John Grant


After fronting The Czars for 10 years, John Grant went solo in 2010 and produced Queen of Denmark, one of our favourite records of the past few years. Here, John explains the inspirations behind his second album Pale Green Ghosts, and speaks candidly about heartbreak, HIV and hope.

Midlake famously coerced you out of retirement to record Queen of Denmark. Do think you really think you would have quit music entirely if they hadn’t persuaded you to go solo?

I don’t know if it would have ever been possible for me to quit, but I think it would have taken me a lot longer to get back to it if it hadn’t been for them. I was really going in a different direction at that time, concentrating on my language skills, thinking that maybe I had missed my calling and I shouldn’t be doing music.

Given the acclaim that Queen of Denmark received, did you feel any pressure to match that success when you started writing Pale Green Ghosts?

I definitely felt it. But I also knew in my mind, and in my heart, that I had to ignore that and just worry about making the album that I wanted to make. And I feel like I did exactly that. It was a tough process and there were times that I doubted myself and I couldn’t hear anything anymore, but that happened to me with Queen of Denmark too, y’know? To me, it’s just part of the process. At times, it was painful too, to talk about a lot of the things I’m talking about.

Can you tell us more about the themes on Pale Green Ghosts, please?

I’m still talking about the same relationship that I was dealing with on Queen of Denmark, but it’s at a different phase of the relationship; sort of the anger stage, and the complete letting go and moving on phase. So there’s still a lot of painful issues.

You probably know that on ‘Ernest Borgnine’ I’m talking about contracting HIV, which was during the Queen of Denmark phase, so that was difficult for me to deal with because I... (clears throat) because it’s a real mind-f***. The realisation that you’ve got that disease changes things quite a bit for you. I was dealing with feeling like a diseased, used-up person who would never be sexy to anyone again, and was therefore even more unlovable than before, y’know? So yeah, difficult issues to deal with…

But I just dealt with the same way I always do: with a huge dose of humour and irony. And I put them in clothes that are confusing and sort of belie what’s beneath; what’s contained in the lyrics.

It’s a great album. Especially because it’s not necessarily where we would have expected you to go next, sonically.

Yeah, I can imagine. But I always knew that I had to work the electronic thing into my music because I loved those sounds so much. They were such a huge part of who I was growing up and what has shaped me and my love for music. So in order for me to continue to express who I am as a person, I had to make those sounds a part of it.

From my perspective, it’s not a huge break from Queen of Denmark. It feels very natural to me because I’ve spent so much of my life around those sounds. It was inevitable that I’d explore those sounds, it was just a question of how to integrate them in an organic way.

What music were you listening to while you were making the record?

I went through months of not listening to anything, and then I would just listen to old stuff. I listened to a lot of Chris & Cosey, because I’ve always been a huge fan. [Producer] Biggi [Veira] and I listened to all sorts of things that had inspired us when we were teenagers. A lot of that was from the new romantic, new wave movements: things like Soft Cell, Marc Almond, Depeche Mode, Visage, Ultravox, Scritti Politti, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, Yello… God, there’s so much.

We listened to tracks that Biggi had done with Gusgus. And then there was all the industrial stuff, like Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, Ministry, and modern stuff like Com Truise and Zombie Zombie, this French duo who make really beautiful, cinematic, analogue-synth music.

Early live versions of ‘Vietnam’ and ‘You Don’t Have To’ sound completely different to the versions that appear on the record. Did you always intend to transform them in the studio?

Yeah, that was the way I always wanted to do those songs. ‘Vietnam’ has that beautiful string arrangement on the record; I wanted it to be big and dramatic. And ‘You Don’t Have To’ was always planned the way it sounds on this album, but I didn’t really have the tools to do it on stage at that time, and it didn’t really fit into the set in that way. So I couldn’t really do it until I finally got into the studio with Biggi.

How was Biggi to work with?

Really amazing. He was totally committed to the project: always ready to work, always sticking to the task at hand, never getting distracted. And that’s amazing because we barely knew each other. But he really connected to the material, to the lyrics. I just loved the way he was really professional but he put his heart into it as well.

We also had a period where we had to fight a lot about what was right and what wasn’t for certain songs. That’s always to be expected and you want that friction because it’s good for the song to test things out. It was really a process where we both needed to be open-minded: we had chosen to work together so we just needed to trust each other, even if we didn’t get it at the time.

You moved to Reykjavik to record. Do you think Iceland had any impact on the sound of the album?

It’s hard for me to say. I’m sure that it did, but I couldn’t really tell you in what way. Every place affects you in some way; it affects your mood. I would say it’s more about Biggi, and the sounds that he brought to the table. I also had other Icelandic musicians working on the acoustic stuff, even though I had the rhythm section from Midlake on ‘Vietnam’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’. And then having Sinéad O’Connor on backing vocals on some of the songs changed the shape of things for me as well. She sings on ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’, ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and ‘GMF’.

How did that collaboration come about?

Well, she and I became friends as a result of her covering ‘Queen of Denmark’ on her last solo album. I was hanging out with her one time in her hotel room in London, and she was asking me if I had some new stuff that she could hear. So I played her some of the new songs and she was like, “Errrr... I’m singing on that.” (Laughs) And I said, “Ok! No problem!” I was absolutely delighted. Delighted is probably a bit of an understatement, I adore her.

If you had to pick out one track on the album that you’re proudest of, which would it be and why?

Let’s see... I think right now it would have to be ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’. Because I love that synth solo at the end – which Biggi played, by the way. And because I was able to figure out exactly what I wanted to say and convey a very, very difficult feeling, which is that there’s nothing actually missing from my life. I’m getting to have this great career, and make this music and connect with amazing people all over the place. And yet there’s this hole that I feel – that I perceive – because the person I love doesn’t love me anymore.

Being in that place, mentally, is really horrible, because you keep thinking, “No matter what I become in this world – even if I become super-famous and make another 10 albums that people think are wonderful – it will never restore that love that I’m missing.” And so it doesn’t really matter, y’know? (Sighs)

One of my favourite metaphors on the album is the metaphor of vulnerability feeling like fluorescent light in a cold, concrete room. I guess what I’m saying is, I was able to express how difficult it is to allow yourself to stay open and vulnerable, when everything inside of you is screaming at you to stop trusting people and to just shut down and quit.

Your lyrics are brutally frank. Is lyrical honesty important to you?

I suppose it is, yeah. I mean, I would just love to create an alter-ego and do a performance thing. I wish I could be David Bowie; that’s amazing. I wish I could be that guy. But I feel like it’s necessary for me, because I’m somebody who wants to run away from everything.

That’s been my M.O. throughout my life: to run away into addiction, to move to different countries, to escape into the movies. Just anything to not have to deal with myself. So I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s important for me to tell my story, rather than other people’s stories. Maybe once I’ve confronted my demons, I’ll be able to move onto other people’s stories, but for now I think it’s very important for me to just concentrate on being me, because that’s what I’ve never been able to do.

Does that honesty make the songs painful to revisit live?

It does sometimes but there’s more catharsis than anything else. The evenings where it’s really painful are the exception.

What does making music mean to you?

It’s something that occurs naturally; like an involuntary function, like breathing. I don’t understand why, but it’s something that I latched onto rather young. Just like I can’t stop being interested in foreign languages, I can’t stop writing songs or wanting to express myself in that way.

I suppose I do it for a variety of reasons. I want to connect with people in a meaningful way, scary as that is sometimes. I want to be able to travel and see the world. I enjoy being on stage and I enjoy singing, so it feels like a really good fit for me. And it’s a huge part of me trying to figure out my place in the world.

So what’s the plan for the rest of 2013?

I’ll basically be touring the rest of the year, trying to write in-between. I’ll probably go home and visit my family, and I’ll be continuing to learn Icelandic throughout the year.

What’s been the highlight of your solo career so far?

I guess the two that come to mind immediately are meeting and becoming friends with Sinead [O’Connor] and being on ‘Later with Jools’. That was huge for me.

And what would you like to achieve ultimately with your music?

I would just like to continue to make music that I enjoy performing and that feels fun and fresh. I’d like to continue to work with people who challenge me and how I make music. And I’d like to continue to explore other things, other people, other stories. Get to as much of the world as I can before I’m tied down. (Laughs) To whatever that may be.

March 2013