Grimes | Who Knew World-Building Would Be So Difficult?
You can hear it, can’t you? The pulsing, panning synth bass, ingenious and instantly memorable. A gossamer coo, almost a sigh. And then a voice in an unusually high register singing lyrics full of menace, at odds with a calculated syrupy-sweet, faux-naive intonation: I never walk about after dark / It’s my point of view / If someone could break your neck / Coming up behind you always coming and you’d never have a clue.
Seven years later, its power remains unmitigated. “Oblivion” turned horror into art, and, while drawn from a personal, particular experience, it spoke to a universal pain, a sense of predation and vulnerability all too familiar for women. Most importantly, it is a defiant act of resistance, a steadfast insistence on Grimes’ ownership of her own experience, and a refusal to be silenced. Pitchfork named it the best song of the decade so far. NPR named it one of the “greatest songs by 21st Century women.” Grimes was suddenly a cultural touchstone, a feminist symbol, a cherished member of the resistance. Everyone was watching.
They still are. Look at the Twitter fusillades, the talmudic readings of even the most flippant utterance, the team-joining. Feuds! With contemporaries, the media, her label. Gossip! A storm of it, following her spacetime-warping appearance with Elon Musk on the Met Gala red-carpet. And to hear Grimes tell it, being caught up in all this has been excruciating. She’s said that 2018 was one of the hardest years she’s endured.
When we speak, Grimes is in flux—emotionally, artistically, career-wise. But that’s nothing new. If I was to describe her with one word, I think it would be '“mercurial.” Or “protean.” She never stands still, never settles. She feels less like one person than like a collection of occasionally-combative creative spirits inhabiting one body. Hence the wide cast of characters in her albums, the fashion experiments, the accretion disk of material spanning mediums and genres. As I was writing this article we got word that she has changed her name—to c [lowercase italic], rather than Claire Boucher, and that the Grimes identity she’s built up over the course of her career could be next to go. For a journalist, she’s a tough subject: not only is she encyclopedic in conversation, but by the time you finish your draft, half of what you’ve written may no longer be true. While this capriciousness is a powerful creative resource, it can also make things difficult. She is a hell of a lot of fun to talk to, though—a whirlwind of ideas, opinions, wisecracks, and puckish self-deprecation.
I was given four tracks from the new album to prepare. But when I bring up the first, the disarmingly raw, strange, and lovely “Shall I Compare Thee,” she laughs. “I hate all these songs now. I might even replace them all. I’m supposed to be finishing the album this month or whatever, but I’ve been making a shit ton of new music instead. Which is a really bad idea.” She sighs, thinks for a moment. “But I’ll probably put out the songs that I said I’ll put out.” I tell her that her fans would surely appreciate seeing what she’s been working on. “Maybe, maybe not,” she replies, grinning. “I think the fans want me to stop making metal, nu-metal. Which I will! I have, I have stopped making metal!” Meanwhile, she’s dropping demos for an augmented reality side project under the moniker “Dark,” scribbling away on a novel, and thinking about a suite of “hymns, like glossolalia vocal music,” but which she “probably won’t release as ‘Grimes,’” as she explains it. She has changed her artistic approach, and is intent on unshackling her creative impulses. “I read a book on speed painting, about how you just lay it down and become satisfied with it. So I’m trying to do a bunch of stuff like that right now. It does feel better, because it just contains more life,” she explains. “Shall I Compare Thee” embodies this speed-painting creative methodology: DIY production, recorded in “like, two hours.” But the other single from the album, “We Appreciate Power,” is the opposite. It’s polished to a shine, conceptual, accompanied by a well-produced video. “‘Power’ is sort of the end of the old music I was making,” she says. “This era of super-produced and perfected sound—it’s sort of a thesis on that, a bookend.”
She’s eager to explain the concept of the new album. However she feels about the songs at any given moment, she’s clearly excited about the story that they’re telling. “Miss Anthropocene” is a character, essentially an anthropomorphization of the concept of climate change. The name is a witty pun on “misanthropy” and “anthropocene”—the geological era defined by humanity’s irrevocable impacts on the planet. “All the media about climate change is like one big guilt trip. It’s super depressing, like, here are some facts that make you wanna go home and kill yourself. It sucks and it sucks to look at, so people just kind of look away from it,” she says. “I want to change that. In ancient Greek culture you have these gods that represent abstract, terrifying concepts. Like a God of Death. So I wanted to make Miss Anthropocene this idea of, like, the God of Climate Change. She wants the world to end and she wants to bring about the end of humanity, but she’s fun. She’s fucking fun and evil!” Grimes laughs. “Also, climate change is beautiful, even if it’s terrifying. It’s so nice to look at. The sunsets are brighter and more beautiful. Volcanoes, oil rainbows, hurricanes... destruction is gorgeous—people are drawn to it.”
Miss Anthropocene marks the end of an era for Grimes. When it’s released she’ll be finished with her obligations to her label, and she’s excited about the prospect of working without contractual restrictions. “I’ll never sign with another label. I’ll never have to put out another album... If I didn’t have this whole requirement to release an ‘album,’ I would have just dropped a bunch of music ages ago.” The album format, she says, feels increasingly ill-suited for her shape-shifting, experimental style. “Albums are trash unless you sit down and make a really good album. I’m not really that consistent. I feel like I would work better in like EP-ish formats.”
It’s not the only departure from musical tradition that she’s considering. Touring, she tells me, has increasingly become a stressful obligation. “I wanna retire from touring. I wanna do a hologram tour. Why do we keep doing them for dead artists instead of living ones who have stage fright?” Does she still get stage fright, this far into her career? “Oh my god, yes. It’s nightmarish. Apocalyptic. Terrifying, horrible. I can’t hear clapping or cheers—I just hear an echo chamber of death. I black out. Dissociation—I can’t tell what’s happening. After a show I’m always thinking, What happened? And people are like ‘It’s ok!’ I know people like the authenticity of live performance, and I do too. But I’m not a good performer. I’m a director who accidentally fell into this position, and now it’s too late to change. So I need to Gorillaz it—I need to find a way to not have to do the Beyoncé thing as much.”
The sense is that Grimes is finished with facades, done pretending, done jumping through hoops to meet our expectations for what a ‘pop-star’ should be. Coming to terms with all this has been a messy and difficult process, but she’s finally feeling like herself again. She’s optimistic, if wary. And she’s ready to let it all out. Her forthcoming album, to hear her tell it, is Grimes unleashed. “I feel like at times there is an extreme rage that I haven’t been able to lay down,” she says. “A rawness that I have withheld from the public, because people always told me to make it more accessible. I’ve given that up for this, and it’s been freeing.”
She’s confronting her past as well. Miss Anthropocene was written during a period of intense self-reflection, and in the midst of personal tragedy. After losing others to addiction and overdoses, yet another close friend had passed. She hints obliquely at her own struggles with substances. It’s hard for her to talk about, but she has confronted it head-on while making this album, and is ready to be honest with the public. “I had early disturbing experiences with kids coming up to me and admiring things that were self-destructive. I was like, fuck, people think it’s cool to cut yourself or vomit or do crack. That’s not good! But then it became this stifling thing,” she says. “I don’t know. I’ve lived this hard, fucked-up life. I can’t pretend I didn’t. It started feeling like I couldn’t express myself properly, because I was so worried about being a good role model. It scares me to be hyper-honest, but we never see women getting to be that way. There should be someone out there that’s messy and fucked up—for some people this is how it is. It scares me because I don’t want little kids to romanticize certain things that are not cool. But I also don’t want to lie about the reality of my existence. I can’t make super honest or super emotional art if I’m always pretending to be cool and chill all the time.”
Grimes’ fans, who love her rabidly, have expressed worry at times in the last few years. If it seems she’s been self-sabotaging, whether online or in her relationships with collaborators and partners, it’s because she really has struggled. But unlike most of us, every step of her journey has been seized upon by a fascinated public and a cynical press hungry for headlines and clicks. And her reticence to tell us what she was really going through left all the more room for speculation. “Two of my best friends died before I was 18, and I lost like five friends to opiate-related deaths. Really close friends. I had one die when I was on a shoot, and found out while filming the second day. All this stuff, fucked up stuff, is happening. Before I would just not mention any of it. I feel like I’ve been through war when I think that all these people around me are dead. In 2016, my good friend died. They were a friend of 15 years, and I felt nothing. Just nothing. And it was so weird. But, you know, there you go. So you start removing yourself from everybody because you don’t want to face it. Life becomes too shockingly fragile, you know?”
It hasn’t been easy for Grimes to engage with her past, but talking about it—in her art, in interviews like this one—is helping. “I’ve gotten better. I was really fucked up in 2016 when I wrote this album, but now I’m doing much better. When I was going through the Art Angels cycle, I was having severe PTSD, and everyone was like, ‘Don’t let the public know!’ I know there are people who think I’ve fucked up the last year, and I do need to be more organized and reasonable and thoughtful at times, for sure. But I feel my art is better.”
Grimes’ favorite part of her job comes before she records a single note. “Dreaming it up feels so easy. The making and releasing can be horrible, but the dreaming is always fun,” she sighs. And that’s why she’s such an interesting figure, right? She’s a prodigious dreamer. We may love the music—I still blast “Oblivion” on an almost monthly basis, revisit the strange and compelling world of Art Angels—but it does sometimes feel almost beside the point. Grimes is building a universe, and she’s shedding the strictures that get in the way of that grand vision—the album format, her label, even her own carefully-crafted identity. “Part of what I’m doing is setting up the world-building. Reverse Harry Potter it. Soundtrack comes first, then the fashion, then everything, everything, everything. Then the book, right before I die,” she says, not really joking. Reaching this point of liberation hasn’t been a smooth process. Grimes is unfailingly honest with herself, her own worst critic. But she feels free, she’s happy with what she’s creating, and her ambitions have only grown. We just need to get out of the way and let her dream.