Grimes: Hooded and booted

She's a shy former Catholic who likes to dress down. So how did she become this year's hippest music act? Holly Williams meets her

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The Independent Culture

Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, the 24-year-old Canadian behind one of this year’s most hyped records, has been on tour now for “a year”. She says this with a mix of pride and weariness, for it’s not over yet.

Grimes is a solo project, Boucher spinning her eerily, icily high gossamer vocals over layered beats and electronic hooks, creating a strange sonic confection that, while offering moments of accessible dance-pop, also has a witching-hour weirdness to it. Visions, her first album released on a major label, was feted by critics. She has also been courted by the fashion press, shooting a Dazed & Confused cover and appearing in Love. So far, so cool.

But when Boucher arrives at a north London pub, fresh from shooting for yet another fashion rag, it’s clear it’s a part of the job she’s ambivalent about. Turns out she’s not a fan of cameras. Indeed, she later claims she doesn’t even want to be a “public figure” and gets so nervous performing live she would never dare try anything new on stage: “I’m a very nervous, shy person.”

So perhaps the story of how Visions was created shouldn’t be too surprising. Boucher holed up, in a room, by herself, without natural light, for “twenty-something days” – only emerging when the album was complete.

“I had been reading a lot about the relationship in medieval Europe between music and Catholicism, and I really wanted to try this cloister idea,” she says. “It seemed like a lot of my favourite composers and artists from Renaissance and medieval periods were deeply religious, kind of crazy people who were isolated, undergoing fasting …. Removing all stimulation round you is a really positive thing in terms of stimulating your creativity.”

Boucher admits such self-imposed isolation “gets really dark sometimes”. She recalls delusions of grandeur followed by “incredible self-hatred” within an hour; pacing up and down listening to the loop from her song “Circumambient” on repeat for six hours …. “After two or three days of not speaking to anyone or seeing anyone or seeing daylight, you are certifiably insane,” she claims with a grin.

But then, Boucher describes many things in her life as “insane” or “crazy”. She moved from Vancouver to Montreal in 2006, to study philosophy and neuroscience at university (subjects which she feels are about “what is humanity, why does my life have meaning?”). She was kicked out for non-attendance after getting into music – almost inevitable, she suggests, when living in Montreal: “Literally all my friends were musicians.”

And something seriously clicked: “I just really, really liked [making music], more than anything I’d ever done. I was, like, addicted to it, I recorded thousands of songs.”

But while Montreal was inspiring, it was also an “intense” place. “When you have super-talented people who are very artistic they’re also kind of crazy… and I’m kind of crazy too,” she says. Pushed about what she means, she announces: “If I’d stayed in Montreal I’d just be a drug addict right now.”

Cloisters it was. But recording in such a self-punishing way also resulted in a great record. “It’s super-cathartic. If I’m upset, that’s when I write my hits,” says Boucher. This is evident on one of her best tracks, “Oblivion”: “When I started writing it I was in tears; by the time it was done I was like ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes!’” 

The quasi-religious purging isn’t exactly coincidental; Boucher was raised Catholic. “It totally influences everything I do,” she says. “I think I have serious latent Catholic guilt issues.” She recalls being terrified of an omnipotent God as a child, seeing the world as a “huge, crazy, extreme, psychedelic, constant battle going on between heaven and hell”. It’s a concept that her latest video, for “Genesis”, tries to recreate – by way of references as diverse as Kill Bill, Hieronymus Bosch paintings, and Japanese anime.

Boucher got over God by the age of eight. With dramatic timing, she announced her agnosticism at Easter dinner.

So, how have her family taken the whole fame whirl? Not well. Seems they thought she was a little “crazy” too.

She has been estranged from them, though they recently came to New York to see her perform and “it was resolved, to a degree”. So, what was it that freaked them out – the God rejection, the career change, the drugs? “All those things. They were, all of a sudden, being exposed to these things they didn’t know about me. I imagine [it was] embarrassing for them.”

A particular cringe may have been prompted by a range of rings that Boucher made, shaped like a vagina. Boucher is clearly aware of her status as a young female pop star, and of the sexualisation that that usually involves: “I think about that a lot. I really don’t like the way that women are generally portrayed. If I ever am playing with sexuality, I’m doing it in such a way that I want it also to be uncomfortable or confrontational.” Vagina-shaped jewellery pretty much fits the bill ….

She’s not so much a bra burner, as a bra refuser: “I would never wear a push-up bra  and I don’t have any problem looking weird or androgynous. In fact, I like that. I’m not good at being, like, a sexy girl.” How does that square with all the fashion shoots, then?

“It’s very complex,” she sighs. She takes issue with the incredibly narrow standard of beauty imposed by the fashion industry  despite, with her slim limbs and youthful looks, perfectly fitting it. Not that she ever thought of herself as pretty: “It was shitty, being a teenager and it just being like, ‘You are ugly, and since you’re a girl and your worth is entirely defined by how you look, you are worthless’.” That sucks. That’s not how a society should work,” she spits angrily.

But the aim is to change it from the inside: “I feel like a more powerful statement can be made by engaging with fashion magazines and culture, and subverting it.” And, just as directing her own videos and making her own art is important, so is creating an “iconography” through her style (“everything I do is part of this project – there’s no way for it not to be”).

Given that recent shoots have involved bleaching her eyebrows, cosying up to an albino python or, as for The Independent on Sunday, rocking a hoodie-meets-gothic-monk look, it seems likely the iconography of Grimes is going to remain – like everything else in her life – “kind of crazy”.

Grimes is playing at Bestival, Isle of Wight, today (0844 888 4410)