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.