After the success of her self-produced, self-penned and self- illustrated fifth album Art Angels, Grimes is enjoying the biggest high of her life.
“Once, a girl was so wasted she fell into my equipment, and knocked everything over, and started puking onstage.” Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes, is reminiscing, via Skype, about touring on a shoestring budget. In the gap that followed her fourth full-length Visions, released in 2012, there was no money to fly in the professional dancers she now tours with, so “we’d hire dancers in each city, it was insane. Some people would be stripping, or whatever, and it all went downhill very quickly sometimes.” An ever-shifting roster of dancers wasn’t her only problem. Boucher found the very act of performing live highly traumatising. “When Visions came out, I literally wouldn’t leave this 4×4 [ft] area where my samplers were. It took me two years just to walk to the front of the stage, I was so petrified. So yeah, things have probably changed a lot.”
Obviously it’s an understatement. Despite being recorded in Grimes’ apartment over three weeks using Garageband, Visions won Grimes fame and critical acclaim in the form of places near the top of “Album of the Year” lists from The Guardian to Pitchfork to NME. With the success of Visions came three years of intense press scrutiny whilst Boucher worked on the album’s follow-up. “That whole thing with the ditched album, it’s not even true,” she tells me. “It was like: ‘She has an album, now she doesn’t, it’s a huge problem.’” In reality, Boucher was touring constantly, honing her stagecraft both as support act for Lana Del Rey and on her own terms. It took a year to make Art Angels. “A year of like, every day. I took a break in between to do the tour opening with Lana, which really helped. There was like pre and post [Lana]. I also took a break to do the ‘REALiTi’ video.Those two things really helped. It just became, I think, so much of that album was about how stressed I was making that album!”
Whilst the lyrics on Visions had been almost inaudible, on Art Angels, Boucher’s words are more obvious, easier to hear over the swooning musical backdrop. It’s something she’s clearly conflicted about. “There’s things individually in the songs that I wanted to say – I wanted the songs to be about stuff. Like all the songs are about something explicitly or obtusely. Some of the stuff I hated about my earlier music, retroactively, was there was just stuff that was just sound design, no lyrics. Which is cool in its own way, but I dunno – I was just tired of people being like ‘What’s this song about’. And me being like, ‘nothing.’”
So, her songs are now about something. What that something is though, she’s not so keen on sharing. “Like everyone thinks ‘Flesh Without Blood’ is about the media, or a boyfriend, but what people think things are about is insane sometimes!” She’d prefer if people attached something of their own to her songs.“I do think a great pop song, you can ascribe your own meaning to. Any great pop song could be said to be about love even if it’s not. This is so dumb, but there was a song last year which I thought was a love song but was about someone dying. I mean!” Art Angels contains that same looseness: songs which, for the most part, could equally be about love or dying. Art Angels wasn’t always meant to be a pop record though.“Basically, I made a bunch of stuff, then the last couple of months was refining – like a lot of these songs used to be seven minutes long. But you kind of make these soundscapes, and fuck around with them, and then at the very end I came in and ruthlessly took out everything.”
That sense of ruthlessness explodes into her music videos. In “Flesh Without Blood”, Grimes is filmed wreaking havoc at California’s iconic Madonna Inn, dressed in a cowboy hat, a Marie Antoinette outfit, and fallen angel garb. “Kill V. Maim” meanwhile serves a kind of post- apocalyptic street fighter fantasy in the subway. When we talk, she’s just finished filming another video, this time for “California”, perhaps the most upbeat track on Art Angels. “California” she sighs. “It’s kind of a nightmare… I guess for me, it’s just not a song that needs a video. It’s a self-contained song, I have no visual inspiration from it whatsoever. It’s not very vibey! I’m not hating on the song, it’s just hard to make a music video with something, that’s not – you would never have a song like ‘California’ in a movie.” She’s wrong – “California” could definitely soundtrack a movie — just probably not the kind of twisted fashion fantasy that Claire Boucher would want to direct.
The day after we talk, Grimes is set to go on tour again. This time however, there’re no strippers dancing on stage with her. Not that her dancers don’t have a sharp edge. “The girls I auditioned, I asked to improvise. And the girls I chose did the craziest, weirdest improvisations.” Surrounding herself with the frenzy of physical activity makes her feel safe. “I always liked having dancers because it’s straight-up more entertaining. I used to have this band that were unplugged, because my [male] booking agent at the time insisted ‘You need a band onstage’. And I was like, ‘If I’m paying people to perform, let’s get actual fucking dancers!’ Everyone prefers dancers to watching some guy with a bass that’s not plugged in!”
Grimes is a self-produced, self-written, self-directed, self-every- thing-ed project. Art Angels is an album which pays testament to that, a homage to her growing confidence. “I felt like there were a couple of years where I’d become so much better technically as a musician than where I was with Visions, but Visions was the thing standing in culture, dictating how people saw me. But it’s nice to get all that out, because now I feel more relaxed.” Here Grimes stands, at the very front of the stage.