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