The sadcore troubadour reveals how he tried to heal emotional hurt with destructive behaviours, and that learning self-compassion is better late than never
When John Grant went into the studio to record his new album, Boy from Michigan, the US presidential election was in full swing. Even in his adopted home of Iceland, the media covered Trump 24/7 – so for the American singer songwriter, the politics of the moment were personal. A reminder of his own hinterland in America’s rust belt.
“I thought about what was going on very intensely, because most of my family were on the other side,” he tells the Sunday Independent, meaning the Republican side. “I love those people, they are part of my soul – so I felt personally betrayed.
“One of my brothers said they’re [political parties] all the same and I just thought, ‘No, this is an abandonment of any sort of decency. You’ve tricked people into putting swastikas on their bibles.’ So, I mean... are you f**king kidding me? That’s just a whole different ball of wax.”
Speaking to Grant is a lot like listening to him sing. There are blasts of pain and nostalgia, little moments of self-mocking – he compares himself to a character in a Woody Allen movie inviting a crowd of therapists to his home – and hilarious smut. At one point, he mentions that he feels like cruising “right now”.
In his soft American accent there’s even a hint of the burnt sugar beauty of his rich, sonorous voice. The new album is full of the mordant, Morrissey-esque lyrics, quiet wit and desolate electronic textures that he’s known for.
It’s a love letter to his home town in the American Midwest, he says, but also a remembrance of a time when he was, in many ways, an outcast.
“In some ways, it was quite idyllic,” he says of his childhood there. “I remember the smell of the earth after the snows were beginning to melt in the spring, the apple farms, the mist coming in off the lake.
“But there was also this very dark spectre hanging over my head in the form of religion and sexuality – and in many different ways I was on the bottom of the social totem pole.”
His parents were orthodox Methodists. When he was 12, they moved with Grant and his sister from Michigan to Parker, Colorado, a wealthy conservative town. They made it clear that gay people “were going to hell”.
He was beaten up after school, which caused him to wet himself – but he couldn’t tell his parents because that would have meant going into the reasons for the attack.
“I felt I deserved to be treated that way. When I’m having a really difficult day that’s what comes back to me. What I was told was that being gay would separate me from my creator and my family for all eternity.
"Think about the enormity of absorbing that as a child. That was what was drilled into me, and it’s quite extreme.”
He had a friend in the local church group and the friendship became sexual.
Years later, Grant encountered the man at a cinema.
“I was going through a period in which I was trying to be more what I thought was masculine. When I saw him it was just a quick moment – I was selling popcorn and soda – and there was something in his eyes which made me feel he had recognised me.
“I was half out at that point, but it was a really long, slow process of me accepting myself.”
The new album also contains a song, ‘The Cruise Room’, which is an homage to his favourite haunt in Denver, an Art Deco Prohibition-era bar at the Oxford Hotel in the city’s downtown.
“Denver gets a bad rap from me, because that’s where things went tits up in my life. But there are many people there who are so important to me and many places that I love.
“The Cruise Room was a place I went to many times in the late 1980s. I’d usually go there with friends the night before I was due to go back to school in Germany.
“I had this one particular friend, who I’ve known since 1987, and I’d meet her there and I’d always play Patsy Cline on the jukebox. I had this thing that I wanted to go out into the world and learn different languages and absorb all these cultures, but I also felt heartbroken about leaving.”
In Germany, Grant’s language skills improved – but his mental health worsened.
“I was struggling with severe anxiety disorder at that point. It was the reason I left school in Germany. I couldn’t function.”
He returned to Colorado and started a band, The Czars, which was adored by critics but mostly ignored by the public and soon split. His mother was also terminally ill during this period. In a song about the time, he sang, “As I enjoyed distraction/She just slipped away.”
“I really didn’t care for her at all,” he says. “I was just getting drunk and trying to deal with my sexuality.
“She was at home dying in this chair and praying a lot that God would heal her. To talk about our relationship sort of wasn’t allowed, because it was like, ‘You’re being negative, getting in the way of her healing.’
“She was disappointed in me – because she felt that I was abandoning everything my parents had taught me. But I also knew she loved me very deeply.”
He worked as a flight attendant and as a translator in the mid 1990s and it was a time of adventure: he was fairly promiscuous during this period. He says that the endless casual sex probably had its roots in the lack of acceptance he experienced as a child.
“There is also the really basic thing of wanting to experience intimacy with another human being, but I also think wanting to be desired and loved comes into it. But there is also a self-punishment aspect to it.
“Trying to achieve intimacy through anonymous sex is impossible. You’re throwing away the most precious part of yourself at the expense of having the real thing, and that is so damaging.”
After more than a decade away from music he was brought back to it by the band Midlake, who had worked with The Czars, and still believed in his talent. They produced his debut solo album Queen of Denmark – which was a word-of-mouth sensation in 2010 and was named album of the year by Mojo magazine.
Both it and the follow up, Pale Green Ghosts, dealt with the aftermath of a relationship which devastated him.
“The relationship I write about in Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts was something that I was dealing with for years. And it wasn’t really about the person, I belatedly understood, it was about me dealing with something inside myself.
“So I was dealing with this new success, getting my head around that and just learning how to to perform. I was a really late bloomer. It was a very hectic period where I was out of my comfort zone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it was sink or swim at that point.”
In many ways, he was the artist’s artist of that period – and other singers like Kylie Minogue and Tracey Thorn clamoured to duet with him.
Sinéad O’Connor is also a fan; she still opens her live shows with a cover of ‘Queen of Denmark’ and provides the ghostly backing vocal on Grant’s achingly brilliant ‘It Doesn’t Matter to Him’.
“Singing with Sinéad was surreal for me, more than anything, but also just joyous.
“My feeling was there might be all sorts of shit going on at home – and then I’m singing with Sinéad, so how bad can anything be? It feels like 10 minutes ago when I was just this boy on a dance floor being completely wowed by that incredible voice she possesses.
"That she counts me as one of her peers now is just incredible.”
A decade ago Grant was diagnosed HIV positive. In 2012 he decided to come out about the diagnosis on stage in a spoken word preamble to his song ‘Ernest Borgnine’.
“The reason that I decided at that last moment about being public about it, was because ‘Ernest Borgnine’ was a song about having it – so why shouldn’t I tell these people about it?
“It was an act of rebellion on my part, because I was thinking I shouldn’t be thinking so much about this. I shouldn’t feel this shame and embarrassment that people think I’m meant to feel, by saying something like this.
“It’s not a sensational fact. I’m insignificant; there are millions of children who die every year in Africa of this illness; and so there really shouldn’t be a stigma attached to it.”
Still, coming to terms with it has been a process.
“There is still shame attached to it, because it was something that was avoidable for me – and I couldn’t stop my destructive sexual behaviour to prevent it from happening.
“After I got sober from alcohol, I was hanging on to my destructive behaviour in that area – not realising that it was basically my core issue. I’d been hanging on to it as a little treat for myself – as a pat on the back for giving up coke and booze.”
He moved to Iceland a decade ago and learned the language (he also speaks Spanish, German, Russian and Swedish). He says he’s inspired by the “otherworldly” tundra around Reykjavik and by the friendliness of the people.
But even in the peaceful lunar landscape he must navigate his demons.
“I still deal with anger all the time. You’re bringing all this baggage into the situation, but I learned different techniques to deal with it on a daily basis. It’s understandable feeling like that, but it causes problems in that I judge myself extremely harshly for it.
“A lot of times, because of the things I went through, I’m in a state of PTSD. I feel sometimes I project things onto a situation that don’t really fit. I find it extremely difficult and I scream at myself and degrade myself for being such a stupid c**t. Sometimes I wonder at it. I’m practically 53 years old, what the f**k is wrong with me?”
Part of the wonder of Grant’s music is listening to this wounded bear soothing himself. On Pale Green Ghosts, he compared the pain he lives with to a glacier, moving through him “carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes”.
And one of the wonders of his own internal landscape is a painstakingly cultivated self-compassion.
“You never really get over some of the things that happen to you but you can develop understanding of yourself,” he says. ”One of the ways that I am forgiving toward myself looking back, is to tell myself that – whatever I did – I was acting quite normal in the circumstances.”
‘Boy from Michigan’ is now out on Bella Union