John Grant: 'This addictive personality permeates my entire being'

After fighting drug problems, John Grant declared on stage that he was HIV-positive. Nick Hasted meets a very candid indie star

The first time John Grant made a solo album, it helped save his life. Though he had dragged himself free of alcohol and drug addiction after his cult band The Czars' collapse, abandonment by the male love of his life made suicidal thoughts crowd in.

Texan band Midlake intervened then, encouraging him to resume making music by producing Mojo's 2010 album of the year, Queen of Denmark. Songs such as “JC Hates Faggots” revealed a religiously conservative Midwest upbringing which made being gay so catastrophic to self-worth, even the record's career-transforming reception couldn't raise it. “If I base my opinion of myself on the fact that right now, things are great,” Grant, 44, explains as he sits wrapped against the winter chill in an east London bar, “people could suddenly turn around and say, 'Well, you're just a diseased whore'.”

Sinéad O'Connor covers Queen of Denmark's title track on her new album and guests on Grant's follow-up, Pale Green Ghosts, produced by another of his heroes, Icelandic band Gus Gus's Biggi Veira. The pair worked so well together that Grant impulsively ripped up plans to work with Midlake again, and moved to Reykjavik. “Biggi would be sitting there in his stiletto heels and tights, and some sort of blouse,” he fondly recalls of their work's more fraught moments, “wearing his lipstick and make-up and fingernail polish, and treating me as a father would, saying, 'Look, it's going to be alright. Let's deconstruct this.'”

Grant's diagnosis as HIV-positive, announced on-stage in London in June 2012, added to the disruption and determination behind a record that partly retains Denmark's soft rock and acid wit. New orchestral and electronic textures refine his music's bleak beauty. “At the beginning, I always made Biggi go in the house,” Grant says of daring to sing its confessions for the first time, after moving into Veira's home/studio.

“The pain of what I'm singing about was raw then. Sometimes I wish I was one of those artists like David Bowie. They're not putting their private lives out there, it's about show, and entertainment. But an alter ego is very dangerous for me. Because I am the guy who will become lost in that. With this addictive personality I have, which permeates my entire being – it's not just drugs and alcohol, I can abuse the salt shaker, the sofa cushions – I am so prone to wanting to disappear and flee that I'll use anything to do that. I really want to avoid being another one of these people who gets found in a bath-tub, having not quite made it away from the drug addiction, and who did in the end succumb, unfortunately. And in order for me to avoid that I have to, even if it's not pretty, talk about the way things actually are.”

“Pale Green Ghosts” is a dark driving song, describing highway rides from Grant's teenage home town of Parker, Colorado to Denver – and he has kept moving, living in New York, London and Berlin before his current Reykjavik residence. “I don't want to leave the house, and I don't want to settle down,” he considers of his restlessness. A 10-hour journey from Reykjavik to Iceland's east side inspired Pale Green Ghosts' epic conclusion, “Glacier”. “I saw a lot of glaciers on the way,” he says. “And I thought about them as a metaphor for how pain carves a path in you, but can also result in a new landscape.”

A continued obsession with the adored, lost love called “T.C.” in his lyrics, though, shows the old landscape which triggered an almost killing depression. “Vietnam” compares this toxically cold lover to Agent Orange. “Maybe it's just something that's important anthropologically speaking,” Grant ponders, “maybe it's just a portrait of dysfunctional human love.” This torturing muse has Queen of Denmark hanging on his wall. “Or he did. Maybe he was told to take that down! The anger's what's helping me move on. How do you force love to die?” Grant's songs hammer nails in the corpse.

There's more pain deeper in his past. The father castigated on Queen of Denmark for his right-wing bigotry has also heard some of his son's music. Visiting him in Missouri, Grant's sexuality stays unspoken. “I think when he listens to the music, it hurts him to see what I've gone through,” Grant says. “Because even if he doesn't agree with the homosexual lifestyle, he still loves me, I'm still his son. I feel uncomfortable when I think about my father listening to my records, because I don't want to hurt him. It's probably just as important for me to accept him.”

Has his dad ever spoken about the music? “Well actually, he heard 'I Wanna Go to Marz'. Thought it was beautiful. I just disqualified it, like I do everything. I thought, 'Yeah, if he heard 'Jesus Hates Faggots', it'd be a different story'.”

Pale Green Ghosts' sound captures Grant's emotions as much as his acerbically witty lyrics. The electronic and orchestral arrangements are oppressive and disruptive, ending in a sort of liberation. “Do you know the solo at the end of 'Why Don't You Love Me Any More?', that sounds like a chainsaw breaking through?” Grant asks. “That is what I can't do with my voice. That's when you hear how painful this has been to me.”

Grant mentions his love of John Carpenter's electronic horror soundtracks. Is it too glib to say that his albums have a similar purpose?

“It might be a little bit glib to people who have been through genocides in countries where people have actual problems. But yes, there has been a horror movie going on in my head for a long time, that has to do with anxiety and severe depression, and feeling trapped inside this horrible labyrinth of over-thinking and fear. And I am trying to write the soundtrack to that.”

'Pale Green Ghosts' is out now on Bella Union

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week