Originally published in The Irish Times, March 1st 2013.
THERE ARE confessional songwriters, and then there is John Grant. The Michigan-born, Colorado-raised musician had been celebrated as a lyricist throughout his tenure with The Czars, the band he fronted for ten years until their split in 2004. Yet it was the release of his astounding solo debut Queen of Denmark in 2010 that his propensity for pouring his heart and soul – metaphorical warts and all – brought his music to a wider audience.
If Queen of Denmark laid Grant’s soul bare, it’s still buck-naked and trembling with cold three years later on Pale Green Ghosts, the follow-up to that inordinately successful record. In real life, Grant is just as open and honest as his songs would suggest; so much so, that our 75-minute-long interview seems to resemble a therapy session at times. Yet as his music suggests, the 44-year-old is also exceedingly funny, capable of wrenching dark humour from the bleakest of situations and cracking jokes about Vikings, the proliferation of redheads in Reykjavik and the similarities between the Gaelic and Icelandic languages.
Why the interest in Iceland? Roving polyglot Grant has called Reykjavik home for the last year, after a trip there to play the Iceland Airwaves festival in October 2011.
“I ended up staying and working with Biggi Veira from GusGus, because I had met him at the festival and talked to him about making some sounds with me for my record,” he explains in his deep, velvety growl. “I was planning on going to Texas to do it, but he was open to exploring some sounds with me, so I came back in January 2012 and basically, just started making the album. And I realised that I needed to stay here and get to know this place. I don’t wanna analyse it too much because I’m really enjoying it, but I’m also sure that if a psychologist was to get a hold of me, they’d claim that I was running away, or searching for something. If it is escape, it seems to be very productive, at least.”
The theme of ‘running away’ is one that Grant has returned to at many points in both his life and his music. He openly admits that time spent in Denver at Christmas made him “miserable”.
“It seems like no matter how much distance I get from that place, and no matter how much I can see that it’s a great place to live – because it’s a beautiful city, with all sorts of great things going on – it just does not fucking work for me. I go back there and all I think about is the guy that I love is running around in that city with his new man, and it makes me feel like it’s not my city anymore. And I lost my mother there, and I got sober there and experienced all the addiction shit there, and everything. I was hating it, and I hated that I was hating it – because I actually really love that place.”
Many of the songs on Pale Green Ghosts deal with the same broken relationship that informed much of Queen of Denmark, although it doesn’t feel like Grant is repeating himself, either. There are heartbreakingly sad moments on tracks like ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him‘, a poignant, ultra-personal declaration that references his recent success as a musician, but acknowledges that “I could be anything, but I can never win his heart again”. Several other songs continue the premise that was initiated on Queen of Denmark, of making peace with himself after beating himself up for so long.
“I talk about this constantly in interviews, but I feel like there’s just layers of shit piled on top of me from years of escape, and years of not wanting to face myself,” he says. “And it’s still not easy – I still want to escape. I find myself feeling very uncomfortable at times, right now, with the whole music business. Or at least the promotional part of it – constantly looking at pictures of myself, and doing videos. I was constantly being made fun of when I was younger – as far as ‘Oh, look at that faggot, look at the way he walks. He walks wrong’. Or in the lunch room at school: ‘Close your fucking mouth, you fucking faggot – why are you chewing like that?’. By the time I got out of school, I couldn’t walk in a straight fucking line, because I felt so uncomfortable. I took things to heart because I was – even though as a man, you don’t like to admit this – I was quite sensitive. It really pisses me off, because I wasn’t one of those people who was able to realise for himself, while all those things were happening, y’know – fuck them. The way I walk is just fine, because it’s me. The way I eat is just fine, because it’s me.”
Grant’s refreshingly candid lyrics are tempered by his coal-black humour. GMF, placing its tongue firmly in-cheek, proudly declares ‘I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet’, while grin-inducing lines are littered in the most unlikely places throughout the whole album. His willingness to be so open about his life – he regularly references the alcohol and drug addiction that dogged his life for years – also brought about a shift in musical direction with Pale Green Ghosts. After recording the warm, very American-sounding Queen of Denmark in Texas with Midlake as his backing band, his relocation to Europe has resulted in a very European-sounding album. After a record that paid such barefaced homage to ’70s AOR, any people were shocked when the album’s title track revealed a new synth-laced edge to Grant’s songbook.
Recording with the aforementioned Biggi Veira, rather than with Midlake (although that band’s rhythm section feature on a brace of tracks here), made a big difference to the overall sound. A lot of time was spent “having an ’80s party” in the studio, listening to records by Grant’s favourites Chris & Cosey and early Eurythmics, as well as indulging Veira’s love of Depeche Mode and Ultravox.
“I think it would have been totally different if I’d recorded in Texas again,” says Grant. “I think it would have still been quite electronic, though, because basically the atmosphere on this record is sort of the atmosphere that’s going on in my heart all the time. When I look back, I actually think it was first time I heard Eagle by ABBA that might have been the start of this love affair with electronic sounds. But I also have this huge connection to the ’70s and to that AOR rock music that was on the radio all the time when I was growing up. So this record maybe seems like adolescence to me, whereas Queen of Denmark was more like childhood.”
The teenage simile is a particularly apt on several of the album’s songs, which feature Sinead O’Connor on backing vocals. The pair struck up a friendship when O’Connor covered the song Queen of Denmark on her last solo album.
“She just opened her heart to me, and I was more than happy to accept that,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, because I was just a young teen when I started worshipping her talent, when I heard Mandinka for the first time on a dancefloor in Boulder, Colorado. But she’s just like a soothing elixir for the soul, to me.”
Given the stylistic chasm yet thematic similarities between both of his solo albums, it’s no surprise that Grant is uncertain which direction his career will take next.
“I think about that a lot right now,” he agrees. “I think about the fact that I’ve written two albums for the same guy that I still love. I think ‘Are you gonna keep doing this to yourself? Is this helping you? Is this cathartic, like everybody asks you? And when you say that yes, it is cathartic, are you being totally honest with yourself – or are you having trouble admitting that you don’t wanna let go of this love that you think you’ll never experience again?’. I think about the level of honesty, and how I sometimes I want to disappear into a character and become something else, and not talk about myself at all. I think about the sounds, electronics, my love for acoustic instruments as well.
“Most of the time, I feel like Pale Green Ghosts makes perfect sense; sometimes, I feel like it’s a bit of a mess. But that’s how I feel about myself, so that always brings me back to the fact that it makes total sense,” he says with a deep chuckle. “It’s a good cross-section of me as a person, and that’s what I was trying to do. That is all I can do.”