Happy to be singing the midlife crisis blues

“One morning I was having breakfast with a friend here in Iceland and I was asking him how you say midlife crisis in Icelandic and he said, ‘What we say translates to having the grey tickles’ and I was very tickled by that,” chuckles American singer-songwriter John Grant while explaining the title of his eagerly anticipated third solo album.

John Grant
John Grant

“I thought that was absolutely beautiful – what a great way to look at that time of your life. Midlife crisis to me is a nightmare. There’s a phrase in Turkish which is ‘nightmare’ and nightmare in Turkish translates as ‘black pressure’. The album is about getting to that point in your life where you realise that basically every day of your life you’re learning how to die. Everybody is going to go through that process.

“If one has matured a little bit, then you certainly have realised that we have very little control over our lives, so I suppose this album is just another huge exercise for me in letting go.”

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Thus was born Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, the successor to multilingual Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts which proved a surprise top 20 hit in 2013 and earned the singer a nomination for Best International Male Solo Artist at the Brit Awards.

The album is bookended by Bible verse – from Corinthians – familiar to Grant from his difficult upbringing as the gay son of deeply religious Midwestern parents. “I don’t want to be violent and say it was shoved down my throat but it sort of was,” he says. “A lot of people use it in weddings, this verse about ‘love is kind, love is patient, love doesn’t seek its own’, I think it’s quite incredible.

“It sort of bookends the album. It’s at the beginning with all sorts of different languages symbolising the world telling you what love is supposed to be, the cacophony of the entire world saying, ‘Aha, this is how you’re supposed to feel, this is what you’re supposed to do, this is how one acts in this instance or whatever’ and then at the end of the album we just hear a single child saying the verse again and I think it’s very interesting because the 12 songs that come between are the exact opposite of that.

“It’s just one human’s experience of coming to terms with mortality and dealing with love and hatred and jealousy and lust and friendship and letting go and losing people and death and all that stuff. So, you know, it’s all the same, isn’t it?”

Before anyone thinks the subject matter may be depressing, the former frontman of US indie band The Czars is quick to point out that it’s not as maudlin as all that. “There is a lot of humour involved,” he says, “because it’s ridiculous and it’s funny.”

Unlike the largely electronic Pale Green Ghosts, which Grant made in his adopted home in Rejkjavik, Iceland, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure was recorded with the producer John Congleton in Dallas.

Grant, 47, admits he misses the States – “I love it, it’s where I’m from, it’s a permanent part of me and it’s fun to see what kind of perspective you get when you go back when you’ve been living somewhere else”.

But, he adds: “It seems like I quickly find my place whereever I go. I feel like that’s a good way to look at it because you certainly know you’re not going to get away from anything, it’s still going to be humanity and humanity has all these different sides to it and you’re still dealing with the same things, the same emotions – the love, the hate, all that same stuff, but you’ve got a different backdrop and this happens to be a very stunning backdrop here.”

Much as he enjoys seeing how fellow Americans react to specific cultural references in his songs, he says: “I find that when I’m in the States I’m very materialistic, I think. I really get caught up in the consumerism and the convenience of it all.

“You’ve got everything at your fingertips there and you usually have to have a car unless you’re in New York City or one of those places. Being in Denver or LA, for example, you’ve got a have a car or you can’t get anywhere.

“So I find myself just getting caught up in things, there’s so much good food and so much shopping and all this surrounding you all the time I find that I get lost in that, so I love being out in the world.

“You know it’s that way in a lot of places in the Western world but I think it’s really good for my brain to be out learning about different cultures, learning new languages.

“Icelandic continues to be a huge challenge for me and although I’m making great progress it’s going to be a long time before I’m really proficient in the language and I think that’s such a great exercise for my brain.

“I think it makes me a better citizen of the world, if you will.”

With the album not out until October, Grant has decided his set at Deer Shed Festival, near Thirsk, will be confined to older songs from Pale Green Ghosts and its predecessor Queen of Denmark.

“I think we might do one song but chances are we aren’t going to play the new material,” he says. “It’s sort of annoying for me because I really want to but I really don’t want to start playing it until the album comes out.

“I played four of the new songs on the orchestra tours [that he did last year with the Northern Sinfonia] but thinking about what fits in 
the context of a festival set there’s all these different perspectives and angles and I’ve just decided that we’re not going to do the album until it comes out.

“With all the travelling I’ve been doing, and being on tour, we really haven’t had time to figure out how we’re going to do it either and I suppose that’s a huge part of it.”

• John Grant plays at Deer Shed Festival on Saturday, July 25.