TORONTO – No matter how hard her fans and the music press campaign to make it happen, Grimes will never become the true pop star they want her to be. Although her otherworldly, Ableton-assisted music is crammed full of hooks fit to sit alongside Rihanna and Taylor Swift in the Top 40, the Canadian musician/producer born Claire Boucher feels her place is and forever will be as an outsider.
“I’m a pop artist in a broad sense,” she says in an email. “Most music with traditional verse, chorus and bridge structures can probably be considered ‘pop.’ But I think most people think about Top 40 these days when they use the word ‘pop,’ and I’m emphatically not from that world.”
Grimes might not ever reach the mainstream, but she has achieved phenomenal success as an independent artist. For example, she impressed Jay Z, who personally signed her to a management deal with his company Roc Nation; she has toured with Skrillex and Diplo, Lana Del Rey, and will join Florence & the Machine later this year; and indie music bible Pitchfork Media ranked her song “Oblivion” No. 1 on their list of “The 200 Best Tracks of the Decade So Far.” Outside of her musical accomplishments, Boucher has also become an advocate for equality in the music industry and a DIY fashion icon in her own right.
“Art Angels” is the fourth Grimes album, and the first in almost four years. The wait for it felt like an eternity, and originally there was another album’s worth of music that was scrapped in favor of it. Boucher is hesitant to go too deep into that material, but she does plan to release it one day.
“I think when I retire I will release everything,” she teased over the phone back in October. “It will be in a big bundle. And I won’t master it, (I’ll) just put it all out. There are a lot of beats with no vocals, so I’ll put them out as this huge file of music and people can add vocals to them. I think every musician makes a lot of music they don’t release. I just stupidly talk about it in public.”
The wait for “Art Angels” though was worth it. When the album was finally released in November, impatient critics were full of praise and included it in virtually every list of 2015’s best albums. Her fans, on the other hand, were so ecstatic they saw that it made a dent on the Billboard 200 chart, placing a respectable No. 36 in its opening week. But despite all of her success, she is truly an artist unlike any other.
When she released her last album, 2012’s “Visions,” Boucher described her music as “post-Internet.” However, now she feels her music is free of genre.
“I don’t think about genre. I’m terrified by genres,” she admits. “I didn’t grow up making music, so I would hate to be evaluated within a specific genre by experts.”
The sounds Boucher composed on “Art Angels” indeed make it difficult for anyone to pigeonhole her as any type of artist. Within its 14 tracks, the album flies by as a whirlwind of her copious influences. On “California” she somehow blends country pop with K-pop; “Scream,” featuring Taiwanese MC Aristophanes, is a loud and snarling spin at hip-hop; and “Flesh Without Blood” and its surging guitar riff is a triumphant stab at matching her alt-rock heroes. What she has achieved as an artist and producer is as unique and singular as pop music gets these days.
While she often fights to get the credit and respect she deserves for being the only person behind her music (She admits, “There is a constant suggestion for me to work with producers.”), Grimes is also the visual artist behind the elaborately drawn artwork for her albums and their accompanying music videos. To Boucher, music is a complete package, which is why each song gets its own decorative work of art.
“It’s honestly just really fun to draw and work on videos,” she says. “I think it puts the music in context too, it’s hard to say. But I would still be making visual art even if I didn’t do music.”
As beguiling as “Art Angels” is to experience as a whole, what some of her newer fans might not pick up on is how much Boucher has improved as a vocalist, lyricist, musician and producer. Even the illustrations have advanced beyond the ones that graced the covers of her first two albums, “Geidi Primes” and “Halfaxa.” Though it may be her fourth full-length, she has openly declared “Art Angels” to be the first proper Grimes album. Even “Visions,” the album that secured Boucher a record deal with legendary indie label 4AD and introduced her to the world, is considered the work of an amateur in her eyes.
“So much of (‘Art Angels’) was making a bunch of tracks, like ‘REALiTi,‘ which was in the process of learning to become a proper musician,” she explains. “When I made ‘Visions’ I thought it was cool, but music wasn’t my livelihood, it wasn’t what I thought my life would be. It definitely wasn’t something I thought I would put serious time into. Listening to ‘Visions’ now I do think it sounds kind of amateur so I can’t blame people for thinking I wasn’t a professional. Even the live show at that point, I didn’t know if it would be good or bad, or if I could sing well enough — I wasn’t trained as a singer or anything.”
The biggest hurdles Boucher needed to clear during the making of “Art Angels” were the “lyrics and singing for sure,” she emphasizes. “Lyrics are kind of the same. I recorded the vocals on a lot of these songs two to three times, nitpicking at the lyrics and stuff. I’ve never done that before. And singing in front of people is my biggest fear, I find it really difficult.”
Her difficulty singing in front of an audience may not be as obvious when Grimes comes to Japan for two shows. Her recent Rhinestone Cowgirls tour demonstrated a performer that has completely overhauled her show. The days of Boucher hiding behind her minimal stage set up are long gone. Now she fills a much bigger space with a team of choreographed dancers, a rave-inspired light show and a newfound confidence that finds her commanding the stage with her own distinct movements.
“Mostly, I wanted to eliminate the possibility for error as much as possible, and create a more choreographed and seamless show,” she exclaims. “By slowly upgrading my gear, the show is kind of always improving. Whenever I can I try to reproduce old songs, fix things up and create new things to add in the show. It’s important for the show to be fun.”
Grimes plays Akasaka Blitz in Tokyo on Jan. 26 and Big Cat in Osaka on Jan. 27. Shows start at 7 p.m. and tickets cost ¥6,500 in advance. For more information, visit www.smash-jpn.com/live/?id=2392
Grimes’ world of outsider pop
Not many artists sound like Claire Boucher (aka Grimes), but some share her artistic sensibilities. Here are a few:
A member of Boucher’s artist co-operative Eerie Organization, this Canadian’s sparse bedroom pop is gracefully sublime and hauntingly melancholic. Her guitar-plucked ballads are so tragically personal, she makes those first few Tori Amos albums seem almost insincere.
Formerly known as Blood Diamonds, this leftfield pop producer has been Boucher’s most frequent collaborator, writing and producing her single “Go” as well as his own single “Phone Sex” featuring Grimes. Recently he scored big by co-producing Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Skrillex.
This Montreal duo collaborated with Grimes on “Visions,” but have experienced considerable success with their two full-lengths. The combination of scantly minimal synthesizers and the soul-emptying vocals give Majical Cloudz a uniquely deep intensity.
James Brooks, Boucher’s boyfriend, has gone by a few names — Elite Gymnastics, Dead Girlfriend — but now records as Default Genders (though he says his next project won’t use this moniker). His music is a mixed bag that can shift from drum ‘n’ bass, to ambient to lo-fi pop whenever he feels like it.
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