John Grant

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

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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

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