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John Grant interview: ‘I feel like I’m an eternal optimist’

Princess Julia searches the sensitive soul of American singer-songwriter Grant, quite possibly music’s most discerning mind

By Jamie Tabberer

Words: Princess Julia; pictures: By Hörður Sveinsson

Don’t you just love it when you hook up with someone and they’re all the things you think they might be: dead chatty, insightful, creative and ever so embracing of what it is to be human — and that includes the downs as well as the ups. John Grant’s music does what great music should – it finds space to exist when, to all intents and purposes, society has told you there is no room for a freak like you and you just don’t fit in. I can relate.

Grant’s latest album, Boy From Michigan, may be reflective but it’s also quirky and filled with glorious electronic glitches. Tuneful and truthful and starring his resonating and all-encompassing ‘Grant-ian’ wordage and vocal styling, the lyrics capture a childhood set in middle America, in a time and place where pressure to conform to a structure of so-called normality was immense and soul-destroying for a gay child trying to find their way.

“I feel my records are full of joy; we go out and do what we do in spite of this other stuff going on,” Grant says. “We find our own communities. I write about stuff that gets you through all this shit, intensely personal stuff, universal things. We need to talk about stuff that cuts to the quick.”

“I felt like I did when I was a child again”

Ever in a thoughtful mood, he adds, “There’s a lot of strength in that. So many people are told, ‘There isn’t a place for you in this world.’”

Fans of John Grant will know of his personal struggles, and although he lives a creative existence in Reykjavik, hiking to the lava fields or watching the Northern Lights, the world’s issues do not pass him by without scrutiny. “There I was, seeing the ugliness and nastiness in the US while I was making this album. I felt like I did when I was a child again… It just blows my fuckin’ mind!”

And therein lies the magic of John Grant’s astute observations and compositions, his analytical unravelling making complete sense of the human condition, his ability to question, conjure up memories of past life situations amid a backdrop of sweeping emotional soundscapes.

Queer community is everything to Grant, finding his voice amid the chaos and turmoil of being a person indoctrinated with certain beliefs: “I was just this kid growing up in Colorado in the Methodist church; I thought the church was love.”

Realising things are not always as they seem, he escaped into a different world. “I feel like I’m an eternal optimist,” he muses. “When we’re young, we learn cruel truths; when you become an adult, we don’t deal with stuff; we throw away the keys. The playing field is not an even one. They tried to destroy my sensitivity, saying, ‘You need to harden up!’ All this repression starts to spill out into everything around you.”

The inequality of being ‘other’ and not fitting in meant Grant had a lot of deciphering to do. “Just being ashamed…” he says, “I really struggled, and this shouldn’t sound sensational, but why shouldn’t coming to terms with having HIV and finding your voice not be spoken about?”

Listing Patti Smith as an inspiration, John cites her fearless attitude and takes solace in that. “Children are cruel, adults are cruel. Here’s the thing, a lot of times, people say, ‘Oh, poor you, feeling sorry for yourself!’ One of the things, when you’re telling your story is there’s always the one grotesque fake possibility to embrace. I want to get to the core of things and rise above all that.”

Grant has nothing but admiration for pioneers in our queer community that pave the way for change. “I feel there are a lot of incredible activists out there doing shit. How do they do that?” he ponders, “Telling the truth about what they’ve been through. For me, I stayed in. I wasn’t able to open up, I was sick, unwell — I guess I was ashamed and that makes me very angry. I wasn’t able to express the rage and the hurt. Finding your worth takes compassion. And if you talk about it, you’re weak, you’re just living in the past. But it’s important for me to say these things, perhaps gaining a little more insight. I couldn’t say it when I was young so I’m going to say it now.”

As our conversation continues, I sense there’s an old New Romantic soul lurking in John Grant’s heart as we start to talk about all things electronica. To my joy, John has a picture of Steve Strange, who I knew well, hanging pride of place in his studio. He quickly pings it over and I’m so touched — La Strange would have loved that. John goes on to tell me that the world he escaped into consisted of the club and music scene I was involved in all those years ago, recollecting how he met Boy George and how sweet and encouraging he was.

Now that Grant explains his love of post punk and electronic pop, I see fabulous electro nuances springing up everywhere in his work. Immediately, the song ‘Rhetorical Figure’ plays on a loop in my head. That leads me to ask about process, how he goes about making a song. “I sort of have to remind myself it’s a distillation process,” John explains. “You think about stripping it all away without ignoring the outside world to get to that point. You learn to put yourself in a reflective space. There’s still that prison inside my head, that’s the trick for me.”

The more I listen to Boy From Michigan, the more I’m captivated and obsessed. And yes, I’m also that bit more in love with John Grant’s genius.

Boy From Michigan is out 25 June via Bella Union in the UK, and Partisan in the US. This interview first appeared in the July issue of Attitude.

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