Claire Boucher's early experimentations were a far cry from the music she makes today. Halfaxa, 15 ethereal tracks in which her vocals approached pure glossolalia, is Grimes at her most mystical.
Montreal, 2006: a young misfit from Vancouver enrolls at McGill University. In between studying neuroscience, philosophy, Russian, and electroacoustics, Claire Boucher started making freaky GarageBand songs under the name Grimes. She became a fixture at Lab Synthèse, a DIY loft space that encouraged collaboration among artists like Sean Nicholas Savage, Braids, Blue Hawaii, and Majical Cloudz. Boucher's early experimentations were a far cry from the sugary K-pop punches she makes today, instead leaning towards slow-building, dense, and jumbled productions. Her first proper release, 2010’s Geidi Primes, received unexpected praise beyond her local scene. Nine months later, she released Halfaxa, 15 ethereal tracks in which her vocals approached pure glossolalia.
Halfaxa is Grimes at her most mystical. Boucher has referred to it as her "medieval album" in terms of intent and subject matter. She once explained that the record is meant to be an electronic interpretation of Middle Age Christian reverence, an exploration of sensations beyond earthly experience: "I wanted to capture the beauty of being in a beautiful cathedral and hearing reverbed (naturally), devotional, vocal music and really believing in heaven and hell." Many of Boucher's theories for Halfaxa were inspired by her own "idol" at the time, Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German saint without musical training whose music was inspired by divine visions she received starting at the age of three. As explained in von Bingen's theological text Liber Vitae Meritorum, after The Fall, music became a means of accessing a lost state of perfection. Boucher would later lament that her early musical ventures were recorded when she "didn’t really know what [she] was doing," but listeners discovering Halfaxa in 2016 are aware of her technical ascent, producing and engineering 2015’s Art Angels entirely on her own.
Accordingly, Halfaxa is not direct in the same manner as Visions or Art Angels, which are less enigmatic and perhaps more easily digestible. Lyrics are abstracted to the point of becoming unintelligible, but not in a way that is grating or guttural. Instead, Boucher channels her inner cherub; her singing evokes harps atop clouds. Vocally, Halfaxa finds Boucher inspired by Mariah Carey's soaring top notes and purity of tone. On "Intor / Flowers," Boucher’s voice stretches towards heavenly octaves before layering itself beneath soprano sighs. The most mysterious songs on Halfaxa rely solely on tone, elongation, and repetition so heavily that it is best to give up the search for linear movement completely. Her vocals reaches such high peaks throughout that by the end of the record the distinction between machine and musician blurs.
Offering a deeper sense of Grimes' world, Halfaxa's song titles reference Boucher's diverse intellectual interests. "Weregild," a jittering incantation of a dance track, takes its name from an archaic legal value placed on all beings and pieces of property, based on social rank. The latter half of "sagrad прекрасный" means "beautiful" in Russian, and "Dragvandil" is a Viking sword in Final Fantasy XI. With these titles, Boucher is teasing signifiers and then distorting meaning, ultimately keeping the personal to herself, underscoring her eccentricity. Referring to her ex-boyfriend, Majical Cloudz’s Devon Welsh, "Devon" is the closest thing to an explicit expression of devotion. Inside her syrupy murmurs, Boucher proclaims, "But you don’t love me anymore/ And I’ve never felt so broken up before." It’s a startlingly clear moment within an album that strives to limit direct interpretations.
Somewhere along the line, Boucher lost the rights to her early records. Six years after its original release, Halfaxa is being reissued by Arbutus, her first label. Boucher has made it clear that she has nothing to do with the reissue. Copies of the record sell for over $200 online, so reissuing it on vinyl is a convenient way for Arbutus to make Halfaxa more accessible while also making money. It's an unfortunate shadow to have attached to her early work, but nonetheless, Halfaxa foreshadows the musician Boucher is today: enigmatic, intimate, and uncompromising.
-Quinn Moreland, pitchfork