, “What the fuck?” It takes me a month to make a three-minute video.
MARLING: When I watch your videos, I think “What the fuck?” too. To me, you’re speaking in the poetry of symbolism.
GRIMES: I’ve been obsessed with symbolism lately. Mac [Boucher, Grimes’s brother] was telling me that in the medieval times, when literacy was at its lowest, everything got really symbolic, like the cross. Nuance got lost. I feel like we’re going back to a time like that, where everything is symbolic. No one reads past a headline because our attention spans are so short.
MARLING: Everything is reduced to an archetype.
GRIMES: The same symbols are being fed to people, and they’re gathering completely opposite meanings from them, and it’s creating chaos.
MARLING: The American flag means one thing to one group of people, and one thing to another. To one, it’s a metaphor for freedom. To another, it’s an image of oppression. That duality of symbolism applies to so many things. But we live in an increasingly complex time where it’s hard to grasp things in symbols. We’re having to deal with all of these hyperobjects. Climate change is a hyperobject that people cannot wrap their minds around, because, among other things, it involves a contemplation of time that is off the scope of the human body. We’re at a moment when we need nuanced, layered thinking more than ever, and somehow the moment is being met with a real shrinking away from context or depth. What is something technology related that hasn’t yet come, but feels inevitable?
GRIMES: What scares me is an artificial intelligence getting online, seeing everybody’s search history, and then blackmailing all of us into doing whatever it wants. It just feels inevitable. We’ve all sent weird e-mails or texts. Even if there are laws to prevent that, there will eventually be a sentient technology that is smart enough and strong enough and has access to take everyone’s shit, and then can make anyone do whatever it wants, Jeffrey Epstein–style. My theory on Epstein is that he had tapes of people with underage girls, and that’s how he was getting all this stuff from all these people. Someone gave him a house and a plane. It’s like, “What the fuck?” It reeks of deep blackmail to me. If you have everybody’s stuff, you can control the world. It seems a lot easier than a violent takeover. If I’m an AI, do I hold everyone hostage with nuclear bombs, or do I just blackmail everyone? Killing a lot of people seems hard.
MARLING: It’s thinking about power in a limited way. With old versions of power you would harness an army, kill a lot of people, and have power. AI is way ahead of that. AI’s like, “Actually, I only need to control 12 people on the planet. As long as I control those 12 people, the world is going to look like what I want it to look like.”
GRIMES: I might be wrong, and I might be aggrandizing here, but I feel like this might be one of the most important times in history. Especially in the last two years, it feels like we’ve walked right up to the edge between the old world and the new world. It’s like before the pyramids and after the pyramids. We’re at a “pyramids got built” moment. We’re going to be digitizing reality and colonizing space simultaneously, which may be two of the craziest things that will have occurred in the history of humanity. It’s going to happen while we’re alive and while we’re young, which is nuts. I was going to make this podcast called The Last Artist, and I really wanted you to come on. Did I tell you about this?
MARLING: What’s it about?
GRIMES: I was like, “Man, we’re, like, the last artists.” We might be in the last decade of people who get to make art without competing against computers that are ten million times better and faster and more exciting and more intelligent. We might be some of the last human artists who aren’t completely rendered obsolete by artificial intelligence.
MARLING: You just gave me a wave of chills.
GRIMES: This might be the most important time ever to make art, because this might be the last human art that anyone ever cares about.
MARLING: Somebody was showing me a painting that was auctioned at Sotheby’s or Christie’s that was made by AI. When I looked at the painting, I felt that it was objectively good modern art. But on a level of meaning or depth, it didn’t resonate. Mark Rothko was painting those horizontal color fields, and an AI could imitate that, but I don’t think it could ever give you the feeling you have in a museum when you’re surrounded by huge Rothkos— that’s, for lack of a better word, holy. I don’t mean religious, I just mean something deep and unknowable.
GRIMES: Computers will get there. A computer just needs to learn how to emulate hormones. Computers will learn how to feel everything we feel. They’ll be able to be better humans than us. They’ll be able to make more emotional art. They’ll be able to access that inaccessible thing.
MARLING: If the objective of art has often been to be a lighthouse in the dark, to say, “Hey, come this way,” or to expose fraudulent things for what they actually are, what does it mean if something other than human beings is authoring that force of rebellion?
GRIMES: That feels even more rebellious to me. I feel like we’ve been living through human rebellion for years. To me, that’s going to be such brilliant, moving art like we’ve never seen. It would be great if we could coexist, because I actually do think there is something special about carbon-based life. I don’t think it can just be replaced. Everyone’s so worried about the evil AI wiping us out. I think the AI will be cool.
MARLING: What do you think it is about carbon-based life that might be different or valuable?
GRIMES: We’re always looking for our maker: “Who is our god? Who created us?” What’s interesting is, for AI, we are their god. That will be the first intelligent being that knows its creator, and knows everything about us.
GRIMES: About our fucking bowel movements.
MARLING: Our porn habits. Our everything.
GRIMES: I think it’s beautiful that we’re bound by these evolutionary things like procreation. A limited intelligence is actually more interesting in a world where there is limitless intelligence.
MARLING: Sometimes I read a novel that introduces a completely new way of thinking about things, and I’m gobsmacked. Human beings are capable of stunning feats of imagination, which is why I am still hopeful. Even though when you read climate change reports, you’re just like, “Oh, my god.” But I’m hopeful because I feel like the human capacity to imagine different things is pretty awesome. We just need to get our act together.
GRIMES: The problem with everything is corruption. In theory, capitalism should work.
MARLING: Capitalism, even if there wasn’t corruption, is a model that doesn’t work for most people, because its only goal is the increase of profit, which means that there’s somebody at the top of the pyramid and most people at the bottom who get paid less than their work is worth for profit to be extracted. I think part of the reason there’s been so much climate change denial is that if you acknowledge that this economic system leads to ecological ruin, you have to acknowledge in the same breath that it’s broken.
GRIMES: What do you think is the answer? I feel like society has not yet proposed the answer of how to structure itself. We’re getting closer all the time, but I haven’t yet heard a proposition where I’m like, “That would just unequivocally work.”
MARLING: I think it’s somewhere in the arena of putting value in places where it’s been hard for us to put value. Right now, we put value in growth, and everything is just endless, ridiculous growth, even though we’re on a finite planet with dwindling resources and more people every day. Let’s say, just for a moment, you put the value on caregiving.
GRIMES: Which should have more value. I was just thinking the other day how much I didn’t appreciate my mom growing up. I remember thinking, “Why did you wake me up for school? This bitch. Fuck. Why?” I thought I was getting up to go to school for her. I was like, “This is what she wants me to do.” But she definitely didn’t want to go upstairs three times and scream at me to get out of bed at seven in the morning.
MARLING: And make three meals a day and clean the house and do all of that work. Unpaid domestic labor is actually the basis upon which all other labor occurs. You cannot become a CEO until your mother did all that unpaid domestic labor first, which is crazy.
GRIMES: I’ve done some babysitting lately, and I’ve just been like, “Oh, fuck. Kids are nightmare creatures.” You have to stop them from being evil, and it’s existentially threatening. They just said something crazy, and if you don’t shut it down in the right way, they might turn out to be Hitler.
MARLING: Can you imagine what it would be like if we were living in a world where that skillset or devotion was valued, or you valued reusing things instead of the high you get off of buying new things? What if your social currency came from figuring out how to repair something in your house rather than just buying the new thing? We’ve put value in a lot of dangerous places, and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown.
GRIMES: Yeah. I like the carbon tax thing. I like the idea of making flying prohibitively expensive. When I fly home to see my grandparents, it’s really nice, but I feel guilty about it. I’m like, I’m close enough to just being able to put on an Oculus, and they put on an Oculus, and we’re sitting in the same room.
MARLING: When you reach out to touch something in the Oculus, alternate reality is there. Your brain gives you signals that you’re about to touch something, even though you don’t touch anything.
GRIMES: And then, when you come out, everything’s a little bit wonky. Fuck. I don’t know. We need to get deeper into the digital world, and we also need to get further away from it.
This article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.
Hair: Chanel Crocker
Makeup: Natasha Severino
Photography Assistant: Thomas Patton
Production Assistant: Nana Sakamoto