Feeling This: A Conversation With Grimes The electronic artist born Claire Boucher goes long on gender politics in music studios, the perks of being a science major and why her favorite songs are those that deliberately unsettle the ear.
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Feeling This: A Conversation With Grimes

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Feeling This: A Conversation With Grimes

Feeling This: A Conversation With Grimes

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A girl vocal - when Claire Boucher, the Canadian electronic music artist known as Grimes, first recorded a song, she was helping out a friend who said he needed a girl vocal. She thought she was a bad singer, but afterwards she had another thought.

CLAIRE BOUCHER: I mean, I wasn't good, but I was not the worst, which was extremely encouraging to me. Like, the fact that I wasn't literally the worst singer on planet Earth made me think that I was, like, a god.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA")

BOUCHER: (Singing) The things they see in me I cannot see myself.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

She's still not a god, but half-a-decade later, Grimes is a marquee name at massive festivals like Coachella and has three well-received albums under her belt. She's touring on "Art Angels," her latest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA")

BOUCHER: (Singing) California, I didn't think you'd end up treating me so good.

CORNISH: She wrote, produced and engineered all the songs, including this one, "California." And that's no small feat, given the crowded and male-dominated field of electronic music. And the thing is, before she was Grimes, before that friend asked her to sing, Claire Boucher wasn't just any girl vocal. She was a neuroscience major studying electroacoustics at McGill University in Montreal. I asked her whether she thought that background gave her an edge.

BOUCHER: I don't know if it's actually that practically useful. You know, 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 this study that we read about when I was in class or whatever, and it was, like, they pulled tons and tons of people and they found out the most loved type of music and the most hated type of music. And actually, the most beloved music is deep women's vocals, so Beyonce and Adele and stuff. That makes sense.

CORNISH: Oh.

BOUCHER: But, like, the most hated - I forget what it was. But it was, like, children's choirs and stuff.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

BOUCHER: And, like, I love children's choirs.

CORNISH: No disrespect to children's choirs out there.

BOUCHER: And - oh, and, like, high female vocals - people hate that. And I have a high female voice obviously, so I think it just depends.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIMES SONG, "EASILY")

CORNISH: So the women's voice thing is also interesting. I want to play a song I feel like I was almost surprised to hear on this album called "Easily"

BOUCHER: Oh. Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: Which is very much - I don't know. It sounds like you enjoying your own voice (laughter).

BOUCHER: Oh, really? Oh, it's actually my least favorite song on there for some reason.

CORNISH: Oh, no. All right, well, let's let people hear it. They'll decide.

BOUCHER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASILY")

BOUCHER: (Singing) Never better, just less immediate. You come and go, but I love you so - so easily. I'm the sweetest damn thing you ever saw, easily. Suddenly, you don't know me at all, easily.

CORNISH: So, Claire Boucher, what don't you like about this? I think it's quite sweet.

BOUCHER: I just think it's really basic. I don't know. It kind of makes me uncomfortable. But also, I think being uncomfortable - 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.

CORNISH: 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, right, which is not about being bubbly?

BOUCHER: It almost just feels like something that I don't do. And yeah, I do kind of like - I don't know - like, songs more like "Scream" or something. They feel more natural to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIMES SONG, "SCREAM")

BOUCHER: I don't know. There's usually at least one thing that throws people. I like to have at least one thing in a song that's kind of a bit jarring.

CORNISH: Right. Which, in "Scream," is super-effective, right - this song where you have this rapper who's just delivering on such great menace, and then the beats and then the chorus of this, like, this primal, kind of punk-like scream.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIMES SONG, "SCREAM")

BOUCHER: And the other thing about songs that are really singing-oriented is that they're much harder to perform live.

CORNISH: Do you like performing?

BOUCHER: Well, it's complicated. It's not my favorite thing, but it is way better than working at Starbucks.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

BOUCHER: Like, it's definitely not what I would do if I could make a living doing something else, like - because I just have terrible, terrible stage fright. But it's on the better end of jobs. Like, you still get to travel. It's great to travel the world and stuff like that.

CORNISH: Yeah, I was about to say, you're doing Coachella. I mean, stage fright doesn't seem like a good match (laughter) for some of the stages you're playing. These are big, big stages.

BOUCHER: Well, I mean, you can always override it. It's just very difficult. When you're kind of just bombarding people with crazy, it's so much less daunting than when you have to, like, be a sweet, like, great vocalist who can, like, do runs and stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILL V. MAIM")

BOUCHER: (Singing) I got friends in high places. I get out for free. I got in a fight, but they don't know me 'cause I'm only a man, and I do what I can.

CORNISH: In a way, do you feel like you have been both rewarded and penalized for your voice?

BOUCHER: Yeah. I mean, I think my voice is very - it 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, uh, 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 - you know, even if they're not the best, but they have a voice that you can immediately recognize, I think that's a really awesome trait.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILL V. MAIM")

BOUCHER: (Singing) The fire hurts so right 'cause we make them all go crazy. We can make them all...

CORNISH: Well, Claire Boucher, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOUCHER: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It's an honor.

CORNISH: Claire Boucher is Grimes. Her latest album is called "Art Angels."

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