She may regret coining the 'post-internet' term, but Montreal-based Claire Boucher's musical identity as Grimes has seen her become a poster child for that movement. Anthony Carew finds out how she found her destiny.
“I think the essence of life is adventure,” declares Claire Boucher. The 23-year-old Canadian has tried to cram a lot into her mere years; in 2009, she spent a month in rural Minnesota building a house raft, dreaming of sailing it down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in an adventure steeped in old-style Americana. But when the boat broke down not long after setting sail, she drifted downriver, and eventually found her craft seized by Minneapolis park police. Undeterred, she travelled to New Orleans on foot, hitching rides and spending a four-month-long stint “homeless and wandering”.
Once in New Orleans, Boucher eventually ended up in a squat with a group of artists. “It was then that I finally decided that I really wanted to make music, that I had to do it,” she says.
And making music has become Grimes' great adventure. In the two-and-a-half years since returning from her failed attempts at being a modern-day Tom Sawyer, Boucher has found her profile rising at a dizzying rate. Since settling down in Montréal – at the centre of a scene that includes acts amazing yet still-underexposed acts like Doldrums, d'Eon, Blue Hawaii, Mozart's Sister, Tops, and Sean Nicholas Savage – Grimes has turned out music at a furious rate, roping in an ever-growing audience thanks, in no small part, to her music's easily-accessible online place.
Her first two LPs, both issued in 2010, were made available for free download via Arbutus, a local record-label that runs almost like a co-op. They first introduced the Grimes sound, in which Boucher uses slippery synth sounds and rough-edged beats to build shadowy song-structures, then bathes them in wave after wave of her high, eerie, sinuous singing, which manages to sound under the influence of both ambient-looper Julianna Barwick and octave-straddling diva Mariah Carey.
Watch the video for Vanessa (2011).
In 2011, a split 12-inch with d'Eon and an eye-catching video for the song Vanessa pushed Grimes upon more eyeballs, and a cult following grew. She signed to UK indie heavyweights 4AD, and finished off her third album, Visions, which has just been released to considerable hype. Now she finds herself looming as 2012's indie 'it' girl, and tending to an ever-growing artistic identity she happily refers to as a 'brand'.
“When I first started making music, I didn't care, or think about things that much,” Boucher recalls. “As Grimes became more of a thing, I realised that I did have the power to create this musical identity like that. Then I started hanging out, in Montréal, with people like Doldrums, and they think about and talk about that stuff so much; about music-as-branding, about indie-pop stardom, about creating this super-maximalist over-exposed idea of what art is, and what their art is. That was a dialogue they were really into having: the future as indie-branding, taking this concept of celebrity and doing it from the bottom up. Having this celebrity, this identity that exists from the very beginning and never wavers. I'm really interested in the idea of these people who are huge celebrities, but no one even knows who they fuck they are. It's this incredibly postmodern way of approaching the idea of being a musician.”
And Boucher's music is suitably postmodern. Its strikingly-individual sound has no real antecedents; it's the product of a child of the file sharing generation, who came of age with the entire history of music accessible, at their fingertips. In an interview with Interview, Boucher coined the term 'post-internet' to describe it; the label eventually sticking, and becoming its own internet meme.
“It's just a stupid term that I unfortunately made up,” Boucher says, of the post-internet stickering. “But the concept isn't stupid, it's a phenomenon that just totally exists. Because the internet exists. It's all around us on a daily basis, and it's totally informed the way people live their lives, the way they consume music, and the way that they interpret it, both as listeners and artists.”
“It's hard to say whether that's good or bad, either; it's probably a lot of both,” Boucher continues. “I think the implications are huge, though; we're a totally different species because of the internet. The way that people interact with each other in the world is so different. The way that all things are consumed, the way that all culture is consumed. It's been very liberating for artists, obviously. People can promote themselves, and it's allowed a lot of independent things to grow; you don't need a lot of money to get people to notice you these days. That's a hugely positive thing. But the negative side is, yeah, people never going outside, spending all that time at a computer. I think in the end, it all ends up neutral, no matter how positive or negative some things might seem. If we all die of cancer from having spent our days sitting in front of radiating computers, maybe that's actually not a bad thing for the species? At the end of the day, 'good' and 'bad' don't really stick. Things just happen, it's just evolution.”
Evolution is, curiously enough, something Grimes thinks about plenty. Having grown up in Vancouver, she first came to Montréal to attend McGill University, where she studied neuroscience. And, in turn, music. “The thing that really interested me at McGill – where they have an amazing neuroscience program – is studying music and neuroscience; basically trying to discern how waves of air can create an electrical impulse that can turn into an emotional response,” Boucher offers. “Music is such an anomalous art form, it doesn't make sense in some ways; there's no obvious sensory thing to respond to. Painting, there's something physically, literally there for you to see; cinema or literature is always appealing to this very direct emotion. But music feels super-abstract in comparison; it's actually just in the air. Yet, somehow, it's the most directly responsive of all the art forms. These are things that I still think about, that have really captivated me.”
“I like the idea of how pop music functions by taking these basic evolutionary facts about humans and just exploiting them. People love sex, people love bass, probably because it mirrors the heartbeat. So you take these things that go back a long way, deep in our evolutionary core, and then turn that into, like, Britney Spears. I find that so fascinating!”
Watch a 2011 live performance of Genesis (as featured on Visions).
Boucher may have no chance of turning into some Britney-esque celebrity, but there's no reason she couldn't be as successful as, say, Animal Collective; the patron saints of the 'post-internet' phenomenon. If a band that singular and strange can slowly grow to be festival mainstays and solid commercial concern, then Boucher must be a chance, right? The two in-advance singles for Visions, Oblivion and Genesis, may've not resembled pop music by any traditional measure, but for the internet's brave-new-world of readily-accessible sound – and for the post-internet practitioners it has spawned – they were plenty persuasive. Not that Boucher is convinced. “The success doesn't make sense to me,” she says. “I feel like Grimes is weird music, it's not even remotely popular. But I like playing shows.”
Well, these days she does. But thrown into the fire as a solo performer, delivering home-made, computer-assembled music never conceived as a live performance, Boucher had to struggle to become a performer, all whilst dealing with her own neuroses.
“It was really hard at first,” Boucher offers. “It's definitely intimidating, but it's definitely something that I'm starting to feel good about. It's like a type of power that I've never really had. It feels good to be in control. At first it was really hard for me, really psychologically difficult. But now it's becoming this thing where it's super-empowering. It's given me so much confidence, it's so much easier for me, now, to just relate to other people, just be around them. Nothing to me is scarier than being on stage. So having to do that night after night, nothing is worse than that. It's the scariest possible thing! It's been really good for me, literally just confronting your fear and then doing it all the time.”
Performing night after night, Boucher's great adventure has rolled on, a non-stop touring schedule on the slate for 2012. “It's awful and it's great playing shows every night, but this is a pretty amazing thing to be doing with your life,” Boucher beams. She's just toured Europe for the first time, and has plans to hit Australia before the year is out. Every night she meets new people, and every night she's encouraged by how much love she receives for simply doing what she does.
“[Performing] has definitely been a lot easier since I've, like, gotten fans,” Boucher laughs. “At first, it was just people who were at the show. You're an opening act, they expect you to suck; you're fighting against that, it's really difficult. Now, when I play, there's not that need to prove that you don't suck.”