The Imperial de Québec is a gorgeous theatre built in the 1930s during the golden age of silent film. Transformed into a live performance venue, its walls painted a deep, rich red and its stately gold trim resonates with a striking, old-world elegance that is very fresh, vibrant and alive. It’s mid-July and the Festival d’été de Québec is in full swing. Grimes is scheduled to play later that night at the Imperial and is in the midst of doing interviews prior to sound check.
The CBC crew runs well over their allotted time with Grimes, taking full advantage of Canada’s daring pop revisionist. Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, signed last year with Britain’s revered 4AD label who helped release her third album, Visions, which has received rave reviews across the board from Pitchfork, the A.V. Club, the New York Times, the Guardian, Spin and PopMatters who embraced Visions claiming “its overall sense of ambition is intoxicating.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Grimes followed friends to Montreal, attended McGill for a while but was soon absorbed into that city’s open creative environment that she came to thrive in.
“I don’t read any of my reviews, I don’t engage with the media that much…it stresses me out…”
“The big thing is it’s really, really cheap,” explains Grimes. “But unlike lots of places in Canada (that are also inexpensive to live), it’s close to New York, with lots of venues, lots of art and music events happening. It allows artists to foster their thing; to play in real venues and open for big bands.”
Although she has a deep appreciation for classical music and a formal background in ballet, Grimes is self-taught on keyboards learning “on-the-go” while incorporating and fusing hip-hop with industrial, goth and classical. While Visions is drenched in pop and has infectious, synth-driven grooves, there’s definitely also an ethereal quality and is often labeled dream pop.
“Dream pop?” says Grimes, winching slightly at the suggestion. “I don’t know anything about dream pop. I don’t do dream pop, if that’s what you’re asking. Dream pop is Mazzy Star, and bands from the ‘90s who make really mellow music—very guitar music, with its roots in country. Where I make harder electronic music. Vocally it’s very R ‘n’ B influenced or by classical choral music, and the production is New Jack Swing, R ‘n’ B, industrial and goth.
“Structure-wise, yeah it’s super simple. Some of the best things are super simple. All my favourite songs are. Like New Order’s Blue Monday, that’s one of the best songs ever written. It’s a baseline line, and vocals over and over again with a static drum beat in that repetitive nature. I love mathy music and classical music, but I’m really interested in making something with immediacy. Like, ‘I get this right now,’ and it’s totally understandable to everyone on that basic sonic level. I really admire a good pop song, despite being incredibly minimal, it’s just so good when exposed like that.”
Her love for simplicity also includes repeating vocal lines over and over, riding the chorus out, pushing it on through. On the track “Vanessa,” in one of her “official” videos, she repeats the line during the song’s quiet breakdown singing “everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday-day, day-day-day” while staring at the camera nonchalantly, white make-up coating her face, ghost-like swaying side to side in the lens. It’s easy to confuse the lyrics and it sometimes sounds like she’s actually saying “everyday, dead, dead, dead.”
Grimes shakes her head, “No, I never really think about my lyrics that much. I just like to repeat them in this creepy, little way,” she smiles, not wanting to be taken too seriously. It’s just the goth in her that likes to come out.
Approached at the CMJ Festival in New York in 2011, 4AD made Grimes an offer that she was delighted to accept.
“4AD put out some of favourite artists—Lydia Lunch, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance. They were the goth label, and now they’re reinventing themselves with really contemporary and important bands like Purity Ring and SpaceGhostPurp.
The melting pot stylistics that Grimes has cultivated broke out fast and furious with 4AD behind her, catching her by surprise.
“Yeah, it did a little. I was doing all of it (music) on the side. Then all of all sudden, ‘Okay, you gotta stop that, and do all of this now.’”
Two year ago Grimes wasn’t even on the radar. Now she’s one of the Canada’s biggest blips on the screen flying internationally. The rocket ride straight up hasn’t really changed her though, she’s maintaining her cool but keeping her distance from any of hype.
“I don’t read any of my reviews, I don’t engage with the media that much…it stresses me out. I just work on my own and not think about all of it. I’ve seen so many musicians get really cocky and keep coasting on what they’ve done in the past. That bothers me, not something I don’t want to do. My life feels the same, because I do the same stuff and talk to the same people,” she chuckles. “Although I play bigger shows and I’m not broke anymore.”
Does that allow her to be able to live out her odd, houseboat fantasy drifting down the Mississippi with a pen full of chickens, a typewriter and a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—just one of the weird stories, fuelled by the internet. “No, no, “she emphasizes, “Anything you’ve read about that is not true, not at all.”
What is the solid truth is when Grimes takes the stage; any slight hint of delicate dream pop is destroyed immediately by her raging hardcore dance rhythms that ripped through the Imperial that evening to a packed house. Her studio records may float and weave through seductive pop experiments; live she’s a wind tunnel full of turbulent synthesizers and beastly electro beats that howl, pulse and stomp.
Grimes commands the Gateway at SAIT on Friday, Oct. 19th.
By B. Simm
Cover photo: John Londono
B&W photo: Tommy Chase Lucas