When Claire Boucher, the Canadian electronic artist known as Grimes, first recorded a song, she was reluctantly helping out a friend who said he needed a “girl vocal.” Half a decade later, Grimes is a marquee name at massive festivals like Coachella, and has three well-received albums under her belt — though she says she still feels as self-conscious as ever about her voice.
Grimes’ latest release is Art Angels, on which Boucher not only wrote, produced and engineered all the songs, but masterminded the videos and artwork as well — no small feat given the crowded and male-dominated field of electronic music. She spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish about the gender politics in music studios, the surprise perks of being a science major and why her favorite songs are those that deliberately unsettle the ear. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Audie Cornish: I read that you actually studied neuroscience in college? Or just the sciences generally?
Grimes: Actually, I was in a program at McGill called Electroacoustics, where we studied a lot of how the brain interacts with music. So by the time I actually started making music, I kind of had an understanding of frequencies and kind of how the brain responds to things, which I think really helped me as a producer: Even though I had no experience playing instruments and stuff, I kind of had a basic understanding of engineering. My learning curve was maybe a tiny bit shorter than maybe someone who hadn’t studied that stuff.
So how does that inform the music? One of the things I like about electronic music is the sensory overload — the drops, the highs and lows of it, are directly triggering things in my brain. Is there a song on this album where you feel like your knowledge about how we hear things affects how many tracks there are, how many layers, how many sounds?
I don’t know if it’s actually that practically useful, honestly. Because you can study music to death; you can study the brain’s response to music to death. But it’s not the same thing as making music, which is very gut-level.
Like, there was a study that we read about when I was in class: They polled tons and tons of people and found out the most loved type of music and the most hated type of music. And actually, the most loved type of music is deep women’s vocals — so, Beyoncé and Adele and stuff, that makes sense. But the most hated was, like, children’s choirs — and I lovechildren’s choirs. High female vocals, people hate that — and I have a high female voice, obviously. So, I think it just depends.
Can you remember when you first thought of yourself as a producer? I mean, was there an early song — before people knew you, even — where you realized you like the tinkering, the putting it together?
Probably from the first time I tried to make music. Singing has always been a struggle for me, so when I first started making music, I only made instrumentals.
When you finally did start to sing, was it a surprise to you?
Kind of! I mean, I wasn’t good, but I was not the worst, which was extremely encouraging to me. The fact that I wasn’t literally the worst singer on planet Earth made me think that I was, like, a god. Immediately I was like, “Oh, I don’t suck? OK, I’m gonna be a musician. Like, right away.”
So when you first sat down, what were the circumstances? What drew you to it?
Basically, I’d been at a friend’s house; he said he wanted a “girl vocal.” I was like, “I’m really a bad singer,” but I did it anyway — and then I was like, oh, music isn’t that hard. So I got my friend to show me how to use GarageBand, and then I just kind of started making terrible, terrible songs using the built-in synths and stuff, just screwing around with that.
It’s interesting — I think electronic music changes the bar of entry for people who want to get into music, right?
Oh, yeah. I think, I mean, in a sad way I think it’s one of the reasons experimental electronic music isn’t more popular, is that it’s so hard to turn it into a live thing; it’s more of a laptop thing. But definitely, in the scene I came from, you don’t need to be a “good” musician to make electronic music — you just need to have a good ear. You don’t need to be able to technically perform anything.
So now that there’s so much of this music out there, how do you determine what’s good? Who are the artists that inspire you, who are doing similar work?
Oh my gosh. I love 40, who produces for Drake — I think he’s one of the best producers. I love Burial. I mean, most of my favorite producers produce for vocalists; I don’t listen to a lot of straight electronic music that doesn’t have vocals. This is a totally crazy thing, and I’m significantly worse and significantly less popular, but in a way Calvin Harris is probably the most similar to me in terms of functionality. He’s a great producer, he’s a songwriter, but he doesn’t necessarily sing all his songs. He does sing — he’s decent at it — but it’s not like his main thing.
What has it been like over the years asserting yourself in the studio? Because the model that we all hear about in the music press is young women performing songs that they may have written, but the production is usually a man, especially if you look at the Top 40. Have you found that people in that setting want to provide the beats for you?
I’ve never actually worked in a studio on one of my songs — I’ve only worked in a studio in writing camps for other people, which were odd experiences. I wasn’t allowed to touch a computer, for example, even though guys in the studio were allowed to. I obviously know how to use a computer and I know how to produce, but I had to tell the engineer what to do if I wanted to do anything, which I thought was pretty crazy in the 21st century.
This might have been a union thing, too, right? Because you’re the writer.
No, no, there were producers coming in — and I don’t think I was brought in only to do vocals and top line. Even if I was, that’s kind of weird because I’m way more of a producer than a vocalist. So, I mean, it was pretty gendered. Luckily, I mostly work in my own house and I don’t work with other people, kind of for this reason.
For people who don’t know, writer’s camps are basically like a retreat, where you get put into groups and you’re supposed to write, collaboratively, for another artist. What was that experience like for you, an artist who’s pretty self-contained?
In a way, it was a blessing in disguise: I got to watch so many great producers work, because I wasn’t allowed to produce anything. I actually did learn quite a bit about production. But on the other hand, it was very daunting, even just as a writer writing top line, because I felt like it was extremely judgmental. It was kind of assumed that I was stupid and that I didn’t know what was going on, and especially because I don’t feel confident as a vocalist, it was very stressful to have that be the thing that I was evaluated on.
And you described it as gendered.
Yeah, well, just that all the guys made beats and all the girls did top line.
“Top line” meaning the melody.
Yeah, basically the melody that the vocal is doing. Like, there were no girls doing beats and there were no guys doing top line. But, I don’t know — I don’t want to criticize it too much.
No, I mean, they’re big business, right? Lots of people are making money and songs in this way. But it’s sort of hard to picture, given how many women we see in the Top 40. A lot of the biggest names in music are women right now.
I think it’s just … you know, I came in with experience as a producer and I wasn’t allowed to produce — so how could any woman who didn’t have experience as a producer ever learn how to produce? It was just a little odd in that regard. If there are stereotypes of, “Women do certain jobs in music and men do certain jobs,” the way the studio works, it’s not easy to escape that.
As your career has gotten bigger and more and more people are hearing your music, do you hear from young women who want to be doing what you’re doing?
I guess I do! If you meet fans outside of a concert or something like that, someone will be like, “You inspired me to start producing, and I make records now.” Which is pretty cool — I mean, not even from a music perspective, but being visible as a woman in technology is sort of interesting, and hopefully inspires women not just to touch computers in music but for other purposes as well.
I want to talk about one song that I was, I feel like, almost surprised to hear on this album — which is “Easily.” It sounds like you very much enjoying your own voice.
Oh, really? It’s actually my least favorite song on the album!
What don’t you like about it? I think it’s quite sweet.
I just think it’s really basic. I only put it on because when I showed my friends all the songs they were all like, “You have to keep that song. Don’t ditch that one.” But I personally think it’s not very interesting from a production standpoint.
That makes sense given a lot of the other music we’ve heard from you, which is just layers and layers of sounds. This is just you.
It kind of makes me uncomfortable! But usually, the songs other people like are the songs that make me the most uncomfortable — so I usually try to allow some of those to make it onto the record.
Do you ever want your voice, or your music, to sound ugly? Like, do those songs, in a way, kind of go against the way you have presented your voice — which is not about being bubbly?
Yeah, I do kind of like songs more like “SCREAM.” They feel more natural to me. I like to have at least one thing in a song that’s a bit jarring, that throws people off.
Right, which in “SCREAM” is super-effective. You have this Taiwanese rapper, Aristophanes, who is delivering on such great menace — and then the chorus has this primal, punk-like scream. It’s interesting to hear that next to this other side of your music, which almost reminds me of The Bangles or something.
The other thing about songs that are really singing-oriented is that they’re much harder to perform live. Singing live is twice as hard as singing in a quiet, nice studio, where you can do 50 takes and choose the best one.
So when you’re at a show, what are you oriented toward? Are you thinking more about setting up the computers and the sound design than that moment when you’re going to have to take the mic and maybe sing something pretty bare? Do you avoid those songs as a result?
I do. I actually do not play either “Easily” or “California” live. And I also often have to change the top line so that it’s easier to sing, stuff like that.
You’ve made this distinction between having to perform this music you create on stage and like trying to get that to translate, not just for the audience but for yourself. Do you like performing?
Well, it’s complicated. It’s not my favorite thing, but it is way better than working at Starbucks. I just have terrible, terrible stage fright. It’s definitely not what I would do if I could make a living doing something else, but it’s on the better end of jobs.
Stage fright doesn’t seem like a good match for some of the stages you’re playing. You’re doing Coachella — these are big, big stages.
I mean, you can always override it — it’s just very difficult.
Does the persona help? Like, does being Grimes help?
I suppose so. When you’re kind of just bombarding people with crazy, it’s so much less daunting than when you have to be a sweet, great vocalist who can do runs and stuff. Especially at festivals where you don’t get to soundcheck and you have no idea if it’s going to sound good or bad. Last time I played Coachella I had no in-ear [monitor mix] at all. I had to do the whole set completely deaf and just hope it was OK.
[Laughs] How were the reviews?
Uh, great! I mean, muscle memory is a hell of a thing.
With this album, do you feel like you have advanced your music significantly? You’ve done the videos and the songs and the production and even the cover art — does it feel like a milestone for you?
Oh, yeah. I mean this is, for me, my first record that I think is good. Not that the other records aren’t good, but they’re so amateur. I made them not thinking anyone would ever listen to them, so there’s tons of songs without lyrics, because I just sort of did a random vocal and was like, “That’s good enough.” There’s a lot more care put into this record, because it was the first record I made knowing that I had a sizable audience.
Going forward, what direction do you want to take this? Do you see a future where maybe you don’t bother with those vocals at all and you become Grimes, super-producer?
I could see that. The problem with that is when you produce for other people, you’re subject to their whims and fancies and you have to do what they want, which I’m really bad at. Like, in the camps, you go in and they’re like, “OK, it has to be 135 BPM. It has to be in this key.” I’m like, I don’t even read music! I don’t know how to do that.
When you make music, you kind of start going, you’re trying things and trying things, and then suddenly you hit upon something that elicits something emotive in you and you’re like, “Oh, OK, I feel this!” And then you follow that wave. Whereas when you start with a set of guidelines, it’s really hard to get that vibe. It has to already be in a box before you’ve already started. So I don’t know if I could work for other people as a producer as a job — although the “Venus Fly,” featuring Janelle Monáe, is one of the songs I’m most proud of as a producer. And I loved working with Aristophanes. Those were some of the most freeing experiences of my life, having other vocalists. So, I guess we’ll see.
I just want to follow up on something you said earlier — about your voice, and being vulnerable and just kind of “out there.” In a way, do you feel like you have been both rewarded and penalized for your voice?
Yeah, I think my voice definitely bothers some people. Some people really like it. People hate my lisp: When I was in high school, I remember people would be like, “Ugh, I don’t want to talk to you! You have a lisp. It’s so annoying.” But I don’t know — I like having a weird voice. All my favorite singers, even if they’re not the best, they have a voice that you can immediately recognize. I think that’s a really awesome trait.