John Grant on addiction, HIV and how his struggles affect his songs
John Grant has made it through his coldest days.
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.
The last time we spoke, we had a pretty intense conversation about you being diagnosed with syphilis and your struggles with addiction, and you were really forthcoming. Your honesty was just completely disarming. I saw a write-up on you sometime after that where you talked about how you were on stage and you disclosed that you have AIDs. I was completely taken aback by that and...
It's important to differentiate for people out there between HIV and AIDS. AIDS is what HIV develops into if it's not treated.
Right. I'm sorry. I misspoke. It's HIV you were diagnosed with. I misspoke. My apologies.
Not at all.
Either way, that's a startling admission to make on stage. Can you talk a bit about why you chose the stage to reveal that, when were you diagnosed, and maybe a bit about the whole process?
I was buying shoes in Berlin because I was moving to Sweden the next day, and I was living in Berlin at the time, and I got a text from a guy that I had had sex with saying that he had bad news. Since I didn't know the guy at all, I knew what it was, of course. So as soon as I got to Sweden, the first thing I had to do was find a doctor and get the test, and, obviously, it came back positive. It was a pretty dark time for me. It was January in Sweden, so it was dark all the time, and it was very cold. It was a difficult period.
The reason that I chose to talk about it when I did on stage was because I'd already had the better part of a year, a year and a half, to deal with the diagnosis. I was on stage with Hercules and Love Affair at the Meltdown Festival in London, and I was singing a song with Hercules and Love Affair that Andy [Butler] and I had written together, and the song was about how unnecessary it was for me to get that disease.
The song was about the fact that after getting sober and coming out of all of this destructive behavior that I still wasn't dealing with my destructive behavior in the world of sex. It's easy to get away with a lot of inappropriate behavior in the world of sex, because it's such a natural part of being a human and you can hide a lot of destructive behavior by saying, "Oh, I'm just a man. I've gotta do this. I've gotta do that."
I talked to Andy from Hercules and Love Affair about the fact that I might want to say something before the song because that's what the song's about. I didn't know if I was going to say anything about it, and I didn't know what my motivation was. I wanted to be sure that I was doing the right thing. So I didn't know if I was going to say anything until the moment I was standing on stage. But then I thought, "You know what? You're over-thinking this."
This song is about this. This is an important thing to talk about. You feel like you should be ashamed about this diagnosis. You should talk about it because you shouldn't be ashamed about it, and it shouldn't be a strange thing to talk about, and it shouldn't be a depressing thing to talk about." There have been a lot of amazing people who have been going through this a lot longer than I have.
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