How do you make the best album of 2015? Only Grimes knows. ‘Art Angels’ is an album everyone should own, that everyone can take something from. It’s bold, angry and provocative – a statement of intent from an artist coming of age and imprinting her singular worldview on the mainstream. Even if she doesn’t quite feel like a pop star yet, Grimes certainly looks like one.
We’re in a photo studio in west London and she’s draped in flowing robes and occult jewellery, topped off with a crescent-shaped headpiece. Two burly guys have been called in to carry her clamshell throne over for her. When you’re a pop star, clamshell throne transport is something you can outsource.
Look Grimes up online and you’ll find further evidence of pop stardom. She has half-a-dozen YouTube videos with views in the millions, mixed with unfaltering critical acclaim. She’s signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation management and her glitchy, otherworldly electronica is equally popular with art school kids, science fiction fanatics, hipster music blogs and high fashion designers. You quickly start to build up a picture of not just a pop star, but perhaps the coolest musician on the planet.
Grimes begs to differ. “I hate the words ‘pop star’,” she says. “I don’t make pop music. I’m on an indie label. I don’t want to feel pressure to be a world-class singer, or a professional-level dancer, or super beautiful. I’m not good at any of those things, and I’m very shy. I just want to make what I want to make.” What about her legion of fans? “No-one calls Smashing Pumpkins pop stars. No-one calls Trent Reznor a pop star. You can be experimental and have a big audience and not be pop.”
OK – not a pop star. So what is she? Grimes is the creation and ongoing science-fantasy art project of Claire Boucher. When we sit down to talk, the 27-year-old has swapped her robes for a black hoodie and pulled her home-dyed pink hair back into a loose ponytail. She has to “get into character” for photoshoots, just as she does when making music. She denies being cool almost as vehemently as she denies being a pop star. “There’s a perception that I am, but I’m extremely uncool,” she insists. “I don’t go out much.”
What does she think cool is? “Umm,” she thinks. “People with social skills?”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Boucher moved to Montreal to study at McGill University with thoughts of becoming an neuroscientist. That fell by the wayside when she discovered the city’s DIY party scene. In 2010 she released two strangely beautiful electronica records: ‘Geidi Primes’, a concept album about Frank Herbert’s fantasy novel Dune, and ‘Halfaxa’. “When I first started everyone was like, ‘Ha, ha, a Dune concept album,’” she says. “But now because of Game Of Thrones and stuff it’s more chill.”
Her third album ‘Visions’, released at the start of 2012, changed everything. Soon her music was soundtracking the most fashionable parties, and Boucher found herself being dressed for the red carpet by Karl Largerfeld. Not bad for an album produced entirely on GarageBand while holed up in her flat in the depths of a nine-day amphetamine binge.
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Boucher’s initial reaction was to shun the limelight. She considered an alternative career as a hitmaker for the stars (she wrote ‘Go’ for Rihanna, but it was rejected and she put it out herself), then retreated to the mountains of Squamish, north of Vancouver. After scrapping some recordings she made there, she relocated to Los Angeles to finish ‘Art Angels’.
Boucher says ‘Art Angels’ came from a more considered place than the Adderall-fuelled ‘Visions’ sessions. “I smoke weed sometimes,” she says. But adds: “I shouldn’t talk about that,” and says that an anti-drugs blog post she wrote has been exaggerated by the media. “When the internet is like: ‘Grimes is on a tirade, hates drugs,’ I’m never actually on a tirade. In my life generally I’ve been cleaning up a lot. It [drug use] becomes exhausting.”
She was, however, “extremely drunk” when she made ‘California’, a sort of hoedown homage to Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks. “I wanted to make a song that is so uncool that no cool hipster people would like it.”
One thing Boucher has never compromised is that Grimes is and always has been entirely her own work. The only other people to appear on ‘Art Angels’ are Aristophanes, a Taiwanese rapper her boyfriend came across on SoundCloud, and Janelle Monáe, an artist whose self-determined career she admires. Earlier this year, she posted an Instagram picture captioned “Fillin out tha paperwork”, which showed a list of engineer and producer credits for the songs on ‘Art Angels’. Every line simply read: ‘Claire Boucher’.
Boucher doesn’t consider a song a true Grimes track unless she has played, engineered and produced every element of it. She’s Timbaland and Aaliyah rolled into one. She works alone partly to allow herself the space to experiment – she wants the freedom to spend two days working on 100 layers of vocals and then to delete the whole thing – but more importantly to preserve the integrity and purity of her own voice.
On ‘Art Angels’, Grimes makes it clear she’s an artist with a message. “With ‘Visions’ it became easy to say, ‘Grimes, she’s so cute. It’s fun music to put on at a fashion shoot.’ Now I want people to engage. I’m less afraid of saying things now. I used to be so scared, I was turning the vocals down and drenching them in reverb. On this record I don’t give a f**k anymore.”
Boucher’s time in Squamish renewed her interest in the environment. “When I grew up there were eagles and bears and deer everywhere,” she says. “I haven’t seen an eagle in years.”
This passion informs songs like ‘Butterfly’, a dance track about deforestation, and ‘Life In The Vivid Dream’, which is about “inheriting a broken world”. “I wanted to be angry about that,” she says. “I feel like nobody’s angry at our parents’ generation. Everyone’s so f***ing apathetic about everything. Our apathy will lead to the world becoming unliveable in our lifetime. It’s on us. It’s on my generation right now.”
She sees the impact of environmental change every time she reads the news – from the way drought in Syria exacerbated the civil war, to the disproportionate effect of climate change on those already living in poverty. “I’m really stressed about the world becoming so f***ed,” she says. “Environmental stuff impacts the poor more than anybody else. People worry about social issues, but it is a social issue. It’s the number one social issue.”
Having supported Lana Del Rey earlier this year, Boucher is finally getting used to the idea of commanding a big stage (her Ac!d Reign tour hits the UK next year). She enthuses about how her new songs “smack the room around” and says she’s considering hypnosis to help overcome any lingering anxiety she still feels about performing.
Boucher is the kind of pop star we’ve been crying out for: a genuine auteur who can provide an alternative to the mainstream, making music for outcasts and misfits. She’s coming round to the idea. “I feel like Grimes is the uncool pop star,” she says. “I want to be inclusive. I feel like a lot of people don’t feel cool. If you like comic books and technology, then maybe you like Grimes.”
Many do. Her clamshell throne awaits.