John Grant doesn’t exactly fit the expected image of a rising star in the music world.
Openly gay, openly HIV-positive, and well into middle age, he writes unapologetically queer songs, frequently laced with obscenities – hardly the radio-friendly stuff of conventional pop music.
Yet this American-born singer-songwriter became a fixture of the European Indie-rock scene after his 2010 debut album (“Queen of Denmark”) was named Mojo’s Album of the Year. Since then, he’s continued to draw both critical acclaim and a growing number of fans back here in his homeland, as well.
It’s a level of acceptance he could not have foreseen when he was growing up gay as a member of a conservative Methodist family in a small Colorado town – an experience he describes as “a perfect storm of horrible.”
“My parents were actually quite loving,” he is quick to add, “but it wasn’t okay to be gay outside, in the world. You were sort of seen as sub-human. There were all these reasons – it’s a perversion, it’s a psychological disorder, it’s a sickness – teaching you that either you change or there’s no place for you anywhere, not in this world and not in any other world.”
He reflects further, with characteristically brutal candor, “I remember going through decades of ‘Oh my God, look, that dude’s a faggot, we gotta get that fucker. Go kill that fucking faggot.’ Or you get people whispering behind you in the grocery store, ‘What’s that fucking faggot doing here? You go through that for several decades of your life, you tell me that’s not going to fuck up your head.”
“This all started when I was way too young to even know what sexuality was,” he continues. “I don’t know what other people’s experiences are, but I wasn’t prepared for all that. And I thought to myself ‘My God, what the fuck have I done, that causes this much disdain, and causes people to be just absolutely consumed with their hatred for what they’re saying I am?’ It’s mind-boggling, even to this day.”
Like countless others raised within such a repressive background, it led him down a dark road. Grant struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction for years before getting sober 14 years ago – something about which he is as open as he is about his sexuality and his HIV status. Even in sobriety, though, it’s been difficult to come to terms with his anger.
“I’ve been through a lot of therapy,” he admits with a self-effacing grin. “It’s been a very long process, because even after you figure out that it’s okay to be how you are, that doesn’t make the damage that’s been done to you disappear overnight.”
“But the cruel reality of the world is that it doesn’t matter what happened to you when you were a child,” he adds. “Yes, what your parents do to you, what people do to you, what happens to you, the conditioning, all that stuff matters – but you have to take responsibility. And that means getting over the hatred for what was done to you, because if you don’t get over the hatred it’s just going to eat you alive, anyway.”
“The people that said you deserve death for what you are, they’re going to be fine. Meanwhile, your stomach lining is being eaten by the anger you feel over all that – so you just have to move on.”
For Grant, moving on has been a big part of what has shaped his music. He’s used his songs to explore (and process) the difficult emotional landscape carved out by his early experiences. Many of these have been understandably harsh – full of anger, resentment, self-recrimination, self-loathing, and sarcasm – but there have also been beautiful love ballads, anthems of self-affirmation, and uplifting messages of hope (like the powerful “Glacier,” from his album “Pale Green Ghosts”).
And always, even within the bleakest of his songs, there is humor. For Grant, who grew up under the influence of British TV comedy, “The Simpsons,” and the films of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, there is humor in everything. “All that stuff is so dear to my heart,” he says, “and it’s inextricable from my musical DNA as well.”
Still, it’s his dark side that seems to permeate his music – even the “happy” songs are tinged with it – and he’s okay with that. It’s part of an honest expression of who he is, something he sees as necessary to his survival.
For the same reason, he is as out and proud in his work as he is in his life. He writes songs that are candid, often explicitly so, about his sexuality. There are no carefully-worded, gender-masking lyrics; when he is singing about another man, he wants you to know it.
He realizes that makes some people uncomfortable. “It’s like, ‘We were okay with you changing a few pronouns, but when you start getting nasty or vulgar… um, that’s too much.’”
He laughs, “You can have gangster rap going 24 hours at the local youth group at the Baptist church, where some guy’s talking about how there’s no other man in the world who can fuck a woman like he can, and that’s perfectly fine; but when you talk about your actual experience as a gay man, suddenly they’re offended.”
He’s keenly aware that his freedom to sing about his truth is something for which he owes a great debt to those who came before.
“I feel very humbled and very lucky to be able to do what I’m doing.”
He continues with a personal anecdote. “When I was in Berlin the other night, the Pet Shop Boys came to my show, and they came backstage and asked for an autograph from me. Let me tell you something, that’s next level shit for me – because when I think about what these guys did, back when they did it – there has been a lot of preparation, coming up to this, that makes it possible for me to say the things that I’m saying in my music without being hung in the town square.”
He goes on, “People like Boy George – okay, you know, fame fucks people up, and it fucked with Boy George – but I know him a little bit, and he’s quite a lovely fellow, and he’s very talented. He’s got a beautiful, unique, interesting voice, and they made unique, interesting music back in the day, and they were unapologetically themselves. Same thing with Holly Johnson, you know, from ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ – so I just know there has been a hell of a lot of support and help from these guys, who were doing it back when there was no support, and people were dying in droves and nobody knew what was going on, and people were pointing the finger at the gay community again and saying ‘See? This is what you get!’”
Although Grant’s songs are unequivocally gay in their lyrical content, they don’t necessarily fit into the stereotypical box of “gay” music.
He came of age listening to early industrial and new wave music; he loves Ministry and Skinny Puppy, as well as Devo and Missing Persons, and when asked about his favorite albums, he lists “Color of Spring” by Talk Talk, “NunSexMonkRock” by Nina Hagen, and Throwing Muses self-titled first album. All those influences can be heard in his own work.
“I love Sylvester, and I love Donna Summer, all the good diva disco stuff,” he says. “But I try and mix it up, I try and have it all in my music.”
Increasingly, he has grown more “experimental,” evolving from the pure singer-songwriter style of his first album toward an eclectic, heavily electronic sound – though the importance of his strong vocals and colorful lyrics has remained central.
On his newest album – “Love Is Magic,” which debuted in October at number 20 on the UK charts – that evolution has come to full blossom. Full of throbbing beats and robotic synth flourishes, it’s a collection of songs that are distinctly different from his previous work and yet can only be described as pure John Grant.
“For me,” he says, “I didn’t see it as drastic or courageous at all, because on any given day I’ll be listening to a beautiful ballad like ‘Guitar Man’ by Bread, and I’ll be listening to ‘Land of Rape and Honey’ by Ministry’ – it all fits together because that’s what fits together in my everyday life. I can be listening to Sade, and Abba, and Kiss, and Fat Gadget, and Helen Reddy, and John Denver, and Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn, and Eurythmics – all that stuff fits together for me, so I figure why shouldn’t I be able to do that on my records? Because that’s what I love. Plus, I find that the way the styles change in the course of an album, that’s very fitting for the way everyday life is for a human being in general – on any given day, you get a billion different styles from all over the place, from everything you hear, and see, and experience.”
As on his previous albums, several of these are “character” songs, quirky vignettes sung in the first-person that satirize certain toxic personality traits.
Are these based on people he has known?
“They’re definitely just me,” he chuckles. “You must have enough self-awareness to know that when you lash out at another person in bitterness, you’re talking volumes about yourself – so in these things, where you have a character that’s hyperbole, that’s exaggerating the issue a little bit, it’s really a caricature of me. They’re snapshots of moments – but I don’t have any desire to do the Instagram or the Facebook version of my life in my music, because it is nasty and ugly underneath the surface, there is jealously and there is resentment. We all have it. That doesn’t mean you have to let it control you, or overcome you – but I do want to talk about that and show that in my music because it’s part of reality.”
“And it’s fun,” he adds, “because we can laugh about some of the nastiness that we’ve been through, as well.”
One such song is “Preppy Boy,” about a schoolboy with a crush on a straight narcissist who has rejected him. Grant says, “It’s totally me. It’s actually a very deep song about self-loathing. You internalize someone’s rejection of you because you’re not pretty and beautiful like them, and you don’t have the clothing and the money – and you still desire them for their beauty and go into a Stockholm Syndrome mode where you side with your captor. But it’s also just a send-up of that whole time of the duck shoes and the wale skirts and the flipped-up collars, and the fucking powder jackets in Colorado that everybody wore. It was a particularly difficult time for me, when I was made painfully aware of the American class system. I went into a school system where the kids had serious money – like Porsches and Mercedes for 16th birthdays, and mansions and big, old money. They didn’t care that you were gay, you were just a lower class of citizen – it didn’t matter if you were gay or straight to them because you simply weren’t on the menu.”
Another song, “Diet Gum,” is about a rejected lover who hurls insults at his ex, only to be instantly won over by the possibility of hooking up with him again. “That song is another song that’s totally absurd, it’s about being willing to do anything for someone who fits the program,” Grant says – but he’s quick to add that it highlights something from his own past. “Sexually destructive behavior goes into that as well. Because I didn’t need to get HIV, either, but when I got sober, I was going to keep a little something for myself– I was like, ‘I’ll give up the cocaine and the booze and everything, but I’m going to keep the destructive sexual behavior. I can get away with that, because that’s an inherent part of being human, and we can just write that off as funny, or promiscuous – I don’t have to deal with it.’ And then, you get HIV, and you know it was totally avoidable if you hadn’t been indulging in that destructive behavior.”
“All that is tied into this character in ‘Diet Gum’ who’s just like ‘Oh you fucking asshole, oh my goodness you’re so cute,” in the same breath – because the guy just adjusts his hips in his direction.”
While most of Grant’s fans have embraced his work as it has continued to develop, some have been vocally bewildered by the changes – a fact which he accepts, but shrugs off. “I really do believe, when it comes to art,” he says, “that it’s none of your fucking business what people think of it.”
He goes on, “When I was growing up, there was a lot of ‘people pleasing’ that went on – you know, fit in, don’t break the rules, say the right thing, do what you’re told, respect authority. So, I feel quite lucky that I’m able to shut the door on the world when I go in the studio, and simply not transform into something I’m not – to be myself and make my music. It’s sort of a miracle that I’m able to do that, because I’ve always had to adjust myself, to make myself palatable, so that I could survive.”
Does that mean he has finally moved on from all his anger?
“I still have a lot of it,” he admits, “you can hear it in my music. But on the other side of that there’s this incredible sense of optimism.”
“That’s how you know you are processing things in the right way,” he adds. “You could be destroyed by the cynicism, and the black humor, if you let anger get the best of you.”
“For me, mostly, I think it’s turning into compassion for people who are still struggling.”
John Grant brings his world tour to Los Angeles at 8pm on Friday, December 14, at the Lodge Room (104 N. Ave 56, Highland Park 90042). Tickets are available through EventBrite.com.