In your videos this year, you played with these clichés of powerful and powerless female archetypes. What was that about?
I was interested in the Japanese archetype of a female protagonist who is very small and very cute and very physically powerful. You don’t see that archetype in America. But in Japanese culture, there are female characters who can embody this girl uniform and still cut someone’s head off with a sword. “Oblivion” embodies that kind of archetype, going into this masculine world that is associated with sexual assault, but presented as something really welcoming and nice. The song’s sort of about being — I was assaulted and I had a really hard time engaging in any types of relationship with men, because I was just so terrified of men for a while.
Is it important for you to discuss what “Oblivion” is about?
It would be intense if it were an overwhelming part of my image. I can’t censor myself; it’s really important for me to say how I feel. I needed to put out this song. I needed to make this song. I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world. I play it live every night. The whole process has been positive — engaging with that subject matter and making it into something good.
Jessica Hopper did a really wonderful interview with Grimes, and I think the above part in particular is revelatory. “Oblivion” is my favorite song of the year by a mile (and my most-played song on iTunes EVER, I should add), but after reading this interview I feel like I just listened to it for the first time. I’ve never heard Claire explicitly say before that the song is about sexual assault (/just walking around in this constant mindframe of fear/paranoia that all female-identified/queer ppl are told to inhabit), and to me that just puts such a chilling and poignant l cast over so many of its lyrics. “Someone could break your neck, coming up behind you always coming and you never have a clue.” “Always looking straight, thinking counting all the hours you wait.” “See you in the dark night.” (OK, so like every fucking line in the song basically.)
I can see people (and hell, I sort of used to think of the song this way too) thinking there’s something kind of fey and and sweet and crushstruck about “Oblivion” (“I need someone else to look into my eyes and tell me girl you know you gotta watch your health”), but as she says in the interview, people have a tendency to infantilize the meaning of her songs and image. That is something she’s had to grapple with. I’m still processing and will probably have more to say about this someday, but all of this feels really significant to me, and further proof that — I see u h8rs — Grimes is a really brave, exciting and important artist.
Lindsay Zoladz for the win, per usual. And Claire for the win, per usual.
I’m still weirded out by the way that pretty much every first-year student at McGill this year worships at the altar of Grimes - not that they like the music, but breathlessly inquire as to who we know who knows her/do we know her/what is she like/etc. etc. etc. and the style clones wandering campus are endlessly amusing, but I guess maybe this is what first-years were like with Arcade Fire when I was in undergrad? It’s hard to remember.
Anyway, Visions is still a great album. It’s not my favourite of her releases - Geidi Primes has a cobbled-together found sound beauty that I really love - but it’s one of the year’s best. And while there are things that folks have called her out on that I’m 100% on-side with, on balance I’m with Lindsay re: exciting/important.
And if some of her newfound success rubs off on Majical Cloudz and TOPS and - most importantly - Blue Hawaii? I will be very very happy indeed.
I think an underrated aspect of Visions is its consistency. The early twosome of “Genesis” and “Oblivion” is undeniably a highlight, but there are worthy cuts sprinkled throughout the album; it doesn’t sag in the middle, and closes strong with personal favourites like “Symphonia IX” and “Skin”. I don’t feel compelled to skip the more indistinct tracks when I know another strong one is just around the corner. I’ve also enjoyed reading reviews and longer critical pieces that have been written in the wake of Visions: off the top of my head, I really liked Lindsay Zoladz’ review of the album at Pitchfork, Mark Richardson’s latest Resonant Frequency column, and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s “Deconstructing: Grimes” on Stereogum. (Recommended reading!) Maybe it’s foolish of me to suggest a correlation between an album’s quality and the quality of the writing it spawns, but Visions seemed to bring out the best in plenty of writers kicking around the Internet.
When I think about Visions in tandem with the response it received, and some of the critiques lobbied at both the music and at Claire Boucher herself, I relate it to people’s reaction to Joanna Newsom around the release of both The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys. There are parallels to be drawn between Newsom and Boucher, if you’re sniffing around: each woman’s voice proved the most polarizing element of their music, both have had their appearance detract from their content, and they’ve both been slapped with the label “weird” at one point or another. (Remember “New Weird America”? Remember Devendra Banhart?) The thin, flighty coo Boucher uses throughout Visions, as well as her application of vocal processing, detracts from her voice’s versatility: listen to the beginning of “Genesis”, where she sings with lovely tone and depth for a few lines before jumping to a less traditional, bouncier style. She can float between the influences of R&B and K-pop, or land in a digitized territory all her own. Visions is an album rich with detail, gnarled and dark in spots, and yet you don’t have to look far to find comments like ”As for Ms. Grimes, I see a lot of pictures and no audio, so I’ll make the only judgment I can: yes, I’d totally do her.” (Which, ugh, come on.) And although I can’t absolve her of all guilt in this regard, it’s similarly easy to bundle up those aforementioned avian vocal turns and her Minneapolis houseboat adventures into a tidy “Whoa, that Grimes chick is weird!” narrative. If Newsom was positioned at the forefront of New Weird America, Grimes is the current flagbearer (and only member) of Newer, Weirder Canada.
I don’t love Visions quite as much as Ys or Have One on Me just yet, but I think it’s unfortunate that Boucher suffers from a similar set of problems as Newsom (who, after three stellar records, is still fighting to overcome issues like this).
I mostly agree with this - the one thing that I’d note is that prior to Visions (her third album), Claire didn’t really get slapped with the ‘weird’ label or the ‘I’d totally do her’ grossness. I suspect this is just a result of a shift from being seen as one (very good) part of a larger musical scene or group of sounds (the Altered Zones universe, or in Montreal, Arbutus Records and affiliated artists) to being seen as a solo artist and specifically a female solo artist.
Which is depressing as all hell, because tbh I don’t see Claire’s ‘Grimes’ project as that different in location/mode than Tom Krell’s ‘How to Dress Well’. And yet, despite the fact that they’ve toured together, share an interest in engaging with their love for R&B and pop through more lo-fi and DIY music, etc. etc., you’re less likely to read about her ties to the rest of the ‘post-Internet’ (ugh) circle of R&B-appreciative P4K-types than you are to hear comparisons either to female R&B singers or ‘weird’ female electro singers.
In 2007 or 2008, I started listening to R&B on this road trip with my dad because we couldn’t agree on anything else. I smoked weed and listened to “Fantasy” and felt something I’d never felt before. [laughs] In medieval Christian thought, it was assumed that the better you were as a singer, the purer your heart was. I don’t necessarily think that’s true, but Mariah Carey has the voice of someone who has never done evil.