The real life and fantastic visions of a digital warrior
By BRIAN HIATT
1:45 p.m. on a Thursday, and Claire Boucher just woke up. She didn’t sleep well. Twenty-six-weeks pregnant, the arc of her belly currently nudging against a black Marvel Comics T-shirt, she had the distinct feeling last night that her fetus, which is in an uncomfortable, feet-down breech position, was “stepping on my organs.”
Since 2010, Boucher has written, performed, produced, and engineered some of the century’s most exciting, hardest-to-classify, most future-shock-y indie pop as Grimes — an alias she hastily selected at age 20 and is still stuck with at age 31. Offstage these days, she’s rechristened herself “c,” because that’s what friends always called her anyway, because she never liked the name Claire much, because it’s the symbol for the speed of light, because it makes her sound like some kind of sci-fi superhero, because why not, really. She is, in general, very particular about labels. “I hate when they call me a singer,” she says. “It seems so reductive.”
She’s always been nocturnal, has trouble getting anything done before dinnertime, would prefer to go to sleep as late as 9 a.m. and wake up at 5 p.m. “When I first got pregnant,” she says, “I tried to sleep at a reasonable time, and it actually made me feel really bad.” So even as she’s making many concessions to her expectant state, including workouts and doctor-mandated fortified cereal, she’s sticking to her off hours, maintaining a distant hope that motherhood won’t change them. “I think my kid will be nocturnal,” she says. “Currently it is! It doesn’t move during the day, only at night.”
She sighs — moans, really — at the suggestion that her child may inevitably pull her into the world of mornings. “We’ll see,” she says, mustering some cheer. “I might be about to ruin my life and career!” She laughs hard.
She’s in the pristine kitchen of a hotel-bland guesthouse on one of the multiple Los Angeles properties owned by her boyfriend of two years, Tesla founder Elon Musk, who is, she confirms, the father of her child. She lives with him in another house, not visible from this one, somewhere nearby. She looks somewhat out of place here, like the problem kid of a wealthy family, with her tattoos snaking out from the sleeves of the paisley turtleneck she’s wearing under the Marvel shirt.
Around her neck are two silvery necklaces, one with a tiny electric plug on it, another with a faux cigarette holder. “I don’t smoke,” she says. “But I feel like it’s provocative to be pregnant and wear a cigarette holder.” She’s wearing sweatpants, she notes, because she’s holding out on buying maternity clothes, mostly on the grounds that they’re a wasteful purchase. On her feet are boots that appear to be made of soft denim; she likes to think they make her look like she lives on Tatooine.
She’s been meaning to move her studio, which is really just an iMac and a few pieces of equipment, from the walk-in closet where she recorded much of her mesmerizing, just-released fifth album, Miss Anthropocene — she had a rough, nauseous early pregnancy, so it helped to be close to a bed. A journalist’s impending visit was the excuse she needed, so she transferred her stuff last night to an upstairs bedroom here.
Grimes photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford in Los Angeles, California, on February 12th, 2020.
Produced by Luke Miley at LMC Worldwide. Set design by Natalie Falt at Lalaland Artists. Tailoring by Kimberly Mackin. Hair by Chanel Croker for DNS. Makeup by Natasha Severino at Forward Artists. Nails by Vanessa McCullough. Styling by Brett Alan Nelson for The Only Agency. Dress by Balmain. Crown by Chris Habana. Shoes by Puppets & Puppets. Bracelet and ring by Lynn Ban.
She heads up a flight of polished dark-wood stairs, clutching a cup of tea. She’s made the bedroom feel like home already, with a House Targaryen blanket thrown over the bed (she has her quibbles with the final season of Game of Thrones, but also feels it was unfairly maligned). Against the wall is an arsenal of instruments, among them a seven-string Korn signature guitar (she has a thing for nu metal), a digital mellotron keyboard heard prominently on the Miss Anthropocene standout track “Idoru,” and a square metal device that turns out to be an experimental AI synth made by Google. Her computer sits on a cheap folding table, framed by a pair of high-end speakers she recently obtained in a barter with a friend, producer BloodPop of Lady Gaga fame.
It’s all facing a set of picture windows that offer a preposterous view, a billion-dollar view, you might say, of swaying trees, an entire golf course, and beyond it, much of the city of Los Angeles. She squints at the sunlight and at the decidedly noncloset-y luxury of it all. “It’s pretty nice,” she says, shrugging. “I guess.”
She, c, is one of the most thoroughly online people on Earth, a pure glowing creature of the internet. She talks faster and with fewer pauses than most humans, like a podcast played at 2x speed. Even her high-pitched, ebullient laugh sounds sped up. It’s terrifying to imagine what a conversation with her was like when, long ago, she dabbled in stimulants. (She does have the earthbound issue of a noticeable lisp, but she’s flipped that into a superpower of sorts — it means that microphones have an easier time with her voice, with zero sibilance problems.)
She loves to ponder the possibilities of artificial intelligences taking over the creation of art (not to mention the rest of human society), and is drawn not only to synthesizers but to the synthetic, from virtual reality to hair dye: Her hair is currently black at the roots, transitioning into a bit of blond, then pink on top, with an orange ponytail. She even, somehow, loves the artificiality of the chemical-oozing air fresheners favored by Uber drivers. Accordingly, the earthiest musical moment on her new album, the strummed acoustic guitars on the track “Delete Forever” (which shares its bizarro-country vibes with 2015’s “California”) is not what it sounds like. “Actually, hilariously,” she says, “that guitar is from a sample pack that I chopped up.” She fakes it so real she’s beyond fake.
She sometimes seems like an art-making AI in her own right, having swallowed whole a dauntingly wide variety of cultural references, from anime to Bollywood to old superhero comics. A conversation with her can end up, charmingly, as a re-enactment of the “Did you read it?” Portlandia sketch: “Do you know Lady Leshurr?… Have you read the Culture series?… Did you get up to the Klingon rape in Star Trek: Discovery?… You should read the beginning of this book by Max Tegmark called Life 3.0.” She’s also eager for recommendations, adding Moon and Source Code to her “movie and TV list” after a discussion of Duncan Jones.
Her music, veering between ethereality, aggression and Day-Glo ultra-pop, draws on influences that wouldn’t fit next to each other in any other era, from Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails to the U.K. electronic auteur Burial to the Cocteau Twins to Mariah Carey. (She doesn’t mention it, but her brother Mac Boucher points to a Marilyn Manson phase as well.) Last year, her most streamed artists were Doja Cat and synth genius/cheeseball Vangelis. One of her many tattoos is the word “Beautiful,” which turns out to have been in tribute to the Linda Perry-penned Christina Aguilera song; she’s also deeply conversant with Taylor Swift’s catalog. C is fond of the Smashing Pumpkins’ underrated synth-pop excursion Adore and “used to” think of herself as a semi-secret rock artist at heart. She has real affection for Corgan as a person. “Billy can’t keep his shit together,” she says. “And I so relate.”
The internet has been her friend since seventh grade or so, when, she admits with some guilt, she used it to cyberbully a teacher. Grimes was one of the last artists to benefit from the blog boom of the early 2000s — she still remembers that her first two pieces of press for her early music came from the blogs Gorilla vs. Bear and Cokemachineglow. Later, she’d use her Tumblr to push back at press coverage, objecting vociferously to individual sentences in articles or on her Wikipedia page in a way that no longer makes sense to her. “I was too emotional,” she says, laughing.
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone. Dress by Iris Van Herpen. Jewelry by Lynn Ban.
For all her ambivalent fascination with AI, the algorithms that help drive streaming recommendations don’t know what to do with her music; neither do some of the humans who make playlists. “Most of my music is unplaylistable,” she says. “Which is a huge problem: ‘This is not pop. This is not rock.’ They’re not discernible genres.” Even her penchant for long, cinematic introductions is a problem: “If someone hears 40 seconds without vocals, they’ll skip it.” For her next project, she can imagine making two simultaneous releases: one a set of playlist-friendly “bangers” à la “Violence” on Miss Anthropocene, a rare collaboration with a non-Grimes producer; the other a group of songs she’ll produce for other vocalists.
She confirmsthe story that Elon Musk first messaged her after seeing she had been the only other person alive to tweet a hyperspecific, hyperbrainy pun involving Roko’s Basilisk, a thought experiment about a murderous artificial intelligence. She simply did not grasp the extent to which the relationship would come to define her image, especially with a broader public that didn’t know her music — which, for all of its brilliance and subcultural popularity, has never been on commercial radio. She had just gotten past sexist assumptions that she couldn’t possibly be the sole producer, musician, and engineer on her songs and was feeling pretty good about her place in things.
“No one believes me about this,” she says, “but I just did not understand what I was getting into at all. Not that I’m mad about it. I just didn’t think it would be a thing. The shit that’s happened with my boyfriend this year has overwritten so much of my life’s work.”
If you stare long enough at the digital abyss, it will stare back at you, and eventually, it might not like what it sees. At least a vocal minority of the online world turned against her hard and fast as the relationship with Musk became public — “break up with elon NOW” was one emblematic tweet from a fan. “I was hard, hard, hard, left before,” c says. “I still actually sort of am, but there’s the obvious dissonance of my boyfriend. And I think this is the crux of most of the rage.” Inevitably, her relationship with a tech billionaire who has made political donations to some Republicans (as well as to Democrats) was painted as hypocrisy.
She sincerely believes, as she’ll explain, that Musk is a force for good — and she also supports Bernie Sanders for president. “The times are very unstable,” she says. “And people are comforted by black-and-white, and easy-to-understand. Society is in this big fight to change. And when you’re in a war, you have to be good side/bad side. It’s not like a welcome time for nuance, understandably so.”
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone
She’s experienced what she calls ego death, and doesn’t get as upset anymore about the criticism. “I’ve been canceled, like, four or five times,” she says. “It’s sort of hard, but then it actually makes it more fun. I was so getting worried about ‘You have to live up this standard,’ and there’s something very freeing in having disappointed people.” That laugh, even more sped-up-sounding than usual. “I feel like I can make more transgressive art.”
A lot of the furor seems to have died down, anyway, especially in the wake of positive reception to Miss Anthropocene. It helps that she has a sense of humor, which even some of her fans seem to miss. “People definitely think I’m really serious,” she says. “I don’t know why.” The song titles on the new album are a big hint: While the album is built around the heady idea of gods who anthropomorphize our current societal ills, from climate change to opiates, she nods cutely to Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a couple of places, including naming the otherwise bleak song “Darkseid” after the helmeted supervillain who shoots death rays from his eyes. (“My art style is really inspired by Jack Kirby,” says c, a visual artist before she ever made music. “I love how he does heavy chiaroscuro and black lines and those weird Kirby dot patterns.”)
Last July, she posted a manifestly absurd wellness routine on her Instagram account. After signing a real sponsorship deal with Adidas, she presented fake answers to a questionnaire from the company about her “training regimen” — which purportedly included “2-4 hours in my deprivation tank,” a studio that doubled as an infrared sauna, and most preposterously, an “experimental surgery that removes the top film of my eyeball and replaces it with an orange ultra-flex polymer.” It was picked up by dozens of news outlets (“Elon Musk’s girlfriend Grimes reveals bizarre eye surgery claim!”), many displaying minimal skepticism. Mac, her brother and creative partner, who’s deeply involved in the visual side of her work (though not the music), ghost-wrote the manifesto. “It said I developed the surgery myself!” she says, still laughing. “I was like, ‘Wow, everyone is super gaslit right now. No one knows what’s real.’” She particularly enjoyed that prank “because it was fucking bananas, and it plays into all the negative things everyone thinks I am or whatever.”
In the end, she says, “I’m not very good at keeping my brand as a unified front. Or maybe the brand is just chaos.”
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone
So how did she get this way? Claire Boucher grew up comfortably in Vancouver, the daughter of a government-attorney mother and an accountant-turned-entrepreneur father, with two brothers (and later, two stepbrothers) she sparred with and competed against. “I remember getting really good at this Pokémon video game because it was this ego shit that I had to defeat them,” she says. “I did track and field because I needed to be faster at running than my fucking brothers.”
She got her taste for universe-building, for sci-fi and fantasy, from her dad, who read Dune and Lord of the Rings to her and Mac as bedtime stories starting when they were as young as five. She got her DIY sensibilities, taste for adventure, and eccentricity from her paternal grandfather, an ironworker who lived in the woods and had ridden the rails after running away from home as a child. When she visited him one time in her college years, her grandfather had hired vagrants to work on the property. To keep her safe at night, he came up with an expedient solution: “He locked me in a shipping container with a pistol,” she recalls. (Mac says it was a shed, not a shipping container, but otherwise confirms the story.)
She hated her early years in Catholic school, but was happy enough, until her teenage years hit. “I was super-depressed, which is hilarious,” she says. “I was so ballistic when I think about it now. I don’t even know. I was into cutting myself, but not because I was sad, but because I liked how it looked to have nice shapes cut into my skin. I was so crazy. I’m worried about having a kid, because I’m so worried that my kid will be as crazy as me. I basically just didn’t think I would ever die. I’d drive on the highway with the lights off on the car and stuff. I was like, ‘This is cool,’ like, ‘Ha ha.’”
Her parents divorced when she was 12 or so, but she doesn’t blame any of her behavior on that. Mostly, she says, she was thrill-seeking more than acting out, sneaking out of her second-floor window at night and jumping down to the ground. Mac, a year-and-half younger, recalls being shocked as a preteen by the goth styles of Claire and her teenage friends — “bleached hair, piercings, homemade trench coats with Sharpie all over them, and my mom’s making them all cookies.”
It all took a darker turn, however, which she compares to the movie Thirteen. “I just got in an insane amount of trouble,” c says, “and in some very fucked-up situations and very traumatizing situations, and a lot of my close friends from that time actually ended up dying.” She alludes to law-breaking but doesn’t want to go into much detail, for fear of traumatizing her parents, jeopardizing the green-card status she’s seeking in the States, and/or casting “a bad reflection” on her boyfriend. “I never killed anyone,” she says, deadpan.
She got it together sufficiently to win acceptance to the prestigious McGill University in Montreal (“It wasn’t that hard,” she says with a shrug), where she took a psychoacoustics class that required her to learn the recording program Logic. She had no musical background whatsoever, other than a disastrous year of violin lessons at age nine. But after learning the software and hearing the way Animal Collective used loops, something clicked. She went home, started piecing together songs, and soon enough, Grimes was born. And despite the sophistication of all the songs she’s made since, she still doesn’t know even the basics of music theory, and can barely play the instruments she layers to fantastic effect.
“I don’t want to be practicing my guitar daily,” she says. “This would be such a massive time-suck! It’s just not an actively creative endeavor.” Acquiring the digital-production chops that allow her to record guitar chord by chord or violin note by note was a much wiser investment, she argues, persuasively. “I’d rather learn the future skills that will age better and have more applications.”
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone. Dress by Iris Van Her Pen. Jewelry by Lynn Ban.
The next afternoon,c is sitting on a kitchen counter, cross-legged, her ink-covered left hand on her belly, in another house on the other side of the city. She’s wearing the same sweatpants with a purple ruffly top she says has “medieval-slash-cyber vibes.” This house, all blonde wood, sunlight, and books (The Art of Overwatch, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, Modern Poker Theory, Capital by Thomas Piketty), serves as her creative headquarters — in her album credits, it’s listed as Media Empire HQ. Under a table in the living room is a row of heavy-duty gaming computers, glowing neon purple and throwing off palpable heat as they render one frame per minute of computer animation for the in-the-works “Delete Forever” video, which places live footage of her sitting on a throne in galactic-princess garb against an interstellar backdrop. (The throne itself is an apparent nod to Akira, the influential Eighties anime film and manga.)
Mac, a personable, Soylent-gulping sports fan who’s as cerebral and loquacious as his sister, is working at a computer monitor next to their friend Neil Hansen, who helps out with the video and tech side of the Grimes world. “The original concept we had was that c was sitting in a palace as the world burns, and counting jewels,” Mac says, sitting in a swivel chair near his sister’s pink guitar, tossing a basketball in the air. They thought about adding a second scene, something about a race of fairies dying off, but decided it was too much, not least because they have statistics suggesting most people watch only about twelve seconds of any particular music video. They stuck to one long shot of the space throne at the end of the world, a scenario that c acknowledges may play into certain perceptions around her own life.
When c is done rummaging for appropriately healthy snacks in the kitchen cupboard, she checks out the animation in progress. “This looks really sick,” she says, gazing at the celestial bodies in the sky behind her throne. “The moons are looking good. Do we have one too many moons, maybe?”
She flops onto a couch on the other side of the room, takes out a laptop, and begins editing another video, this one a lyric clip for “Idoru,” the love ballad that closes the album. Back in her studio is a copy of William Gibson’s novel of that name, which she’s reading after a friend reminded her of its existence, prompting her to change the song’s title from simply “I Adore You.” (A few weeks later, fans who grasp the connection pick up copies of the book and notice it was dedicated to Gibson’s daughter, Claire, which in turn prompts a tweet from Gibson himself, explaining that his daughter is just another woman named Claire, and not Grimes. “This is the weirdest simulation,” Grimes tweets afterward.)
Right now, the video is half-completed at best, a compilation of a lip-syncing Grimes styled in a geisha-like look with shots taken from anime and elsewhere. She gets the idea to unify the various elements by placing a digital effect of raining cherry blossoms over all of it. After a couple of minutes and a few clicks on her MacBook, the disparate footage looks like it belongs in the same universe. Suddenly, she has a video.
She enjoys this kind of autonomy, relishes doing it all herself, but doesn’t feel like she has to anymore. Even in her music, Grimes is ready for more collaborations, for outside producers, even. For a long time, she says, “I was obsessed with proving I was a good producer,” with showing she was as capable as any knob-twisting dude. She may have had one particular guy in mind. “It’s so dumb,” she says. “But I had this dumb beef with Diplo, and I just want to defeat Diplo.” (Why him? “We went on a tour [in 2012], and he was a cunt.”)
She wants to expand the Grimes experience considerably. “Her core tenets are fashion, beauty, gaming, art, and music,” says her manager, Daouda Leonard, who started working with Grimes last year following the devastating death of her longtime manager Lauren Valencia in July. “She really wants to build worlds, and has the ability to build worlds.”
One idea: designing digital clothes to sell to gamers as skins. “We might not be right,” c says, laughing. “We acknowledge it might be insane.” She and Mac are also working on an elaborate fictional universe involving what he calls “larger-than-life magical beings inserting themselves into the world.” It could end up as a movie, but Mac wants to start off with a comic book.
She’s already created an avatar, War Nymph, that will substitute for her in various promotional activities during her pregnancy in ways that may have to be seen to be understood. Among many other ideas, they’re talking about making their own deepfakes — AI-rendered faux-footage of Grimes — that they’ll map onto the avatar’s body. “I like the idea of having numerous consciousnesses acting simultaneously in the future,” she says, deeply on-brand. “I want it to be something bigger than just put out the song, and then promote the song, and then play a show, and then the music video, and then do it again. I feel like Grimes, as a musical project, was so youthful. I’m trying to figure out how to grow it up.” When she performs her old songs, she has to “do the baby voice, and that feels weird. This music was created by a very young person, in a very young state of mind.”
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone. Dress by Valentino. Earring and rings by Lynn Ban.
“Idoru” is an unabashed love song, but c actually wrote it about a pre-Elon boyfriend, even if the sentiment still applies. Another song, “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth,” comes closest to addressing her present circumstances. “It’s about getting pregnant,” she says. “The sort of tragedy of agreeing to it, even though it’s this great thing. For a girl, it’s sacrificing your body and your freedom. It’s a pretty crazy sacrifice and only half of the population has to do it. It was really profound to me when I decided I was going to do it, to actually go through the act of” — she drops to a near-whisper; her brother is in the room — “like, y’know, unprotected sex. I’m just like, I have sacrificed my power in this moment. I have, like, capitulated, And I have spent my whole life avoiding that situation. I have never capitulated to anything, so it was just a profound commitment.”
It was a commitment made for the simplest of reasons. “I do actually just really love my boyfriend,” she says. “So I was like, ‘You know, sure.’” Plus, she felt like she was moving beyond the trauma of her teenage years, with some help from Musk. “He’s just very good at talking me out of my bullshit,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about controlling my state of mind.”
A key test came with one of Grimes’ biggest, weirdest controversies, which apparently began with plans to work on an Azealia Banks album in 2018. Banks claimed on Instagram that she had been stranded alone at one of Musk’s properties waiting for c, and made various claims about her experience there that led to her tangential involvement in an SEC case against Musk. C is hesitant to talk about the details of the incident, other than to call it “a sad, dark thing. I just, like, forgive her, and forgiving her is really, really hard.” But she does reveal that she was distraught about it all. “I was losing my shit,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, oh, fuck.’ I felt I had caused the downfall of everything I care about and everyone I care about, like, I fucked everything up, like really crazy.” Musk calmed her — she imitates him snapping his fingers in front of her face. “He was just, like, ‘Snap the fuck out of it. You have to be in a battle right now.’”
Photographed and directed by Charlotte Rutherford for Rolling Stone
With the baby on her way, c‘s life is forever tied to one of the world’s richest and most famous men. “I just, like, waltzed into the situation, a crazy indie musician,” she says. Previously, “there hadn’t been a lot of repercussions to being crazy and hanging out with crazy people and doing crazy stuff.”
She is convinced Musk is not just changing the world, but potentially saving it: pushing away from fossil fuels with Tesla, nudging humanity to space with SpaceX, potentially repairing brains with Neuralink. In particular, she believes he is in a position to ameliorate climate change, the dangers of which looms over her new album. “I just really, truly, utterly believe in sustainable energy and the electric future and making humanity a multiplanetary species,” she says. “There are a lot of problems in the world that we need to solve. The government does not truly have the capacity to solve them. My boyfriend is actually doing it, tangibly, visibly — like, you just can’t deny it.”
C remains concerned about income inequality. “It was something I spoke about a lot before dating my boyfriend, which is one of the reasons people were upset about our relationship,” she says. But, in her mind, Musk isn’t “buying yachts.” “If someone’s just gonna take everything and just put it into R&D to make the world better, and just get up at the fucking crack of dawn every day and go to bed really late every night, doesn’t take vacations and just actually puts every single ounce of his energy in everything he cares about and all his money into making the world better? Like, I can make an exception. I admire it a lot. I think it’s great. To me, it does not contradict my beliefs.”
She goes further: “When I look at the aims of my boyfriend and I look at the aims of Bernie, like, their end goals are very similar. Fix environmental problems, reduce suffering. It’s worth dissecting the wealth gap, it’s worth dissecting the existence of billionaires, but situations have nuance.”
Her faith that Musk’s money is devoted to essential projects is one reason she doesn’t accept any of it toward her own work. “Grimes is funded by Grimes,” she says. “I don’t want to divert funds from, like, Tesla to my stupid art project. I can’t say the things I say and believe what I believe and then take money from my boyfriend.” A pause. “I mean, I would like child care.”
If anything, her proximity to a world-shaking Silicon Valley power center has expanded her sense of possibility. “I mean, when you see some of the things that I’ve seen,” she says quietly, “then you just start being like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Like, it can be better. The problems are solvable.” That extends to her own career, too. “I like to aim very high,” she says, her hand resting on her stomach again. “Because even in failure, I think I’ll get higher than if I didn’t aim very high. I’m not afraid of failure.”
She smiles. “And I’m not afraid of embarrassing myself.”
Additional credits: Photographer’s Assistants: Kevin Coffey & Lance Williams Digital Technician: Buddy Bleckley Post-production Supervisor: Felix Geen VFX Artists: Metapoint.xyz & Felix Geen 3D Assistant: Maximiliane Galgenmaier Assistant Director: Emily Mathason