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Self-Liberating: an interview with Grimes part 1

After the constant hype of 2012, the nonstop touring and the progressively larger shows, things have finally settled down again for Claire Boucher and her musical alter-ego Grimes. The sudden spotlight thrust upon her following her 4AD debut Visions has shone brightly, but also—from her perspective—glaringly. Now in the process of rediscovering her solitude in the dark forests of British Columbia, Boucher has managed to shrug off the creative restraints that have accompanied her unexpected indie popstar dasein and reenter the introverted world of production and songwriting to which she’s accustomed. Whether the result will be branching out further into the realm of ethereal, wallflower-pop or a percussive noise album (rumors abound), depends on what she finds in the woods. Or what finds her.


Claire, I heard you are seriously ill and had to cancel your European tour in November and December?

No, I am not seriously ill. But yes, I have problems with my ears. My doctor says if I’d be doing concerts right now, I’d risk serious and lasting hearing problems. Taking a break was an obvious decision.

Glad to hear it’s nothing too serious. We met once in the lobby of the Prague Hilton prior to your show at the Electronic Beats Festival. You seemed a bit like a fish out of water. The whole building felt like a fortress to protect the wealthy tourists or arms dealers or whoever was staying there from the people outside. And there you were with your punk haircut and tattoos.

I remember. Actually, I think that my Prague show was one of the best performances of that tour.

Don’t you sometimes wonder, “How the hell did I get here?” Not too long ago you were giving free concerts for your friends at La Brique or the Torn Curtain in Montreal—both simple, DIY venues.

Well, one thing’s for sure: at the moment, it’s hard for me to write songs for my new album. It’s not easy for me when I get to thinking about other people’s opinions and how they might comment on what I do. I have trouble thinking about fulfilling expectations. I’ve even started fake bands with no specific intention of doing anything with the result. But at least it’s allowed me to work somehow. The situation in Montreal at La Brique was different to how my life is now. For almost a year now, I’ve been on tour non-stop. There were people around me twenty-four-seven. Being able to write again requires me to really be detached from social life, I guess.

Did you write Visions in seclusion?

Yes. I often do my best work when I can be completely absorbed by it. It was the same thing in high school with math. It’s always been about losing myself and losing track of time. I remember meditating on a math problem for over four hours, and only snapping out of it when I had to go to the bathroom. Those were the times when I could really feel the progress. It’s always a good sign to realize that six hours just disappeared. To see how time dissolves can be a powerful experience, and it’s one I miss. Because it’s one thing to talk about stuff and it’s another to actually commit to doing it; to solve a math problem or make music. Not being too self-aware in the process is also really important.

So it’s in a trance-like state that you get your best results?

Probably, yeah.

In a recent interview with The Guardian you mentioned that you didn’t sleep, eat or meet people for nine days in order to gain a more intense connection to your subconscious, which made it easier for you to write the lyrics for your last album Visions. Would you call that a spiritual experience? 

I don’t know if I would call it spiritual. I’m not religious, even though I was raised in a religious household. I know a lot of younger people who just take some of the ceremonial aspects of religion and use them like some kind of backdrop. Especially when you look at the Canadian noise music scenes these days. They are very ceremonial, almost cult-like. You mentioned La Brique and the Torn Curtain in Montreal. In these places, when people would gather for a noise show, it would be for, like, seven hours. That can get pretty intense, you know? I guess these happenings serve as a substitute for a kind of religious experience they were missing otherwise.

A seven-hour show? That’s intense.

And don’t forget the temperatures in Montreal. It can get very, very cold in winter. Once you meet somewhere, you tend to stay there. Knowing that, musicians relate to it in a special way. It’s funny though, because the more successful I get, the less I find myself in places like that. There are a lot of spaces in Berlin like that too, right?

Absolutely. There are still some spaces that aren’t spoiled yet. But a lot of former artist-run spaces have become pretty commercial. Things have become more difficult in Berlin.

Berlin reminds me a lot of Montreal in a positive sense. Montreal is a pretty poor city, so its art and music scenes aren’t that big. Although with music it’s getting a lot bigger. I mean, Berlin isn’t rich, but its creative scene is so much bigger than Montreal’s. Both cities look back at a certain kind of DIY past that was formative in music history. We don’t have a club like the Berghain in Montreal, though. I mean, the Berghain seems so well organized behind the scenes. It’s pretty mind-blowing. I guess you could call it German efficiency.

How big a step is it from the small experimental set-up to the skillfully staged concerts this year?

Skillfully staged?

It’s a bold statement performing your live shows as a one-woman band together with dancers. Without a band to handle you were in total control of the music, whereas the dancers got the crowds going. It’s a simple but very effective set-up. 

First of all, there wasn’t much “staging” involved. I just contacted my friends in any given city and convinced them to dance live during my performance. The dancers weren’t choreographed—they were drunk. In Prague I had three dancers, at the Berghain maybe ten. It seemed like everybody wanted to come and dance. It sort of got out of hand but I think it was a good show nonetheless.

Apart from the fact that your dancers animate the crowd and provoke a reaction, they also come across as a kind of protection:  you’re not alone on stage. Do you find that more comforting?

I improvise a lot on stage. For instance, I record my voice while I sing and layer one voice recording on top of the other until I have a choir of sorts. And I do it on the spot. I sing, I sample, I arrange, I play. Having the dancers working the crowd relieves a lot of the pressure. It gives me the freedom to breathe and focus and dance. Having dancers onstage is good for my mental health. So, yes—they do help me feel comfortable. I mean, theoretically, I could perform the same music without them. But I doubt I could do it as easily. I probably couldn’t improvise that much if I felt uncomfortable.

Are the avant-garde or European improv scenes at all on your radar? People like Peter Brötzmann or Oren Ambarchi? 

Less so, but I’m aware of the history of improvisational music, and I have spent time listening to music like that in the past. Because what I play is improvised, it’s actually easier for me to perform somehow. It makes it harder for me to “screw up”, because I’m never destroying a carefully planned and rehearsed set. Nobody notices mistakes but me. Audiences assume it’s part of the show. But also the songs I perform live aren’t perfect replicas of the ones on record. All of my shows are different, to a certain extent. I mean, that should be the nature of any live performance by any performer, be it Madonna or be it some improvisational free jazz thing, no?

At a Madonna concert nothing is improvised.

Because she depends on a lot of other people, musical and otherwise. For me, playing alone is a luxury. If there were other musicians, it would certainly be much harder to keep that improvisational level up. With six people performing together on stage I couldn’t just change the set list just because I think it would make sense. But changing a set list could be essential when it comes to the dynamics of a live show if you ask me.


A slightly edited version of this interview appears in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Read part two of the interview tomorrow.

Photo: Luci Lux

Published January 03, 2013. Words by Max Dax.