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Granted gifts

John Grant

A few years ago, John Grant slept with the wrong guy. "It was just that one time," he sighs, rueful and rumpled. "And then I discovered I had HIV. It was horrible. A terrible, terrible shock."

The singer received the diagnosis in late 2011, as his album Queen of Denmark was becoming a major critical and commercial hit. Ever since, he's been trying to make sense of the grisly hand fate has dealt.

Sometimes when he talks about it, you hear a flatness in his tone. Not denial so much as willful detachment. As if all this was happening to another person.

"I have attempted to prove that I was worthless my whole life. This seemed to show the world that I was right. I mean, God, how stupid. I've struggled with a lot of anger. You know, 'how could I be that careless?'. Those are the thoughts that go through your head."

Grant has an incredible voice, at once sad and strident. He's a devastating lyricist too, his songs delicate autopsies on the human condition. His greatest talent, though, may be his ability to hate himself. For as long as he remembers, it has been his go-to emotion.

He is the laureate of self-loathing.

As a gay teenager in a Bible Belt American town, he grew up crippled with guilt. The sentiment was accentuated in his days fronting underachieving rock band The Czars.

He knew he was a gifted writer. However, he couldn't get it together, personally or professionally, and The Czars eventually flamed out (cue the dog days of his drugging and boozing).

Rather than shock or fear, the first emotion he experienced upon finding out he had HIV was anger. Grant was furious because, even during the bad years as a substance-hoovering drop-out, he'd taken care. He hadn't slept around, always used protection.

"It was that one time . . . sex that one time," he says. "With the wrong person, in the wrong way. It was so unnecessary. This happened after I had decided to be sober, to change the way I live. It didn't need to happen, really it didn't. It was so ... so NEEDLESS."

He discovered he had HIV in the middle of the Queen of Denmark tour.

He'd arrived in Sweden for a gig and, sensing something was wrong, went to a doctor.

"I'd never used needles. So for me, sex was always going to be the risk. After I had reached the decision to turn my life around, this happens. There was a lot of anger involved."

Weirdly, that is the one emotion absent from his new long player Pale Green Ghosts. On Queen of Denmark, Grant created a fantasy 1970s FM radio station and invited the listener to come dally with him in his soft rock Neverland (the song I Wanna Go To Marz is, more or less, David Bowie's Space Oddity relocated to an American Midwest ice-cream parlour). With the new LP, he jumps a decade forward, to the harsh, synthetic 1980s. So while that lived-in baritone is much as you remember, all else is changed: Ghosts is framed by hard, jarring beats, exuding a chilliness that drills into the marrow.

"Those textures do not feel cold to me," he says. "They are warm, like a security blanket. I appreciate that sounds strange. You have to look at it from my perspective. Queen of Denmark is rooted in the 1970s and reflects my childhood. The new record reflects my young adulthood. Those sounds are very comforting. It was a spell during which I was discovering music. I was taking a lot in. Trying to have a normal life, trying to be happy."

Whatever solace the period brought turned out to be fleeting.

In 1994 he started The Czars, a great band that never went anywhere.After they crashed and burned, he swore he'd never write another song and began waiting tables. On his days off, he'd load up on alcohol and drugs and think about killing himself.

Grant required rescuing. Enter Texas Americana group Midlake, ardent admirers of The Czars, who had been wondering whatever happened to the lead singer. Midlake spent months tracking him down. They finally found him, working a minimum-wage restaurant job in New York, and offered to produce his next LP.

His first instinct was to tell them take a hike. He'd stopped trying to achieve anything artistically and, in a way, that had brought a measure of peace. Waitering wasn't the worst job – he had health insurance, an apartment. Sure, there were dark days. But it wasn't so bad that he needed to return to music. Those wounds had nearly healed. Midlake persisted. Why not visit their studio in Denton, Texas? If it didn't work out, at least he'd tried.

As it happened, he had several half-finished songs lying around. So he went to Denton and cut some tracks. Within six months, he laid down the bones of what would become Queen of Denmark. The project got picked up by UK indie label Bella Union – owner Simon Raymonde was a persistent champion of The Czars – and was soon basking in ecstatic reviews. Just as he'd given up, Grant had stumbled into the career he'd always dreamed of.

"Selling records doesn't increase your happiness," he reflects.

"Okay, so it doesn't hurt either. On a daily basis – I do use it to encourage myself.

"It's a comfort. If you are a complete failure in every other aspect of your life at least the music is going okay. On the other hand, in terms of your personal life, it doesn't make a difference. It doesn't effect your relationships with people."

Among other subjects, Pale Green Ghosts is a rumination on the great romance of his life. In the mid-2000s Grant met a dude and fell in love. It didn't work out. He's been profoundly haunted ever since.

"That relationship has unearthed a lot of emotions for me. I don't question it. I go and write. I don't know if I really want to sing about what happened. Then you think, 'well what else do I have to sing about?'"

Still he is gradually learning to live with a broken heart – and with HIV. Though it sounds glib, if he can take one day at a time, his health situation doesn't necessarily feel that big a deal.

"It is a bump in the road, if that doesn't sound too dismissive," he says.

"I make the best of it. That is what you have to do. I took a few weeks out and was kind of in shock. Then you reach a decision you are going to go on. Do you have a choice? For me, it's not the end of the story at all."

One of the things that has helped him through his bleakest days is the comfort of friends. He lives in Reykjavik and is close to electronic musician Birgir Thórarinsson, producer of Pale Green Ghosts. Another confidante is Sinead O'Connor, with whom he became close after she started covering Queen Of Denmark in concerts.

"We hit it off," he says. "You are friends with people, sometimes, because you identify with one another. Sinead and I are a good fit. Both of us have combative personalities. She has an amazing sense of humour. I've gone out with her a few occasions in Dublin. When we're together, there's a lot of laughter."

Pale Green Ghosts is out now. John Grant plays Vicar Street, Dublin, tonight, Cyprus Avenue, Cork, on Saturday and Kilkenny Roots Festival on Sunday

Irish Independent