Thursday 17 October 2019

'Trump is so vulgar and vile and foul' - John Grant on Trump, his tough teenage years, the new album and his love of ABBA

He's been living in Iceland for several years but US singer-songwriter John Grant says there's no escaping the sickening reality of what's going on in America right now

John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill
John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill
John Meagher

John Meagher

The notion of the 'grower' is one of the clichés of music criticism, but few recent albums fit the bill as neatly as John Grant's latest, Love is Magic. I wasn't the only one who felt decidedly lukewarm about it on its release last autumn, but the songs have crept up on me by stealth, and when Grant says it's the favourite of his albums, you feel that he isn't just saying neat little soundbites for the promo game.

The American singer-songwriter seems happy to hear that the album is the sort that many may dislike on first acquaintance and then find themselves going back to it time and again.

"Sure, it sounds different to Queen of Denmark [his most acclaimed solo album, from 2010] but it's a mix of sounds and styles I've loved all my life. It's rough in places and polished in others and life can be like that, too.

"But hey," he adds with a chuckle, "it makes sense if people find it weird."

Grant turned 50 last summer and he says he is in one of the happier places in his life - even if it doesn't always sound like that on the album. The title is deceptive, too: he may espouse the joys of different types of love, but many of the songs centre on troubles he has had over the years as well as his disgust with the way the world, and his native US, has gone.

One of the album's most direct tracks, 'Smug C*nt', was motivated by the Trump presidency. Grant loathes the divisive figure in the White House.

John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill
John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill

"It was originally about Putin, but he's far smarter than Trump," he says. "Trump just charges forward, wreaking havoc as he goes."

Grant has lived in Iceland for several years now and says he manages to avoid the day-to-day tribulations of living in the 'Divided States of America' but, he insists, there's no escape.

"I'm in touch with my friends there on a daily basis and they tell me it's quite ­sickening and mentally exhausting to live in a place being led by that deranged person.

"I mean, he's supposed to be the leader of the country but he's tweeting like a 10-year-old. It's so vulgar and vile and foul. I can't deal with it too often because it makes me sick." Like all of his work - including that of The Czars, the band he formed in Denver in the early 1990s - Grant is at his best when delving deep into his private life.

John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill
John Grant Photo © Shawn Brackbill

The extraordinary opening song 'Metamorphosis' is a disorientating stream-of-conscience rant at information overload as well as a heartfelt look at his mother's death and Grant's delayed grief for her passing.

"People sometimes say to me, 'Don't you think it's strange to talk about things that are so personal?' And I say, 'Well, no - what else would I talk about?'"

Grant's willingness to talk about personal subjects some might find uncomfortable was illustrated some years ago when he announced he was HIV-positive live on stage.

"What's strange is we are brought up not to talk about these things. Instead, people are constantly going around posing and trying to keep up a façade so everyone will think they're stronger than they feel. This idea of keeping up appearances for the benefit of the world is something that I refuse to do in my music. Besides, people aren't nearly as mysterious as they think they are."

His mother died in 1995. She had been disapproving of his sexual orientation but, older and wiser now, he says he has a greater appreciation of who she was, warts and all.

"I came from a deeply religious family where the idea of homosexuality simply wasn't an option."

Grant's music has explored sexuality time and again and some of his most potent songs centre on the horrific homophobia he suffered as a teen and young man. A new song, 'Preppy Boy', is also concerned with the prejudice he experienced at school in Colorado.

"It's that classic story of small-town boy going to the big city and finding out immediately about the class systems and things I'd never really known about. In the school, they were mostly from very wealthy homes and I felt very, very different.

"There's that confusion mixed with burgeoning sexuality and you're kind of desiring these people who loathe you because you're the wrong class, and they loathe you because they sense you're homosexual and that isn't something that's going to be accepted."

He says he had conflicted views about them.

"On the one hand, who were these arrogant c*nts to tell me what I was before I'd even worked it out for myself? And yet I had attraction to some of them. All those swirling emotions can make you very angry and even looking back now, I'm angry about it."

He says homophobia may not be as pronounced today as it was when he experienced it for the first time in the early 1980s, but he says LGBT people still suffer prejudice.

One of his most quietly powerful new songs, 'Touch & Go', was inspired by Chelsea Manning, the former US solider turned Wikileaks activist who came to be seen as a leading trans-rights campaigner in the face of considerable hate.

"I hope she doesn't mind me using her as inspiration," Grant says. "I really admire her and I hope the song conveys that."

Grant plays shows in Limerick, Galway and Dublin later this month and he says he has been enjoying the business of being on tour with an album like this one.

"In all honesty, I've had more fun on this tour than any other," he says. "The new songs have been fun to play and the response has been really heartening. And, it feels good to be able to sing these particular songs at a time when there's a lot going on politically in the world that is very angry. It's good to be able to vent. The world seems like a much nastier place than ever."

And, yet, he says he doesn't believe there is an onus on musicians to tackle the big political issues of the world in song.

"I don't really feel the artist has a political duty. I feel the artist has a duty to themselves to represent whatever it is they feel they need to represent or whatever they want to deal with."

He has quite a back catalogue to dip into - not just the five studio albums he made with The Czars - but also modern classics like his 2013 solo album Pale Green Ghosts. He has a thing for cover versions, too and The Czars' album Sorry I Made You Cry boasts some remarkable reinterpretations, including a lovelorn take on Abba's 'Angel Eyes'. In one memorable Dublin show, he performed the song with Villagers' Conor O'Brien.

"I think I've always loved Abba," he says, and adds that his admiration for the Swedes was there long before they came back into vogue.

"The quality of the songwriting floors me," he says. "It's just expertly crafted pop and when you listen to something as perfect as 'SOS' you wonder how anyone could dispute how good they were."

He says he is very keen to hear the new, long-delayed pair of songs which will be released later this year.

Grant enjoys living in Iceland and marvels at its rich artistic heritage, but cautions against outsiders imagining it's some sort of egalitarian utopia.

"They've got all sorts of people who are trying to repeat the same mistakes all over again," he says. "They were trying to elect as their prime minister one of the guys who was responsible for the crash in 2008. People run out into the street and scream about it, but I'm not sure that's very impressive because it didn't stop it from happening. And when you get down to it, people are pretty much the same wherever you go."

He has no plans to leave the Nordic country having lived there for seven years and after getting that bit closer to mastering a notoriously difficult language.

"It feels weird that three of my four solo albums have been released while I was living there," he says. "It only feels like I moved there yesterday."

John Grant plays University Concert Hall, Limerick on March 27; Leisureland, Galway, on March 30; and Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on March 31

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