Iceland’s John Grant strikes universal tone with cathartic songs

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times


John Grant writes haunting, but frequently humorous, songs that often draw from the alienation he felt in his struggles to come out as a gay man. Following in the path of Mose Allison, Ben Folds, and even Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, he uses the piano as a confessional tool to draw listeners in through the conversational tone of his lyrics and the beauty of the melody. Despite the personal biography that drives the songs, they are remarkably universal because they’re ultimately about the struggle to stay true to oneself.

Unlike those songwriters, Grant is self-exiled outside the U.S., where he has received the majority of the acclaim for his two solo albums, the latest being “Pale Green Ghosts” (Partisan) which received best-album nods from practically every British music magazine at the end of last year. He lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he moved after leaving the Czars, the Colorado quintet he fronted for many years, and after discovering he was HIV-positive, a diagnosis he received after achieving sobriety.

Grant’s first album, “Queen of Denmark,” from 2010, sounds like a lost classic from the 1970s singer-songwriter era; its title song is the highlight of Sinead O’Connor’s more recent album — a rare cover for her. “Pale Green Ghosts” blends simple New Wave-era electronics courtesy of producer Birgir Þórarinsson of Iceland’s GusGus.

Grant is also a native Midwesterner, having spent his earliest years in Buchanan, Mich. He returns to this area Monday at the House of Blues. What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation about his music and life.

Were you always drawn to play piano?

I wished I could play the guitar. I don’t know if I have the patience to do it. I probably could get my head around it eventually, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. So I prefer to let the pros do it. I do fantasize playing a beautiful Gretsch or a Gibson Hollow Body on stage. It’s so sexy to be holding that thing and having it there in front of you, it looks amazing. I just love that whole troubadour-with-guitar thing. But I’m quite a perfectionist and I probably wouldn’t play it live until I could play flamenco on it.

Solo piano is an instrument that, to me, lends itself more to confessional songwriting.

Yeah, definitely. When I was in my band The Czars, I knew there were things I wanted to say but I don’t think I felt comfortable saying them in the context of a band because they were so personal. So I had to leave the band. And after my mother died, I felt a little more free to be myself. That probably sounds horrible. She had a lot of expectations and I think I was very affected by that. I think I was afraid to disappoint her because I was not becoming what she wanted me to become … So sometimes I wonder if the death of my mother made it easier to be who I was, or to say the things I wanted to say. I knew things I had to say would be hurtful to her. Or at least affect her very deeply knowing I had felt that way.

I also had to quit drinking in order to start getting to the bottom of what was causing me to having so much fear and depression and anxiety. I wasn’t really functioning … They were coming out with bunch of drugs at the time. Prozac had been out, and there was a new one, Paxil. Once I took that, I felt so much better for the first time in years. I started coming out as gay, but it took a lot of heavy drinking for me to be myself. That went on for years. I suppose when my first band The Czars died, I blamed my inability to acclimate myself to the failure of that band and I still believe that there was a lot of potential there, but I could not get out of my shell. So all of this had to transpire for in order for me to think, “You know what? I don’t have anything to be ashamed of, there’s nothing to be scared of in this world.”

A lot of times, you hear from conservative sources who say, maybe not in these words, but: “Why can’t you faggots shut up about it and be gay?” … Well, because you made it an issue for me for 25 years and I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. It was also important for me to stick to the truth so that I didn’t run off into la-la land again. Before, it was really easy for me to disappear into character. I often wish I could be David Bowie, but I’m sure that brings its own problems too. I think it’s very important for me to say exactly what I feel like saying and not give a [expletive] that anyone thinks about it.

Yet despite these songs being so specific to your struggle, they also sound really universal. You don’t need to know your story to really be moved by them.

I think the way I see my music is it is about the pain of being human and trying to navigate emotions. And what gender is: am I still a man because everyone says I’m not a man because I’m gay? I know that I felt like I wasn’t welcome at all here on this planet. I felt like I wasn’t going to be allowed to partake in the reindeer games as everyone else. So I quit trying. At school I didn’t study, I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t deal with this knowledge stuck inside my head. So many people knew what was happening with me even though I couldn’t have any dialogue with myself about it. I definitely developed a lot of anger … When people tell you that you are lessor human being, it affects you in a profound way. If you don’t feel you are worthy of things that normal humans are worthy of … But at the end of the day, you go out into the world and become an adult and realize you are responsible for yourself. Hopefully at some point, either you are going to choose to let this anger and this anguish and this confusion destroy you and you’re not going to become anything and sink into this world of addiction or you’re just going to accept it as that’s the way it is.

I think that’s evident by your audience: It seems pretty diverse.

I see lots of types of people come to my shows and people bring children, and there’s older people, younger people. It’s not just the gay crowd. It’s a cross-section of people who come to the show. That makes me very successful in my own mind. This music is simply just another observation of the pain of being human. It’s just part of the deal for everyone.

Your most appealing song on the new album is “GMF,” which is very funny but also extremely tender. It’s a great example of what we’re talking about — A song about self-esteem with some killer lines — “I overanalyze and overthink things/yes, it’s a nasty crutch” — that also sounds really universal.

The song is quite multi-faceted for me. It comes from having had your self-esteem beaten down for so long, you end up having this angry inner dialogue telling yourself you’re [expletive] and not worthy of another person’s love and you saying, “that’s not true, I’m [expletive] awesome.” Because I am [expletive] awesome.

In today’s society, obviously there are lot of people out there doing amazing things for other people, but what is sold to people on television in the capitalist society is it’s all about “becoming the best version of yourself,” and that is all you should be thinking about. So you see a lot of people doing it: gorgeous people with brick bodies and the cars and the things that you say you deserve. A lot of times in a live setting, I dedicate it to people who need to love themselves a little bit less. Because there’s that side to it too.

So the song is me trying to build myself up, but it’s also a statement about the super-turbo, self-realization society and if you can’t keep up with that, then, “[expletive] you, you’re gross and you’re a lazy, no-good piece of [expletive].”

Your song “Ernest Borgnine” is the title of a song that deals with you having HIV. The verses talk about the disease, but the chorus proclaims, “I wonder what Ernie Borgnine would do.” What’s the connection?

He was always one of my favorites. I always loved his face and his voice. I saw him and I have memories from the beautiful 70s. I think the 70s was the greatest time on the planet. I feel the 70s is when people looked the hottest. I thought men suits with those big collars and the mustaches — for some reason, I thought that was the greatest period. One of my great loves as child were those amazing disaster movies like “Meteor” and “Airport.” Ernest Borgnine was in a few of those — that’s probably where I was introduced to him. I had a chance to meet him years later while waiting tables Gramercy Tavern in New York City. He was doing a press junket for his autobiography. I happened to be working in the private dining room when he was there and I got to shake his hand and say hi to him.

I brought him into that song when I found out I had HIV. It was this victim behavior when I was using and not facing myself. For example, I didn’t want to tell my family that I had HIV because, first of all, I didn’t want to play the sympathy card. I wanted to finally accept things the way they were. I wanted to tell my family at the right time for the right reasons. I felt I needed to wait and not talk about it until I had my head around what happened to me and why I had gotten HIV.

This is after I got sober. I got rid of cocaine and alcohol, but there were lot of things in my sex life I was using in very destructive way as well. I wanted to keep something as a bonus. Like, “I’ll keep my destructive sexual behavior as a bonus treat because I worked so hard.” And then you get this disease. I wanted to write song expressed the absurdity of this situation. I wanted to write a song about some days are about dealing with cold hard facts, and then in the chorus of the song, it’s pure escapism. Because that’s what a lot of my life has been about.

How often are you writing songs?

I’m constantly writing. A lot of times, it’s the exercise of being aware. When the process is taking place and you’re not recognizing it. Usually it happens when I’m starting to sit down and decide to write a song but often it happens when I’m not sitting down and deciding to write song. So I suppose I’m constantly writing on a daily basis.

You’ve only released two albums, but they’ve won lots of awards, raves, and people like Sinead O’Connor are covering your songs. So is the pressure on now and how is that affecting what you do next?

I definitely feel more pressure. With a bit of success, it’s just part of the deal. Nobody was looking at you before and now people are expecting something. When you did your first album, it was easy to do it because nobody was really waiting for anything from you. Now you have people you don’t want to disappoint. You want to keep your fans. I’m sure everybody deals with that in this business at some point. I look at people I really admire like Nick Cave: you go into office you work at it and sometimes you get something and sometimes you don’t. Like a lot of things, you should try to work at it every day no matter how you feel, without a goal in mind but trying to stay open and aware. We’ve all built up all these layers and all these censors and all these filters of how we want to be perceived in a certain way. You may say, “I want to be David Bowie and write like him,” but what you really need to be is be yourself. Which is a hard thing for most people to do on a daily basis. So, for me, when I’m writing songs I’m asking, “are you trying to tell somebody else’s story?” “Are you being true?” “Is this a stripped-down version of somebody else’s song?” It is difficult to navigate your own music when you’re constantly being bombarded by things from the outside. Sometimes I write a song and say, “it’s great,” until I realize I wrote the song I listened to ten minutes ago.

Sometimes you get the whole finished process right there and it comes out when you’re feeling it and ready to go. That seems to be the exception. For me, it seems to be a long process to feel that every part is getting distilled down to its most essential elements.

It really is about staying awake and aware everyday. Obviously, I have proven I can write an entire album trapped in my head. As the years go on, and you run out of things, you can get tired of being self absorbed. That’s when you’ll want to go out into the world. There are a trillion things to write about. You don’t ever have to want for something to write about. It’s all there. The only thing standing in the way is you.

You’ve lived outside the U.S. for about 10 years now, and your music is better known in Europe. How do you want that to change?

I definitely have been more successful abroad because that’s where much of the work has been in the past, and because that’s where my main record label was. I think things are starting to shape for me in the States, which is great because I’m really desperate to do things like play Coachella. I want to be part of that. Everybody wants to be loved in the place where they come from.

Most people, even they don’t say it, they want to have success at home. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I feel like things are going well in the States now, finally, after a long period of it being very slow for me.

I’m such an American boy, but I do feel I become a more interesting and better version of myself when I’m out living elsewhere. I feel like I’m very challenged when I’m out living in a foreign country and learning to adapt to new culture and new language. Living abroad as long as I have … it just makes me love where I come from that much more. You see a lot of problems from a distance, but when you have that distance, you also see things more clearly. I love American pop culture so I’m excited to come back to the States to tour.


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