Grimes’s first record was a Dune-inspired concept album called Geidi Primes, a reference to the militaristic planet ruled in the recent movie by an enormous Stellan Skarsgård. (She dubbed herself Grimes because MySpace allowed her to associate herself with three musical genres, and she liked the name "grime," then a nascent British music scene.) Her father read Frank Herbert’s book to her when she was four. She loved it. At one Met gala, she cornered Sting, who starred in David Lynch’s much-derided adaptation, and freaked him out with a heavy dose of Dune fangirling.
For years Grimes harbored a dream of directing her own adaptation of Dune, with the more problematic colonialist elements scrubbed out, but when she heard about Denis Villeneuve’s two-part blockbuster, she fangirled all over again and signed on to help with the rollout, originally scheduled for November 2020. ("I was basically an influencer.") And then, she adds, she got canceled from Dune because of the Communist Manifesto thing. She was crestfallen, but she understood. "There are things that are deeply not woke in the Dune universe," she says, so the studio had to be extra-cautious, and she was far from indispensable.
When she finally saw the movie, she realized to her astonishment that this story she’d adored since she was far too young for it, that she knew almost by heart, that inspired her first album—this story was now her story. Specifically Lady Jessica’s story. This goes by fast onscreen, but Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson) is not a wife but a concubine. Grimes saw herself in Jessica, and she saw X in Jessica’s son, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet). Paul is more than a duke’s son. He’s a chosen one, tasked with becoming a great leader. "When I see X," she says, "like, I just know X is going to have to go through all this really fucked-up shit that sort of mirrors Paul-type stuff." Watching it wrecked her. "I was just crying my eyes out the whole movie."
She knows this might sound absurd. Grandiose. She wishes it felt that way to her too.
"I feel like there’s very few people in the world who could have similar sentiments about their son than Claire with X," Mac says when I relay this to him. I ask if it’s surreal to watch his sister live this life. "Yes," he says, laughing. "But I’m also not really surprised? Because she somehow always gets into the most insane possible scenarios."
By the summer of 2019, Grimes was in the early days of her romance with Musk and getting canceled online for it, and she was also finishing Miss Anthropocene, her long (long) awaited follow-up to Art Angels, all while her longtime manager and closest daily confidant was dying of cancer. Her life, she says, has always been "level-10 chaos." This was level 11. She’d been making everything by herself for a decade, and she was sick of it.
She needed to figure out a new way to be an artist, which meant figuring out a new way to make money being an artist. "I hate touring, and I hate selling merch," she told her new manager, Daouda Leonard, during their first FaceTime call. He laughs at the memory. "If you know anything about being a manager in the music industry.…" At this point most managers would have hung up. Instead he said, "Cool, you’re going to tour in the metaverse and you’re gonna sell digital assets, digital goods. Okay. Problem solved."
They got to work creating an avatar of her body, dubbed WarNymph, and in February 2021 Grimes became among the first musicians to sell an NFT collection of digital artwork, some with accompanying music. Mac’s idea. She generated $6 million from that one drop—more than she’s ever made from any of her albums. They engineered a deepfake of her voice that she plans to release with other IP inside metaverse experiences and gaming platforms like The Sandbox, a sort of open-source creative experiment. Look at fan fic, she says. So much inventive stuff is happening there if you know where to look. She has similar plans for an A.I. girl group she’s designing named NPC, which is gamer speak for "nonplayer character." She puts the A.I. girl group out into the world, you go make something with it.
"Personally, I don’t think ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is an insult. I exactly identify with all of those terms. I understand it’s supposed to be a critique of certain things, but then I challenge that critique."
The NFT project was so lucrative that if it had happened two weeks earlier, Grimes says, she might not have signed her first major-label deal with Columbia Records. No shots at Columbia, she adds—they’ve been great—but she only did it to pay for the ambitious videos she had in mind. The one for "Shinigami Eyes," a futuristic dance-pop phantasmagoria, was among the first music videos filmed on an extended reality (xR) stage similar to what was used to make The Mandalorian.
Of course, signing with a major label was considered yet another betrayal by the Grimes purists, but where they see a sellout, she sees creative liberation. You sign with a label—any label, of any size—for money, which you can either put into your pocket or plow back into the mission.
The foot traffic is heavier the next afternoon when I return to Grimes’s house, including little X. He arrives about 30 minutes after his mom and I have settled back into the anime nook, and as he charges through the door she leaps to her feet with a delighted yelp. He says a friendly hi to me and later makes a bid for her laptop so he can watch My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s classic with the giant Catbus.
In solidarity with all the new moms out there, Grimes is wearing the same outfit as yesterday. She hasn’t touched her makeup. Respect. While she gets X on his way for a playdate, I take in the view of the Colorado River from the living room. I look down and see a neat pile of picture books, and at the bottom, Time’s Person of the Year issue with X’s father on the cover. The room is dominated by a massive red couch shaped like a giant Tootsie Roll, and it looks amazingly comfortable, but the kids have done a number on it, possibly both numbers, so Grimes sits cross-legged on the floor instead, and we discuss the Elephant of the Year in the room.
"We live in this society right now where people expect everyone to behave right, and talk right," she begins. "You have these manifestations of genius, but then you want them to behave normally—but the reason they’re like that is because they’re so disconnected from correct behavior." Humans are beautiful and toxic in equal supply, she says. "Like, we fuck up. We’re all gonna do bad things in our life. We’re all gonna do stupid things." She’s talking about Musk, but once again she could be talking about herself. "They’re both such deeply original thinkers," says Liv Boeree, whom Grimes drafted to costar as her black swan in the video for a Book 1 track called "100% Tragedy." "The lines blur with them about whether it’s even art versus engineering or science, because really we’re talking about creating something that does not exist."