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FILTER 48: En Pointe: The Brutal, Beautiful Art of Grimes

By Kendah El-Ali; photos by Marc Lemoine; art by Grimes on June 13, 2012


FILTER 48: En Pointe: The Brutal, Beautiful Art of Grimes

It comes as no surprise that Claire Boucher has the four symbols from the stones in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element tattooed on her fingers. As visually striking as a carrot-topped Milla Jovovich running around in that Jean Paul Gaultier bandage outfit—and certainly no less alien than the blue diva—Boucher is equally an embodiment of the pure love and positive energy the symbols represent. Though this heroine’s hair may be lime green, depending on the day, and the ring on her finger a plastic re-creation of her friend’s vagina, one thing is for certain: she’s in it for the love of creation. Thing is, she’s a real person. Nobody made Grimes up, except Boucher herself.

Grimes is both an artist and a musician. On what appears to be a meteoric path upwards, the 24-year-old is at once completely out in left field as she is a surprisingly shrewd visionary. She produces her own music (including her third album, Visions, released on 4AD this spring) while carrying off an unlikely pop diva aesthetic at the same time. She makes insanely intricate, deeply creepy drawings that are both frightening and riveting. She shoots unsettling art videos with her friends. She flanks herself on stage with a topless, all-boy backup band. She pulls off singing with a lisp, and her music will make you dance like a maniac. She cites Jenna Jameson as a source of wisdom and inspiration. She’s the high priestess in a surrealist cult that’s centered around bureaucracy (nothing can happen in the cult, because there’s too much paperwork to be done). She considers the hyena to be her spirit animal. Her lucky number is eight. She’s modern-day, off-the-wall girl power, fueled by an uncanny grasp on the reality of the world for someone her age. A little unsure of herself, she’s also candid, warm and hilarious in person, and utterly adorable as a result.

Boucher grew up in Vancouver in a house of mostly boys, fed on a creative diet of ballet and comic books. Her mother is a politician, and her grandparents taught her how to shoot guns—“in case of an unforeseeable world disaster,” Boucher says. Though she went off to college like many normal girls do, she found herself kicked out of Montreal’s McGill University not too long thereafter. The creation of Grimes was the culprit. Her inner goblin had to get out and make itself apparent, and luckily for the rest of us, Boucher heeded its call. Today’s artistic landscape would be a much less colorful place without her.

FILTER caught up with Boucher in New York’s Bowery Hotel. Fresh off a photo shoot and with a sparkling bindi over her third eye, she chatted about her art, being a pothead and, in her words, how she’s attempting to combat “the certain banality of pop music today.” Sorry, Leeloo; you’ve been upstaged. Grimes really is the future.

Growing up, did you see yourself as a musician or artist first?

Grimes: I was an artist first. I started out doing art because I was really into manga and comic books. I wanted to be a comic book artist of my own. I think that has disappeared from my life, but I still retain it stylistically. I love Charles Burns, I love Dan Clowes and that kind of slick, modern graphic art—not Marvel, but more Black Hole and Fantagraphics. Artistically, I’m always trying for surrealist representations of hell where the narratives are constantly folding in on each other, but it’s also a static image that can be contained in one frame. Stylistically, it’s just more referential to something like Burns. I’m sorry if that sounds weird.

When I make visual art, I pretty much only do it when I’m totally baked. Usually, I smoke weed, watch horror movies and I draw for hours. Usually, I get to the point where I’m just really sad, concerned and freaked out and it just becomes a thing. In the same way, I make music. I’ll just disappear and work for 15 hours straight.

I’m usually really depressed when I’m making art. But then by the time I’m done with it, I’m super jazzed. Art for me is incredibly cathartic. I use it to make my mind work. I have way too much energy, so if I don’t expel it—if I don’t do a lot of physical exercise, or I don’t make enough art—I go crazy. I just feel like it’s one life: bang. I really want to make the most of everything, even everything shitty. What was your question again?

You were originally a student of philosophy and neuroscience at McGill University. How did Grimes come of that seemingly divergent life path?

[School] lost its meaning to me. I want to go back to school eventually, but right now is not the time. I was a double major in philosophy and psychology with a double minor in Russian language and electro acoustics, which is a neuroscience-orientated study at McGill. It’s about how the brain processes music. I originally took that minor because I wanted to make music, but of course there was no music really involved in it. Someone taught me how to use GarageBand, and I just took it from there. It came really naturally for me. I believe that it was what I was supposed to do, but I had never tried it before. As soon as I started making music, I knew that I needed to do it as much as possible. It completely consumed my life.

Both your music and your live show pull together stylistic and functional elements together rarely seen in female artists. It’s like a weird mix of techno live show, punk girl band and Mariah Carey wailing.

Above all things, I am a producer. It’s true; the live show entails lots of gear. Between the guys and me, I feel like we cover most of the basics with available pedals on stage. I mostly use a sampler and two different pedals—one for looping, and another for live effects. But it’s really important for me to keep doing that. I really don’t want people to think that I’m not producing my own beats and music. That’s what I care about. I mean, I sing because I’m here. It’s easy for me, and I can do what I like with it.

The whole pop star thing, I found, gave me a lot of power. It gave me social and musical power that I didn’t anticipate. So much comes from it in terms of personal branding. A pinnacle song of my life is a remix called “Unthinkable” by Physical Therapy. It’s this noisy, creepy sort of dance-y remix of an Alicia Keys song. It really informed Grimes. I thought there really should be an R&B song that makes noisy, scary pop music, and why isn’t there? And why isn’t there a pop star out there who produces her own shit? I mean, that way you can control everything. Why would you want someone else to do it, when it could all be up to you? In the last couple years, there have been a lot more women out there doing stuff, though. And not just frontwomen stuff. It’s still a boys’ club, and I’m still usually the only girl, but I really think that’s changing.

You’ve been getting a lot of attention in the past year, and especially recently. What do you think of how far things have come?

The people I admire most are the people who have left a mark in culture. My goal in life, and if I could do anything, would be to do just that. If doing that comes with exposure—and it does—then that’s great. That’s where I want to be. I really don’t give a shit about making money or being famous, but I do give a shit about having respect and people being able to look at me and say: “Oh, this person did something that is artistically relevant and important.” I think it’s great. My life has never been better. All day, I make art happen and I decide on it, and people actually listen to me. And that’s really cool. And I get to help a lot of people. My only other option in life would honestly be working at Tim Hortons. They put MSG in their coffee—that’s why it’s so good.

What’s next?

More video art. I also just started a new project with my friend [Calvin McElroy], from the band Kuhrye-oo. It’s a dance troupe called The Ballet Militia. It’s called that because we’re really into severity and pain and beauty. We just broke into Six Flags and shot a crazy ballet video, hanging off roller coasters and stuff. The whole thing is like buns, combat boots and camo. It’s about going way out of your way to break into buildings and do ballet—and film it. It’s a video aesthetic that we’re working on. The video for [Visions’] “Be a Body” is a Ballet Militia video.

I have a very long, complicated history with ballet. Now that I’ve had some time away from it, I can revisit it. It fucking hurts. It’s brutal. It’s a really severe, militaristic art form and that’s what’s so great about it. It’s intense and sharp and severe. It’s about bloody feet. That’s why it’s so beautiful.  F