John Grant: ‘I have definitely learned to just go out and live’

John Grant is looking forward to his third visit to Baldersby Park, the North Yorkshire home of Deer Shed Festival. “It’s got a really nice vibe to it, and that’s a beautiful thing for music lovers,” says the American singer-songwriter who turns 54 five days before this year’s event.

John Grant. Picture: Hordur Sveinsson
John Grant. Picture: Hordur Sveinsson

Almost three decades into his musical career, Grant counts performing live as the “most important” form of expression at his disposal. “It’s where the songs really come into their own, and that live connection with people is so important,” he says. “And I guess it’s where I feel the most comfortable now. I can’t really do without it.”

A year ago, his fifth solo album, Boy From Michigan, reached Number 8 in the UK charts, but Grant admits he found the experience of releasing a record during the pandemic “quite frustrating”.

“In some ways it was good because there weren’t a lot of things coming out at that time, but then it also felt like it disappeared into the mix because shortly thereafter there was so much stuff coming out,” he explains. “It felt then I had to become something a little bit different with the way social media is seen as an essential part of putting out an album now. There’s so much more that you have to do now. I guess you don’t have to do it, but it feels like there’s so much more that’s expected of you, like doing unpackaging videos on YouTube, and they were trying to get me to do TikTok and everything. It’s very strange to me.”

Boy From Michigan was a record that looked back on Grant’s upbringing and how it felt to be gay in a deeply conservative corner of the US. Now based in Iceland, he says coming to terms with those experiences is “sort of an ongoing process”.

“I would say some things have been resolved,” he says. “I have to say I have definitely learned to just go out and live in spite of certain things. I guess the fact that I don’t live in the States...it’s interesting because I do love it and yet maybe I felt like I never really belonged there because of what I went through, being a gay man at the time and in the specific context that I went through it in, with family and the religion and the extreme conservatism. I’m sure there’s a big reason why I don’t live there.”

Today on visits to where he grew up, he finds himself having mixed feelings. “In some ways it feels totally alien and in some ways it feels like I never left,” he says. “I don’t have much occasion to go back to Michigan really any more, except when I’m on the road. It’s pretty cool sometimes when we get the plane in Detroit and Chicago and we basically have to drive through Buchanan, which is where I was born, to get there.

“It’s pretty intense to be in that town with everybody gone now, standing in the street and looking at the house where I was born and grew up. Across the street is my grandparents’ house. A lot of the big trees that I talked about and that I’ve taken pictures of through the years and mentioned in my music are gone. Even the one where my grandfather knocked the wasps’ nest out of while we were all watching in the street.

“I still have really intense feelings about it, a lot of love for it and also I feel like a stranger. It’s weird. I’m sure it’s all just part of my specific experience.”

The emotional scars of Grant’s upbringing evidently remain. He has talked of being in ‘fight or flight mode’ for most of his life, having turned the hatred once wielded towards him inward, leading to self-destructive behaviour. It took years before he stopped beating himself up, he says.

“I realised that I needed to stop a couple of decades ago, but it was really hard to figure out how to do it. For me it’s more of a daily process. It just doesn’t bring anything positive to treat yourself that way. When it rears its ugly head I try to give myself a break. There are days when I can’t, when it’s particularly vicious, but most of the time I’m able to go out into the world and cut myself some slack.”

The conversation turns to the increasingly conservative climate in the US following the Supreme Court’s decision to roll back abortion rights. Grant fears overturning same-sex marriage could be next. “It does remind me of when I grew up,” he says. “They (fundamentalist Republicans) have shown that they’re willing to do anything to get what they want and they’re also armed to the teeth so it feels pretty scary. It’s a very sad times for the States, but I’m not particularly surprised.

“I suppose there are days when I can’t believe what I’m seeing and hearing but maybe this is just that last hurrah of Christian fascism. It’s supposedly all about love...I can’t even go there.”

As such, it feels like the Trump presidency will have a long legacy, Grant agrees. “And the thing is, he doesn’t even give a s***,” he says. “He’s that kid that just says whatever gets people riled up, like he doesn’t have a horse in the race. He uncovered a lot of nastiness and gave it fresh air to make it legitimate and acceptable and that’s not going to go away for a long time.”

Grant reveals he is already considering where he wants to go next musically. “I sort of think about a horror-jazz, Chet Baker mixed with Ennio Morricone type thing,” he says. “I really like the idea of a Chet Baker/Twin Peaks-y album with the more Giallo-esque Morricone horror-jazz stuff thrown in, that’s sort of the feeling that I have going into it. I’m starting to work on it, so I hope it does turn out that way, and I will endeavour to do it that way. We’ll see. It’s probably going to be bringing some guitars back in – the baritone guitar which I love so much.”

Before that, he has the second album by Creep Show, his experimental electronic side project with Stephen Mallinder and Benge, to complete. As we speak, the trio are busy recording in Cornwall. “That’s going really well, so I’m excited about that too,” he says, adding that the record will be out next year. “With all of our schedules I don’t see how we can get it done any earlier than that,” he says.

Despite everything, he remains the eternal optimist. During lockdown he found himself looking back at how far he had come. “I’ve realised a lot of my dreams,” he says.

“It’s also made me think that I want to keep going, that I still have a lot to do. I want to keep making records for as long as I can.

“It’s never really made sense to me the whole pension retirement thing, I didn’t think that was ever going to be my lot.”

Deer Shed Festival runs at Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, from Friday July 29-Sunday July 31. deershedfestival.com