John Grant reveals Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
He's survived addiction, depression, heartbreak, homophobic abuse, and a HIV-positive diagnosis. With a typically candid third album on the cards, are things finally looking up for John Grant?
How is John Grant? “Well, you know, I’m not sure how I am.” It is perhaps a fair response to the standard how-are-you conversation opener. Grant’s thoroughly eventful life – one of addiction, depression and disease – is a matter of record. But when The Skinny asks the singer how he is, there’s something more immediate on his mind – or rather, his stomach. “I’ve just had some horse. For lunch.”
It is apparently a delicacy in Iceland, his home of four years, from where he speaks. “Horse. They just put it in front of me. It tasted fine, but I didn’t feel very comfortable.” Then, he deadpans: “Oh God, you’re not friends with Morrissey, are you?”
How is John Grant? On this particular day, he’s in fine fettle: verbose, thoughtful, witty, the ideal interviewee. The image of eating horse chimes well with his bear-like appearance: tall, stockily built, and carrying a lustrous beard, it’s easy to imagine him tearing into a slab of red meat, sporting a fetching bit of knitwear, a cross between a north Atlantic trawlerman and a Viking.
Approaching 50, sober for over a decade, safely ensconced in Iceland, he seems to be acquiring a somewhat calmer existence. A new solo album, his third, is “a very positive record,” Grant insists, though it might occasionally suggest otherwise. The title, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, comprises the rough English translations for 'midlife crisis' and 'nightmare' in Icelandic and Turkish, respectively.
"When people are weird and messed up, I’m just fine with that" – John Grant
He seems well. Which, for someone with such an unusually turbulent life, is significant. It might almost seem trite to recapitulate his past troubles, had he not himself offered them up so candidly through his music. They’re there in the brutally autobiographical 2010 song Jesus Hates Faggots, a devastating account of his homophobic father; and in 2013’s Ernest Borgnine, in which he sings of finally kicking his alcohol and drug addictions, only to learn he is HIV-positive.
It’s there throughout his first two albums, which both had a defining theme of heartbreak, two highly cathartic records about coping with the exit of a man he thought was The One. Today, it’s a heartbreak that largely no longer lingers, emotionally or musically. “I would say that that’s pretty much gone,” he admits. “There are one or two songs left over from that period. There’s one on this record called Guess How I Know, which I tried to do for the last one. It’s always going to be a part of me, but I don’t feel any of the pain any more. And that’s nice.”
He is now in a long-term relationship with an Icelandic man – “the horse peddler” – and seems very happy about it. “And that affects you. He’s a delightful, wonderful human being, and that definitely puts you in a specific place. That brightens things up. I personally feel like it’s a very, very upbeat album. That’s a direct result of where I am in my life.”
Which is not to say that Grey Tickles, Black Pressures is without its darker moments or provocative edges. Grant’s shrewd lyricism immediately comes to the fore in track two, the title song, which offers this startling chorus: “There are children who have cancer, so all bets are off... I can’t compete with that.”
After baring his soul for two albums, is it a song about gaining perspective? “Every album that I do is about letting go and getting perspective. It’s about the need to stop trying to control the things that you can’t control and let go of them, and get perspective. Because somebody like me tends to think along the lines of: my problems don’t matter and I don’t matter. That’s not true.”
He often speaks this way: the vocabulary of a recovering addict, of a man who has been forced to profoundly confront himself and somehow make peace with the guy in the mirror.
“The song is saying: yes, you are important, and your problems are important, and you need to get your shit together. But there’s also a lot of pain out there, and it’s a very difficult life for other people – like children dealing with cancer – going through horrible, impossible, unbelievable realities, and through it all, never whinging. I think it’s ultimately a very positive song.”
Love is a constant motif. The album opens and closes with 1 Corinthians 13, the famous Bible passage so beloved of wedding planners. Is this an earnest inclusion, or is it more cynical? Does he truly now believe that love is patient, love is kind, never envies, and so on?
“I would say that it is earnest and also cynical and ironic,” he explains – inadvertently summarising his entire output in microcosm. “At the end of the album, it’s much more sincere” – the Outro is read by a child – “because the child is much more capable of loving unconditionally. It hasn’t been ruined by the world yet.” The Intro is read, incongruously, by a gruff Mancunian.
“I have to say,” he continues, with characteristic candour, “there’s been a lot of negative stuff attached to the word ‘love’ in my personal experience. My album is sort of like an anthropological observation, with all these different emotions: rage, anger, frustration, sexual obsession, lust, jealousy, tenderness, the rush of being in love with somebody. It’s all bookended by this verse which was constantly quoted at me as I was growing up. It is ridiculous, but also quite beautiful. I thought it was an interesting contrast.”
Love features prominently in Disappointing, the LP’s first single, which despite its high-mindedness is, resolutely, a love song. Grant reels off a list of high culture touchpoints in its lyric – “Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Dostoevsky” – which are all “disappointing... compared to you.”
It embraces a typically dissimilar mesh of influences: Russian authors and composers in the lyrics, a trad love song theme, a disco-pop musical template. Grant even finds room for “shooby-shooby-do-wah-wah” backing vocalists. “It was probably just an excuse to get backing singers in my show with me, just so I could be around them. They make you look really really good. They’re fucking amazing.”
By any standard, Grant’s influences are multifarious. But broadly, you could say he follows a fairly unique dichotomy: between the slower, 1970s-influenced guitar-driven ballads that characterised his debut solo LP Queen of Denmark, and the poppier, 1980s-influenced electro-disco of follow-up Pale Green Ghosts. Grey Tickles, Black Pressure feels like a wondrous blend of them both.
As we speak, Grant is in the thick of a “very disciplined” rehearsal process, ahead of a lengthy international tour. He gets nervous about starting the process again – “I was writing such complicated chord structures in my songs that I always forget what I wrote, and then somebody else has to teach it to me” – but seems generally excited at the prospect of being on stage again.
A John Grant live show has become an almost religious experience. He brings an unlikely presence on stage; more beard than man. But then that tremulous baritone explodes from nowhere, and suddenly all arms are aloft. Some songs, like GMF (with its brilliant chorus slam-dunk, “I am the greatest motherfucker you're ever gonna meet”) have become anthemic. In a short time, Grant has inspired incredible devotion. He’s still not sure what to make of it all.
“It’s an incredible thing,” he acknowledges. “It’s sort of a mindfuck. The fact that I’m sober now – and I hope this doesn’t sound preachy – helps me keep my feet on the ground. If I were high, I think that I might allow myself to disappear into that realm...”
He is careful not to disparage his fanatical audience, “because of course they’re expressing something real. But it’s not real life, obviously. And you can’t really carry that around with you in everyday life. It’s a little bit scary. I can see how people get to thinking that their shit doesn’t stink.”
Back in the 1990s, of course, he struggled to find audiences at all; as lead singer of The Czars, he achieved critical acclaim but commercial failure. Last year, he played the Royal Festival Hall, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on backup duties; next year, he has dates at Manchester's Albert Hall and the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.
Is the man who sang of himself as “the underdog” in GMF now part of the musical establishment? “I think I’ll always feel like an outsider," he counters. "Because that’s the way I feel inside my head. I’m probably too negative to ever accidentally trip into the mainstream.”
There’s surely nothing more mainstream than the Brit Awards, though, for which Grant was nominated last year, in the International Male Solo Artist category, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, and Eminem. These were, Grant admits, strange bedfellows.
“I felt very nervous and out of place,” he says of the ceremony, which took place at London’s gargantuan O2 Arena. “But I found that I was able to just enjoy myself. I had a great time. I didn’t feel like I belonged. But I was very humbled and flattered to be nominated. I thought it was super cool. I met Boy George, which was a great thing.”
Nudging towards the mainstream has its perks. He’s now casually fraternising with his idols – Elton John and Sinéad O’Connor are on first name terms – and he managed to recruit another for his new album: Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn provides guest vocals on Disappointing, after the two met at a party. “She’s a big one for me. A friend of mine from high school said to me the other day: ‘You’re living a really weird version of all of the dreams you had when we went to high school together.’ And it’s true! I’ve met so many of my heroes."
What’s really interesting to him, though, is that none have disappointed; the old maxim about never meeting your idols has proven false. He remains pragmatic about it. “I’ve always gone into it knowing that everybody’s flawed. It’s a bit of a headfuck. When people are weird and messed up, I’m just fine with that. I don’t see it as weird and messed up. I see it as quite normal from my perspective.”
How is John Grant, then? He is in a happy, stable relationship. He is mingling with his childhood idols. He is critically and commercially acclaimed. He is also, irrevocably, by his own admission, weird and messed up. But he can’t deny that he feels more confident and relaxed, both as a musician and person, since recording Queen of Denmark half a decade ago.
“Definitely,” he agrees. “It helps to have three solo albums under your belt. But I do feel more confident, for sure. I also feel very humble. I’m not in danger of thinking that I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m just very pleased I get to do this. I feel like, very slowly, I’m going in the right direction.”