Grimes is ready to play the villain

grimes-crackFive days before her 31st birthday, Claire Boucher is sat on a pink suede banquette in the Terrace Room of the Sunset Tower Hotel facing out towards a glistening swimming pool. Beyond it is the humdrum brilliance of another sun-bleached day in Los Angeles. If she looks like she’s just rolled out of bed it’s because she has. She’s decided to postpone her birthday celebrations until summer, but whether you acknowledge them or not, birthdays have a special way of making you reflect on the year just gone.

Boucher has had a lot to reckon with. She’s been better known as Grimes since she started making music under that name in 2007, but in the past twelve months the power to define her creation seems to her to have slipped from her grasp. “Without me doing anything, just by random association with other people, I’ve watched my career and my reputation get totally fucking smashed,” she says. “I worked my whole fucking life for this and now everyone thinks I’m so stupid. I was just sitting there incredulous watching my life’s work go down the drain.”

It was in May last year, a couple of months after she turned 30, that Boucher and her boyfriend decided to make their relationship public by appearing together at the Met Gala in New York. This decision was complicated by the fact that her boyfriend is Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX who, depending on your perspective, is either humanity’s last hope to colonise Mars and save the species or a union-busting, megalomaniacal James Bond villain in waiting. They made a striking pair: him in a white blazer and an inverted notched priest collar, her in a Musk-designed white marbled high-cut corset paired with a metal collar which looked, online commenters were quick to point out, not entirely unlike the Tesla logo.

Some Grimes fans weren’t sure what to make of Boucher’s newly-public relationship. She had first emerged from the Montreal warehouse scene as a fiercely independent artist, putting out a pair of hypnotic electronica albums in 2010 on DIY label Arbutus Records: Geidi Primes, a concept album about Frank Herbert’s fantasy novel Dune, and Halfaxa. Her mainstream breakthrough came with third record Visions in 2012, which was met with such critical acclaim that two years later Pitchfork named Visions track Oblivion as the best song of the decade so far. Eclectic 2015 follow-up Art Angels proved, according to this magazine, that it’s “okay to like what you like, even if you’re a Dolly Parton fan who’s into J-pop and medieval Mongolia.”

Alongside her artistic output, Boucher has consistently proved herself unafraid to speak out on the political issues that are important to her. In 2016 she recreated a 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson advert in support of Hillary Clinton, stating that in the coming election: “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” The following year, after President Trump announced a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, she tweeted that she would match donations up to $10,000 for the Council on American-Islam Relations. Last year she joined protesters in British Columbia against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

It was in this context that Boucher and Musk’s relationship was swiftly and mercilessly dissected in the press. Many publications were quick to link Musk to Boucher’s decision to remove the phrase “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio. In an article headlined ‘The Trouble With Elon Musk And Grimes’, the New Yorker painted their pairing as nothing less than the final collapse of indie culture. “What if ideological distinctions still mattered and were not so easily swept away by a levelling torrent of information and capital?” asked staff writer Naomi Fry. “What if anything still meant something?”

Boucher, it’s fair to say, does not agree with this characterisation. “Seriously, fuck the New Yorker,” she says, growing agitated. She stops fiddling with the pale pink scrunchie around her right wrist and makes direct eye contact. “Fuck the New York Times. Fuck Vice. You guys think you have journalistic integrity? What the fuck? Now I can’t read the Guardian because they’ve written things about me which are completely false. We really do live in a post-truth society. I know it sounds right-wing of me, but the majority of things that have been written about me in the past year were not true.”

In this case the truth, according to Boucher, is that she’d removed the phrase on a whim long before even meeting Musk. “I change my Twitter bio every week,” she says. “I took ‘anti-imperialist’ out literally three or four months before I met Elon. I changed it from ‘anti-imperialist’ to ‘baby wolverine’. That means I love colonialism now? Seriously, what the fuck?”

With their relationship out in the open, Boucher found herself being asked by fans on social media to defend Musk’s business practices. In May she tweeted that reports Musk had prevented his workers unionising were “fake news”. She later deleted that post, and in July wrote that she had “literally tried to instigate union vote so y’all wud lay off”. A couple of days earlier, she had argued that Musk’s donations to the Republican party were simply “the price of doing business in america” for an aerospace company. She added that Musk: “donates way more money, like absurdly more, to environmental causes.” When this became a news story in its own right, she clarified: “there is no world in which i’m ok w republican donations.. was just trying to explain wut happened.”

While some Grimes fans saw these statements as evidence of Musk’s nefarious influence turning Boucher towards greed, avarice and unfettered capitalism, she argues that in truth her politics could never be easily defined. “I didn’t realise everyone thought I was such a by-the-books socialist,” she says. “My politics are literally insane. I’ll probably go down for it in the end.”

When I ask her what she means by “literally insane,” she elaborates: “My Instagram bio was: ‘I pledge allegiance to the robot overlords’ for, like, two years. I thought people understood that I ultimately probably believe in an AI dictatorship. I mean, I don’t think humanity is going to survive anyway. We’re fucked. I think AI is the natural evolution. It’s just like we killed the fucking neanderthals, and now they’re going to kill us. I don’t think democracy really works. These are the kinds of things I think. I actually, for the short term, am a bit of a socialist, but not economically. I’m into free markets. What can I say? I think capitalism can solve some things.”

As 2018 wore on, things got progressively weirder. On August 7th, Elon Musk tweeted that he was taking Tesla private at a share price of $420. Azealia Banks, who said she was at Musk’s home waiting to collaborate with Boucher at the time, would later claim that Musk was high when he sent the tweet, and that he’d come up with the figure $420 because Boucher had recently taught him the significance of the number 420 in weed culture.

Over the next month, Banks posted a string of text messages supposedly sent by Boucher on her Instagram story that made reference to Musk’s “fake made up accent” and “giant dick” while also saying “the Russians want Elon dead”. The whole surreal mess is now the subject of a class action lawsuit by Tesla investors so it’s understandable that Boucher doesn’t want to comment directly, but it’s hard not to assume she has the alleged texts in mind when she tells me: “There have been quotes ascribed to me that I did not say. I can’t go into detail, but I didn’t type that. I’ve never seen that. That’s not me. It sucks when you want to do good in the world and you’re forced to do bad in the world because people are putting things in your mouth that are negative and shitty.”

It’s a difficult realisation for anyone who finds themselves in the public eye that they’re no longer in control of their own narrative, but it seems like a particularly cruel irony for Boucher after she worked so hard for so long to make sure she had complete artistic control over every aspect of Grimes. She self-produced every song on every Grimes album, drew her own artwork and directed her own videos, creating a distinct aesthetic universe that may have been influenced by Japanese manga and gothic dystopias but became something all of her own. She has never relied on anybody else. “For most artists if you’re not cool for 20 minutes then you can’t get in a room with a good producer and your career is fucking over,” she says. “I never want to be in that situation. I want to be in a situation like I am now where my reputation is at an all-time low and I can still make sick-ass fucking music, because I don’t rely on anybody.”

If her reputation is truly, as she believes, “at an all time low” then where does she go from here? The answer, to Boucher, is simple. “If I’m stuck being a villain, I want to pursue villainy artistically,” she says. “If there’s nothing left to lose, that’s actually a really fun idea to me. I think it has freed me artistically. The best part of the movie is the Joker. Everyone loves the villain. Everyone fucking loves Thanos. Let’s make some Thanos art.”

All of which goes some way to explain why the next Grimes album will be, in Boucher’s words, “an evil album about how great climate change is.”

The record will be called Miss Anthropocene, named after a character that Boucher has created for herself to portray. Miss Anthropocene is climate change brought to life as an anthropomorphic supervillain. Her name, which casts her as a beauty queen, is a pun on ‘misanthrope’ and ‘anthropocene’, which for the uninitiated is a proposed scientific name for the geological epoch we’re currently living through – the time period during which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

“The way I figure it is that climate change sucks and no-one wants to read about it because the only time you hear about it is when you’re getting guilted,” explains Boucher. “I wanted to make climate change fun. Miss Anthropocene has got a Voldemort kind of vibe. She’s naked all the time and she’s made out of ivory and oil. It’s going to be super tight.”

The album itself is, as yet, unfinished. It may not even be her next release. “I just made a bunch of music this month and I’ll probably drop that as an EP first, honestly,” she says. “Just so I can clear my mind to then go back and finish the goddamn album.”

Her most recent single, November’s K-pop-meets-nu-metal banger We Appreciate Power, will probably be on the record. The song would fit thematically, because it deals with the possibility that an AI dictatorship might be vindictive and she wants “every song to be about a different way the world could end.” The only thing holding her back from confirming it’ll be on the record is that she shares production credits on the track with fellow singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator Hana and producer and guitarist Chris Greatti. “I’ve never had any other producers on my records,” she says, “but I should probably just let that go.”

Before meeting Boucher I’d been sent three other new tracks which may or may not appear on either the new record or the EP, each wildly different from the last in style and composition. The first is So Heavy I Fell Through The Earth, a slow-moving, chaotic tune made using the Google NSynth that will appeal to fans of her second record, Halfaxa. The second, Shall I Compare Thee, sounds like it’s been lifted from an anime soundtrack and is one of the more recent tracks that Boucher says she made in “like two hours” and could end up on the EP. The last, My Name Is Dark, is an overwhelming nu-metal monster in the lineage of Kill V. Maim and Medieval Warfare, which also serves to introduce another new character for Boucher to play with. “Dark is going to be my main alter-ego,” she says. “It’s visually the best thing I’ve ever come up with. Everyone is very tired of me making metal and screamo and stuff, so that can just be Dark.”

Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Boucher’s perceived critics. Where has she got the idea that “everyone” is very tired of her making metal and screamo?

“People are always like: ‘When are you going to make another…’”

Which people?

“On Twitter. Fans. Honestly, my parents. I came out making beautiful, ethereal chill synth music and I do still really like that, I just don’t like being pigeon-holed so I had to react against it for a minute. Now I’m back to it. I honestly think Shall I Compare Thee is kind of Visions-y.”

She pauses to take a sip of her coffee, and it occurs to me that the more I listen to Boucher the more I realise she is talking to me above a background roar that only she can hear. The deafening cacophony of voices on the internet pulling apart every aspect of her music, her politics and her relationship is always there whether she engages with it or not. She tells me she quit social media for six months, and now uses it only sparingly, “because there’s just no point in knowing. It’s like in high school when I had major problems. People have always hated me.”

She is turning 31 now, a long way from high school, and she has learned how to take in hate and convert it like fuel into defiant power. “That’s why I’m making this pro-climate change album,” she says. “I’ll just be a villain now, and that’s cool. I’ll find a way to make that useful to society.”

Originally published in Crack Magazine, April 2019.