John Grant learns to deal with his ghosts

HIV-positive gay singer/songwriter on his first visit to Israel connects with growing audience by telling the truth.

Singer/songwriter John Grant 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Singer/songwriter John Grant 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Five minutes after beginning a conversation with John Grant, he’s shed any semblance of typical rock star-interviewer distance and is relating his unfiltered thoughts and life experiences like a long-lost friend.
It’s the same way with the American’s singer/songwriter’s music as well – irresistibly candid chronicles of heartbreak, loss and alienation tempered with wry humor that touch a raw nerve, while at the same time leave the listener feeling uplifted and hopeful.
It’s a quality that took Grant many painful years to cultivate, but now, after two highly acclaimed solo albums, could propel him into the pantheon of stardom.
“I felt like a failure for so long, because I wasn’t able to access myself in the way I knew I would have if I was going to make music that mattered. I knew I was going to have to learn how to be honest,” said the 43-year-old Grant last week, from a cafe in his adopted home of Reykjavik, Iceland.
He was referring to the decade prior, to his out-of-nowhere underground hit 2010 solo debut Queen of Denmark – a decade that saw his Denver-based indie/folkie band The Czars implode, and a despondent Grant descend into drug and alcohol addiction fueled by crippling self-esteem and fear about coming out as a gay man.
“I realized that a lot of the things I had been telling myself about not being good enough just weren’t true, and Queen of Denmark gave me the chance to prove to myself that I could do something real. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived anywhere, but I do feel like I’m where I should be now and doing what I should be doing – and that’s a big deal after not knowing for so long.”
It was a big deal that Grant was able to make the record at all. After the dissolution of The Czars in 2005 following six acclaimed but poorly selling albums, Grant gave up music amid a spiraling drug addiction.
After spending time successfully becoming sober, he moved to New York City to start a new life, pursuing his other love besides music – languages. Fluent in German, Russian and Spanish, he enrolled in a program at NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies in Russian medical interpretation.
Then, in 2009, he was approached by his friends from the Texas folk-rock band Midlake – old labelmates with The Czars – who proposed hosting Grant in their home studio and recording a solo album for him with their musical backing. The offer put Grant into a quandary.
“I was doing pretty well in New York. I had gone through the whole addiction thing, was putting down roots, working at New York University Medical Center and feeling comfortable, which was an accomplishment in itself,” said Grant. “It was a difficult decision for me. I had been in the mindset of thinking, ‘You’re going to be 40 soon, it’s over for you – you’re too f***ing old and you’re just not good enough.’ “It really was an amazing thing when Midlake brought me down to Texas, and created an atmosphere in which I felt really safe and was able to do whatever I wanted artistically.”
The result was almost a cross between the early sardonic Randy Newman and Rufus Wainwright – sweet, piano-based ‘70s melodies paired with painfully personal but frank and funny lyrics that dealt with everything from Grant’s troubled youth in the closet, his struggles with drugs and his coming to terms with being gay.
In naming Queen of Denmark its album of 2010, British magazine MOJO wrote, “Like a couple of similarly intense classics before it, Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now and Bon Iver’s For Emma... Queen Of Denmark sounds like a record its creator has been waiting his whole life to make.”
Grant agreed that the album’s songs were somewhat of a breakthrough, both professionally and personally.
“It took me a long time to find my own voice, even after I started making my own music,” he said. “I still wasn’t able to write about the things I wanted to – I was afraid to talk about who I really was, afraid that my family would know exactly who I was if I wrote about it openly in my music.”
“Even after my mother died in 1995, it still took me a long time to change, because I was conditioned to believe that my lifestyle was wrong and couldn’t imagine any other way to be. It felt like there was no escape from the situation. When I was finally able to write honestly, it was like the floodgates burst – I realized that if I was going to survive as an artist, I had to figure out a way to be myself and not censor myself for the benefit of anyone else.”
Growing up in conservative Michigan in a religious household, Grant had constantly pretended that he was somebody other than his gay self, and the experience impacted on his self-perception.
“I felt like an outsider as a kid. From the beginning, I knew something was going on with my sexuality, and I knew that it wasn’t okay to speak about it,” he said. “I remember that a cousin of a neighborhood boy I had an ‘experience’ with came up to me and said, ‘I know what the two of you have done and if you don’t do whatever I say, I’m going to tell everyone what you are.’ “That was the message I got as far back as I remember – fit in or I’m going to f*** you up by disclosing your secret. It wasn’t a good mindset to start off with.”
Luckily Grant had music to turn to for solace, and after learning classical piano at a young age, discovered rock. By his early 20s he was fronting The Czars, with their rustic, countryish indie tones.
His output with The Czars didn’t prepare anyone for the stark, harrowing ballads of Queen of Denmark, however. Nor did that album foreshadow this year’s modern- sounding electronic pop followup, Pale Green Ghosts, a work that coincided with his surprise onstage announcement in 2012 that he was HIV-positive.
Within that context, the autobiographical lyrical content was even more honest and unsettling while retaining Grant’s wry wit, but the electronic tracks were downright playful. An additional bonus was provided by background vocals on a couple of songs by Sinead O’Connor, a fan of Grant’s who covered the title track to Queen of Denmark on her last album.
One reviewer noted that if Queen of Denmark channeled the ’70s soft rock of Bread and The Carpenters, Pale Green Ghosts is Grant’s homage to the new wave 80s.
Part of the transformation can be credited to Grant traveling to Reykjavik to record the album with Iceland’s electronic music pioneer Birgir Þórarinsson, aka Biggi Veira.
Grant performed at the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, where he met Veira and ended up in his studio recording two tracks, an experience that convinced him to record the entire album there.
“When I started working with Biggi, I discovered that I really loved it in Iceland – I really like the pace of life here and the people I’ve met. So I decided to see if I could stay on, and I’ve been able to,” said Grant, who could be heard practicing his rudimentary Icelandic with the café waitress as he settled his tab.
“It’s a really difficult language, but I need to be challenged. Living in the States, I sort of settle into what’s convenient and easy for me. Whereas when I’m living in a different country learning a new language, it’s the type of challenge I need to keep myself from falling into rampant consumerism – I’m really good at that.”
Grant is also really good at connecting with his audience, whether on record or in his raved-about live shows with his spunky backup band, as the crowd at his Israel debut on November 19 at the Barbie Club in Tel Aviv will discover.
But as he finds a wider audience and threatens to crack the mainstream, Grant expressed concern that the very connections he’s intent on forging in his life that ground him will be taken away by the pop star-making machinery.
“It seems the music industry and fame in general is set up as an isolating experience.
As an addict and as somebody who has struggled with depression and isolation for a large part of my life, I can’t afford now to be isolated from the rest of the world,” said Grant.
“I need connection with people, and I’m seeking it. But it’s a weird type of connection you get performing for an audience.
Obviously, you can’t take it too seriously, whether negatively or positively. It’s a very limited view the audience is seeing of you, and you’re seeing a very limited view of them.
“It’s a relationship that has to be forged in a matter of minutes, and for a very short time. It’s special, but it’s not the real world.
The real world is living with people on a day-to-day basis, getting to know them and being somebody people can count on. At least that’s the person I want to be.”
As John Grant – gifted songwriter, performer, linguist, HIV-positive gay man – continues to work on himself in public, his confidence in his abilities is growing and is being reflected in his more expansive stage persona and almost happy outlook on his state of being.
“The last few years have changed everything for me. Queen of Denmark made me a presence to be reckoned with in the music community, and during the tour for that album, I started to be able to really feel more at ease with an audience, which I had never been able to before,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I really enjoy being onstage, but the best part is talking to people after shows. I think that’s really important.
I feel like my music invites that connection and I want people to know that I want that connection too.
“But I’m learning some of the hard lessons about it, like spreading yourself too thin to the point of exhaustion or illness.
In order to do this job, you have to find a way to stay vulnerable and real and honest, while at the same time to protect yourself. I find that very difficult.”
Luckily, for his growing audience, he finds writing and singing about such dilemmas is considerably easier.