John Grant: ‘I just feel since getting sober being very awake for everything’

Singer-songwriter John Grant is touring with new material that reflects personal and global shifts. Duncan Seaman reports.

John Grant. Picture: Shawn Brackbill
John Grant. Picture: Shawn Brackbill

The last two years have brought creative and personal shifts for American singer-songwriter John Grant. In amongst significant life events – splitting up with his Icelandic partner, turning 50 last summer – he collaborated with ‘dark analogue electro’ trio Wrangler on an album, then followed it seven months later with a record of his own.

Looking back on the period, he says: “You know it’s hard to say, I think you really don’t have perspective on how things have changed for you until a couple of years after it’s happened, or maybe a long time after it’s happened. I’ve just been staying busy and working on things.

“There’s a lot of upbeat material in those two albums but I also think there’s a lot of nastiness going on in the world and I think that informs that as well. With Trump being elected in 2016, that certainly gives you something to think about, and you’re living in a Brexit world. It’s a general mess.”

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    John Grant. Picture: Shawn Brackbill

    After six years living in Iceland, he admits he has thought about returning to the US, but the avid linguist in him is delaying that decision. “I think about living in New York, but I still quite enjoy going back to Iceland,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place to be and I’m still quite interested in the language, which is proving so difficult.

    “I suppose that’s sort of like a red flag to a bull for me, like I’m not leaving here until I’ve got a better grasp on this language, it’s something I enjoy sinking my teeth into. And there’s great people there that I met that have come to be part of my life so I’m really not sure where I’ll end up.

    “With this career that I’m doing, it takes you all over the place all the time and one of the things that it does is make personal life much more challenging in a lot of ways. Most people can’t and don’t want to just come along and sit on the bus while you’re doing your thing, they’ve got their own lives to live. And then when you’re not doing that you’re out in the world making music but I got my own studio a year ago and it’s got all my toys in it right now. Usually I’m on the road a lot so right now it’s just like storage for my toys but that’s something that I think will be very useful for me in the coming years.”

    He “doesn’t know” if he’s acquired more of a European perspective living away from his homeland and becoming fluent in numerous languages while the US appears to have become less outward-facing under Donald Trump than during the presidency of Barack Obama. “The thing is people are seldom much like the government that people are hearing about all the time. Especially being in a place like New York, all you can do is look outward here, you got hundreds of languages and different nationalities surrounding you on a daily basis. But I don’t know, things don’t seem too terribly different when you come here and hang out with your friends. We’ll see what happens. I can’t imagine that this will be a very friendly year in the government here.”

    Grant’s move towards more of an electronic sound on the records he made with Creep Show – with the Wrangler trio of Stephen Mallinder, Phil Winter and Benge – and his own Love Is Magic has caused some disquiet among fans who loved the lush mix of guitars and strings on earlier albums such as Queen of Denmark. It wasn’t a conscious decision, he says, but more the case that: “I have always loved the electronic sounds since I was a kid. That’s always been more what I’ve tended towards in what I listen to, but I also love the 70s ballads, the AOR rock from the 70s, what the kids are calling ‘yacht rock’ these days, which is pretty funny.

    “But I really don’t think of it in terms like that, because I can see myself doing another album of the 70s AOR ballads just as much as I can see myself doing an album that’s even more electronic-based. I feel comfortable and at home in both of those worlds, but it took me a lot longer to find my way into the electronic thing because I had to figure out those sounds that I wanted to work with. It’s not really that complicated but it was about finding my own voice. There’s nothing I love more than a Mini Moog synthesiser or a Yamaha CS-80 and a Roland SH-101, I can’t get enough of that stuff, so I’m just having fun and doing what sounds logical and normal to me.”

    He chuckles when it’s suggested he is not shying away from dark material on Love Is Magic. The opening song, Metamorphosis, juxtaposes absurd images from tabloid headlines with thoughts on the death of his mother from cancer while Grant was in his mid-20s and grappling personal problems brought on by the homophobia he encountered growing up in Michigan. I was, he says, a difficult song to write. “We were in sort of upheaval for several days while we were recording that, but you know it’s something that you never really finish with, there are times when it comes up, your subconscious pushes it into the foreground and says, ‘Now it’s time for you to go a little further with this or deal with this a little bit more’.

    “The song talks about the difficulty to grieve for a major death like that. When your mom dies, especially that young, she was 57 and I’ll be that age when she died very soon, so it just puts things into perspective. It makes you think about your own mortality a lot and it makes you think about where you were when it was going on. I was going through stuff quite young [but] 25 really isn’t that young. I wish that I hadn’t been as self-absorbed and selfish as I was at that point, but the thing is you can’t really dwell on that. You’ve got to keep it going and learn what you can and move on.”

    The album’s title track suggests that at 50 Grant has reached a certain self-acceptance. He says his view on relationships has changed. “I think that it’s great if you have one and also great if you don’t have one. When you don’t have one I think you should enjoy your freedom because there’s a lot of sacrifice that goes along with a relationship too. In the ensuing years I’ve had a great experience of a relationship, unfortunately the romantic part of the relationship ended about a year and a half ago, but it was a great sign for me that I was able to be in a relationship and it was able to stay loving and respectful throughout the duration of the relationship and even during the end of the relationship. That indicates to me that I have a different perspective and understanding about what it means to love somebody and let them go as well if the time comes. So that’s very positive to me, and I feel I can enjoy my own company, I’ve got lots of things that I’m interested in and lots of things to do.

    “The goal is not to be in a relationship but just to take it seriously and be self-aware when you’re in one, if it comes your way, and not take it for granted.”

    Last year Grant celebrated turning 50 by going to an amusement park in Ohio with his brothers and sister. “It was amazing, I felt like a kid again,” he says. “Just going on all those giant rides and having your insides all scrambled up. I just rode rollercoasters non-stop for six days.”

    The siblings were even able to put aside their political differences for the duration of their trip. “We just don’t talk about it,” says Grant. “It’s totally pointless to even discuss it.”

    In middle age Grant appreciates the deep concerns he had in his younger years are “not as much in the foreground” as they once were. “But they’re always sort of there,” he says. “You worry about money, you worry about your health, but as far as the sexuality and religion, those things are still there but they don’t control your every waking moment. At least you have better tools in your toolbox to deal with them on a daily basis.

    “I just feel since getting sober being very awake for everything and that’s good, to experience the pain of living, all the joy that comes along with it too, because there are a lot of amazing moments that happen. Instead of spending every day recovering from the night before, there are a lot more possibilities you’re awake to, there are tons of possibilities on a daily basis, very tiny things. So being aware of moments and very small things is a huge part of having joy across the whole.”

    Love Is Magic ends with a song inspired by a story the singer read about Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who was jailed for disclosing classified military documents to the website WikiLeaks. While in prison Manning went through a gender transition. “I don’t really understand it because I haven’t been through something like that, but it seems to me if you survive something like that – and she barely did survive – but it seems to me there are a lot of people in the States, and worldwide, who will look at that and say ‘What a mess’, they will call that person a traitor and say ‘You’re a pervert, they must be all mixed up’, but that person is really no different from anyone else, and I think that most people that judge people like that wouldn’t last more than a couple of minutes in their shoes.

    “To understand what it really feels like, to come that realisation inside yourself that you’re in the wrong body, and also to be judged by an entire nation and called a traitor, and to have all those things running simultaneously, transitioning inside the unforgiving world of prison, there must have been moments of incredible clarity and grace inside that prison that made it possible for this person to survive. I just think it’s really fascinating, the whole story.

    “And it’s also a conversation about strength. People think they know what strength is, they go to gym every day, but all you’ve got to do is take a wrong step in the bathroom and all that strength does you nothing when you smack your head on the side of the bathtub.”

    John Grant plays at O2 Academy Leeds on January 30.