Claire Boucher, 27, otherwise known as electro-pop star Grimes, is legit nervous that we’re not going to get into PDT, one of the East Village’s numerous speakeasy-themed bars, entered through a phone booth in a hot dog joint. Crammed inside the booth, she panics. “Shit, I hope I have ID,” she says, rummaging through a messy cross-body bag, pulling out loose licenses—one from Vancouver, where she was born and raised, another from Los Angeles, where she’s spent the past year working on a follow-up to Visions (her 2012 breakout album), the anticipation for which is palpable. “Is it past March? What year is it? Have we passed March 2015?”
We have. Her knees shake as she waits for the secret door to open, gripping two expired IDs and several baller-status credit cards to corroborate her identity, a fitting juxtaposition for an artist formed in the scrappy, DIY warehouse spaces of Montreal’s Mile End section, canonized on legendary indie label 4AD, and then made fodder for Illuminati conspiracists upon hooking up with Roc Nation’s management team two years ago.
One can’t necessarily blame the girl for not having a spare minute to spend in line at the DMV. After closing out the Endless Summer Tour with Lana Del Rey this past June, she jumped right back into recording mode. Her main reason for being in New York City, in fact, is to complete one of the last pieces of that puzzle: “Tomorrow, I’m going to an unspecified location to record an unspecified artist—I’ve been lugging around a really giant, really expensive microphone everywhere, upsetting all the airport security.” She’s hush-hush on the name of her vocal muse, who’s slated to sing one of two “producer tracks” on her new album (the title of which is also a secret). She’s not being coy; it’s just that the last person she was hoping to work with got sick, and she doesn’t want to jinx this session.
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Aside from all that, though, hanging out at clubs that require proof of age isn’t really Boucher’s cup of tea. “In Canada, everyone just goes to illegal venues,” she says. “Liquor is taxed, and to actually go to a bar is so outrageously expensive that no one—at least no one I know—would go. I’ve probably been once in my life.” Make that twice: The hostess finally ushers us inside, but not without a lecture on what constitutes proper identification and what doesn’t. Most likely, we’re vouched for by our server, who waits until dropping off the check to mention that she’s friends with one of Grimes’s stage dancers, but still the irony of such a teetotalian adherence to New York State’s liquor laws is not lost considering the establishment’s entire premise.
It’s also a bit unusual that we’re here in the first place, conducting a cover interview for NYLON’s annual It Girl issue, at least according to the traditional understanding of who might wear such a mantle, i.e., a stylish somebody with a certain je ne sais quoi, famous for being famous. The girl seated across from me in a slept-in Ms. Marvel tank top, home-dyed hair, and face glitter is more studio rat than gal-about-town, but riddle me this: Could it be that the less she bothers, the more fascinating she becomes? Either way, whenever she does happen to step away from Ableton, all eyes are on her. Exhibit A: the black, red, and marble Dior ring she’s currently twisting around her pointer finger, a gift from the storied luxury brand that’s presenting the Guggenheim International Gala this November, where Grimes is scheduled to perform. Or consider the 2013 Vogue Voices video in which Donatella Versace gushed, “Right now I listen to the Grimes…a lot”—a clip that was promptly GIF’d and posted on the musician’s Tumblr. That same year, Chanel dressed her for the Met Gala. After a photo shoot, Karl Lagerfeld sent her roses. “I put them in my hair, and he didn’t seem stoked about it. He was like, ‘Well, that’s fresh!’ I was like, ‘Oh no!’” she says, laughing.
Boucher smiles upon hearing that she might be the most unconventional It Girl ever, unconcerned by, or more likely unaware of, the sometimes negative connotations associated with the term. In fact, she seems pretty stoked about most things, even the scent of our cab earlier today—“It smells really good in here; I love chemical vanilla!” she said as we sped off toward New York’s Museum of the American Gangster. A tour of an authentic, Prohibition-era watering hole, complete with a helmets-required stroll through its black-powder-bomb-rigged basement, prompted our visit to PDT.
But today’s itinerary was no accident. “I’m having a mobster moment,” she admits, sipping an Aperol spritz, which she ordered after learning the beer taps weren’t running. “I’ve always been into crime, but I just finished Boardwalk [Empire] and rewatched all the Godfather [movies] and I’m deep into True Detective, so I’m just exceptionally into crime right now. There are so many art movements around gangs. I love the idea of aestheticizing anything. And the system runs well, with the mob boss and the consigliere, and everyone understanding their roles and society functioning properly.” She laughs nervously, as she does often after realizing how the things that spill freely from her brain might be misconstrued, but it’s clear she’s drawing from a deep well of sincerity. “I guess if you’re killing people, it doesn’t function properly…. I’m trying to justify this on moral grounds, and I don’t know if I can. But it’s still very interesting to me.”
Similar to how an obsession with Dune fueled her debut studio album, 2010’s Geidi Primes, and a deep investigation into the 12th-century polymath Hildegard of Bingen inspired Visions, Grimes’s current “mob mentality” has imbued a boss-like swagger to the tracks on her newest release—or at least the four she was willing to share a few hours prior via headphones. There’s “Laughing and Not Being Normal,” a mostly instrumental overture that builds to a soprano climax with major Phantom of the Opera vibes; “Flesh Without Blood,” a dark yet up-tempo dance-pop number with handclaps and flashes of ’80s teen-movie ecstasy; “California,” a sun-soaked track of bassy, twangy bliss that evokes images of kids playing double Dutch near an opened fire hydrant contrasted by lyrics that exhale a sad acquiescence; and “Scream,” the second of the “producer tracks” (and the only one confirmed as of this writing), which features rhymes by Taiwanese underground rapper Aristophanes, punctuated by Grimes’s Yoko Ono-esque moans. Each song is a departure from the last, but also from anything Grimes—or any other musician for that matter—has done before. But unlike her 2014 track “Go,” which signaled a move toward chart-pop territory, she has somehow managed to create undeniable hits that are unlikely to alienate her core fans.
“I was just trying to make stuff I hadn’t heard before, but that was still satisfying,” she explains. “On my other albums, I was really learning how to make music—they weren’t so much albums as just literally the stuff I was making as I was learning how to make music. And this time around, I just wanted to hone my craft.” Before Visions, she considered music a hobby, but in the years since, after touring and playing festivals, she’s learned a lot—how to feel comfortable in her own skin and how to write intentional lyrics and compose every note.
She’s also learned how to play and write on guitar: “That really just changed everything. On keys, I was developing muscle memory, whereas guitar is this whole new world for me. It’s completely changed my melodic palette.” She picked up one of her stepdad’s vintage guitars on a whim about a year ago—“It’s a neat fucking privilege to learn how to play guitar on a 1965 Les Paul,” she says—and was immediately hooked. “Like, I’ve never jammed before, but sometimes when I play guitar, I just like to jam,” she says with a laugh. “That probably sounds so bro-y, but it really reignited my love of music.” Around that time, she’d been touring for about three years. “I was exhausted, really dead, just kind of hating music and feeling like I’d been working with the same tools for a long time,” she says. “I was hanging out with all of these producers, and everyone was trying to tell me the ‘right’ way to play electronic music. No one I knew played guitar, and it became this thing that none of my friends knew better than me. No one could tell me I was doing it wrong.” Many songs on the new album include the instrument, and how that will translate to her stage show is still being worked out: “This could be difficult, but I think I’ll start a guitar loop and integrate it with a premade loop so they keep playing on top of each other,” she says. “That way, if I fuck it up, I can’t fuck it up that bad.”
A musician learning how to play guitar is far from novel, but considering the Grimes narrative so far—coming up via the Internet and exploding in a cloud of sparkly GIF pixel dust—it feels fresh as fuck. Then again, as a person, Boucher has always been grounded in analog reality, whether she’s railing against the environmental damage associated with our society’s bottled water addiction or Instagramming a blood stain artfully interacting with the pattern of an upholstered chair. Likewise, her music successfully melds biology and technology. Part of the reason her early work made such an impact was that it was hard to tell whether it was created by an ancient civilization or some alien species several eons from now. “I’m really into pre-Renaissance music,” she says. “I also like combining that with modern sounds.” It’s a trick she learned from sci-fi: “The best science fiction references the idea of cultures from different time periods colliding, like what happens when all this technology is ripped out, like when Genghis Khan came in and destroyed all this stuff that had been invented, like aqueducts, and sent everyone back to the Stone Age. What would it have been like to be that generation?”
Boucher riffs like a cool history professor trying to engage a kid with Wi-Fi-induced ADHD by winking at how the past informs the future. Raised in the online era herself, she’s made a point to control the amount of information coming in. “I don’t listen to the radio, and I block most websites so I only see stuff that I care about,” she says. “It’s fine to watch pop culture from the outside, but I think it’s very important to not submit to it. I very specifically curate the things I consume. I don’t want to become disillusioned.” She laments how some of her peers are encouraging an all-out ditching of the canon. “There’s this idea now that young people are the answer,” she says. “It’s definitely good to question how things used to be, but we shouldn’t just throw it all away. It leads to a lot of repetition and people not even realizing they’re repeating, as opposed to building on something that exists and making something new.” It’s a fitting, er, analog to the new Grimes record: “A lot of it is inspired by the rock music my parents listened to in my house growing up, but that I was too cool for at the time, like Bowie. I just got so into Janis Joplin. I was never into her before, but she’s the fucking shit. I can’t even believe that I didn’t think that was cool.”
Growing up in British Columbia with two biological brothers and two stepbrothers made her “more able to put up with bullshit,” she jokes, but she does sometimes wish she had a sister. “I’m just learning about makeup now—that’s been a huge trial, playing shows and seeing all these terrible pictures of myself,” she says. Overall, though, growing up with boys was a blessing. “I was, like, two years into producing before it crossed my mind that what I was doing was not typical for a girl,” she says. “I was so used to being around guys that it felt normal. But after a point, I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m the only girl I know who’s doing this. Maybe that’s kinda weird.’ But even just the touring environment, of having to pee into a bottle in a moving vehicle—that sort of thing is less foreign to you when you’ve grown up with four brothers.” These days she tours in a cushy bus, complete with a restroom, but, yes, Grimes knows how to pee into a bottle. “I can aim really well,” she boasts. “But the first second is always a bit hazardous….”
As a teen, Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson fandom transitioned into a love of the underground punk scene emerging in the lofts near McGill University where she was studying neuroscience and philosophy with a double minor in Russian and electroacoustics. She began playing around with recording software, but didn’t perform much until her third release, a split EP with d’Eon—a fact the hair chameleon recalls based on her coiffure at the time of her first official show in a legal space for more than 20 people: a dark brown long bob from the “Vanessa” video era. “I’d gotten that far without having to think about performing,” she says. “So for my first live show, it was just weirder to have a pop thing, because I was playing mostly noise shows. I wasn’t thinking about interfacing with pop culture or talking with NYLON—it was more like, ‘I’ll stress out this punk band by wearing a dress.’”
Jane Abernethy of 4AD’s A&R division kicked herself the first time she saw Grimes perform because she figured she must have missed the chance to work with her. “It felt like no one around her had twigged—they thought Grimes was another underground artist,” she says. Eventually her weird take on popular music caught on, and Visions, a co-release between Arbutus Records (in Canada) and 4AD (for the rest of the world), turned Grimes’s pop persona into a full-fledged pop star. She stuck around Montreal for a minute, but it soon became clear that she had outgrown the city she loved. “I have some friends there still, but I also have a lot of enemies,” she says. “It’s tricky, all of this ‘Grimes sold out’ stuff. I’m just over it and don’t want to interact with it. But I really miss Montreal. If I could live there, in a politically neutral way, without having to explain myself constantly, then I probably would.”
She used the advance for her new record to build a portable home studio, which has traveled between L.A., Vancouver, and Squamish, a small town in B.C. where she spent about eight months last year, writing and figuring shit out. “When Grimes started blowing up, I just couldn’t handle it,” she says. “There was just all this fake shit, all this noise. I didn’t want to go insane or become one of those people who close up and then say crazy shit on Twitter and sabotage their career before it even starts.” She was desperate to follow Visions with something even better, but was stifled by all the outside voices telling her she had to capitalize on the hype and put a new album out right away. “I just had to get away, and I’m familiar with Squamish, the air is good,” she says. “It’s really ominous and scary in a good way—when I look at the mountains, I always feel it.” She recorded “Realiti,” a so-called demo that has more than 5.5 million views on YouTube, in Squamish, but only a few fragments of songs from that time will appear on the new record. “Basically I had all this stuff on my computer, and it felt like baggage,” she says. “I just wanted to put it on a hard drive and start again. It wasn’t like, ‘I am going to scrap this album!’” she says in a mock declarative tone. “It was more just like, ‘I have 700 gigs of music here, and I feel like I can’t get away from it.’ There are all these songs that I could have finished, but I just wanted to start fresh.”
Turns out, the mythologized “scrapped album” was just the artist needing to get some stuff out of her system. “It’s growing-pains music,” she says. “It’s from the middle time. I don’t think Geidi Primes and Visions and all that is bad music, but the bigger it gets, the more pressure there is, and now I have this big machine behind me, and I don’t want to throw that on music I’m not fully happy with.” But worry not, Grimes completists: “When I retire, I’ll just put it all out there—it’s not like it’s gone forever.”
All was going well until a few months ago, when her booking agent called with an offer she couldn’t refuse. “I was like, ‘I need to work on the album, I refuse to tour!’ but it was with Lana Del Rey. I was like, ‘Fuck! This is the worst timing.’ And then I was like, ‘I will begrudgingly accept this tour because if I say no I will never forgive myself.’” Grimes calls Del Rey “one of the greatest American artists of all time.” She appreciates the weird, subtle, complex, and intelligent qualities of her music, and that she’s such a “strong author” and “so present” in all of it. She’s also an artist Boucher wishes was around when she was a teen. “Being on the tour and seeing all these kids with eyeliner and green hair, and they’re like 15 and smoking, I’m like, ‘I was you.’ Getting to open for someone who speaks to that audience so well was just really special, maybe like what it must have felt like when Trent Reznor asked Manson to tour with him, just a really fun feeling. I went out in the audience and everyone was crying, and I just started crying.”
The process of working on a second album for 4AD has heightened Grimes’s audience awareness as well. “When I made art for nobody, it was really special, and a lot of times I wish I could have that back,” she says. “But at the same time, there’s something really cool about your art being inherently tied to an audience. It’s one of the reasons why so many of the great artists hit their peak several albums in. I mean, the last Beyoncé album was definitely the best Beyoncé album. And that’s an album that was meant to engage with and push her audience.”
The same can be said about Grimes’s latest. “Her music is original and emblematic of our time,” says Abernethy. “It’s created in a period where we have limitless access to information and subcultures, and is coming from the perspective of someone who is fascinating and contradictory; she’s scientific and artistic, introspective and outgoing.”
Grimes would also like to point out that No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom took three years to make and Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile came five years after The Downward Spiral. “All my favorite albums took a long time, so I don’t feel that bad about it,” she says, stirring a now-watered-down cocktail that she’s been nursing for over an hour. “The thing about being a musician is that there are hella downs, like sometimes something goes bad, and 20,000 people see it go bad, but when it’s good, it’s a real high. Earlier today, I was going through the singles with my management, and I was like, ‘Man, we have so many fucking singles.’” She takes a sip, aglow with candlelight and an ever so slight Aperol buzz—the essence of “It”—then adds, “The album I just made, I love it. And I’ve never felt that before.”