Photo by Michael Avedon

Grimes: “I want to be the best”

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Short Profile

Name: Claire Elise Boucher
DOB: 17 March 1988
Place of birth: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Occupation: Musician

Grimes, with your 2012 song “Oblivion” you said you took one of the most shattering experiences of your life and turned it into something positive. Is sharing personal pain through your music cathartic?

It’s sort of the opposite. I make the album for me and then it’s like, “Oh, fuck. Everyone else has to hear this.” I have a rule: don’t think about how to play it live. Don’t think about what other people are going to think when they hear it. And then it’s like, after the fact, like, “Fuck, I have to figure out how to play this live...” I recorded “Realiti” and that was just like, sort of gratuitously for other people. But other than that I ask myself, “What do I want to hear?” Some songs are really emotionally intense for that reason. And some of them only exist for the pure joy of making music.

So what was your reaction when “Realiti,” a sort of throwaway song that you released unfinished, got over 6 million YouTube plays and was called your best song in years?

I did not think it would get that big. I thought people would be like, “Aw, how cute,” and move on. It’s pretty awesome, but I really wish I’d finished the song… (Laughs) I hate unfinished things. And the sound quality is so bad! My last album Visions is quite obviously amateur sounding too.

That didn’t stop many critics from calling it one of the best albums of 2012.

But it wasn’t the most professional setting. My management at the time was just a friend from high school. There was a release date before there was an even album, so I was on a crazy deadline and didn’t necessarily finish things the way I probably would have wanted to. I had no training in music, barely played any shows, I didn’t really know anything about music at all…

Sometimes naiveté can be an advantage.

Yeah, definitely. But I think there’s also a point where when you’re a professional at something, you’re expected to be executing at a certain level constantly and intentionally. I’d made three albums being not a serious musician at all, which I think is enough albums to make as an amateur. (Laughs)

Grimes’ self-directed video for “Flesh Without Blood” / “Life in the Vivid Dream” from her 2015 Album Art Angels.

Things must have changed a lot for you in that respect. Your new album is your first since coming under the management of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and you reportedly even went through media training – not quite your old DIY approach anymore.

I was just like, “Maybe there’s a way to stop Pitchfork from ruining my life all the time.” But I realized that it doesn’t matter what I say because they’ll still do it. I mean… not ruin my life, but just these ridiculous sexist attacks that I’m crying and so sad and having a terrible time all the time. And I just don’t even know what this is about. I was just like, “Is there any way for me to, like, stop this from happening?” But it’s the machine. It’s clickbait.

Is your new and professional management also trying to dictate how you should look?

No. I think music is performing. Especially the stage shows. It’s all related. I’ve been learning more about performance, watching politicians and speeches and things like that to integrate it into the show. The art I want to make tends to be quite audacious. But I’m not trying to be more professional in the sense that I care what anybody thinks. That’s not much of a concern.

What is the concern, then?

For this album I just wanted to be able to walk into a room with any of my peers and know everything that they know. I don’t want people to think I’m a worse producer than my male peers. I’m mostly tired of people who say they want to sound like Grimes calling up my male friends to try to get my sound. You could’ve called me but you don’t call me because the only reference point you have is Visions. I wanted to learn how to produce, I wanted to learn how to engineer, I wanted to learn how to play instruments… Before I even started the album I really wanted to just become a musician, as it were. And since I hate repeating myself, that involves learning quite a bit.

“I don’t want to be good. I want to be the best. Even in failing that, you’ll hit a higher mark than if you never tried.”

So it was important for you to be known as a good producer as well as a talented artist?

Definitely. I think I’m a shit vocalist! (Laughs) I think I’m, like, a very questionable vocalist. I think it’s just an identity thing. I could never identify as a vocalist, so for me the production part is very important. And if I’m going to charge people 10 bucks for an album, I want it to be fucking good! I want it to be worth people’s while.

Do you feel that’s not the case for most artists these days?

I think for a lot of albums right now there’ll be the single and then there’s just a bunch of crap. For example, when the Beyoncé album came out, because it came out all at once and there was no press, I just listened to the whole album at once. And I realized, “Fuck, I haven’t actually listened to a new album the whole way through in years.” Every song really meant something to me. I wanted to make an album like that. I hope people listen through the whole thing and every single song could be a single.

Wouldn’t that be a bit more mainstream than your music tends to be?

Not in, like, a Top 40 way. Just where every single song could be really meaningful to me and really well executed. You could take out any song and be like, “This is what Grimes is.” And it would be good. It was really hard to choose singles because to me it’s a real album. Compared to Visions and compared to the albums before it, I think it’s quite an improvement. There’s nothing on it that I think is bad.

I guess that’s why it took you so long to finish it.

(Laughs) It’s just that when I look at the artists I admire, even like Bob Dylan or Carravaggio or Leonardo DaVinci, they don’t just achieve. They achieve at the highest level. They’re great, great artists. And they’re great, great technical performers. Their skill is at the highest level and their expression is at the highest level. I don’t want to be good. I want to be the best. Even in failing that, you’ll hit a higher mark than if you never tried.