'It's not pop music'
Grimes returns with new record Art Angels and takes on society's gendered expectations of female artists
It's raining in Seattle but Grimes doesn't mind waiting around in the parking lot of the Showbox, pre-sound check. Living in Los Angeles now, the Vancouver born-and-raised DIY electro-music phenom misses the rain once so familiar up the coast. (And yes, the politically vocal expat-for-now was able to vote remotely and is giddy with the results. "It's so amazing to wake up and Harper isn't the Prime Minister.")
It's early in her tour, her much-anticipated album has not yet been released, the critics have been speculating madly over what's to come based on the tracks that have trickled out and Grimes – Claire Boucher – is eager for everyone to hear it.
"For me, this is my favourite album," says Grimes, 27. "I really want to get it out. I just want to, like, have people know what my updated production sounds like and just get all these songs off my chest."
Art Angels is Grimes's first album since 2012's Visions, a masterwork that won her a whack of mainstream fans, critical accolades (the Guardian ranked it second in its list of best albums of that year) and millions of YouTube hits. The video for Oblivion, shot clandestinely (for $3,000) during football and motocross events in Montreal, has more than 19 million views. Last year, Pitchfork called it the best song of the decade so far. Written after an assault, the song – with its refrain "see you on a dark night" – feels like a joyful contradiction when performed live, as the ecstatic room swells and erupts when Grimes hits those familiar opening notes.
"It's kind of cathartic," she says. "At this point I'm very abstracted from all of that stuff, I think. When you can take something bad and turn it into something, like, really great that people really like, it's probably the best way to deal with it."
Based on her first tour date – a homecoming show in Vancouver – Grimes, who relocated from Montreal to California in September, 2014, (and suggests her next home might be Toronto) has elevated her live show. Still authentic but more confident and theatrical than her tentative 2012 self – and supported onstage by a couple of kick-ass dancers – Grimes ventured out in front of her keyboards often, thrilling the quirky, thrumming crowd at the Commodore Ballroom – despite the fact she still finds the live-performance aspect of her job nerve-wracking and kind of strange.
"If a show didn't involve singing live, I'd probably love it," she says.
I ask, "Is it at all fun?"
"It's like working out or something. It's not, like, not fun. It feels very self-absorbed to put on a show. That aspect of it always makes me feel very weird – assuming that people would want to see you on a stage or something," says Grimes – who sported lavender hair, a loose T-shirt, a short plaid skirt and a tall walking boot (torn ATFL, chipped bone – which she keeps reinjuring) at the Commodore.
"It's a lot easier," she says, of performing. "I don't weep … any more."
With the release of Art Angels – her first under the management of Jay Z's Roc Nation, Grimes is facing high expectations from ravenous fans and enraptured media (the New Yorker, for instance, recently published a major profile, titled Pop for Misfits). Based on the few tracks made available to me at the time of this writing, the album is all over the place in the best of ways – bold, energetic, exceptional – teaming Grimes's mad production skills with her sweet-like-candy voice. With all of that genius poured into rousing, complex tracks like the ones I heard – gorgeous, freaky, self-directed videos to go with them – and all of that increasingly mainstream interest (from fans to fashion designers), Grimes appears to be on the edge of something huge.
But she also appears to be on edge.
A few minutes after our interview – a too-brief telephone conversation rather than the in-person sit-down first discussed – I received a call from a publicist distressed about the direction it took. The publicist had not been listening in, but she relayed a concern that there had been a lot of questions about Grimes wanting to be a pop star.
Now this took me by surprise. Because I, in fact, had not asked Grimes a single question about wanting to be a pop star. Why would I? I don't think she wants to be a pop star. (Some time after explaining this to the publicist, I received an apologetic e-mail suggesting there had been a miscommunication.)
To be certain, after transcribing the interview, I searched the document for "pop star." I used the term once, when quoting a tweet she herself sent in September:
endless speculation abt whether grimes will be a popstar seems 2 disregard the fact that I'm a paranoid recluse & i can't even walk in heels— grimes (@Grimezsz) September 26, 2015
I was in fact asking about the paranoid recluse part, but Grimes went on a tear about the pop-star mention.
"I think there's an aspect of pretty much every interview I've gone into over the last year; they're like, 'So are you going to be a pop star?' And I'm like, 'No, I'm making this record by myself. I'm on an independent label, this is independent music; most of this record is, like, industrial and, like, screamo. It's not pop music. … And the headline the next day is, like, 'Grimes wants to be a pop star.' And it's just … like you guys wrote these stories before you ever talked to me. It's like there's a media narrative that is really intense and really, really inaccurate, that no matter how many times I say the opposite … just gets more and more powerful. And I'm just really fed up with it. It just really sucks to have the media constantly painting you as something that is so incredibly far away from, like, what you are."
Fair enough. I get that it must be brutal to read a profile of yourself that doesn't resemble who you are, I respond. So what kind of insight can you give me in the few minutes we have left?
"I'm a producer. I'm a musician. It's just not all female musicians are pop stars. A pop star is a very specific thing. You can listen to my music and look at my work; I think it speaks for itself. It's not necessarily super-palatable," she offers. "It's hard to say what it is but I can say what it isn't, which I've been, like, basically screaming at the top of my lungs for the last two years, is that I'm not trying to make a top-40 record."
I never said she was – although I did ask about her widely publicized visit to songwriting boot camp, which she did not want to discuss because she said people had taken this news the wrong way. When I ask if she wants to correct the record, she says, "I'm not interested in making top-40 music; I'm not trying to get on the radio. … I did one thing that basically consisted of three days … almost two years ago now. It is a blip in my life that has been really overexaggerated by the media, and I regret ever mentioning it."
She also plays down – denies – having made an album in between Visions and Art Angels – pointing a finger at Pitchfork for getting excited and making "stories out of nothing. Every artist has tons of songs that they don't release, but I stupidly said that in public," she says. Last year, the New York Times quoted her as saying the in-between album she was working on "sucked" and as a result she "threw it out and started again."
When I suggest that perhaps rocketing interest might be what's leading music writers to believe she aspires to a pop career (pop, after all, comes from popular), she rejects that theory.
"I think it's really just about the fact that I'm a female. Then it's like, oh, it must be a sell-out, it must be pop," she says. "If you look at men who do similar things, the narrative doesn't run the way it runs with me."
That sounds like a valid concern. So I follow up: Is there still a lot of sexism in the industry?
Grimes won't answer. She has to go to sound check, she says. When I press, she says she doesn't want to get into that – too political and the media has already been all over comments she's made in that regard. She ends her refusal to engage politely – "if that's okay," she says.
Grimes plays Métropolis in Montreal Nov. 21 and the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto Nov. 22.