John Grant is a happy camper now, but his return to Ireland will have him playing music mined from his problematic past, writes Ed Power.
LAST Christmas singer John Grant went home to Colorado to be with his extended family. The singer, who is gay and a recovering drug addict, has a shaky relationship with the conservative Midwest town where he grew up. But family is family and so he packed his bags and got on the flight.
One topic of conversation stayed off the table. “Pretty much most of my family voted for Trump,” says Grant, speaking ahead of a much- anticipated Irish tour that includes a Cork Opera House date on March 28.
“We simply didn’t discuss it. Those are the people I love the most. My only reaction to Trump is confusion and horror. This guy is being presented as the new Jesus — the Christian’s Christian. And I don’t know how the f**k that is possible.”
Grant (51) grew up tortured about his sexuality. Later, as the frontman of unsuccessful alternative rock band The Czars, the spiritual torment was complemented by his angst over professional failure. He fell into self pity and anger at the world. And if those experiences sometimes translate into interesting art, here they just poured gasoline on Grant’s bonfire of self-destruction.
But this is a story with an unlikely Hollywood ending. Grant kicked the drugs and the booze, reinventing himself as a successful solo artist. He would go on to release four acclaimed stand-alone records, which move gracefully between campfire torch songs and fizzy electro-pop.
And yet, as he will tell you, no happy ending lasts forever and your demons are never fully silenced. This is something the singer, who is burly, bearded and amiable, discovered as walked down a street one day and was suddenly stricken with guilt over the death, over 20 years previously, of his mother.
That hit-by-lightning moment of remorse’s fuelled one of the most startling tracks on his latest album, Love Is Magic. On’Metamorphosis’, Grant presents to us the emotional breakdown as performance art. Electronic beats hammer madly against lyrics that unfold like Yeats and Morrissey meeting at a methhead support group. “Earthquakes, forest fires, hot Brazilian boys, “ he yammers. “67 yogurt flavours… Which one do you want?”
It’s startling, particularly if your entry point to Grant was his 2010 solo debut Queen of Denmark. That album was an intense but essentially conventional collection of confessional ballads, which tugged at the heart strings but were unlikely to frighten the horses.
Queen of Denmark also came with a heart-swelling origin tale. Grant was shortly beforehand at rock bottom and working as a waiter. He had decided to give up on music — concluding it had already given up on him.
Yet his fatalism was not shared by members of the band Midlake, who had toured with The Czars. At their behest — insistence really — he gave songwriting one more shot and entered a studio in Texas, laying down the material that would become Queen of Denmark. After 20 years of pain and rejection he became an overnight success.
“In some ways it was disorientating,” he recalls. “In other ways… it had taken so long for me to get there, that I was really quite grounded when it happened. I didn’t take it [success] very seriously. The biggest issue was, and continues to be, the travel. You’re on the road all the time — constantly being jet-lagged and catching up. It wears you down.”
Compared to Queen of Denmark, Love is Magic is far more fraught and unhinged (as hinted by the cover image of Grant, covered in feathers, his head in a birdcage). ‘Metamorphosis’, in particular, captures the despair and mania Grant experienced with the loss of his mother.
“I struggled with it when I was writing it,” he says. “She was at home and I was living at home [at the time of her death]. I saw this happening to her.
What tore him up was the absolute belief his mother, and those around her, entrusted in faith rather than medicine.
“There was this feeling that if you prayed in the correct manner, with the correct heart, and with the right motives, you would definitely be healed. That made it difficult to deal with. ‘I’ve done what God asked — he isn’t going to let me die’.”
As his mother faded away, Grant embarked on a decade long spiral into self-destruction. “I’d come out as gay and I had started with my heavy drinking. It was a heavy time for me. So when I was writing ‘Metamorphosis’ it made me feel quite uncomfortable for several days. On the other hand, performing it in a live setting is a pure joy.”
Grant left the US for a new life in Iceland in 2013 and never looked back. He liked that people there are non-judgemental and not given to the fire and brimstone melodrama that was bound up with his existence in Colorado.
But things have not been completely halcyon. Grant was diagnosed HIV positive after a night of “reckless sex”.
Characteristically, he refused to bury the news. Instead he announced it to the world on stage at the Meltdown festival in London in 2011, for which he was praised for confronting the taboo around the condition.
Today, he is successful, clean living and generally content. He has, it might appear from the outside, reached the promised land. The sting in the tail, he says, is that remaining sober is still a struggle and something he never takes for granted.
“I have substance abuse and escapism with drug and alcohol issues. I came up with this metaphor for addiction. Addiction is like beautiful, newly fallen show — it’s an eternal winter.
“And then you start to clean up and spring comes and underneath it’s all used condoms and dog turds. That’s what reality is about — used condoms and dog turds and you’ve got to clean it away every day.”
Love Is Magic is out now. John Grant plays University Concert Hall Limerick, March 27; Cork Opera House, March 28; Leisureland Galway March 30; Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin March 31