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.