By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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In 2010, John Grant's debut solo album, The Queen of Denmark, was named album of the year by Mojo, and it earned universal praise across Europe. Here in the States, meanwhile, the record was criminally overlooked, as was the former Czars frontman himself, whose spring 2011 tour was unceremoniously canceled due to a lack of ticket sales. Neither of those things should be considered a reflection on Grant's songwriting, however. Someone clearly dropped the ball, and it wasn't Grant.
The accolades Denmark received across the pond were beyond warranted. Grant produced a record that is a stunning masterwork from top to bottom, melodically, artistically, sonically — you simply haven't lived until you've listened to the splendor of Grant's breathtaking baritone on eighty-gram vinyl — and especially lyrically, on songs like "Jesus Hates Faggots," in which Grant displays an unsettling candor, an unnerving yet admirable trait he possesses both on and off stage. Last summer on stage at the Meltdown Festival in London, Grant revealed to an unsuspecting audience that he had been diagnosed with HIV.
This Tuesday, Grant is releasing Denmark's electro-tinged followup, Pale Green Ghosts, named for the Russian olive trees he remembers passing on I-25 during drives from his parents' home in Parker to Boulder in his late teens and early twenties. The new album, which has already earned positive notices from some high-profile outlets in this country, is even more bracing than the previous one, and should finally give Grant his due.
We recently caught up with Grant, who's living in Iceland these days, for a frank and lengthy discussion about his struggles to overcome addiction, past indiscretions directly tied to that addiction, and how it all affected his music. The following are excerpts from our conversation. To read the interview in its entirety, visit backbeatblog.com.
Westword: The lyrics you're putting out on these records seem gruelingly personal. Does it take a lot out of you to write those songs? Or is there a certain bit of catharsis happening there?
John Grant: For me, I always describe it as a distilling process, like making a fine brandy or something. I have to strip away all the layers when I'm writing the song. I have to cut through all these layers of years of putting up walls and putting protective layers around myself.... It takes me a long time to write some of them because I have to continuously be stripping away all these filters and built-in sensors, where I'm saying to myself, "Oh, no, you can't say that," or "No, you shouldn't say that," or "No, you should be ashamed to say that." I make it my business to ignore all those voices and say, "Okay, if I feel like I should be ashamed to say it, or if I feel like I can't say it or that I'm not supposed to say it, then I am going to say it."
You strike me as kind of fearless as a performer. When I listen to your records, I don't feel like you're inhibited at all.
I do have a lot of people talking to me saying, "Oh, boy. That was awful brave." I'm like, "I don't feel like it's very brave." I feel like, in the Czars, for example, I was afraid. I couldn't express myself. I didn't have a connection to myself. That's one of the huge reasons why it was such a difficult existence. I put a lot of that on myself. I couldn't access myself. I couldn't look at myself, because I was too ashamed.
I was drinking a lot and I was getting into drugs and everything, and that, of course, came to a head much later and became a big problem for me. And so it took me getting sober to be able to write like that. I can't afford to live where I'm not dealing with reality anymore. Because I spent a lot of my life doing that. So these albums that I'm doing now in my solo career, it's not that I'm fearless; I just think it's important for me to ignore the fear, you know? And just to step forward and do it anyway.
How long have you been sober?
Right now, it's about eight and a half years. It will be nine years on August 1.
Is it still a struggle?
You know, there's days when it's a big struggle. There's a lot of times when you're going through a particularly difficult bout of depression or a particularly hard bout of being hard on yourself or judging yourself or a particularly difficult bout of stress dealing with life. There's times when I'd really love to be able to shut my brain off in that way that I used to be able to do, but I have to figure out different ways to deal with it. And some days it's really, really hard, and it doesn't work out very well. But I just always keep in mind where I was.
There's a saying in AA, that you should always play the tape to the end. Because a lot of times we like to go back and glorify.... For example, I'd love to have sex high on cocaine again — that was a great feeling. That was awesome. But I have to play the tape to the end and remember what happened the next day, and how I felt, and how suicidal I was, you know, what that drug made me feel like, and the fact that I'd spend a week getting over something like that. I just keep in mind, you can think back to how awesome it is to be high and how awesome it is to be drunk, which it really is sometimes, but I always just have to keep in mind where it went after that — and how quickly it went there after that.