On a recent Saturday afternoon, shortly before leaving to tour Asia, Grimes was lounging around the house she shares with her brother and friend an hour outside Vancouver. The Canadian musician wore a blue silk kimono and crimson stockings, and her sleeves and fingers were spattered with paint—she'd been up late the night before, slaving over a fresh canvas.
Her living room was littered with her artworks, along with magazines, video games, dirty dishes, an elegant mauve Givenchy bag (a gift), an oversize plush Totoro doll, and, naturally, recording equipment.
It's a mix, but then so is Grimes (real name: Claire Boucher). Her oeuvre audibly melds a disparate array of genres, from syrupy Top 40 R&B to esoteric experiments à la Aphex Twin, and yet somehow she always manages to make her material gel. That's a testament to her confidence. She's an independent's independent: no producers, no studio wizards, no studio at all, actually. Like many of today's comers, Grimes works off her laptop.
"I've learned the hard way," she says. "I can't let people do my hair. I can't let people direct my videos. I can't let anyone touch my beats. I have to do everything. It's a lot of work, but it's also that I get to feel proud and completely in control, and I never have to worry about stuff being of bad quality or having to rely on other people."
The 25-year-old represents the next phase in the evolution of DIY. Nearly 40 years after the original punks turned the "do it yourself" slogan into an ethos, technology and social media have enabled those with the drive and the dream to give music a serious go—and go global with the click of a mouse. Grimes, a self-taught visual artist, music-video director, bedroom DJ, and choreographer, became an international phenomenon on her own terms. She doesn't like to be told what she can and can't do. She won't toe a record-label party line and isn't subject to some executive's marketing plan. She's a spirited original thinker who values pop music as highly as more so-called "alternative" forms. Grimes rejects the draconian strictures of independent culture she was weaned on—an environment that often frowns on mainstream music for being pabulum. "I wanted to make pop music because it was radical in the scene I was in," she explains. Or, as she put it on her Tumblr: "The first time I heard Mariah Carey, it shattered the fabric of my existence, and I started Grimes."
the fashion world, even though, she says, "I never read fashion magazines until I was in them."
In a few short years, Grimes learned to write and record music; honed her odd juxtaposition of avant-garde beats, dreamy vocals, and vocal trills; released three albums and an EP; and directed a handful of intriguing videos, several of which have racked up more than five million views each. Her last album, 2012's Visions, was short-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize and earned her accolades from music's cognoscenti—everything from glowing reviews on Pitchfork to resting near the top of the NME's year-end best-of list. She toured the world with Skrillex and Diplo, spreading her own gospel. She's done all this with little outside assistance.
Her fierce independent streak has attracted the fashion world en masse—even though, as she cheerfully admits, "I never read fashion magazines until I was in them." She's made it to the front row of Chanel Couture; she's played a private show for the opening of Versace's Soho boutique. "Grimes isn't interested in being a product. She is sincere, loyal, and authentic," says Donatella Versace. "I know that I'm hearing something new and sensational when listening to [her]. I haven't felt this way about a musician for a long time." Hedi Slimane not only took to her; after he photographed her for the cover of the British magazine Dazed + Confused, he invited her to collaborate on a capsule line with Saint Laurent. Now T-shirts featuring Grimes' artwork sell for around $350 each. "That's how much they cost?" she says, laughing. "I had no idea!"
Given her sound, you might expect Grimes to live in Brooklyn, or perhaps London's East End, but she finds that the frenetic pace of the world's cultural capitals gets in the way of writing music. Born and raised in Vancouver, Grimes now resides "out in the boonies," in a town of less than 20,000 people on the rugged shores of Howe Sound, the sort of place where it's entirely plausible to encounter a bear while taking out the trash. Pulp and paper used to be the area's primary draws, but these days it's a bedroom community for Vancouverites and a destination for those headed to nearby ski resorts like Whistler. It's in one of the wettest areas in Canada and is an outdoors person's paradise—a gorgeous, mountainous, and very foggy place where you could lose yourself, if you were so inclined.
Living there helps Grimes concentrate, she says. It takes a lot of strength to put her in the right frame of mind to compose; sometimes she's so anxious she pretends she's writing music for another artist to sing. Between tours and publicity dates, Grimes has been working on the follow-up to Visions, whose diffuse, gauzy pop has a gothic sheen, at once reminiscent of Dead Can Dance, the medieval music of Hildegard of Bingen, Animal Collective, and Beyoncé (who called that album out on her blog, the BeyHive, in late February, for being "fresh"). Although Grimes declines to describe the direction of her new material, at one point last year, she called it "industrial country." Now she says she's moved on. These days she's listening to Enya. "Enya's a badass," she says. "But the way she was marketed made her seem like she made music that your parents listened to at Christmas dinner. It's actually some of the most progressive music from the last 30 years."
Grimes took her moniker from MySpace, where "grime" was listed as a genre. The name was also a reference to outsider artist Ken Grimes, whose monochromatic paintings of extraterrestrials are clearly an influence on her visual lexicon. (Grimes has an alien head tattooed on her left hand. She's also an avowed sci-fi fan and has symbols from The Fifth Element tattooed on her knuckles.) The only girl in a family of four brothers, she grew up in Vancouver with a fascination for anime and graphic novels, which led her to visual arts. Her mother, then a practicing lawyer, worked for an independent publisher that produced Avril Lavigne comic books. "It was the bane of my existence," Grimes says. "At the time, I was like, 'Avril Lavigne is not a real punk.' But I love Avril Lavigne now."
At 18, Grimes moved to Montreal to study neuroscience and Russian at McGill University, but began hanging out with a crowd of artists and musicians, and gradually attended fewer and fewer classes. She says that initially she was on the periphery of the scene—creating the artwork for show posters, singing backup vocals for friends and roommates—until one night in 2009 when she asked musician Devon Welsh (a.k.a. Majical Cloudz, who recently signed with Matador Records) to teach her to use GarageBand. She proved a quick study, releasing her first record, Geidi Primes—a paean to Frank Herbert's Dune—on cassette. She dropped out of school soon after and began developing her music full-time.
Simultaneously, Grimes became aware that branding was an important part of her act. Branding, she says, is "an art form I'm very interested in." (She cites Karl Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace as two who have branded themselves heavily and well.) "When I came into this, I thought I was making art. It became obvious that my visual presence has become a huge part of the whole thing." She cultivated a complex visual style through her videos, which reaches its height in the short for "Genesis." Grimes conceived of it as a tribute to the Hieronymus Bosch painting The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, and tried to present "a futuristic impression of the way my childhood brain interpreted religious iconography."
That amounts to Grimes' friends driving an Escalade through the California desert wielding medieval weapons—a mace and a flaming sword—while she strokes a white python that doubles as a Britney Spears reference. She also dances alongside L.A. rapper/stripper/performance artist Brooke Candy, whose fearsome style—protean club kid with an evil streak—serves as a foil for Grimes' own girlish appearance. "It felt like we were creating something really epic, timeless, and magical," Candy says. "She set up every shot and was behind the lens directing every move I made. She is incredibly hands-on and super inspiring."
Which makes it little surprise that directing is the eventual aim. Grimes says she enjoys making music and her videos but wants to get into narrative film. She thinks of music as a young woman's game. She's not looking to remain in it, nor is she looking to act. (She confesses she was rejected from a studio production recently, which is where she learned that she's not an actor.) She knows that there will come a point when she won't want to star in her own work. "I don't want to have a career that is reliant on my looks. That scares me," she says. "I'm only going to be under 30 for five more years. Then that aspect of my involvement becomes worthless. I want a career. I want to do something that involves my brain. Because that can last until I die."