The Story Behind Nicole Dollanganger’s Sweet and Sinister Sound

an intimate conversation with the grimes protégé

by Noah Jackson

When Grimes announced that she’d created a label solely for the purpose of releasing Nicole Dollanganger’s debut album, music media’s resounding response was “Nicole who?” The Canadian singer-songwriter seemed to have emerged from nowhere, and her heart-rending debut single on Eerie Organization, “You’re So Cool” only further served to heighten the mystery. Who was the woman behind the seraphic voice and bruised lyrics? How could someone so sweet-sounding subsequently release a leather-heavy video for a song named "Angels of Porn"? For those in the know, however, Dollanganger’s been a rising star for years. With four self-released full-length albums and a handful of singles and EPs already under her belt, she’s attracted a devoted following on Tumblr, one whose most vocal members is the erstwhile Claire Boucher herself. We caught up with Dollanganger to find out the story behind her disturbing yet devastating sound.

How did you get into making music?

I’d always been interested in making music but I didn’t know how to play any instruments. One summer I was fuckin’ around with a guitar at home, and I thought I might as well try and record something. I did, and I put it on my blog, and people were really nice and receptive so it encouraged me to keep going. I just went from there.

Social media seems to play a huge role in your genesis as an artist.

I’d been using Tumblr for a year or two prior to making music, and that has always been the place I put everything. I think because I was already on Tumblr and it’s such a great site to meet people who are like-minded and make really great friends, I was sharing the music with people who were also interested in the same stuff. It was reaching an audience that would vibe with it, for the most part, and that gave me encouragement to keep going. Social media played a massive part.

Your personal aesthetic also seems very Tumblresque, from the thick eyebrows to the doll-like dresses.

With the eyebrows, that’s my grandma. She always told me the thicker the eyebrow and the higher up they go, the prettier they look. I’ve been doing that since high school. Fashion, style-wise, I got a lot of that from my grandma. I would see fashion blogs on Tumblr but it’s always been an intimidating world for me, so I’ve always struggled to get too into that.

On your previous EPs and on Natural Born Losers, there’s a contrast between the often unsettling lyrical themes and the sweetness of your voice and instrumentation. Does employing such a soft style help you deal with the horror of your lyrics?

Definitely, but I also realized early on that your voice is your voice and there’s a way I’m comfortable singing. I find it really hard to sing lower registers, so when I accepted where I was comfortable, I didn’t want to let it dictate what kind of songs I could make or what kind of things would inspire me. It was more of an organic thing. I love Type O Negative and Marilyn Manson—they’re two of my biggest inspirations. Peter Steele of Type O Negative is gigantic, like a killing machine, but he could be quite soft, and he walked that line between soft and hard. Marilyn Manson has done the same. Growing up in the Ontario hardcore community, I was just so mesmerized by bands from there too. I have horrible stage fright so when I saw these bands losing their shit onstage, I was completely stunned.

But you’re embarking on a huge North American tour this fall with Grimes! How will you handle the stage fright?

It’s still really bad. I get sick before I go onstage, I usually get sick after, but my backing band are my two best friends, Matt and Kevin. My first show with them was a few weeks ago, and even though I felt absolutely petrified, being up there with two people I love so much made me feel so much better, like we’re in this together.

You’ve released EPs inspired by the Columbine shooters and by Dawn Wiener, the bullied protagonist of Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse. What drew you to these marginalized characters?

I think with Columbine in particular, it’s not that I’m drawn to their characters as much as I’m interested in the way that narrative’s been presented and told to us. There’s a really strong narrative of how they were bullied and experienced horrible stuff in high school and how this terrible thing that they did was a result of that. While I do believe that they had rough high school experiences, I think most people have rough high school experiences, and I feel like it’s bizarre how they’ve been made into these likeable people. When I started researching, I was interested in the way that they were portrayed after their deaths. Their privilege, their being white, contributes to the way we look at Columbine. I was interested in exploring that further, and it came out in songwriting.

You also discuss white identity on the album with “White Trashing.”

Growing up in a really small town, a predominantly white town, one of the most common insults you’re gonna get thrown your way is that you’re white trash or trailer trash. I find that people who’ve grown up in small towns have this urgency they don’t even understand that tells them they have to get out. There’s this fear of boredom and wasting your life in a small town, and that song was a way of turning an insult into a good thing, because when you’re with people you really like it doesn’t matter where you are.

Were you aesthetically inspired by your hometown when filming the “Angels of Porn” video?

With the “Angels of Porn” video, I just had it in my head and I was really set on what it would look like. The friends I got to be in it, they all individually have pretty mean style, so they all came in their own clothing and their own element and I sort of just filmed them. I really like that exploration of soft and hard, of light and dark, so for the album cover I put my friend Kevin in that gimp mask but wearing my clothing. It was the same with “Angels of Porn”it was supposed to be pretty and gross, like mean but gentle. In everything I do I like that contrast and to explore the relationship between the two.

Finally, one of my favorite songs of yours is your ode to your pug. Are you going to bring him with you on tour?

Oh my god, so when I first got Fred, I told my friend I was naming him after Freddie Krueger, and he said not to do it because pets have a tendency to take on the names that you give them. I love Fred to death but he’s a sinister creature and if I took him on tour he would terrorize everybody. He’s sensitive, he’s fussy, he’s stubborn, and he’s difficult. It would be a nightmare!