‘SOME OF IT WAS A LOT OF FUN’
Whether it was drugs, alcohol or reckless sex, US singer John Grant lived on the brink of self-destruction. In recent years, he has developed close ties with Ireland through friendships and collaborations with Irish artists, including Sinead O’Connor. But
Four years ago, John Grant flew into Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival, walked into a shop and was recognised by a local. “His name was Denni. He said, ‘Hey, man, I love your stuff — if you want to go out to the country and see some things . . . ’ and he took me on a three-hour drive.”
Grant had been drifting, following two decades of bingeing on sex, drugs and alcohol. Viewing Iceland up close, he “saw this lunar and otherworldly landscape. A cold and treeless Hawaii. The light, the air, the language . . .” Language is important to Grant; he speaks German, Russian and Spanish, and has “a smattering of French, enough for them to understand, and I made really great progress in Swedish, but then I had a dark winter there — that’s where I found out I had HIV.”
Now Grant speaks Icelandic, too, because he fell for these islanders who let others live their lives as they choose. “Denni wasn’t coming on to me — he is a straight dude — that’s just how people are here.” It turns out that John Grant’s story, for so long so troubled, may finally be one of redemption.
In the run-up to meeting the songwriter, I took to describing him to the uninitiated as an angry, bearded, HIV-positive American who writes witty electronic pop music about his disastrous past relationships. That wasn’t really fair, then — he also writes beautifully arranged love songs with memory-worm lyrics such as “Baby, you’re where dreams go to die”— and it doesn’t even scratch the surface now I’ve spent a day with him.
We meet in Mokka, a coffee shop in the heart of Reykjavik, in whose wood-panelled and cosy interior he seems instantly comfortable (he was photographed here for the cover of his album Pale Green Ghosts). Wandering out of Iceland’s chill August air, he looms over me, handsome and heavily bearded.
Forty-eight-years old now, he came to worldwide success late. A sense of ‘When you get sober, the wheels start turning again’ — John Grant on stage at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2013 alienation mixed with a romantic naivety put him into a spiral that involved cocaine and alcohol addictions, dangerous sex and a self-destructiveness that, had he been more commercially successful at the time, or had it been the 1970s, would almost certainly have killed him. This is a theme he sings about on his new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure.
He traces his difficulties back to the homophobia of his youth in Michigan and then Colorado. “Being in school, whenever I laughed or smiled, I would turn to find someone staring at me with this terrible hatred and disgust,” he says with a thick residue of feeling. “I had to control everything — control my voice, control my facial expressions, control my hair and my clothes, and where I walked and where
‘Being in school, whenever I laughed or smiled I would turn to find someone staring at me with this terrible disgust’