John Grant :: Turning Pain Into Beautiful Music
Joni Mitchell may have sung that laughing and crying are the same release, but with the songs of John Grant, both can be experienced simultaneously. With equal parts whimsy and melancholy, the openly gay singer tells of heartache, confusion and fragments of joy with a unique sense of humanity.
As open about being gay as he is about being sober, Grant’s new album "Pale Green Ghosts" contemplates personal battles and even recovery hallucinations with a deft combination of electronic-tinged folk stylings.
This is Grant’s first tour in big venues opening for Elbow. Later this year, he’ll headline a European series of venues, then return to the U.S. for several gigs in October.
"I know several people that know the band," said Grant in a phone interview. "I’m a fan as well, and I’m pretty excited about it, and to be back in my home, so to speak."
That’s because he spoke from his home in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Grant has lived for about two years. Asked about his grasp of the Icelandic language, Grant said, "It’s coming along. It’s definitely the hardest so far."
Grant, 42, speaks several languages, but admitted, "My brain is not as soft and malleable as it used to be. It’ll take me a while. I love to speak other languages. Icelandic is Germanic, like all Scandanavian languages, and has a lot in common with Danish. Icelanders have no problem understanding Swedish or Danish."
Grant mentioned Feroese, a dialect spoken on the small Faroe Islands between Denmark and Iceland, where an ancient Old Norse mixture of languages goes back centuries.
"They’ve been isolated on that little island, so the language has become preserved and complicated," Grant said with a tone of admiration.
Asked if he’d consider performing or writing songs in other languages, Grant said he has performed other songs in German and Icelandic. "I definitely want to do more of that, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I want my pronunciation to be perfect."
Then Grant shifted gears, as in one of his songs, saying, "Or maybe I just need to get over it and have fun, like with Russian."
Grant studied piano since childhood, and gained what he called a "passable" ability to play Rachmaninoff. That’s just one of many autobiographical layers in his music.
Fans of Grant’s music videos should surely know of the astounding film montage by Jonathan Caouette that accompanies his song "Glacier." With film clips and images of LGBT people and media depictions from the silent film era through the recent Bradley/Chelsea Manning protests, the film encapsulates our community’s glacial shift toward equal rights. Grant’s sometime touring partner, keyboardist Chris Pemberton, plays the gorgeous piano coda at the song’s finale.
Grant’s other collaborations have included songs with Sinead O’Connor. His songs were also included in the score of film director Michael Lannan’s gay-themed "Weekend" and episodes of his HBO series "Looking."
Another of Grant’s music videos, "I Try to Talk to You," a collaboration with Hercules and Love Affair, offers a modern dance interpretation of a troubled gay relationship, directed by David Wilson. But that interpretation is open to, well, interpretation.
"The director was coming at it as a dialogue with someone else. But when I wrote that song with Andy, doing the lyrics, I was thinking more in terms of having a dialogue with myself. You can look at it as a guy dancing with another guy, struggling to have a relationship, or the two men are parts of one man."
But when Grant wrote the song, he said he was coming to terms with his HIV-positive diagnosis.
"I asked myself, ’Why, after I took the trouble to get sober and get rid of the destructive things in my life, did this happen?’ " he said. "I wanted to explore more what the hell has been bothering me, my getting to the bottom of my fear and inability. Why did I do this? It was about taking responsibility for what happened, dealing with it and getting on with it. I had to forgive myself and move on. At the end of the day, one has to simply accept it."
Acceptance of his past is also a major part of Grant’s current life. As a singer and pianist with The Czars from 1996 to 2005, Grant drank to excess and spent a lot of time being frustrated. One of the only things that got him to stop drinking was being being kicked out of the band (Four of their six albums are still available on Grant’s website).
"I had so many ideas about what I was supposed to be," he said. "I was still far from realizing how fantastic I would be as myself. We’ve been told this all our lives, ’Be yourself and people will like you,’ but I was never able to do that. That was one of my frustrations with The Czars. I knew that I could bring my music to a whole different level, if I could just love myself or others."
That’s been difficult, considering Grant’s repressed life with a highly religious family.
"Whether it was Mom and Dad or family or church, all their expectations fail," said Grant. "You see your friends become this upstanding citizens. Yet, with such people, nobody will ever ask me if I was gay. People just didn’t ask about my life, or, ’Are you seeing someone?’ "
Grant has found more honesty as a solo artist. His first solo album, "Queen of Denmark," won high critical praise.
"At some point, I wanted to be able to say, ’I am great just the way I am.’ That’s part of what my new music is about. It does feel like a new life, being able to say exactly what I want to say. Sometimes I worry if I’ve gone too far. But you owe it to yourself and your art to ignore that negative voice."
His voice encompasses a bold ruminative baritone, and his lyrics shift from whimsy to anger that at times approaches the darkly comic.
Instead of wrapping around metaphor, his lyrics bluntly state what’s in the frontal lobe, as in the song "Sigourney Weaver," where, Grant expresses awkwardness as feeling "just like Winona Ryder in that move about vampires, and she couldn’t get that accent right, and neither could that other guy."
The video for the song "GMF," at first innocuous, portrays Grant as a bumbling oaf. "I am the greatest mother fucker that you’re ever gonna meet," he sings, as he fumbles with a basketball while mostly alone in parks, while shopping, and at a bar as a down and out failed superhero hungover on what feels like "Pop Rox and cyanide," until he meets an equally inept nemesis and gets pummeled, yet remains hopeful.
Across the Pond
Asked if he feels disconnected from U.S. culture after moving to Germany for six years, and having lived in Iceland for two, Grant said yes... and no.
"I love it, I miss it; I’m a very American boy," he said. "But I love languages so much. To get to know other cultures makes me love where I come from even more. I wanted to get away from where I was, the Methodist and Southern Baptist church culture where the message was imparted that I was a lesser human being. There was a lot of anger, and I wanted to get away. I love Germany, but there comes a point when you get over thinking that some place is better, because no place is better. There are tons of amazing places, and home is one of them."
He’s also not idealistic. "Iceland kicked the corrupt bankers out, but six years later, they just elected the same people back into the government who did that to them. That’s one of the things you learn. American politics are ridiculous and embarrassing. But guess what? It’s the same bullshit everywhere you go."
When he does return to the U.S., Grant said that he reconnects with his family, most of whom live in Colorado.
"My relationship to my family was quite strained because of my alcoholism," said Grant. "I was constantly having to be bailed out. There was a lot of resentment. I’ve stayed sober in order to have a career and a life. It was something that was important for me to do, so my relationships have improved greatly. I’ve become somebody that they can count on. I can do things for them," including flying a brother out for a show, or bringing his sister to England for a vacation.
Songs in the Key of Life
For his opening set on May 27 at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, Grant will perform on piano with a guitarist. He said he likes the simplicity, but also looks forward to his own European tour later this year with several more musicians, "to have the whole set up, so I can present the album. I want people to hear the lushness, how big and fat and gorgeous it is. But some of the songs do lend themselves to acoustic versions."
Part of Grant’s music is his eloquent skill at the piano. Having studied since his childhood in Buchanan, Michigan, Grant found refuge in music.
"I was starting to get into becoming a teenager, wanting to be cool, whatever the fuck that meant. Back then, playing the piano wasn’t very cool. I still had to go to church, and also play piano there. But I never wanted to practice my scales, which you really have to do, to get the dexterity to play something like the Chopin etudes. There’s tons of difficult music out there. I could play it fine, but never to the level that I could have if I’d practiced. But I played long enough that it’s inextricable from my music."
With his years of performing experience, Grant admitted that he knows his limits.
"Whenever I write something that’s a little too difficult, I give it to Chris Pemberton," the pianist who performs the arpeggios at the end of "Glacier."
"These days, I figure, just get a pro," said Grant. "He can literally play anything, and he does play everything. It’s amazing to watch someone who’s a virtuoso on an instrument."
Actually, Grant’s no slouch at the ivory-tickling himself. His songs reveal layers of subtlety and an accomplished compositional style.
"When I’m teaching songs to other musicians, before we play live, they’re like, ’Good lord; another key change?’
His music is also compositionally autobiographical.
"I love the Russians; Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky," Grant said. "There are specific references in my music. ’Pale Green Ghosts’ has a string arrangement based on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, which I played as a kid. I thought it was so cool to put it on top of a fat electronic beat."
Other references are more obscure, like the strings in Grant’s song "Vietnam," which reference his love of horror movie scores like John Carpenter’s.
He also cited Cocteau Twins’ Lisa Gerrard, whose obscure lyrics seem like Elvish, but, Grant discovered, are sometimes simply a Polish dialect.
"People want things that they can connect to, but we also want music that we can escape into," said Grant. "One of the reasons people like my lyrics is they like to hear reality sometimes. Relationships are fuckin’ tough. You don’t always feel like you have it together. It’s funny to talk about how difficult it is to be a human."
Or a bear?
Grant admitted being amused by his strong fan base among the hirsute gay male subculture.
"That is what I connect to," he said. "I mean, there are different kinds of men that I find hot, but I do love hairy men, and I do connect to that community. And I’m glad that I’m embraced by them."
Grant’s also comfortable being considered a gay musician.
"I’ve never sensed it as limiting," he said. "Although, other people made my being gay an issue by bothering us about it. But you’ve got to go out there and be yourself. Be true to whatever it is you need to do, and everything else will fall in place. It’s your job to embrace the people that like you. I want to show that love back to them by being there and connecting. Although, for a long time I was just sort of this guy who really didn’t feel like I fit into the gay community anywhere. To feel that other gay men appreciate my music... I think ’flattered’ is the wrong word. I feel quite pleased about it. Because we are, us gays, some picky motherfuckers. I do feel that in my mind to be appreciated by own community is special."
And yet, his work isn’t at all limited to any group of people.
"I do notice that lots of different people come to my shows," Grant added. "In great Britain, there are a lot of young kids with their parents. It’s a very diverse cross section of humanity, and that make me feel very successful."
John Grant opens for Elbow at the Fox Theatre, Tuesday May 27. $32.50. 8pm. 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. (510) 302-2250. www.thefoxoakland.com www.johngrantmusic.com