For a more frail-of-spirit twentysomething, it could have been an opportunity for a colossal dose of hometown vindication: Claire Boucher was back in Vancouver, where she grew up, playing the Pacific Coliseum at the Pacific National Exhibition, and this time no bully could touch her.
Before Boucher, 24, began getting famous fast as the synth-pop darling Grimes, she was a teen growing up on the west side of Vancouver, who taught herself to play piano by listening to Chopin, going through the composition bar by bar.
But in the halls at school, things were tough. Bullied “intensely” as a weirdo who hung out mostly with a Goth crowd (art nerds too), she was beaten up “a bunch of times” and it became routine for her to return to her locker and find the words “bitch” or “slut” scrawled there.
“I started being identified as being weird and then I was alienated, and then being alienated started being part of my identity,” she says.
Living well – or a growing music career – may be the best revenge, but revenge is not on her radar.
“I don’t really know that many people in Vancouver any more,” she said, when asked before the show backstage how she feels about playing to a hometown crowd.
Well, they know her – or they’re getting to.
There’s a Polaris Prize nomination for her album Visions, a deal with U.K. indie label 4AD, an upcoming appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and gushing write-ups in the Guardian and the New York Times. Reviewers have compared her to everyone from Bjork to Annie Lennox to Nicki Minaj and she’s caught the attention of fashion publications too, including Vogue and W.
At the Vancouver show earlier this month, the last in a cross-Canada-by-train tour with dubstep star Skrillex and DJ Diplo, the young, shiny, glowstick-braceleted crowd vibrated through Grimes’s fine 40-minute set.
Backstage before the show, in ripped black tights and camo hoodie, and with long blond braids emerging from a VIA Rail cap, Grimes was exhilarated, but exhausted.
“I’m like insanely brain dead right now,” she apologized, often scanning the busy green room throughout the interview. “I’m easily distracted.”
Grimes (and no, she won’t say where the stage name comes from or what it means) began her musical infatuation with the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, which then transformed into a deep adolescent appreciation for Marilyn Manson. Her musical interests were eclectic and wide-ranging; she listened to everything from Hildegard von Bingen to Billy Idol. But she had no aspirations to make music her career.
“I just didn’t think it was, like, feasible,” she says. “I’m not trained in music.”
She moved to Montreal in 2006 to study neuroscience (there was a time when she dreamed of joining the space program) and philosophy at McGill University, with a minor in Russian language studies.
She gravitated toward science courses, but, lacking the prerequisites, taught herself what others had learned in high school. As a result, she managed to take – and pass – the courses anyway. It’s an information addiction that she has repeated elsewhere, spending four months, for example, teaching herself Japanese.
She never did complete that degree, but fell in with a creative crowd and got her start in music – recording songs in her bedroom that made her an underground sensation.
It was almost an accident. Singing backing vocals for Devon Welsh, who records under the name Majical Cloudz, she asked if he could explain the program he was using – Garage Band. It was learning Japanese or biology or Chopin all over again.
“I just kind of got addicted to it. It was just like a thing I sort of started doing and as soon as I realized I could do it, I didn’t really want to do anything else,” she says.
She recorded what would become her debut album, Geidi Primes, and began performing at the underground warehouse venue run by an old Vancouver friend Sebastian Cowan, founder of the tiny Montreal label Arbutus Records, and now her manager.
There have been three DIY releases since – most notably this year’s acclaimed Visions – conceived as a psychic purge during what she has described, promoting the album, as “a period of self-imposed cloistering during which time I did not see daylight.”
Prolific in the privacy of her bedroom, the live part of the business has been another matter. “I’m not, like, a natural performer. It’s sort of a thing that I’ve had to learn to do,” says Grimes.
She’s getting there. Onstage in Vancouver, she was all jerky grace in black tights, short skirt, ball cap and furry yellow sweater dress thing, handling technical problems during the opening song, Vanessa, adeptly – asking the invisible technical team for adjustments to sound and lighting.
“That would be sick,” she added, always polite.
She’s been touring for almost a year now, keeping a relentless pace and spending so much time on the road that she doesn’t even have a home base any more.
“I don’t like touring this much. And therefore I don’t think I can put out any more albums on this kind of scale because I need to focus on things more creatively,” she says. “I’m literally playing songs I made a year ago. I’m so sick of them.”
She’s anxious to record new music, but that’s impossible on tour; she can’t do it unless she’s alone in a room – and a hotel room won’t work. Still, there is time to direct music videos – she was working on the video for her song Genesis while on the road.
But there’s more touring ahead and eventually a much-anticipated next record, which could push her further into the mainstream.
Watching it all from Vancouver is Boucher’s mother, Sandy Garossino, a civically-engaged consultant/arts advocate/casino opponent who ran (unsuccessfully) for city council in the last election. Understandably elated by her daughter’s success, Garossino says other teenage outsiders can take heart from the rise of Grimes.
“This is a ‘It Gets Better’ story,” says Garossino, referring to Dan Savage’s online video project targeting bullied gay youth.
“This is the kid who couldn’t stand high school, was never in the in crowd, didn’t fit in, and thought school was hell,” she says. “It gets better. Look. This can happen to anybody, to all those kids. Believe in yourself and keep at it.”