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Grimes Comes Clean: Synth-Pop Provocateur on Her Big Year

Grimes / Photo by John Londono

What did you have envisioned for your life before this year?
I wanted to go into research. I was into astrophysics and astronomy, but I wasn’t good enough at math and calculus to maintain that, so I got into neuroscience and psychology. Then it became clear that there were too many hoops to jump through. There was a period where two of my best friends died within a six-month period, both in traumatic ways. I thought, “If I’m not enjoying my life all the time, then what’s the point? I don’t know how long I’m going to live.” I decided to only do things that I liked doing, even if it meant being really poor. When you’re desperate, you’re going to work hard at something and not give a shit about anything else.

Neuroscience and astrophysics are ways of organizing the world. Do you believe in any particular organizing principle?
I believe the human mind is a very fallible thing, but it’s the only thing that I can really know, I guess. [Laughs]

Were you raised with religion? 
I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school. That was hugely problematic for me from a very early age. My relationship with my parents — it’s only in the past couple of years that we’ve had any relationship at all.

Did you grow up in a strict home?
Very strict. I spent my teenage years running away from one house to the other house because it was so intense. Not just religious stuff. My dad was super-strict about food. I had to eat these weird protein shakes and he’d make us go on runs in the morning. I had to do ballet for a really long time. It was always working out and being serious about lots of things, really intensely. By the time I hit puberty, I kind of went insane.

So you were a bad kid?
I was about as bad as you could possibly be.

Was it drugs?
I don’t know if I can answer that. I’m trying to get away from the drug thing. I think people are very quick to [say], “Grimes is a druggie!” Which is, in my opinion, a very sexist rant. All my male friends talk about doing drugs all the time and no one ever picks it up. I get worried talking about drugs in interviews. I just did a lot of bad things. Anyway, a bunch of my friends got expelled from high school. Teachers talked to my parents and were like, “Claire could be good, if she would just stay away from those other kids.”

What did you figure out about yourself back then?
I became street smart. I learned to stand up for myself. When [my parents] would be crazy, I’d have the self-awareness to be like, “just because they’re your parents, doesn’t mean that they’re right.” I didn’t want to go to church. I didn’t want to work out for six hours a day. I’m super headstrong. I need to get what I want, and I’ll work very hard for that. A lot of that is because I had to do battle.

Getting your shit together at a really young age allows you to sort out some things that most people don’t get around to doing until they’re older. Do you think that was the case for you?
Yeah, by the time I was 19, I’d already seen so much shit that people my age hadn’t.

Like what?
Like people I was very close with engaging in prostitution. Heroin overdoses. One of the reasons I had so much trouble at university is because I couldn’t relate to anybody. There were all these upper-middle-class Torontonian white kids who would be freaking out because it was cold outside.

Do you feel settled now?
I have my shit very together. I would not be able to do this if I didn’t. When people are the archetype of the crazy, drunken rock band, I have no idea how that would be possible, considering all the things that I have to do. It’s insane. To be hungover every day would just be a nightmare.

Do people still think you’re fucked-up?
People think I’m on speed all the time, because I talk really fast and I have Akathisia, which is a movement disorder.

Grimes performs on <i>Late Night with Jimmy Fallon</i>, August 2012 / Photo by Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Not being able to control how people perceive you is something you’ve probably learned a lot about this year.
That’s one of the things that, at first, really freaked me out and really bothered me to where I considered quitting music. But then I got over it. You can either internalize everything or not give a shit. Once you’re in the public eye — I’m not even in the public eye compared to a lot of people, really — there’s you as a person and there’s you as a brand. You as a brand is a public thing, and you have to separate that from you as a human being. You can only control your brand insofar as I can control what I say and I can control what I release, but once it leaves me, then it’s just on the Internet and it’s in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. The more I’ve had to work in this industry, the more I’ve just been shocked at the way people behave.

How do they behave?
Just the way things that I do are interpreted or the way people write about them. When I first started playing shows, it was awful. People would always be like, “You’re not a real musician.” I’m playing with samplers and MPCs — everyone is also playing with samplers and MPCs. It’s just because I’m a girl that you’re going to shit on me about it.

People assumed you didn’t know what you were doing?
Yeah, it was always, “Oh, that’s so cute, you’re making mistakes.” With the first incarnations of Grimes, I would make stuff and there would be a guy who would be doing the instrumental stuff and after awhile I realized, I’m actually falling into this niche that feels like what I’m supposed to do as a female: “Just be a singer and have someone do the tech-y stuff.” The fact that that’s my default reaction is absurd.

So you’ve been radicalized by your experience of being Grimes?
Yeah. Even just photo shoots. Everything was pushed to be so sexual.

Did you say no to anything?
At first, I was like, “I’m uncomfortable.” And I actually had a photographer say to me, “Oh, you should look uncomfortable, because it’s truthful.” And I’d be like, “Actually, I just don’t want to be wearing a leather bathing suit.” That’s not part of my image, but people would really force that stuff. Eventually, I started being really aggressive.

Does aggression come naturally to you?
I would say no, but it had to happen. The way things went from zero to 100 so fast, I had to completely change as a person in a three- or fourth-month period. I quit my job, went to [SXSW] and immediately got an opening slot on the Lykke Li tour that was one to 3,000 people shows. I’d played, like, ten shows. I’d get really nervous and freak out. That was a really intense time where I was constantly doing the most utterly terrifying things that I could imagine. But I knew if I didn’t do them, I would just be giving up an awesome thing.

Do you wonder about the person who’s coming out the other side of the Grimes experience? How did 2012 change you?
There’s a psychology to success. I was reading all these biographies and watching documentaries about people who are successful. It seemed like the only thread amongst everybody is that unflinching, “Yes, I can do this and I am the best.” It’s a personal rhetoric that you can develop. Like, if you go and tell journalists, “I’m the future of music,” then people start printing that. So I’m just going to tell everyone I’m making the future of music. I’m going to force the situation to happen.