John Grant was never the cheeriest man in music — and often with good reason. But Ed Power finds him in fine fettle as he prepares for his Cork gig
IS JOHN Grant happy? For most of his adult life he would have answered ‘no’ in a heartbeat. Grant grew up gay in a ultra-Christian household in the American Midwest; his early career in music was a parade of disappointments, strip-lit with drug and alcohol binges. He was for decades a living, breathing train-wreck.
But now things are different. His recently released third solo album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, confirmed the Denver, Colorado native’s standing as one of the most individualist voices in independent rock.
What’s more, he’s enjoying quantifiable commercial success, with the new LP debuting at number three in Ireland (his highest ever chart position) and at number five in the UK. Grant is understandably reluctant to say as much out loud — but, perhaps he has finally stumbled upon contentment. He shrugs. That’s how it seems most mornings anyway.
“Well nowadays I don’t have to worry about the rent. Believe me, that’s a novelty. Financial stability does make a difference. That’s a huge thing for me — something I had struggled with for decades.”
Of course, real life being real life there are complications. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2011, just as he was making a name for himself as purveyor of delicately angsty confessional pop. And the old demons — the low self esteem, the fear of failure and of ageing — are still there, whispering in his ear at night. Grant sighs. Isn’t that how it is for everybody?
“Life isn’t straightforward as you well know,” he says. “You don’t get to skip the difficult stuff — the struggle to become an adult and find a place in the world. That’s a long process which never really ends. I am still very much myself in that regard.”
Grant has always been searingly honest in interviews. He’s opened up about his difficult relationship with his conservative father (they remain semi-estranged); the self-hate he felt as a gay teenager in the Bible belt; the urge to self-destruct that fuelled his sex and drug addictions.
“There are things I DON’T talk about,” he says. “I’m not putting everything out there. Generally, the stuff I talk about is stuff I feel other people have gone through as well. Deep down, we’re all dealing with the same s**t. Morality, lack of morality, wanting to be loved, wanting to feel we belong. Everyone is different — but we have a lot in common.”
Voraciously promiscuous at points in his life, he used to remark that he had dodged a bullet in not contracting HIV — until he found that he had, following a one-night stand in Sweden. He manages the condition with a formidable regime of medication. A decade ago, living with HIV might have pushed him over the edge. But, after wallowing for years, he is in a positive place today and has found the strength to look to the future with optimism.
Indeed, if anything weights on him it isn’t illness but age. Grant is 48 and at a point in life when he can feel the long fingers of morality reaching. This is a subject he wrestles with on the new album. “Again, we’ve all been there. I’m going to be 50 in two years. It’s like… well, I’m definitely at the halfway point by now. What have I done? I don’t want to waste any more time on drugs and alcohol and feeling angry.”
Given the bleak subject matter, it should come as little surprise that Grey Tickles was occasionally a slog to make. “I don’t want to go through struggle and turmoil — but that does seem part of the deal,” says Grant.
“It goes back and forth. There are moments of levity and laughter during the process. But lots of stress, too, because you want to get it right. It is hard to let go of your perfectionist instinct. It’s also not easy working with other people. I find it hard to get across what I am looking for. The possibilities are endless which doesn’t help. It find it a big pain in the ass making a record. It’s fun. However, there are times you really think you are going to lose it. At least I do.”
Grant has toured extensively in Ireland and was flattered that it was here that he would achieve his highest ever chart placing. He is close to Sinéad O’Connor with whom he has performed and has also shared a stage with Connor O’Brien of Villagers.
“I appreciate the Irish humour,” he says. “It’s very dry. People don’t take themselves too seriously. I’ve always felt at home there. I like that. I’ve performed outside of Dublin too — I’ve been to Galway and to Cork. My memories of Cork are of playing in a place called Myrtleville [at Pine Lodge]. The scenery was incredible. I remember taking in the view and thinking, ‘Wow this is amazing’.”
He has for the past several years lived in Reykjavik. The solitude agrees with him as does the locals’ understated nature. “I’m very aware of being an American,” he says. “I can’t get that out of my system. In some ways that’s good. In some ways bad. The capitalism and consumerism that are deeply ingrained in me — I really don’t like that a lot of the time. I feel like a much better American when I’m out in the world.”
Grant was as shocked as anyone by the death of David Bowie, though the singer was not a hugely formative influence. If anything it was Bowie’s acolytes — the punks and new romantics — who shaped him. Only in later life did he discover the Thin White Duke’s true genius.
Very sad news to wake up to today. But what a life.— John Grant (@johngrantmusic) January 11, 2016
“I didn’t shed any tears. But it hit my hard. I really became more aware of him in the ’80s. I still think ‘Let’s Dance’ is one of the greatest songs ever made — it’s definitely in my top ten.”
Grant never met Bowie but they shared several mutual acquaintances. It was through them that Grant learned that, while Bowie was a formidable entertainer, he did not relish live performance and often felt uncomfortable under the spotlight. Having sometimes struggled with this aspect of the business himself, Grant took enormous heart from the revelation.
“Being at home on stage is something that has taken a really long time for me to do. At the start it was difficult. Basically I had to be really drunk. When I talk to people who knew Bowie they say he wasn’t particularly at ease up there. That’s hugely comforting to know.”
John Grant plays Cork Opera House next Thursday, and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, in July
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