Grimes Free to Fly

Grimes Free to Fly
Photo by Michael Avedon
For the last three years, a new album by Vancouver born-and-bred producer/artist Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) has been included in every "most anticipated albums of the year" list published. Finally, with the release of Art Angels, that tradition should end in 2015. Following up her career-making breakthrough album, 2012's Visions, Grimes could have ended all of that anticipation last year, but she just wasn't satisfied with the results.
"I could've put out an album a year ago, but it wouldn't have been the one I wanted to make," says Boucher. "I felt I could've done better. And then there was all of this pressure. Everyone was reminding me of the hype and saying, 'Don't fall for it!' So I just took my time and tried not to worry about it. I tried to make it really, really good."
Boucher had every reason to try harder. This time around, she has the whole world watching her. Back in February 2012, Grimes was a little known underground artist living in Montreal, newly signed to legendary indie label 4AD. With two albums and a split EP released via Arbutus Records (which released Visions in Canada), Boucher curbed any expectations she had for the album. "With Visions, I signed with 4AD after it was done. I made the record sure that not even 200 people would hear it."
Once released, however, Visions needed very little time to establish Grimes as one of independent music's brightest new stars. Amongst all of the glowing reviews and year-end list dominance, the album was also shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and won Electronic Album of the Year at the 2013 Juno Awards. Over the next three years, Grimes would become ubiquitous in popular culture, appearing on countless magazine covers, co-hosting the MTV VMA red carpet, attending the Met Gala, modeling for Alexander Wang and touring with both Lana Del Rey and Skrillex. Boucher knows the expectations for Art Angels have intensified.
"This is definitely the first record where I knew that a lot of people might hear it," she says. "At this point, there is the weird pressure knowing that you employ people. We have a record that is properly mixed and mastered, so there is a lot more on the line in a way because we're investing more in it. It's one of those things that makes me want to do a better job. If people are going to pay ten bucks for this, it has to be really fucking good."
Feel free to part with that last ten bucks in your wallet, because I can assure you that Art Angels is "really fucking good." Grimes has entered a new chapter with her fourth album. Whereas Visions benefitted from her attempt to write pop singles using wide-eyed ambition and humble production, this album finds her working with a whole new spectrum of styles that demonstrate the confidence and proficiency she has gained over the last three years.
"Honestly, my first three albums were normally, for musicians, something most people wouldn't hear," Boucher admits. "I think there is some beauty to the naïveté, but they are an example of someone trying to become a professional. I was hoping to take it to the next level with regards to skill and creativity. I didn't want to put out this record until I felt like I could walk into a room with any producer and have them respect me as an equal. With each record I try and do something different, and with this one I wanted people to listen to it and say, 'Whoa, she totally improved her craft.' I think that was really important. It's like The Downward Spiral compared to Pretty Hate Machine. It's so incredible to be a fan of an artist that can take these huge creative leaps."
Boucher would be far too modest to accept a comparison to Nine Inch Nails, but her development as a producer, songwriter and lyricist — even her artistic vision — is as obvious as Reznor's was with his second album. She even took cues from Reznor, as well as other alternative rock favourites like Marilyn Manson and Smashing Pumpkins, by incorporating the guitar, which she had to learn to play. The instrument provides the driving force behind some songs, notably aggressive bangers like "Flesh Without Blood" and "Kill V Maim," and the sun-kissed "California."
"I wanted to shake it up a bit," she explains. "I didn't want to make another synth-pop record. But it was more about hanging out at my stepdad's house where he has all of these guitars, and I was trying to learn how to play watching YouTube tutorials. It was pretty fun, and musically and melodically it gave me a whole new realm of possibilities. There are lots of songs without guitar, but I was more excited by the songs with them. It felt more like a new world, which is why a lot of those made the new record."
Art Angels seems destined to make Grimes the pop star she nearly became on the back of the "amateurish" Visions. It's big, bold and brimming with anthems designed for a mainstream that has opened its arms to fellow misfits like Lana Del Rey and Lorde. And with Jay Z's Roc Nation managing her career, it seems like the only person who can possibly interfere is perhaps Boucher herself.
"Just because there are hooks and music videos doesn't mean it has anything to do with the Top 40 or anything like that," she says. "I believe very strongly in creative freedom and doing what I want. That's my number one priority. If I was on a major label and the record totally failed, it would be a huge fucking disaster. I just feel very strongly about being independent. And Roc Nation is great because I don't have to figure out my visas and it lets me streamline and focus on art. Everyone says I am [a pop star] all the time. But I'm an independent artist on an independent label. I just don't think Grimes is a pop star."