To the wilds of Cornwall, where JOHN GRANT is preparing to release a splendid new album, Love Is Magic. There are synths, rollercoasters and, as the notoriously self-critical singer-songwriter tells Stephen Troussé, a renewed sense of purpose. “Maybe I
We meet the disarming singer-songwriter in the wilds of Cornwall as he prepares to release fine new album Love Is Magic
John Grant believes in magic. he’d be crazy not to. We’re sitting in an old modernist schoolhouse, nestled in the wild, occult heart of Cornwall. The house-studio, belonging to his producer and collaborator Benge (aka Ben Edwards), is festooned with vintage analogue synthesisers, Japanese sci-fi figurines and Wang Chung picture discs. We’re looking out over an almost parodically beautiful English garden, patrolled by a huge, bounding, loveably daft briard called Rothko. Late summer clouds scud over Bodmin Moor.
After years struggling with childhood trauma, alcohol dependency and depression, after six critically acclaimed but commercially neglected albums with The Czars, after being on the verge of quitting music for good, Grant has just turned 50 and is about to release Love Is Magic, the richest, boldest record yet in an implausibly successful solo career. As he sings on “Is he Strange?”, one of the most heartwrenchingly sublime songs in a catalogue now stuffed with them, “Decades of everything wrong gave way to everything right.”
“What does magic mean to me?” he wonders, pondering this incredible turnaround. “Being surprised by hope? The unexpected becoming possible? Like being able to enjoy everyday life after years of battling depression and waking up in fear every day? Wondering is it always going to be like this?”
“I did struggle with this record,” he continues. “Look at this view,” pointing out the window at the rolling Cornish fields. “I mean, could this place be any more idyllic? Working here was one of the happiest times of my life. But even so, you find you’re constantly questioning the process. Am I doing it right? Is this how you’re supposed to do it? There are so many people out there making music who I imagine would never question themselves like this. And. I. Loathe. Every. One of them!”
His laugh, when it arrives, is a magnificent thing, booming out of him, shaking his whole body, resounding through the room. There’s something of the magic of the man in the rollercoaster moods and hairpin turns of his answers, gliding through tentative optimism and blithe daftness before plunging into crippling selfdoubt, rising through ribald scorn then down into acute despair, before ultimately emerging with the most profoundly infectious laughter. He is a great aficionado of the rollercoaster. In fact, he’s just back in the uK after spending his 50th birthday with friends and family at Cedar Point, Ohio: “The Rollercoaster Capital of the World™”.
“I had an incredible birthday,” he tells me when asked if turning 50 had been hard. “One of the greatest I ever had. Friends and family from all over, riding the biggest and best rollercoasters… I’d love one day to travel the world and take artistic shots of rollercoasters. They’re just incredible feats of architecture…”
Are you drawn towards rollercoasters because they reflect something of your own emotional ups and downs?
He thinks for a moment, as though it’s genuinely the first time it’s occurred to him. “I really hope I’m not that predictable,” he smiles wryly, shaking his head. “I certainly hope not…”
PREDICTABLE may be the last word you would use choose to describe the career of John grant. Having embarked on his unlikely second act with the sumptuous chamber pop of 2010’s magnificent Queen Of Denmark, and then pursued his wayward muse through the increasingly electronic Pale Green Ghosts (2013) and Grey
Tickles, Black Pressure (2015), Love Is Magic finds him carrying his mordant wit, heartbreaking melodies and devastating honesty deeper into resolutely analogue dimensions. “It’s the sound I’ve always dreamt of,” he says. “The synth realm has always been what I’ve loved.”
Appropriately enough it begins with “Metamorphoses”, a brazenly bipolar, almost definitively Trumpian litany of trivia and terror (“Fourteen-year-old boy rapes 80-year-old man/Tickets to the Met/Sweetcorn from the can/ Baby’s in the Whitest House, playing with his toys/ Earthquakes, forest fires, hot Brazilian boys!”) which swoons into a profound dream sequence of parental loss. “That was a tough one to do,” he admits. “I did feel a little bit upset when we were making it. But it felt so natural and comfortable to me. It’s about the fear of facing the things you’ve been unable to deal with and distracting yourself throughout your life with the whole theatre of the absurd, conspiracy theories, newspaper articles…” As an opening track it throws you right into the barrelroll of grant’s vertiginous emotional rollercoaster. “Maybe I do risk alienating the audience,” he admits. “That’s always been the danger. But I think it’s a very healthy thing I’m forcing myself to do. I feel like my work is just getting richer, the mix of different moods and registers. “Personally, I want to be able to listen to NunSexMonkRock by Nina Hagen and then the Christmas album by Tammy Wynette all together all the time,” he laughs. “And that’s why my albums are this way. But that’s an accurate snapshot of the everyday for anybody. Don’t you? Because even if you’re not crazier than a shithouse rat like me, when you look at your phone you’re going to see all sorts of horrible things while trying to find the right kind of butter at the grocery store.” The song swoons into an easeful afterlife on heavenly analogue synthesiser from Benge’s vast collection. “I started out just buying stuff through need,” Benge explains, showing us round the cornucopia of vintage technology in his Aladdin’s cave of a basement studio. “I was buying cheap bits of equipment people were chucking out… I think with computers and software you never commit to anything, because you can always go back and tweak things. On analogue stuff you have to commit to things more. It makes you work in a different way, much more interestingly.” The heart of Love Is Magic may well be “Tempest”, a sublime arpeggiated hymn to teenage loneliness, finding refuge from intolerance in the deep vector cosmos of Atari video games. “That’s one of my favourite tracks I’ve ever done in my life,” says grant, dreamily. “When I heard it I felt a little bit teary. I felt like, ‘Wow, you’re doing some of the things you’ve always dreamt about. You’re achieving the sounds and the atmospheres that really move you.’ “There is nothing that I love more in this world than an arpeggiator on a synth. I was able to play it on Benge’s original Moog modular IIIC. You know when Benge met him, Bob Moog told him that the
cabinets on that model are made from trees in his own backyard?”
The pair are deeply devoted to these modular machines. They first met when Wrangler (comprising Benge, Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire and Phil Winter from Tunng) were playing at Sheffield’s Sensoria Festival in 2014. “We happened to be staying in the same hotel,” Benge recalls. “We were sitting in one bit of the lobby waiting for a taxi and we looked over and we were like, ‘It’s John fucking grant over there!’ We knew his work and loved it, especially the more electronic stuff. And apparently John was doing the same with Mal. He is a massive Cabs fan.”
“He didn’t disclose that at the time,” laughs Mallinder. “The more we got to know each other, it all came out. Now he can tell me about tracks I don’t know I’ve done. He reminded me of this track ‘Doom Zoom’ from years ago, it was on an obscure comp. So there are bits of my past that John knows more about than me!”
Bonding over a love of vintage synths, the music of the early ’80s and a shared sense of mischief, Wrangler and grant came together, originally at the instigation of the Rough Trade 40th anniversary shows in 2016 as the surreal, grotesque and sublime Creep Show, who released debut album Mr Dynamite earlier this year.
“‘Love Is Magic’ is brilliant,” says Mallinder. “I love it. There’s a natural evolution in it – for him to work with Benge after doing Creep Show was a natural progression. People see John as a vocalist or a singer-songwriter, but his love of technology is the iceberg under the surface. Working with him in the studio, I was just so impressed by his sheer ability. He has a melodic, textural understanding of music. But he has a bashful sense of himself, he has no ego, he’s just an incredibly generous man. What I also love is that he’s the only person who swears in his music more than me!”
“‘SMug Cunt’ is not a throwaway song to offend people,” insists grant about the album’s most forthright polemic. “It’s a very real song about people in America who are calculating and looking to destroy. Who are usurping religion to make it about earning money. Like Jesus’s most powerful message was to be as greedy a cunt as possible.
“Look, I fucking love being an American,” he continues, on a roll now. “You can hear it all over my music. But I know America is not about this thing that’s happening right now. But there’s a huge swathe of the American population that feels that way. People are writing books about the godly man that Trump is, which is so offensive. Trump, like trumpeting angels. You know he wouldn’t piss on those people if they were on fire.”
Spend an hour or two in John grant’s company and you can’t help but be charmed by his righteous scorn, his daffy good humour, his lightly worn but encyclopaedic knowledge, his enthusiasm for the animated TV show Rick And Morty (“You haven’t seen it? Well, I don’t know you, so I don’t want to predict anything… but you’re probably going to gO APESHIT over it”) and his incredible facility with language (“Did you know there’s a specific Icelandic word for the type of pink inside the vagina? I am doing very well at learning Icelandic, but it has been a struggle like nothing ever before. It’s a very humbling experience”). But you are most profoundly struck by the sense of someone still struggling, despite success and acclaim, every day with the ongoing trauma of abuse. It’s his like his inner monologue has retained and carved in stone every word of abuse he has ever received.
“Let’s face it, I’ve just been steeped in self-loathing since the very beginning,” he says matter-of-factly, explaining how even the lascivious, featherlite Bobby O chino-disco of “Preppy Boy” was inspired by his high school tormentors. “It could only have been that way. Sometimes I think I should have been strong enough. I could have told everyone at school to fuck off and my whole family to fuck off and just forged out by myself on my own and thought I was great. But you know, that’s a tall order. There was so much hatred levelled at me for being this… dirty faggot. That people
“there iS nothing i love more than an arPeggiator” john grant
wanted to kill, and beat up and hate. That you were a lesser form of human being.
“It crushed my spirit,” he admits. “It took a lot of alcohol, sex and drugs to be distracted from that. That liquid courage made it possible for me to go out in the world a bit. But then that stings, because it turns into an addiction. It got to the point where I couldn’t perform effectively on stage. And that’s when you have to go through the real work of facing things…”
PAul Alexander, bass player in Texas outfit Midlake, remembers the first time he met John Grant. “He was opening for us, tail end of the tour for our Van Occupanther album in 2007/8. The Czars had split up. He was just John Grant, he hadn’t made a solo record yet. Every single night he could barely get himself up on the stage. But when he did you just thought, ‘Why is this guy about to quit music? He’s better than all of us.’ That’s when the power of his voice and his writing hit me.”
Alexander explains that he and the rest of Midlake would routinely praise Grant after every show. “But he was just really discouraged at the time. We just didn’t want him to quit and go wait tables. We all had different appeals at different times. Eventually he took us up on it and turned up at our studio in Denton. We knew Queen Of Denmark was a solid record. But you never know in the music business. We didn’t have any sense it would be so successful.”
“I think I always had a good voice,” says Grant, considering his work with The Czars. “But I don’t think I was ever able to start projecting until I did Queen Of
Denmark. I didn’t come into my own until I started to yell and scream, not just sing prettily… But nobody can push you onto that stage to do that.
“It must have just been a perfect storm,” he says, remembering the emotional tempest that broke on Queen Of Denmark. “I had to put myself through whatever I put myself through to get there. I needed to get out of that space I was in all the time. Fear. Abject terror and the thought that I couldn’t possibly do my own thing.”
Alexander conducted the Texas recordings for Love Is Magic, taking Benge and Grant’s Cornish electronic soundscapes and adding lush vocal harmonies and bass. “It’s been real interesting working with John on the new record,” he says. “You know, he is just an incredible singer. He doesn’t need a whole lot of help with things. He’s very confident in a lot of areas. But he just kind of turned me loose on the background vocals. It was a first for me. usually there’s a lot of chiefs and lot of opinions in the studio, but John is a very generous artist. It was unusual to be able to have an idea and go with it. It’s challenging in a really interesting way.”
WITH 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, a narrative was building around Grant’s career that after all the trauma and chaos of his youth and early career he had finally arrived at his redemptive sunlit uplands, finding domestic happiness with his partner in Reykjavik. “I think a lot of people thought that I had been through the crap and arrived there and was fine,” he says. “But no! There’s been a lot more stuff to deal with. And stuff to work through. And much more fear. “
While recording Love Is Magic, Grant’s relationship came to an end, and some of the most potent songs are about striving for a detachment that can simply let love go. On “Is He Strange?” he has a premonition of the fleetingness of happiness: “But that don’t mean that he will stick/He’s not some flower you can pick.”
“The relationship fell apart a year ago,” he admits. “But this person is still incredibly important to me. I’ve been able to let go of them to a large extent and still be friends, which feels great. I wrote the lyric to ‘Is He Strange?’ standing at the mic and then sort of broke down a little bit when I was trying to sing it for the first time. Because it felt so accurate.
“I never felt like I was owed constant happiness,” he continues, drawing on wisdom he is evidently still fighting hard for. “I felt the world owed me something when I was younger. I was angry I didn’t have a place in it and I went about making sure that I didn’t learn how to do all the things other people were learning to do like cook or balance a cheque book or get a place to live. The message to me was you’re not allowed to be part of this world. I always thought of myself as Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum who decides to stop growing at the age of three. He’s not going to take part in this world, he doesn’t want to become one of these monsters. But that doesn’t work,” he smiles. “It leads to insanity.”
He’s now been living in Iceland for seven years, after a lifetime of feeling the need to move on, of finding the same abuse dogging him, of not wanting to outstay his welcome. “I think I wanted to avoid the problems with deeper relationships, he admits. “But now I’m just sticking around and getting to know people for real a bit to see what happens. Maybe I’m becoming a bit of an adult or something… finally! Just a tiny little bit.”
These days he feels that artists do their most profound work in building their audience, in constructing makeshift communities. “It’s like, ‘If I can’t play your reindeer games, I’ll build my own community, right?’ That’s what I believe I’ve been doing. I get people from all different types of society, young and old, straight and gay. Straight men come up to me with their wives and say, ‘I really identify with your songs.’ And that’s what makes me feel successful. It affects people across the board. It doesn’t matter that I’m talking about myself, or being ‘confessional’. I’m just talking about being human, which is the same for all of us, right?” Does he feel at the peak of his powers, like he’s becoming the artist he always wanted to? “I feel like I’m slowly getting there,” he says. Then a sigh, which, in its fleeting breath seems to navigate every feasible twist and turn of the John Grant rollercoaster. “I just wish it had happened a little faster.” Love Is Magic is released on October 12 via Bella Union
Powys to the people: at green Man festival in the Brecon Beacons, august 18, 2018
Together in modular-synth dreams: grant and UK musician/ producer Benge
grant (top right) in electro collective Creep show
Gamer without frontiers: the new LP evokes teen years immersed in an Atari console