Grimes: from goth-ballerina to electro-pop artist

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Before she became electro-pop artist Grimes, Claire Boucher spent 11 years of her youth in Vancouver twirling her way toward a life in ballet. Then she discovered Goth music, shaved her head and, as she says, became “a bad kid.”

“The shaved head – it was a huge problem in ballet,” she says. “I thought I was gonna end up being some kind of homeless person. I didn’t see music in my future. I didn’t see anything in my future, really.”

She got it together by the time she was 18, though, and went off to study at McGill University in Montreal. She majored in philosophy and psychology with a double minor in Russian language and electro-acoustics; the latter course of study was her way of indulging an ever-present but never actively pursued interest in music.

“I stopped enjoying school, mainly because I realized that the last thing I wanted was to have a job sitting at a desk,” she says. “I’d hang out with my friends, everyone chilling out, and one guy would be recording stuff. He’d say, ‘I need some girl background vocals on this track,’ and I’d volunteer. It was instant gratification, positive affirmation. ‘Hey, you can sing.’ I would watch my friends using the software to create tracks. It didn’t seem complicated, and I had this lightbulb moment: I can do this!”

Boucher used a computer as her band, initially building tracks that featured her tentative vocals atop glitchy textures and kick-drum dance beats.

“I didn’t own any instruments and wasn’t really able to play anything,” she says. “I didn’t see the point of getting instruments if I could make fake guitars and drums on the computer. It has more possibilities: you turn the sub bass up, create a sine wave, and play with the wave form.”

Her first show at a friend’s loft space in Montreal might’ve been enough to abort the careers of most wanna-be performers.

“I don’t remember much, because I was completely blanked-out drunk I was so nervous,” she says. “I tried to play my entire show on ukulele, the only instrument I could find. This was before I found out about samplers. It was a notably terrible show. I played for 10 minutes, but I realized I could do better. And eventually I did. It was bad, but anything was better than what I was doing at the time, which was writing grants and working at the school radio station.”

She started developing an act when she bribed a friend to give her some technology lessons. “Kyle was homeless, living in a band’s jam space, and I traded him two cans of chick peas and some olive oil in exchange for teaching me how to use a sampler. What was strange about that experience is that Kyle had no idea what olive oil was until that day.”

Kyle taught her well. “The thing about music is it’s not an obscure pursuit, it’s a very natural thing for human beings to do,” Boucher says. “Once you put in the effort, the learning curve is very fast.”

She learned by doing. Boucher took gigs anywhere she could find them, playing shows in basements, lofts and bars with no monitors, and became more demonstrative and assertive as a singer and dancer behind her keyboards and sampler. “I was really poor and desperate,” she says. “I was driven by the idea that I had no other options.”

She self-released a couple of albums in 2010, which expanded her audience. The next year she recorded the album that would become her 2012 4AD debut, “Visions,” in her bedroom with a keyboard, computer, computer interface and microphone – a few hundred dollars worth of gear. “Visions” was soaked in the ambiance of that room: dark, danceable, introspective, unsettling.

“I thought I’d put the album out with friends, but labels started talking to us,” she says. “We went with 4AD because it was the only label that never asked me to change anything artistically. Everyone else wanted to change something about the record or my appearance. There was an assumption that I wanted to be a major-label pop singer and these label people wanted me to work with a quote-unquote ‘real’ producer. That was upsetting to me because that’s what I assumed my job was.”

Even though she’s now got a prominent label supporting her music with a presumably larger budget to make recordings, Boucher says she won’t buy in completely. She’d rather make her next recording at home.

“I’m against spending money to record,” she says. “And the record I’m working on now won’t cost me much at all.”

She has one indulgence in mind, though: “I’ll get a nice microphone.”

greg@gregkot.com

Grimes: 9 p.m. Tuesday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., $18; metrochicago.com.

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