At the risk of sounding like a complete bore (sorry, I will stop going on about it, promise), I recently had the pleasure of meeting the man behind my favourite album in a long, long time. I did a rushed pre-gig interview for AU magazine with John Grant when he played The Button Factory the other week. I thought I’d try to find some non-idiotic/sycophantic way of explaining to him how much I loved the album, but I ended up just mumbling something half-witted and moved on to the first question. He was friendly and funny (and tall) and talked about his plans for Queen of Denmark‘s follow-up. You can read it after the jump.
At the age of 42, John Grant has done his fair share of living. Having wound down The Czars after the release of their last studio album in 2004, the Denver-born musician’s well-documented struggle with both personal demons and a drug and alcohol dependency saw him abandon music as a career – that is, until the members of Midlake persuaded him to have one last throw of the dice. The resultant album, Queen of Denmark  proved more successful than he could ever have dreamed. A searingly poignant personal account of love and heartache with a thick streak of droll humour running through the middle, it saw Grant compared to songwriters like Stephin Merritt and Morrissey, and topped countless year-end polls around the globe.
We caught up with him briefly in the lobby of his Dublin hotel shortly before he took the stage of The Button Factory last week, to find out how he’s coped with the sudden attention and his plans for Queen of Denmark’s follow-up.
You had a bit of a crazy year last year. Have you fully digested it yet?
I think I’m still in the process of doing that. I have a lot of things going on in my life to keep my feet on the ground (laughs). I’m just glad that people are enjoying it, and that it’s helping me to get closer to being able to do this full-time. I suppose I am doing it full-time right now, but I want to be able to do it as a career, and Queen of Denmark seems to be making that possible for me. So I am chuffed, yeah.
How do you feel about the whole Mojo ‘Album of the Year’ sort of stuff? Obviously it’s good to have that sort of critical acclaim after years of being ignored, but do you believe your own press, or is there always an element of self-doubt?
It’d be silly for me to say that it doesn’t matter to me. I will say that this time, it was more important for me to know that I had made the record that I wanted to make. I knew that it was a special record, and I didn’t know how it was going to be accepted, but I hoped that people would feel about it the same way that I did. But you never know what’s gonna happen, right? But yeah, I think it’s great. Some people say you shouldn’t read your good press or your bad press, but it has made me feel good.
You went through so many years of being virtually ignored with The Czars, so it must be strange to gather these sorts of accolades after all this time.
Yeah, it’s definitely refreshing. I’m super-happy that people reacted to it the way the did; the critics, for example. I suppose it shouldn’t… or in the end, it can’t be important… but it is. Getting Album of the Year in Mojo… that was huge for me. I couldn’t believe it, but I’m not gonna question it (laughs). I’ll take it.
You wrote Queen of Denmark after years of gathering experiences and heartbreak and relationships and life – when it comes to writing new material, is it a case of working through those same experiences until you feel you’ve made peace with them, or are you moving on to the next chapter of your life?
Yeah, it’s gonna be similar, but I want to make… I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’ll be similar, but hopefully I’ll be experimenting a little bit more, but also staying true to the things that I do well. I don’t want to throw a total curveball right off the bat; I still have a lot of other things that I want to write songs about. I’d love to do an electronic album, and I’m definitely working on that – but I would probably never have that be my follow-up to Queen of Denmark. It’d probably be a side-project or a collaboration. But I’m writing the songs (for the new album) right now. The only thing that bothers me is that I’m not going to have as much time to make it – ‘cos once this whole machine gets rolling…. Well, people are saying to me ‘You’re just not going to have that time’, but I’m saying that forcing me into a situation where I’m expected to come up with the same thing in four weeks’ time instead of a year…
You must feel under enormous pressure, in that respect.
A little bit, but I’m just gonna do it. I told them ‘Y’know, if it doesn’t get done in four weeks, then tough shit!’. I’ll do my best, but I’m not gonna force it either, and I’m not gonna put out something that I don’t feel 100% about. I’m not too worried.
A lot of the songs on Queen of Denmark were about your ex-partner, Charlie. Are you still in touch with him? What did he make of the album?
He’s heard the album. I sent it to him. I’m sure that there will… I mean, I’m not done processing that situation, but he’s not a part of my life.
It’s obviously something that still affects you deeply – is it difficult to constantly relive the songs and the memories that they generate on stage every night?
It’s different every day. Some nights it’s really difficult to sing those songs, but… I enjoy it for the most part. Some nights it’s hard, but I’m not really in a grieving process anymore. So it’s not as hard. Of course I always think about him, but I find it necessary to just not have contact with him, because it just doesn’t seem to make any sense. But, y’know, if you love somebody, you want them to be happy, whether it’s with you or with somebody else. Even if it’s hard to say that. It’s fine. And y’know, I like feeling that… sometimes… I’m not being very succinct here, but… it’s good to know that you can still feel deeply.
You’ve introduced a new song to your live set, ‘You Don’t Have To’, which seems to keep in tone lyrically and musically with much of Queen of Denmark. Is that going to be on the next album?
Yeah. A lot of the new songs aren’t really done yet, they’ll get done once they’re in the studio. I have some others that I’m not sure that I want to play just yet. I have one that I’m thinking about playing, but I’m just not sure. (laughs)
You did some recording recently in Sweden with [producer of Lykke Li, Robyn, Cyndi Lauper] Andreas Kleerup – how did that collaboration even come about? Were you friends beforehand?
No, I met him when I went to Sweden and we DJed together. A friend brought us together. He knew I wanted to meet [Kleerup], so he introduced me to him at this club, and we just hit it off, and decided to do a collaboration. We haven’t really gotten that far with it yet; we’ve got, like, ten skeletons down. We’ll probably keep working on it throughout the year. He’s got Me and My Army [Kleerup’s current band] touring all over the place, and I’m touring all over the place, but I think we’re gonna try to work on it in July, when I’m in Sweden again.
But that’s not going to be the follow-up to Queen of Denmark – you go into the studio in September with Midlake for that one?
Yeah, that’s the plan. If we can work out all the logistics, because they’re busy recording, and they’ll be doing promo. We just have to figure it out.
Given the album’s success, you must be at a point now where you implicitly trust Midlake’s opinions and input on your material. Does that help you in the studio, make for a more relaxed atmosphere?
Well, it was mostly me writing parts and asking them to play on it. And they were really clear about wanting to realise my vision, so they pretty much did things the way that I had written them. There were times, especially with bass and drums, the rhythm section – Paul [Alexander] and McKenzie [Smith] would come up with things that I wouldn’t have been able to think of. I would always have a part in mind, but sometimes they would make it better. That’s what so great about it – they can do anything, they’re just virtuosos at their instruments, so that was really a pleasure for me. But they also wanted to stay true to what I wanted to do, and that’s another thing that’s super-important to me, and it’s rare… they didn’t intentionally try and put their mark on it, and that was amazing for me. I needed that.
The SXSW gig in March was the first time you’d all played the album together since recording it – how was that?
It was amazing, yeah. I can’t wait to do it again – we’re going to do it again sometime this summer, I’m not exactly sure when. It’d be awesome to do a full tour with them.
Apart from writing and recording, what’s the plan for the rest of the year?
Well, I’ll be touring this album for the rest of the year. I start recording in September for four weeks, then I have more touring at the end of the year. Hopefully I’ll be able to work some more on the album in December.
Any tentative release date?
Not yet, but hopefully during the first quarter of next year.
Having toured this album fairly consistently for a year, do you feel sick of playing the same twelve songs yet?
No, not really. I really enjoying singing them, and they’re such a real part of my personality that it feels really natural. So not yet. I can imagine it getting old after two full years of touring.
You’ve begun to reintroduce some Czars songs into your current repertoire, too – is that your way of coming to terms with that period of your life?
Yeah – it’s just a couple of songs that I really like to play and sing, and I know that there are people out there who wanna hear them, too. I don’t wanna completely reject that time of my life; there were great things that came out of that, too. I did read that one journalist read that I was just filling space by bringing Czars songs into the set, and it wasn’t really necessary, and that the show shouldn’t be that long. I understand that, but well… that’s not how I feel about it.