Finding His Voice
Musician John Grant has experienced one of the most turbulent paths to success we can remember. Starting out in the cruelly underrated act The Czars, Grant went on to experience somewhat of a free-fall shortly thereafter. Emerging recently from a well documented period of deep depression, severe drug addiction and a diagnosis of HIV, John has managed to put the last few years behind him.
He has been welcomed by a growing international audience as fans have fallen for his searing honesty, self-deprecating humour and candidly personal songs. John now finds himself at a high point in his career, a time in which he can aptly use words like ‘acceptance and love’ to describe his welfare. Whatever your opinion of John, this is one musician who isn’t afraid to speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.
I was always a little bit disheartened that The Czars never fulfilled their complete potential, I know you’ve said that you were never happy with the band.
JOHN GRANT: Yeah, mostly I was unhappy with myself. The relationships within the band, it’s a sort of chicken and egg situation. I think on the one hand a lot of the relationships in the band were strained because we were all young and unsure of ourselves to a certain extent – I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know that my inability to have a relationship with myself at all in any sort of positive way made it very difficult for me to interact with other people, of course, without lots of help from booze and drugs. So, that’s why I look back on it and say I don’t know it, because I don’t like who I was at that time. It’s painful for me to remember what it felt like to be me during that time. I don’t mind talking about it, but it’s not a good feeling.
With every interview you do, you go through this kind of opera, and I mean that in the nicest way – in an endearing way, where you somehow channel this – and even though your music – this undefinable, complex, traumatic, truthful energy into your music. I’d like to know your response to that point, but also do you think perhaps that you use interviews as a form of therapy?
JOHN GRANT: I think I truly enjoy interacting with people and talking about these types of things because I’m so interested in understanding myself so I can enter the world as a more whole person. For me it’s about learning to love yourself so you can learn how to love other people and learn how to let other people love you, maybe have a chance at becoming part of a community, giving back and making the most out of this life, instead of just spending all my life struggling with my shortcomings, struggling with my depression and anxiety. I’m looking for tools to make the downtime shorter, for example, I still go through deep depressions, but you can learn how to minimise the damage and minimise the downtime so you can get back into the world faster and not suffer so much. I think interacting with journalists is quite interesting for me, I like the fact that people take the time to think about interesting questions – of course sometimes that’s not the case. It’s interesting for me how many different ways I answer the same question depending on how I’m feeling on a given day. You can come at things from so many different angles.
Do you ever use those periods of depression as a period of inspiration?
JOHN GRANT: Absolutely, but sometimes that doesn’t come until after the period is over, because sometimes those periods can lead to such a state of paralysis. Making use of that period during the time is sometimes quite impossible – I don’t see it as something to be written off or taken less seriously than feeling good; it’s definitely just as important as anything else.
Do you have a contemplative practise that you use, you were talking about ‘tools’?
JOHN GRANT: I do take things from this whole mindfulness movement that people are constantly yapping about these days. I think there’s a lot there; I think it’s important to observe things going on in yourself and to change that inner dialogue where you put labels on things and say ‘It’s bad to feel this way’ and ‘It’s good to feel this way.’ I think it’s okay, it’s good to make peace with loneliness and to inhabit the spaces when you’re there and not look to escape them, which is what I had always done, rather than just observing it and asking yourself, ‘what is this, actually?
There’s also the no-brainer stuff: paying attention to what you eat; getting enough sleep; getting outside and getting enough movement on a daily basis. When I’m in a deep depression that can be almost impossible sometimes, but you can minimise the damage by doing as much of that as possible. I tend to want to go into a sugar-binge to treat myself when I’m feeling bad, but that usually leads to a much more severe depression, because the sugar affects my body in a really counter-productive way.
I would love to perhaps move quickly to the music area. From your last solo-album – your career up until now and been so lauded – coming from the band The Czars, which were extremely obscure, and now you’ve done almost a one-eighty on your career and found a home and an audience, getting your first solo album up and having icons like Elton John admire your work. Where are you at now, emotionally, mentally, physically, the whole gamut?
JOHN GRANT: Well, I’m in a much better place than I was when I recorded Queen of Denmark, I have a lot more stability than I’ve ever had in my life; financially, health-wise my HIV condition is undetectable because I have the medications I take that keep the virus basically switched off. I’m feeling pretty good, I started jogging a year and half ago, that’s really helping to keep me out of depression – I’ve had some real struggles in the winter in the darkness, and that affects me quite profoundly, but I’m learning how to deal with that. I’ve also met somebody that I feel very strongly about and who feels very strongly about me. That seems to be a really good fit and is very rewarding; all this experience has not been for nothing, but maybe I’m making the move towards adulthood emotionally.
I love being in Iceland, I love travelling, I love performing for the most part, even though it can be very difficult at times when you’re really worn out. A lot of my relationships that were really strained because of addiction have been mended – there’s still a lot of work to do, but I like the stability. I was just telling someone outside, I’m able now to buy a bed and a sofa for my apartment, something I’ve never been able to do before, and that gave me a really great feeling. I like where this is going. I like being in the world and not wanting to change people and not wanting to desperately escape myself anymore, but realising that I’m okay the way I am and that things are going to be alright, including death; it’s not a deal-breaker. When I think about all that have come before me and all that will come after me, I find it quite humbling.
One of the things you said in an interview that I thought was really great was, “I just feel like this guy who’s visiting the music business over the weekend.”
JOHN GRANT: Yeah, totally.
I think that’s a great interpretation of how you are – I mean, being nominated at the Brits, having Elton John like your music. How do you feel about being “accepted” now?
JOHN GRANT: I don’t think about it too much, it feels really good though. As far as I’ll allow myself to go with that is to say it’s nice to feel like I’m doing what I should be doing, or at least I have just as much of a right as anyone else. There’s so much crazy talent out there, so much virtuosity, so many incredible voices and music ability and song-writing skills, you can’t afford to live in a world where you have to be the best. I think it’s important to just keep striving to top yourself and keep striving to stay as true to yourself as possible, without outer interference – which is difficult to do, but I think one of the things I’m pretty good at is leaving the world outside the studio. I think that’s really important; you can’t be thinking about what other people are thinking about what you’re doing. It makes me feel really good that there’s an audience for me, I’m really happy because I was very unsure about that for a long time – there’s something here for me and it was worth the perseverance. But, I also can’t overstate how important Midlake’s help was for me, that was an amazing thing that they did for me.
So, the new record, on the musical side it makes total sense, at least the reference points and the inspiration, but on the lyrical side, would I be able to say that I don’t understand what’s going on? I don’t know how to explain that, there are so many different reference points and so many different terms you’re using and story-lines, even the song titles are quite bizarre?
JOHN GRANT: I think it’s great that you… It’s interesting for me to hear that. I don’t feel that way, I think it’s pretty straight forward; for me it sounds like somebody who’s moving towards acceptance. The concept of the album is ‘love’, it’s bookended by the same bible verse, and it starts off as the cacophony of the world telling a child what love is and what love is supposed to be, then there’s 12 songs about all the different aspects of love and what love is; there’s hatred, jealously, envy – it’s basically the 7 deadly sins – lust – all of the elements that I have experienced. At the end we hear the voice of the child repeating that verse, what love is supposed to be. It’s basically my take on my personal experience of how human love has manifested in my life, basically the opposite of what I was told it was supposed to be.
For me it's about learning to love yourself, so you can learn how to love other people.
What does that mean, can you elaborate on that point?
JOHN GRANT: For me, love has been all about using people for orgasms, using other people to be happy, feeling envious of other people’s beauty, possessiveness, control, all of these things are the opposite of love. I think the fact that you find the titles weird, I sort of like that – I don’t want to be too obvious with my titles, I feel like it’s nice for people to have to think about it and maybe have to dig a little to get what everything means, I like that.
When you talked about possessing people, I was reminded of a quote by Gore Vidal, who said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
JOHN GRANT: Yeah, and I don’t like that feeling, I don’t want that feeling. I feel like there’s enough of that in the world, we’ve got to support people, we’ve got to have enough faith in our abilities to let others have their own successes and to be happy for them and take part in that with them, because life is a bitch, hard, and there’s enough struggle without being an asshole and thinking that other people don’t deserve their success. My goal is to see it that way, always.
You’re very revealing in your interviews, what’s one thing that the world doesn’t know about you, John?
JOHN GRANT: I’m not sure, that’s a good one… That’s a tough one.
That’s why I’m interested to know. Is there something in your arsenal that you’ve hidden away, something from your timeline in your life that would be of importance that you could share with us?
JOHN GRANT: Maybe, from the days of my very religious upbringing, there was this group called 2nd Chapter of Acts and I still listen to them to this day, because they have one of the greatest male singers of all time, this guy named Matthew Ward, he has one of the best voices in the world. Maybe that’s something, maybe somebody will checkout his voice and discover that beautiful voice. But, I don’t know, I’m so open about my addictions and my problems and everything, and about my loves as well, in the lyrics of my songs – I’m not sure what else I could reveal.
America is a focal point for you, America provided you with your childhood and it provided you with the central tenants of your discovery of yourself, at least in the musical side of life. Your childhood and lineage is in America. What is your opinion on the state of America?
JOHN GRANT: Well, I feel like they’re making progress in some places, but I feel like it’s in a lot of trouble these days. Race relations are worse than ever, people say it’s an upturn time or whatever, but I think the system is completely broken and needs to be changed from the ground up and I don’t know exactly what it’s going to take for that to happen. I love the states, I think it’s beautiful, I grew up there, so many things that I talk about come from there. I feel quite comfortable being critical about it because I love it so much, it’s inextricable from who I am as a human being. I feel like the capitalist system is extremely broken – the whole medical system, the political system, it seems like it’s all about escape and money and materialism.
I feel like there’s a lot of knee-jerk patriotism, people are so addicted to this thing of America being better than everywhere else and everyone’s more free in America than anywhere else, and that’s just total bullshit, it’s absolutely ridiculous. There are lots of places in the world that you can go to and be happy and live a great life and they don’t necessarily have to do with having a mall around the corner.
Amazing soundtrack, amazing performances, beautiful colours; I love horror movies in general.
I totally identify with the young boy making his way through Europe during the war and the way he was treated – even though my experience is totally different, but I totally identified with that.
Because of Madeline Kahn, she’s one of the greatest comedians of all time – she and Mel Brooks both brought a lot of joy to my life.