Before gay singer/songwriter John Grant became the darling of the music scene, he’d given up performing and recording for a stint waiting tables. Lisa Connell quizzes him about his journey into the limelight, his highly political views, and the vitriol for his ex-boyfriend on the latest album.
When John Grant and I sit down to talk, the first thing he brings up is our very own Panti Bliss. Pointing to a copy of GCN with Panti on the cover, he says: “I want to go on record as saying, she’s amazing. That speech was so needed and right on the money.”
And we are off. From the Irish homophobia debate, through patriotism, addiction, internalised homophobia and Putin, to meeting his heroes and getting over ex-boyfriends, John Grant has a lot to say, and while 30 minutes isn’t enough for him to say it all, he manages to fit a lot in.
For the uninitiated, John Grant is a unique and exciting gay American singer-songwriter, whose music chronicles an extraordinary journey through depression, addiction, being diagnosed with HIV and, well, having his heart broken. His songwriting is beautiful and powerful, with its unique and startling honesty, and in person Grant is no less uniquely open. I’m starstruck because I’ve been a fan for a long time, but within minutes he makes me feel like we’re old friends and confidants.
First up is ‘Pantigate’ and Grant is pulling no punches. “It’s freedom of speech for us to say that someone else who is trying to deny us our rights is homophobic. It’s not defamation if it is true and it is true, people who are out there fighting against gay rights are bigots, they are homophobic. They are allowed to think what they think, they are allowed to say what they say; that’s their right, but that doesn’t make them anything but fucking bigots. Period. And there not even need be an argument; it’s completely useless to argue with such people. They just need to be shut down.”
This brings us promptly onto Putin, about whom Grant has more choice words to say. “The United States is using economic sanctions against Russia. Putin does not give a shit about any economic sanctions or anything else that the Americans would care to do to him. Because they don’t have anything that he wants. They are pussyfooting around, saying ‘How are we gonna slap him on the wrist? And, how are we going to get him to leave the Ukraine alone?’ That man has a plan, and it’s always been the same plan – he’s a dictator.
A passionate polyglot (Grant speaks five languages, including Russian), Grant asserts that “a large majority of Russians think that Putin is the cat’s pyjamas.”
“They are constantly saying, ‘You don’t understand what’s going on here, you don’t know how we do things here’ and that’s a bunch of bullshit because hatred is hatred, a dictator is a fucking dictator, and a greedy liar is a greedy liar, no matter what country you are living in.”
Grant warns against patriotism in this context, explaining that kneejerk nationalism is “very misguided” and that he finds it to be the cause of an “us and them attitude, which has a very negative effect on society.”
Grant’s lyrics are no less forthcoming and peppered with expletives, and while he takes shots at anti-gay laws in Russia, he’s no less on the line when singing about the break-up between himself and his ex-boyfriend, subject matter that takes up much of his last album, Pale Green Ghosts.
“When you record moments, when you observe moments, it’s totally appropriate to say that person is a soulless cunt because that’s how you felt in that moment,” he says when I question him about the berating his ex takes on the album. “That doesn’t mean that it’s true. Obviously you are only reacting that way because of how hurt you feel. Part of the healing process was to see him as a demon so that I could move past that in-love thing. I cut out the censor and the filter – it’s a distillation process because you have all of these layers of social and environmental conditioning through the decades to get over. Something pops up in your head and there’s a voice that says: ‘You cannot say that, it’s not appropriate to say that, it’s not 100 percent true.’ But it’s true of the moment.”
Grant talks passionately about the fact that people, especially LGBT people, deal with a lot of pressure in their worlds. It’s important, he believes, to deal with our emotions around homophobia, and internalised homophobia. “If you don’t you end up like me, with severe anxiety disorders and depressions and addictions and all this escapism, all this trying not to face yourself.”
A perfect example of this comes in the form of the song ‘Glacier’, the seven-minute closing track from Pale Green Ghosts, in which Grant explores the struggles faced by LGBT people. In January an equally mesmerising video was released for the track, documenting the stages of the LGBT movement in the past 60 years. Its chorus begins with the line: “This pain. It is like a glacier moving through you.” Grant explains that he simply couldn’t hide his own pain, and the song is an example of that.
“People said to me when I came out, ‘Oh, I always knew you were gay’. People always knew this about me before I was even able to deal with it inside myself? That made me feel violated. I also had the cruel people when I was growing up, the ones who made me think my name was ‘What the fuck are you looking at faggot?’ because that’s all they ever said to me. I was a faggot and that’s all there was to it and I couldn’t even have that dialogue with myself about it, and that was painful.”
Grant says these feelings were the number one factor in problems with addiction to cocaine and alcohol. “You just want to not have to be faced with yourself. You want to be able to build an image of yourself that you find somewhat palatable, so you can get through the day. I wasn’t able to do that.”
He got clean and sober in 2004, after the break up of the relatively successful alt-rock outfit, The Czars, with which he was frontman, and in 2011 went solo with the release of Queen of Denmark, an album that moves from suicidal self-loathing to redemption over the course of 16 stunning songs. The success of its successor, Pale Green Ghosts has sealed Grant’s place in the music industry, which is all the more sweet given that quit music altogether in 2010 and started waiting tables to make a living. In fact, he’s come in from the cold so much, he’s even been a guest of Elton John, having been asked to cover ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ for the 40’th anniversary celebration of John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
“I went to his house for dinner and that was a beautiful thing because I felt so comfortable,” Grant says, beaming. “A lot of that is down to him because he’s excited about meeting you and wants to really know about you. He had my record playing in when I walked in. That was a crazy moment. I mean I can’t even really get my head around that.”
Despite mixing in such high places, Grant has his feet firmly planted on the ground.“There are a lot of people that are further on than you in life, and a lot that are not as far on as you, and you can learn from all of them. But you can help the ones that aren’t as far along as you.
“I’ve heard people say that the only life worth living is a life lived for other people and I really agree with that. But only if you have the foundation of love for yourself.”
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