Canadian singer Grimes proud to be a nerd
Grimes - aka Canada's Claire Boucher - has shown she can be a nerd and still evolve into a pop star, writes Doretta Lau
Claire Boucher, the Canadian musician who has been recording and performing as Grimes since 2010, has blossomed into an international pop star in the space of a year. Since the release of her third full-length album, Visions, on the 4AD label in February 2012, she has toured the world, appeared in multiple editions of Vogue, and been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize.
Despite her ascent to stardom, she still thinks of herself as a nerd. She tweets about interviews with classical pianist Glenn Gould, worries that she may have misspelled Shakespeare and muses, "I think I've been possessed by [Seinfeld character] George Costanza".
Before dropping out of university, she was studying neuroscience. In her music videos, the fresh-faced singer is not afraid to wear hoodies, oversized coats and shirts that cover her collarbones. New York Magazine referred to her look as "punk-rock Rainbow Brite". She's the sort of woman other women want to befriend. Canadian writer Rebecca Godfrey puts it simply: "I love her."
"I just like to read and work," Boucher says via e-mail from Singapore. "When I say I'm a nerd, I think it's just to express that I'm not a party person, because I think based on the music I make, and my involvement in fashion, most people think I party all the time."
Not that she has had time to give in to Dionysian desires; she's working on a new album, and lately her life has been a flurry of interviews and concerts. Earlier this month, the 25-year-old kicked off her Elf Quest Asia tour (the last one in support of Visions), which stops off in Hong Kong tomorrow night.
"My dancers couldn't get visas, so we're shifting things around," she says of the upcoming concert at Kitec's Music Zone. "I'm practising today to see what we can do. But it's sort of an ethereal dance experience generally." Boucher spent 11 years training as a ballerina in Vancouver, where she grew up.
As for life on the road, she says: "It's been insane, that's for sure. You really just travel eight hours a day and then load in, sound check, play, talk to fans and then get back on the road. Sometimes we break into abandoned buildings if we see something interesting. I've filmed a lot - we're filming right now so we're scouting locations across Asia."
The shoots are for an upcoming music video. Last year, Boucher directed the video for her song Genesis, which looks like a cosplay road trip through California, and was inspired by The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.
The Montreal-based musician is aware that, for the audience, image and music are intertwined. In Genesis, she drives a Cadillac Escalade SUV (even though she doesn't have a licence) and brandishes a mace. For some scenes, her hair is in pigtails and she is dressed in a voluminous outfit inspired by schoolgirl uniforms. The accessory? An albino python draped around her neck - an homage to Britney Spears' performance of I'm a Slave 4 U at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.
"It was actually a really amazing experience to hold a massive snake like that. It was scary but it was also super fun," Boucher says.
"I wanted to create a visual representation of how my childhood brain interpreted Christianity," she continues. "I was raised in a religious household and I'm not currently a religious person, but when I was a kid I saw Christianity basically kind of as an insane action movie, so that's what the video is about. The swords and things basically are just a visual link to depictions of Christian stories in medieval art."
It has been widely reported that she spent nine days in isolation to record Visions, but she says: "It was actually around 21 days. I'm not sure why it says nine days everywhere, but I think it would be very hard to make a record in nine days. I decided to isolate myself because I was interested in medieval cloistering and its effect on the artistic process, and I also just wanted to avoid social stuff for a while. During that time I just recorded the album."
Visions is the sort of record that yields returns on every additional listen - the listening experience is a journey down the rabbit hole into Boucher's mind. Sweet, childlike vocals glide over frenetic pop loops and beats equally influenced by video games and electro. The album is as complex as its creator, who - despite having indisputable hipster cred - has confessed that Mariah Carey is her favourite singer.
Since she put out her first record as Grimes, Boucher feels performing has been the one thing that has changed her music most. "I think touring a lot really improves your relationship with the audience, which affects the recording process," she says.
When asked about her influences, Boucher says: "Pretty much everything. Whatever I'm around at any given time is the thing that affects my process most heavily. Even things I don't like usually have something I can find useful."
Boucher's music interests are wide ranging: "I'm super into Majical Cloudz right now. Also Taylor Swift." She's been listening to Vancouver band White Lung. "I just like punk music a lot," she says. "I think [vocalist Mish Way] has a really incredible voice."
And she is also a fan of Korean pop: her favourite artists are G D, TOP, Big Bang, f(x) and 2NE1.
In a Tumblr post, which she has since deleted because she felt her words were being taken out of context, she wrote: "I'm sorry, but I think it's f***ing incredible that a Korean-language song is the most popular thing on the planet. That's so good for humanity.
"Psy wrote and produced Gangnam Style himself and directed the video himself. No one made Psy. Psy is a genius and I don't think it's so terrible that he's been recognised for this. His art is creating a generation of kids that will grow up seeing Asian culture as being as valid as Western culture, which they currently don't."
She also wrote about Beyoncé in the same post: "How can you hate Beyoncé? She's changing the world. She stands for people of colour and women everywhere succeeding in a stifling patriarchy without compromising her morals. And she makes challenging, interesting art."
It's clear that Boucher has an enormous respect for her peers who work in creative industries and make music and art. She's part of a new generation of fearless young women, such as American director and actress Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture) and Canadian writer Sheila Heti ( How Should a Person Be?, The Middle Stories) who are defining what it means to be an artist in the contemporary world. They take risks and are enriching their respective artistic mediums.
Grimes makes us dance, and she makes us think. We're lucky she chose music over neuroscience.
Grimes, tomorrow, 7.30pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$310. Inquiries: www.ticketflap.com