Grimes Explained to UT Students Why Artists Should Make Songs With Her AI-Generated Vocals

Austin's new resident on the Drake deepfake track, TikTok, and MGMT

Grimes spoke at the LBJ Auditorium on April 24. Photography was not allowed. (Courtesy of the UT-Austin School of Design and Creative Technologies)

The electronic pop musician Grimes, who has lived in Austin since 2021, was initially booked to speak on UT-Austin campus April 5. She rescheduled due to illness within an hour of the planned talk.

Lucky for the returning crowd of a couple hundred students on Monday evening at the LBJ Auditorium, the intervening weeks allowed for percolation of a music industry kerfuffle of particular interest to the speaker.

Viral song “Heart on My Sleeve,” which uses artificial intelligence to imitate the voices of Drake and the Weeknd, emerged on the internet in early April. Last week, the track was taken off streaming platforms due to copyright violations. In response, Grimes invited fans to make music using an AI-generated version of her voice in a series of Tweets posted ahead of the panel, which was hosted by UT’s School of Design and Creative Technologies.

“We're making a program that should simulate my voice well but we could also upload stems and samples for ppl to train their own,” she posted. “I'll split 50% royalties on any successful AI generated song that uses my voice.” She invited artists to register their work on her website.

“Like the Drake song is an example of using a deepfake for a thing that’s culturally super positive. Or the Pope jacket Midjourney thing, I feel like that was a net positive.” – Grimes

The divisive Canadian musician, born Claire Boucher, doubled down on support at the Monday talk and said that “trying to do copyright strike-downs on people using AI generations of their voice just feels like fighting the inevitable, and fighting awesome creativity.”

From Grimes’ team, the panel also included her brother Mac Boucher, a creative director; her manager Daouda Leonard, founder of a web3 company; and Koto Murai, a “tech alchemist” who helped create a Grimes AI clone that she recently did a Q&A with. Leonard said opening access to Grimes’ AI voice wouldn’t be so different from when they released the music stems and video files for a single off her 2020 record Miss Anthropocene. The manager also compared concern over AI in music to early backlash against sampling in hip-hop.

The ideologically focused, hourlong conversation looped back on the recent Drake deepfake, which Grimes called “culturally super positive.”

Referencing misinformative social media posts by former President Donald Trump, Mac Boucher said: “It’s a weird place to be, culturally, that something that is entertainment is also seen as reality, and we don’t know how to actually digest it properly.”

Grimes then added: “We have a moral imperative to take that idea and make it positive right now, because it’s something that’s been so negative in our culture. … In many ways, it can be the forefront of creativity. Like the Drake song is an example of using a deepfake for a thing that’s culturally super positive. Or the Pope jacket Midjourney thing, I feel like that was a net positive.”

Midjourney is a San Francisco-based AI image service, similar to OpenAI's DALL-E.

Part of a pandemic migration of controversial Californians, Grimes moved to Austin due to her two children with Texas-based Elon Musk, who is the CEO of Tesla and Twitter. With no details of her local personal life revealed during the panel, she did mention her ex-boyfriend’s company. “The best education I’ve ever had is just shadowing people at companies that are doing really interesting things, like, for better or worse, SpaceX or Midjourney,” she said.

The talk was presented by philanthropists Karl and Nelda Buckman, whose Buckman Center for New Media will open on UT campus this year.

Find some other conversation takeaways from Grimes below.

On Blade Runner: “A lot of my favorite art sits in that weird middle space, where it’s already out of date by the time you have it. Like, the Blade Runner soundtrack is one of my favorite things for this reason, because it’s so tape and early synth. It just sounds so incredibly dated, but it’s so amazing, and it sits in this perfect historical moment, artistically.”

On staying plastic: “A lot of people, their brain starts calcifying in their late 20s, early 30s. There’s a lot of evidence that it’s actually very easy to get your brain back in a plastic state. One of the main things you can do is forcing yourself to read an hour a day, any new tool use, and then, I don’t want to endorse this, but psychedelics like mushrooms and LSD, in moderation obviously.”

On TikTok: “The first couple of years of TikTok were better than now. The songs that were viral were better, because there was less gatekeeping … Now, it’s a lot more structured. Like, TikTok is making their record label. There’s much more engagement with the major labels. You can pay to have viral TikToks. The stuff that’s on your For You Page is not natural, the way it was initially.

“I really want to go back to a place of public curation … I broke through in a similar time, it was right after Napster and MySpace and LimeWire and all this stuff. The major labels had very little power, and lots of very weird things became popular in that moment. That’s where you got MGMT. They were marketable guys, but they’re pretty shy, weird guys that don’t want to be doing promo stuff, you know?”

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