No one in this cramped white art space knows quite what to make of the 24-year-old Canadian dressed like a punk-rock Rainbow Brite. Her long blonde hair is tipped in pale pink, and she’s decked out in enormous black platform boots and a flimsy, floor-length dress that looks like a wearable watercolor—greens blending into blues blending into purples. By day, she makes catchy electro-pop, singing in an ethereal fairylike coo under the name Grimes. But tonight she’s just Claire Boucher, a nervous young visual artist mounting her first gallery show, at Audio Visual Arts in the East Village, hoping people show up and that the people who do show up get it. “Sorry this is so awkward,” she says, giggling, and watching as journalists mill around and stare at her intricate scrawls of cartoonish skulls set in abstract geometric webs.
Her art career may be fledgling, but Grimes’s airy, synth-enhanced sound and celestial-nymph looks have made her an easy sell in indie rock. Last year, she was the opener on Lykke Li’s North American tour. This winter, Pitchfork awarded her breakthrough third album, Visions, a coveted “Best New Music” stamp. Since then, she’s been on the road almost constantly: Mexico, Austin (to play SXSW), back home to Montreal, then New York, all while suffering from a stomach bug. “I drank the water in Mexico,” she whispers, trying not to be overheard by the handlers whose job it is to keep her amoeba-free. “But I was alone in the hotel at like two in the morning with no money, and they were like, ‘Don’t leave because it’s dangerous,’ and I was just really thirsty.” Still, having her label bosses worry about the functionality of her bowels is a small price to pay for being music’s next big thing. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “It’s getting better and better.”
It’s tempting to peg Boucher, with her nebulous creative background (first as a dancer, then a visual artist, then a musician), as an art-school kid allergic to ambition—“I get offers to do huge-budget music videos with big production companies all the time, but I have no interest. Most of my music videos were made for under $200,” she says proudly—but to hear her tell it, she’s actually a determined careerist with designs on mainstream pop: “Grimes is all about image-branding, but DIY image-branding. I want to bring a Fugazi-esque ethic together with Michael Jackson and Beyoncé,” she explains. “I was like, It would be so awesome if there were an actual pop star who was like a sick super-experimental producer. And then I was like, I’ll just do that. I and the people I work with are redefining the music industry and redefining what pop is. Sorry, everything I say is, like, incredibly embarrassing.”
A party girl raised in a “really strict” Vancouver household, Boucher says she “spent a lot of years being a really shitty fucked-up drug addict.” Her parents pulled her out of high school and sent her to boot camp in British Columbia. “It worked,” she recalls. She attended McGill University and attempted a double major in psychology and philosophy, with minors in Russian and electro-acoustics, before the allure of Montreal’s art scene proved too much and she dropped out to form Grimes in 2009. Still, Boucher brought with her a scientist’s unsentimental eye for what works and what doesn’t. “Montreal is a lot of art-school art,” she says. “It’s not that those people aren’t talented, but I’m into technical Renaissance painting. I’m into creating something that’s straight-up gorgeous. Cubism is just not the same.”
At the gallery, Boucher’s friends file in, looking like extras from Desperately Seeking Susan, dressed in carefully shredded tights, cut-up sweatshirts, and leather jackets. She looks momentarily relieved to have less critical company, but tells me later, “I’m not interested in making art unless I’m totally freaked out and worried people are going to hate it.”