'The monster no longer looms'
Singer-songwriter John Grant has enjoyed huge acclaim, while living with the spectre of being diagnosed HIV Positive. As he begins the Irish leg of his tour, he talks to Donal Lynch about life, family, sex and music
THE first time I meet John Grant, he is sitting alone and cross-legged on the floor backstage at the Royal Festival Hall in London, looking like some pensive Viking. We are waiting for Sinead O'Connor, who has just left sections of the crowd dewy-eyed with her rousing performance, which included a cover of Grant's song, Queen Of Denmark.
The American singer-songwriter is no stranger to outpourings of emotion on the bank of the Thames. It's been a little over a year since he sent audiences at this same venue reeling with the stunning admission that he is HIV Positive. Then, as now, many people spilled out into the night air in tears.
Grant himself had already known for a year at that point. While out shopping for shoes in London, he had received a text message from a man he had slept with telling him to prepare himself for some bad news. Grant had been on his way to Sweden, and as soon as he landed he found a doctor and had himself tested. It came back positive. He felt shock and dread, but also some unexpected emotions.
"It wasn't something to say out loud, and it might sound a bit perverse, but I did feel a kind of relief," he tells me. "This was something that I had feared all my life and now it had happened. And yet I was still alive. I was still waking up in the morning. And I didn't have to worry about anything any more. The monster wasn't looming over my head any more."
Ironically, the diagnosis had come at what, from the outside at least, looked like the high point of Grant's life. After years of addiction and despair, he had returned to music with a rapturously received solo album, Queen Of Denmark. Critics swooned over Grant's sonorous baritone and the gallows humour in his lyrics. Mojo magazine named Queen Of Denmark album of the year, and the BBC called it "the most deeply satisfying debut of recent times". The record was provisionally titled The Anger Stage (after the Kubler-Ross model of grief) but those holding their breaths for a follow-up entitled 'Acceptance' would be disappointed.
"There's still a lot of anger in my life," he says with a laugh, "so I'd say 'the anger stage part 2' comes next for me. I have to work through that but there is still some acceptance going on. Like 'this is who you are and you still have a long way to go and a lot of shit from the past to work through'."
Growing up, Grant had always suspected he was gay but in his strictly Methodist household coming out was never an option. He addresses his father's disgust for homosexuality on the excoriating Jesus Hates Faggots ("Jesus hates homos son, we told you that when you were young"). Today, they have a better relationship – "he thinks I need to wash my mouth out with soap, but I love him and he loves me" – but the shadow of those early years loomed large for a long time. "As a result of not being able to deal with my sexuality, and not feeling worthy as a human being, I developed a severe anxiety disorder and depression," Grant tells me. "It took alcoholism for me to be able to come out."
After school, Grant studied in Heidelberg, Germany, where he had ambitions to work as an interpreter. It was while living in Germany that his anxiety and depression began to spiral out of control. "I remember the quiet terror I felt when it followed me back to the States," he says. "I started to feel afraid of my own family, which I didn't think was possible. It was really like a horror movie."
He returned to the US in 1994 to care for his, by then, terminally ill mother and was prescribed anti-depressants, which were, he says, "a lifeline". Still, his drinking escalated out of control for roughly the next decade, during which time he formed his first band, The Czars. They enjoyed some of the critical acclaim Grant has garnered as a solo artist, but sales were poor and, in 2004, they disbanded.
After that, Grant decided to leave the music world and moved to New York where he intended to become a hospital interpreter (he is a self-confessed "language freak" and speaks fluent Icelandic and German). He only reluctantly agreed to link up with the Texan band Midlake – they were fascinated by his mellifluous, rumbling voice – and they helped him put out Queen Of Denmark. In those years it appeared to Grant as though he were conquering his addictions, but he now says he had merely transferred them into a preoccupation with sex.
"I treated sex the way I treated everything else – as an escape," he tells me. "You can only abuse it for so long until it bites back. In my case, that came with the HIV diagnosis. The way I treated sex, it never had anything to do with love. I wanted to feel desired and worthy and that was one of the ways I felt worthy for a few minutes. Then you have an orgasm or you wake up the next morning and you realise, oh, that didn't work either.
"I used food in the same way, to be honest – as a form of comfort or escape. Food and sex are the really nasty addictions because they are an inherent part of being a human being and when they turn on you it makes life very difficult."
For a long time, he tells me, he was celibate.
Candour seems to be a part of Grant's way of making his art and working through his past. Some might wonder, however, if he is too open for his own good, and if his breathtaking honesty might not hurt his chances with potential suitors. "People who are put off by this sort of emotional honesty – I don't want to surround myself with these people anyway. Someone who can't connect with themselves emotionally would be useless to me anyway. So a bad reaction to my music or its content separates the wheat from the chaff; I don't need those people."
His openness might explain part of his kinship with Sinead O'Connor who has, at times, taken a similar approach. She visited him in Iceland over the New Year and she and her daughter, Roisin Waters, sang with him on Icelandic television. "I wasn't surprised that she turned out to be as incredible as I thought she would be," he tells me. "I liked the way she spoke her mind. I really connected to her lyrics. I expected her to have a great sense of humour because she's Irish. She's a delight."
O'Connor lends her spectral backing vocals to three of the tracks on Pale Green Ghosts and will take to the stage with Grant during his sell-out gig at the Olympia tomorrow night.
Their duet on Glacier was one of the highlights of Electric Picnic last year (the scheduling clash with Bjork will never be forgiven). A soaring ballad about Grant coming to terms with his sexuality and weathering the disapproval of homophobes, it was inspired by the Icelandic landscapes he passed through on a long drive to the coast, but seems like a particularly apposite anthem given the recent national debate. "This pain, it is a glacier moving through you," he sings, "carving out deep valleys, And creating spectacular landscapes, And nourishing the ground, With precious minerals and other stuff."
The combination of wit and majesty in this imagery says everything about its creator, a crumpled middle-aged man exorcising his demons in plain view, for his own good and for ours. He contrasts so thoroughly with the legion of pop puppets selling their back-stories like sales gimmicks. How beautiful to see this kind of music reach such a wide audience.
And what spectacular landscapes John Grant conjures.
John Grant plays March 6 in The Cork Opera House. He has also just been announced for the Body & Soul festival at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath on Saturday, June 21. Tickets from www.tickets.ie
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