Music interview: John Grant on his North Atlantic Flux festival for Hull UK City of Culture

Singer-songwriter John Grant has curated a Nordic music festival for Hull UK City of Culture. Duncan Seaman reports.

John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer
John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer

Singer songwriter John Grant may have grown up in the Western United States but in recent years his heart has found a home several thousand miles away, in Iceland.

His last two albums, Pale Ghosts and Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – which were both top 20 hits in the UK – were recorded in Reykjavik while in 2014 he was called upon to co-write Iceland’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

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“I feel like I’m slowly becoming part of a community,” he reports. “I’m learning the language more – it’s been a huge challenge, I have to say – but I have a solid relationship with an Icelander, that makes a big difference. I like the people a lot, I like the way they are...people don’t sweat the small stuff up here nearly as much. They have a saying which means ‘it’ll work itself out, it’ll take care of itself’.”

John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer

Later this month the 48-year-old will perform at North Atlantic Flux: Sounds From Smoky Bay, a four-day festival of contemporary Nordic music which he has curated for Hull UK City of Culture 2017.

The idea was originally suggested to Grant by Chris Clay of the City of Culture team and Andy Brydon of the innovative arts organisation Curated Place. “I’m just chuffed to be asked to do something like that so I said ‘yes’,” the singer says.

“They know that I am excited about all things Scandinavian and very remotely I have some strange connections to Hull too because of some of my favourite artists coming out of there like Tracey Thorn and Cosey Fanni Tutti and the whole Throbbing Gristle thing and Lene Lovich, another of my favourite singers – she spent time in Hull as well.

“I’ve always heard that Hull was very bleak and that it was a rough place – and that sounds really good to me.”

John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer

Pulling together an adventurous bill – that ranges from broadly classical to punk but “certainly has an emphasis on the electronic” – took over a year’s work. From Iceland there’s GusGus, Soley, Sykur and Fufuna, from Norway are Lindstrom and Susanne Sundfor while Danish composer Eyvind Gulbrandsen is collaborating with the Northern College of Music. Importantly for Grant, the event will also feature several acts with local connections such as producer Steve Cobby and author Russ Litten, Tom Kay and James Orvis.

“Andy and Chris and I all agreed it shouldn’t just be about bringing outside people into Hull, it should also be showcasing what people in Hull are doing as well, so I hope that people are going to be pleased with the selection of artists coming out of Hull that are going to be performing,” he says.

“I’m particularly excited about Cobby and Litton, they’re doing very interesting things that are very relevant and contemporary. Steve Cobby was in Fila Brazillia in the 90s – I was into that and bought that music and thought it was great. Sometimes when you listen to what people are doing now it sounds like they’re stuck in the era where they had their heyday; it’s great to hear people really challenging themselves and doing new and exciting things that I would just take directly to the cash register and say ‘Gimme that’.”

Another highlight, on Saturday April 29, is set to be Humber Star, Yorkshire poet Adelle Stripe’s collaboration with Icelandic composer Halldór Smárason. It’s a lament to the 108 men who lost their lives in one of the biggest maritime tragedies in Hull’s seafaring history.

John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer

“I met with Adelle when she was up here [in Iceland] working on that piece and I just remember her describing it to me and thinking, ‘That sounds incredible’ and it sounded amazing to Chris and Andy as well. I don’t know much more but you know sometimes you want to go into something completely fresh and without any knowledge of it, I think that’s how it’s going to be for me.”

As for his own concert, on Sunday April 30, Grant says it will be a “stripped down set and I might have some guest appearances and I’ll probably be doing songs that don’t fit as well with the band”.

He adds: “I’m just going to be there trying to sing pretty and connect with the audience and have a good time – and I hope it will be special.”

In an age where many countries, including Britain, appear to be looking inward, multi-linguist Grant agrees an event like this can be a reminder of the wider bond between different nationalities. “That’s a given, I would say. I’m somebody that has always gone out into the world and learned other languages and learned about other cultures and I’ve always been fascinated by that and still you can go back to where you’re from and you can be like ‘I want my space for me’ and it’s ridiculous because you’ve been out into the world, you’ve learned other languages, you’ve seen we’re all pretty much the same even though we do have different characteristics. I definitely have done that sort of thing myself and I think to myself ‘What the hell is your problem?’ You know this is ridiculous thinking and that it doesn’t work and that it doesn’t bring anything good with it, plus you’ve been out into the world and seen different things and you know that it makes your world bigger and it makes your world more interesting, so I just want more of that.

John Grant. Picture: Patrick Mateer

“Even though at times it’s difficult because one gets very possessive of one’s little place in the world and one thinks that one owns it or that one has something to do with making it what it is, there’s this ownership involved, and that’s just ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.”

As well as North Atlantic Flux, Grant reveals he is “just in the very beginning stages” of work on his fourth solo album.

“I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to want to work with,” he says. “I’m certainly not complaining about being in a position to work with people I admire very much and who’ve been very instrumental in me wanting to do this for a living but it’s difficult sometimes when you realise that you can do anything.”

Having just signed a lease for his new studio space, he’s getting ready to move his equipment in. “I haven’t had a place like this in a couple of years. I’ve just been out on the road in my little touring bubble, which is a very comfortable place to be, but it sort of warps your perspective, so it’s good to be home again and be getting into a space where I can set up all of my toys. I never really stopped writing but it’s basically just me putting down a little jigsaw puzzle. It’ll be nice to have everything hooked up in a comfy environment for me to be able to really let go.”

Last year Grant co-wrote the song I Don’t Want To Hurt You for Robbie Williams’ Number One album The Heavy Entertainment Show. Their friendship began with an email from the British singer “saying ‘I saw you on TV and I thought it was awesome’ and I was just very flattered and also excited that he was writing me an email,” Grant says.

“We started an email exchange and then Guy [Chambers, Williams’ regular song writing partner] and Robbie asked me when I was in LA on tour to come by Robbie’s house and write a song with him. I thought it was a good, personable connection that we had and so I thought it was important to try it out and believe in myself and take them seriously, that they asked me to come and create with them, so I did it and I’m quite happy with the results.”

North Atlantic Flux runs at various venues in Hull from April 28 to May 1. Two-day and four-day passes are available from