JOHN GRANT

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Alex Lake

De­pres­sion, drugs, ho­mo­pho­bia… Ac­cord­ing to the singer-song­writer and in­verse op­ti­mist, that’s all part of the deal.

The con­fes­sional singer-song­writer John Grant has had plenty to deal with, from de­pres­sion, bul­ly­ing and death to ho­mo­pho­bia, drugs, al­co­holism and HIV. But, he tells Niall Do­herty, the bad stuff about life isn’t bad. It’s just life. Any­thing goes.

For his 50th birth­day, John Grant de­cided he wanted to go to Cedar The Point with his sib­lings. A huge amuse­ment park in San­dusky, Ohio, the self-ap­pointed roller-coaster cap­i­tal of the world was where Grant used to go as a kid. Some of the singer’s hap­pi­est mem­o­ries were forged in that park, dart­ing from ride to ride. And so, in July this year, Grant and his broth­ers and sis­ter re­traced their steps for a roller-coaster bo­nanza, sampling the new breed of strata coast­ers and giga coast­ers, hang­ing out and mak­ing each other laugh. It was a re­minder of when life was a care-free breeze and Grant was a buoy­ant young­ster with ev­ery­thing ahead of him. Over the next three-and-a-half decades, there would be de­pres­sion, bul­ly­ing, death, ho­mo­pho­bia, drugs, al­co­holism and HIV to deal with – life-chang­ing events that redi­rected the course of John Grant’s life. But there would be mu­sic too, and words, and love and lan­guages, tools that have helped him nav­i­gate his way through the an­guish. It’s a daily strug­gle, but John Grant has got his head around the fact that life isn’t sup­posed to be a bed of roses. He’s to­tally fine with that.

Oc­to­ber, 2018. It is a brisk, bright morn­ing in South East Lon­don. John Grant takes a seat up­stairs in Star­bucks in a re­tail park in Charl­ton and mar­vels at the plate in front of him. He is a very re­cent con­vert to the cof­fee chain’s ba­nana bread. “It’s toasted and crisp around the edges,” he says with a hushed won­der. “Amaz­ing.” Grant has made a ca­reer out of find­ing awe in the mun­dane and punc­tur­ing life’s big is­sues. Last night, he went to see Soft Cell’s fi­nal ever show at the O2 and his fan­dom makes sense. Grant be­longs to the same mu­si­cal lin­eage as Marc Al­mond. Both wrap sex­ual sub­ver­sion in con­tem­po­rary pop and make throw­away lyri­cal ob­ser­va­tions that pull at big­ger threads: love, grief, sex, death. They are out­siders who are also part of the main­stream. It’s been al­most a decade since Grant’s break­through solo al­bum Queen Of Den­mark, which he made with the help of US indie-rock­ers Mid­lake and which made Grant a star. His pre­vi­ous group The Czars pe­tered out af­ter six records in the mid-’ 00s but even­tual suc­cess af­ter years in the wilder­ness didn’t prompt Grant to play it safe and at­tempt to re­peat the same trick. In­stead, he’s spent the sub­se­quent eight years edg­ing away from the lav­ish ’ 70s- style rock of his de­but. Af­ter em­brac­ing a more synth-heavy sound on 2013’ s Pale Green Ghosts, he was nom­i­nated for a Brit Award and his new al­bum, Love Is Magic, is his most elec­tronic-tinged record yet. “There’s a lot of peo­ple who get pissed off about it,” he says. “Fans say­ing, ‘I’m get­ting sick of this elec­tronic crap.’” Al­though he doesn’t re­spond to things like that, putting it down to an is­sue of taste, he did re­cently re­ply to some­one who’d sug­gested that his lyrics were sound­ing “par­tic­u­larly unin­spired”. As a man for whom words have be­come a pow­er­ful out­let, and for

whom can­dour is so im­por­tant that he felt com­pelled to an­nounce he was HIV-pos­i­tive from the stage at 2012’ s Melt­down Fes­ti­val be­cause it would act as sup­port for other gay men go­ing through the same thing, you imag­ine it’s an in­sult that cuts deep. Grant says his lyrics are the place where he can say ev­ery­thing. They of­ten sound like a man who’s be­ing sar­cas­tic to his ther­a­pist. Some­times you think he’s shar­ing his in­ner­most se­crets only for him to de­flate the mo­ment by ut­ter­ing some­thing you haven’t heard since pri­mary school. Dur­ing Diet Gum from Love Is Magic, he sings the im­mor­tal line: “I ma­nip­u­late, that is what I do/I ma­nip­u­late, that’s why you just took a poo.” Ev­ery so of­ten in his songs, how­ever, there’s the thud of an emo­tional epiphany. It hap­pens on Meta­mor­pho­sis, the open­ing track on Love Is Magic. It be­gins as a sur­real ob­ser­va­tion on the small print of life and sud­denly trans­forms into a stark re­flec­tion on his mother’s death. “Think about what a cross-sec­tion of a mo­ment in a day is like,” he says. “It’s like 6D be­cause there are so many dif­fer­ent vari­ables go­ing on. At least 4D. You can be stand­ing in the gro­cery store and think­ing about what it was like to watch your mother waste away to a skele­ton and die. Peo­ple say, ‘Oh, that’s dark!’ To me, it’s not. It’s just life. It’s not bad.” He was in his mid- 20s when his mother died from lung can­cer and he finds it im­pos­si­ble to think about her death with­out his rec­ol­lec­tions be­com­ing tan­gled up in ev­ery­thing else he was go­ing through at the time; try­ing to tell his par­ents he was gay, al­co­holism, anx­i­ety at­tacks, do­ing any­thing to try and pull the shut­ters down. “There’s all this shame con­nected to not be­ing able to take part in her death in a way,” he says, “just go­ing out and drink­ing.” On one par­tic­u­lar night, he’d helped his fa­ther carry her up­stairs at bed­time and went out af­ter­wards, for­get­ting her mor­phine was still in his pocket. “And that’s all they had. She’d quickly be in hor­ri­ble pain if she didn’t get her next dose so I was out when she went back into pain mode and I had it in my pocket. I don’t know why that mo­ment stuck in my head, be­ing at a club and get­ting the call – ‘You need to come home cos you’ve got your mother’s mor­phine.’” That clash of a friv­o­lous night out get­ting smashed ver­sus his mother on her deathbed at home be­came a huge mo­ment for Grant over time, em­blem­atic of the fact that he was run­ning away from re­al­ity. “I was def­i­nitely try­ing to es­cape,” he says. It took him years to get his head around it, and sev­eral pen­sive, melan­choly days to write the lyric that touches on it in Meta­mor­pho­sis. He wanted the track to open the al­bum be­cause it felt like such a strong state­ment. “The state­ment is, ‘This bad stuff about life isn’t bad,’” he says.

Ad­dic­tion is like this beau­ti­ful layer of snow. So­bri­ety is like spring, and then the snow melts, and there’s noth­ing but used con­doms and dog turds all over the place.”

Grant thinks his own “men­tal and spir­i­tual” growth was stunted by that pe­riod. When he went to col­lege in Ger­many in the late ’ 80s, he read Gün­ter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum and be­came at­tracted to the char­ac­ter of Oskar Matzerath, a three-year-old who de­cides to stop grow­ing be­cause he doesn’t want to take part in the adult world. “That’s some­thing I’ve al­ways con­nected to,” he says, “and I don’t know whether that’s a con­ve­nient nar­ra­tive I picked for my­self cos it’s from a favourite Ger­man book.” The char­ac­ter ends up in an asy­lum. “I think that’s what hap­pens when you try to stop all these nat­u­ral pro­cesses, like think­ing clearly about things, think­ing about re­al­ity, be­ing your­self, all that stuff. When you try and get in the way of that, you go in­sane. De­cid­ing not to grow fucks you up.” But turn­ing 50 this year wasn’t an is­sue for him. The un­ease peo­ple feel at en­ter­ing mid­dle age felt like a walk in the park com­pared to the hor­rors he’d en­coun­tered af­ter get­ting sober 14 years ago. “I re­alised I was in trou­ble,” he says, think­ing back to that era. “The so­bri­ety thing for me was just fac­ing my­self. Ad­dic­tion is like this beau­ti­ful layer of snow, this beau­ti­ful long win­ter, this beau­ti­ful drift­ing snow. And then so­bri­ety is like spring, and then the snow melts, and there’s noth­ing but used con­doms and dog turds all over the place.” Stay­ing sober throws up daily hur­dles. The only time he’s ever truly re­laxed is when he’s alone at home, ly­ing on his couch and read­ing about lan­guages. He’s lived in Reyk­javík for six years now. He speaks Ger­man, Span­ish and Rus­sian flu­ently, and his Ice­landic is get­ting there too. He likes Reyk­javík for the soli­tude and be­cause he gets to live in a city with­out it ever feel­ing too hec­tic. He says he’s good on his own. “Peo­ple have al­ways been dan­ger­ous and scary to me, cos they drop you in sec­onds flat if you say the wrong thing or step out of line.” At the same time, though, he makes friends wher­ever he goes. He says he’s a com­bi­na­tion of a to­tal in­tro­vert and ex­tro­vert. “It’s strange. There’s both those things in me, and it doesn’t seem like ei­ther fits me com­pletely.” Per­haps one of the rea­sons he’s set­tled so well in Reyk­javík is be­cause, with his fish­er­man’s beard, weath­ered brow and mis­chievous glint, he looks a bit like a lo­cal. He could also def­i­nitely pass for a sar­donic Free Folk war­rior in Game Of Thrones. He smiles of­ten and has a calm­ing, con­sid­ered de­meanour. He’s a big bloke but doesn’t have the boom­ing voice you’d ex­pect. He has a gen­tle Amer­i­can ac­cent, his na­tive tongue, per­haps, soft­ened by years of liv­ing in Eu­rope. De­spite that, Ice­land still doesn’t feel like home to him in the way that the US does. He thinks about mov­ing back some­times. Maybe to Texas, or New York, but he’s also al­ways thought about Chicago, or then again maybe LA. “I think about buy­ing an old house with a wrap­around porch, out in the mid­dle of nowhere in a small town,” he says. The Grant fam­ily lived in Michi­gan un­til he was 12. Michi­gan re­minds him of ap­ples, of ap­ple trees and ap­ple farms and ap­ple or­chards. He was an ebul­lient kid, bub­bly and ex­cited about ev­ery­thing. It was a mu­si­cal house, and his mother would sit at the piano and play hymns and his sib­lings were al­ways play­ing records. His dad, he says, has a great singing voice. His strug­gles be­gan when the fam­ily re­lo­cated to Colorado. “I be­came aware of class and that I wasn’t at the top of it any more,” he says. “We went into this mid­dle school that was the rich­est of the rich kids and they let me know very quickly I was an un­de­sir­able.”

Peo­ple have al­ways been dan­ger­ous and scary to me, cos they drop you in sec­onds flat if you say the wrong thing or step out of line.”

At the same time, he re­alised he was gay, some­thing he knew wouldn’t be ac­cepted by his strict Methodist par­ents. “It was a per­fect storm of hor­ror, a fuck­ing hor­ror movie in­side my head,” he says. He started fail­ing at school and re­treated into him­self. His par­ents, sus­pect­ing some­thing was wrong and as­sum­ing it was drugs, sent him to the Chris­tian psy­chol­o­gist. “You knew that if you told them any­thing, they’d just re­port back di­rectly to your par­ents. There would be no pri­vacy. I think I didn’t com­mit sui­cide cos I’d heard that that was an un­for­give­able sin, that it would also have sent you di­rect to hell. I just felt cut off from every­body. And that was sad for some­body who loved to in­ter­act with peo­ple and loved to be with peo­ple.”

Com­ing out didn’t rep­re­sent some cathar­tic line in the sand for Grant where ev­ery­thing was sud­denly rosy. He en­dured years of ho­mo­pho­bic abuse that have re­sulted in him be­ing stuck in what he de­scribes as a peren­nial “PTSD mode”. “Ev­ery­thing was dan­ger­ous, go­ing out­side was dan­ger­ous, go­ing to the store was dan­ger­ous, be­cause you were go­ing to be at­tacked,” he says. The ver­bal at­tacks were the hard­est to take, the whis­per­ing, the star­ing. He re­mem­bers sit­ting in a packed eatery in Den­ver with his Czars band­mates and the man next to him ask­ing if he wanted to buy some pot. “I was like, ‘No thanks,’ and he said, ‘Fuck, you’re a fag­got, you’re a fuck­ing fag­got, aren’t you? I’m gonna fuck­ing kill you!’ And his girl­friend was like, ‘Honey, don’t do that, they can’t help it.’” Grant was frozen and ashamed, locked in the glare of a dis­ap­prov­ing silent mob. “It had been bred into me that that was the nor­mal re­ac­tion to some­one like me. It was just… this is what you de­serve. This is the only nor­mal way to re­act.” The re­sult of all those hu­mil­i­a­tions is that Grant gets an­gry quickly, a cul­mi­na­tion of rage that has built up over the years. He’s slowly get­ting bet­ter at let­ting it dis­si­pate. “With all the knowl­edge I have about how things went wrong,” he says, “I can talk my­self down from the tree and not scream at peo­ple and freak out on them.” Plus, he has his refuge in writ­ing, the place where he gets to say ev­ery­thing. Some­times Grant watches strangers and en­vies their easy-go­ing lives. Re­cently, he was queu­ing in a shop in Manch­ester when a bois­ter­ous group of lads came in and started shout­ing at each other across the store. “To see these men en­joy­ing them­selves, com­pletely re­laxed, I mean, they seemed like fuck­ing id­iots to me, be­cause they were loud and didn’t give a fuck who was around. But just the com­fort, not a care in the world, just en­joy­ing their beauty and their youth and their strength and their right place that they have. That still stings when I see it.” For some­one who’s so per­cep­tive and at­tuned to what’s go­ing on around him, it seems like a naive stance to adopt, a weird gl­itch in Grant’s make-up. Ev­ery­one knows that the serene life of an un­trou­bled stranger doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist. John Grant is sin­gle at the mo­ment. He split up with his boyfriend a year ago and has writ­ten some “lovely love songs” for his ex-part­ner on the new al­bum about con­tin­u­ing to love some­body af­ter you’ve let them go, en­cour­ag­ing them “to flour­ish how­ever you can.” He has learned that the end of a re­la­tion­ship doesn’t mean he needs to shut him­self off. “It’s about not clos­ing up shop,” he says. “Even at the age of 50 I like to make these state­ments in­side my head, like, ‘I’m not gonna let any­body get close to me again!’ And it’s bull­shit.” While he was mak­ing the record, he thought about how self-dep­re­cat­ing he’d been through­out his life, how hard on him­self he’d been about re­la­tion­ships. It’s around that time that he struck upon the ti­tle Love Is Magic, want­ing some­thing suit­ably ab­surd to go with the “’ 80s power bal­lad” he’d writ­ten. It got him think­ing about ro­mance. “Even if things go as well as they pos­si­bly can in your love life,” he says, as we head out into the au­tumn sun­shine, “you meet some­body, you con­nect with them when you’re young, you love them, you treat each other re­spect­fully your en­tire lives, you have great sex, you have chil­dren, you have a fam­ily… still, you’re both go­ing to watch the other one die. That’s the best-case sce­nario. That’s part of the deal.” It’s a very John Grant way of look­ing at things. He’s an in­verse op­ti­mist, a man whose up­side-down way of look­ing at things seems to make an odd kind of sense in 2018. Peo­ple might say, “Oh, that’s dark,” but, to John Grant, it’s not bad. It’s just life. Part of the deal.

Even at the age of 50 I like to make these state­ments in­side my head, like, ‘I’m not gonna let any­body get close to me again!’ And it’s bull­shit.”

“Suck on this, El­ton John!”: Grant un­leashes his in­ner show­man.

Im­pe­rial phase: Grant on­stage with The Czars, SXSW fes­ti­val, Texas, 2006.

Let’s rock! (above) Grant cranks it up; (right) his lat­est al­bum, Love Is Magic.

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