Alternate Identities: Grimes, Esperanza Spalding, And The Power Of Persona

Female artists are finding freedom in being someone else

When Claire Boucher released last fall's Art Angels, her fourth album as Grimes, she was adamant: "Grimes" is a constructed persona. On the LP, the musician-producer sang from fantastical perspectives including those of a vampiric mafioso, a "Ginger Spice" type, and her Harley Quinn–inspired stage character. She turned to this radical new approach, she said, because press scrutiny had all but ruined the experience of being Grimes for her.

Art Angels may be the beautiful detritus of her rising fame, but Boucher has been pushing back on overly facile ways of thinking about artistic identity for years. "Once you’re in the public eye ... there’s you as a person and there’s you as a brand," Boucher said in a 2012 interview. "You as a brand is a public thing, and you have to separate that from you as a human being." In order to make space between those aspects of herself, Art Angels offers an array of new perspectives that delineates the differences between the two. It's no longer possible to mistake Grimes for a neat mirror image of Claire Boucher.

Boucher is hardly alone in this separation of idea from creator. On Esperanza Spalding’s new album, Emily's D+Evolution, the bassist-singer introduces us to her inner child, "Emily," a returning prodigal daughter who recasts Spalding’s jazz as sprawling funk rock. In interviews, Spalding talks about Emily as if she were a real person, a presence that overtook Spalding’s creative process one day. "Emily is a ‘middle me,' that's in there, but I haven't used her since I was young; she's been growing as I've been growing," she told NPR.

On Bat for Lashes’s forthcoming concept album The Bride, Natasha Khan sings as a widowed newlywed who ventures on her honeymoon alone. It's a fascinating turn given her history: Critics often took issue with the fairy-tale opulence of Bat for Lashes’s music around the time of her debut, 2006's Fur and Gold, and her breakthrough second album, 2009's Two Suns, whose mystical narrative centered on Khan’s bon vivant alter ego, Pearl. One review of Fur and Gold chided Khan for "Ren Faire silliness"; "Khan radiates authority and confidence," wrote Richard Cromelin at the Los Angeles Times of Two Suns. "All that's left is to shed the skin of those influences and show what she's really made of." These shallow, surface-level criticisms were reminiscent of the ones Mary Timony faced after Helium's late-1990s split, when she began to write solo music filled with dryads and dungeons, only to see her medieval imagery mocked for being indulgent. "The way I was portrayed is totally stupid," Timony has recalled.

Khan might lodge a similar complaint. Why was she criticized for not being “real” enough when she was clearly giving listeners a highly referential fantasy? Isn't that missing the point just a little? When her stripped-down 2012 follow-up, The Haunted Man, came out, Khan was praised for not "trying too hard" and for the ways she seemed to tap deeper into her true self. Taken together, the two albums told a powerful story about women’s private and public dualities and the performance of femininity. The Bride is her first Bat for Lashes album since then; if "In God’s House" is any indication, Khan might be returning to Bat for Lashes's origins as a vehicle for fantastical, baroque synthpop and characters we can get lost in.

Kristin Welchez, better known as Dee Dee from the dream-garage band Dum Dum Girls, recently launched a solo career as Kristin Kontrol. In an interview with Stereogum about the switch, Welchez says she was tired of slotting perfectly into a preexisting framework: "I’m growing and no one’s noticing." Dum Dum Girls are a band with a striking aesthetic and sound, but they’ve also been relegated to exceptionalist "women who rock" lists for the past few years. By becoming Kristin Kontrol and making more pop-leaning electronic music, Welchez demands that people see her not just as an anonymous Female Rock Star, but as a musician with robust tastes and talents who can make music just as powerful with or without a guitar. She's hitting reset, forcing us to rise to the occasion and see female creators as something more than our preconceptions.

Haley Fohr, who started her recording career as Circuit des Yeux in her teen bedroom in rural Indiana, has recently transformed into "Jackie Lynn." The redheaded Lynn wears a professional-grade painter's respirator as a mask, a white cowboy hat, and a homemade Nudie suit, looking like Gram Parsons returned as a postapocalyptic superheroine. The backstory? Lynn was a cocaine distributor in Chicago known for throwing lavish parties, and she left this LP recording behind for the police to find. Given how vocal Fohr has been about her dissatisfaction with Circuit des Yeux's public reception, it isn't surprising that she created a dramatic new persona. She's spoken extensively about her demoralizing experience at 2014's Hopscotch Festival, where she faced a noisy, indifferent crowd; elsewhere, she's talked about how strange it is to feel defined by fans who see her music as "weird" or "avant." "To be frank, I never thought what I was doing was strange until hundreds of people have told me so," she said in an interview last year. "I’d prefer to remain undefined, but mostly, I’d just like to be unabashedly me." Instead, she's gone in the opposite direction and become Jackie Lynn. Perhaps she wants to be understood, or maybe she's just realized that can be too much to ask of an audience.

For male artists as varied as David Bowie and Future, new personas have been taken as signs of how deep their creative imaginations run: Their art and creation is seen as so overflowing, so limitless, that it can hardly be contained in a single person. For many of these female changelings, the persona is something more urgent, a bold step toward mere recognition of their art and all it contains. These (female) artists have struggled with how they are perceived, and seem hyper-aware of how changes in their music may be (mis)understood, critically and otherwise. They are saddled, moreover, with the task of being women in public. Through their conscious choices to shape-shift their sound, their lyrics, and their look, they alternately scramble and elucidate their work. To be seen and obscured, to put distance between the perspective in the lyrics and the woman singing them, to slip the idea that all women’s art is confessional — to get free of all of this, they lose themselves in the mix.

Artists like Fohr, Spalding, and Welchez are doing something fundamentally different from post-Madonna pop stars like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, too. Where pop music is expected to hinge on artifice, the idea of authenticity is still fetishized in much of alternative music, as listeners poke and prod at artists' lyrics to see if they’re singing about their own lives. That scrutiny has historically been particularly intense for women. Take PJ Harvey, a fearless shape-shifter from the very beginning of her career. She’s been the gender-bending "50 Ft. Queenie," the baby-drowning folk singer on "Down by the Water," the murderess Gothic ghost on White Chalk, the shell-shocked World War I poet of Let England Shake – and yet people still search for the autobiographical meaning in her work. "Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they’ll listen to ‘Down by the Water' and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her," she famously said.

Perhaps if Harvey had adopted more drastic measures, audiences might have had an easier time seeing the separation, as Grimes said, between the brand and the human being. Personas aren't really about breaking with the past; they're about breaking with the present and all the misplaced assumptions it is freighted with. By changing their hair, their name, their story, these artists take a step toward becoming unabashedly themselves, as Fohr put it. In an industry that puts a mountain of expectation on female creators – for Khan to be less frivolous, for Fohr to be more accessible, for Spalding to stand for all of jazz – becoming someone entirely new can be the best way to get free.