“I wanted to make an escapist dream world,” says Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Montreal electronic artist Grimes, on the eve of her first cross-Canada tour. “During recording, I was taking a lot of science classes, and became obsessed with the book’s aesthetic.”
That book, as it turns out, is Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune, referenced in the title of her debut cassette, Geidi Primes. She’s re-arranged the name of one of Dune’s fictional planets, but it’s also a fitting analogy for the extraterrestrial never-never land she’s created.
Layering processed vocals over violin samples, Boucher’s wraith-like, retro-futuristic sound has drawn comparisons to everyone from Kate Bush to Micachu to, bizarrely, Tracy Chapman. However, her inspirational spark — one that initially had her making music at the tender age of 17 — dates back a few centuries further.
“I had the same synthesizer that I have now, but I was obsessed with Chopin at the time,” she says. “It was pretty pathetic. I basically just played the keys really fast and tried to memorize what I was doing so it sounded like classical music. From there, I would record it and layer things using cassette tape.”
If this sounds somewhat naïve, fans of Grimes’s skewed sci-fi pop might be surprised that she hasn’t exactly expanded on her process since. Her DIY bedroom approach recalls a scene from The Devil and Daniel Johnston — a documentary about the much-revered Texas experimental musician — which has a young Johnston seated behind a keyboard in a suburban garage, slaving over his work. Unaware of the possibilities of dubbing, he obsessively re-records an album front to back for each copy he hopes to hand out.
“I still don’t really know how to play any instruments,” Boucher says. “I make all the samples myself, but it takes hours and hours and millions of takes until I feel like I’ve played them right. I have the idea and I know how to do it, but I just don’t have the co-ordination. Usually, I’ll just play the same thing again and again until I get a good recording that’s in time, and then I can make a loop.”
These sound like the confessions of an outsider artist, and accordingly, Boucher admits that her music is neither noisy nor poppy enough to fit neatly into Montreal’s scene. Happily, she has her own community in Arbutus Records, an up-and-coming label that includes releases from Albertan expats Braids, Silly Kissers, Sean Nicholas Savage and her current tour mates, The Pop Winds.
“I’ve known Seb Cowan, who runs the label, since I was 15,” Boucher says. “We grew up in Vancouver together. Before Arbutus, there was a loft space in Montreal called Lab Synthese. Seb ran it as well, and that’s where I played my first show. Eventually, police shut it down, so we just made it into a record label. I would rather be on Arbutus than any other label in the world, even if there’s no money.”
For her upcoming tour, Boucher says she’ll be selling copies of her new album, slated for a September release. She’s excited to premiere her fresh material outside of her Plateau-Mile End safety zone, and with tour dates in unlikely locations such as Brandon, Man. and Nelson, B.C., she hopes this tour will help her overcome her performance anxiety, as well.
“I only play new songs. Actually, I’ve never played songs from Geidi Primes live because I never learned how,” she laughs. “As for my stage fright, if the sound is bad, sometimes I freak out and can’t play. As long as I don’t talk to people before the show, I’m usually OK. I don’t want to be rude, but if someone says something weird to me right before I go on it can really throw me off. I guess I just need to learn how to deal with different environments.”