Interview

John Grant: ‘It’s seen as a valid opinion these days to say you don’t believe the Holocaust happened’

The singer-songwriter sits down with Louis Chilton to talk about his new album, his fears about the rise of Trump and neo-Nazism, and the joys of living in Iceland

Thursday 13 June 2024 06:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

I do worry sometimes,” admits John Grant. The Michigan-born singer-songwriter takes a bite of pastry and muffles his voice to prevent a swear word from cannoning around the walls of the boxy west London cafe we’re sitting in. “I worry that people are like, ‘God, who the f*** wants to hear this self-loathing homosexual talk about his trauma? Just get over it. It doesn’t matter any more. Nobody gives a s*** whether you’re gay.’”

Grant cocks his head. “That’s simply not true. It’s naive or ignorant to tell somebody to just ‘get over that s***’. That’s not the world we live in now.”

He needn’t worry, really. To date, Grant has found no shortage of people interested in hearing him musically vivisect his personal life and traumas, in wry and knuckle-close detail. It was partly this candour that made his breakthrough solo album, 2010’s Queen of Denmark, such a runaway critical success. Heartbreak; self-hatred; addiction; homophobia; religion: nothing was off the table. Fourteen years and a slew of high-profile collaborations later (Elton John, Kylie Minogue, and the late Sinead O’Connor among them), his new LP The Art of the Lie still hews to this same confessional ethos.

Grant is now 55; today, he sports a greying beard and a T-shirt bearing the name of the late avant-garde musician Fad Gadget. He seems excited to talk about The Art of the Lie, an ambitious album that’s thematically dense and sonically multifarious. It’s indebted to – among other things – the droning electronic soundscape of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score. Most of the tracks are slow, expansive, and distortedly choral; the almost-constant vocoder channels Grant’s natural voice into something strange and potent.

“I feel like [the album] is an advancement for me – getting closer to melding all the things that I love together in a way that’s uniquely my voice,” he says. “I mean, these are the delusions that I have inside my own head.” Lyrically, it’s ornate and specific, tackling Grant’s personal struggles – his childhood, for instance, growing up gay and ashamed in a regressively Christian part of the rust belt – with a kind of oblique literary grandeur.

“I still feel like an infant when it comes to writing lyrics,” Grant says. But I struggle to imagine the sort of precocious infant who could write one of his songs. Words such as “cacoethes”, “declensions”, “decathect”, and “philipic” are just some of the lexical curios to festoon The Art of the Lie’s lyric sheets. You’re just as likely to hear terminology glommed from the pages of a medical textbook – medulla oblongata, or encephalon – as you are dusty slang like “Heavens to Betsy!” It’s code-switching on the level of Alan Turing.

Of course, this metastasising vocabulary makes more sense when you dig into Grant’s polyglot background. He’s studied languages his whole life, living in Germany from 1988 to 1994 before returning to the US. He is a man fascinated by words. “It gets really hard to keep up with Russian and Icelandic and German and Spanish and French and English,” he says, with an enviable matter-of-factness. Grant has lived in Reykjavik, Iceland, for more than a decade. “I isolate quite a bit up there, you know, but I’m also always diving deeper into the language,” he adds. Any notion that Grant is some sort of icy recluse is fast dispelled every time he mentions swapping music recommendations with his friend “Elton”.

Learning Icelandic has, explains Grant, been “an incredibly humbling experience, because I can’t subject it to my will, the way I could with German and Russian back in the day. It’s just so difficult and complex and there are so many variables that make it difficult – all bets are off”.

Grant may have absconded to the Nordic region, but, in conversation and his own songwriting, there’s always one eye kept on his old homeland. The Art of the Lie’s title is a spin on Donald Trump’s famous business-advice memoir, The Art of the Deal, and the groovy, uptempo “Meek AF” sees him take aim at the empty hypocrisy of the US political psyche. The “whole Trump thing” is a personal issue for Grant, who has several close family members supporting the incendiary former US president. “It’s caused some fights in my family – some pretty heated arguments,” he says. “It felt like a huge betrayal to me. But Trump himself is not the problem. It’s what he’s encouraging in other people – white nationalists, or American Nazis, or the Christian Nationalist Party.

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“I feel like people haven’t learnt lessons,” he says, a kind of sober exasperation creeping into his voice. “It’s seen as a completely valid opinion these days to say that you don’t believe the Holocaust really happened. You can just say that right out in the open. It doesn’t seem to me like people are capable of learning these big lessons from history.” At least, he notes, he can’t “see the Nazis taking over any time soon in Iceland. But, I mean, there’s only 350,000 people there”. As for the US, he’s not so sure.

Trump is not the problem. It’s what he’s encouraging in other people

John Grant

For Grant, growing up gay and in America’s heartland was a fraught and traumatic experience. “I couldn’t hide anything,” he recalls. “No matter what I did, I sounded like a f****t, looked like a f****t, walked like a f****t, ate like a f****t – I was told that explicitly, from so many different [people], over two, three decades.

“You think, ‘I must be transparent, because all these people seem to know all these things about me’. And I became pretty angry because of the arrogance of people telling you who you are, and shouting it at you. In the milieu that I grew up in, that was a fate worse than death.”

Initially, Grant lacked a healthy means of processing this trauma. So he turned to unhealthy ones: alcohol, cocaine, risky sexual behaviour. His substance abuse led to the dissolution of his first band, Denver-formed alt-rockers The Czars, in 2006. Following the breakup, Grant withdrew from the music scene, working instead as a waiter, a flight attendant, a record store employee, and a translator (naturally).

He eventually got back to a place where he was able to make music again, this time with an air of renewed and forensic self-analysis. But it is still an ongoing process. “Some of this trauma stuff is like a chronic disease,” he says. “You deal with it for the rest of your life and you go through periods where you’re managing the symptoms much better than at other times.

“I felt like I was really making a lot of progress in the mid-2010s. But when this whole Trump thing came up, it really threw me for a loop and it reopened a lot of wounds and really made me deal with it in a more intense way than I have previously.”

John Grant’s ambitious new album ‘The Art of the Lie’ is released this month
John Grant’s ambitious new album ‘The Art of the Lie’ is released this month (Hörður Sveinsson)

In an interview with The Independent six years ago, Grant seemed to oscillate between concern over Trump and a kind of defiant social optimism. Can he still find hope in the situation? He muses for a minute. “Things are better in certain ways,” he says. “But you really get the idea that the only thing that’s happened was people were like, ‘OK, there seems to be enough of you f****ts that we’re gonna have to put up with you – to at least tolerate it. But don’t try and rise above your station. Otherwise there’s gonna be a beat-down of heretofore unknown magnitude.’ And that feels like what’s happening now.”

He continues: “It’s a very violent reaction to the fact that we ‘perverts’ have gotten too comfortable at living our lives. That’s what it feels like to me.”

In 2012, Grant told the crowd at London’s Meltdown Festival that he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. More than a decade on from the diagnosis, Grant admits he still feels the stigma around the disease. “But mostly it’s a struggle within myself to not let it rule my life,” he says. “If you want to date, you know that your opening line has to be that. People want an ‘unspoiled specimen’.”

He continues: “I think it did lead to me being in a sexually anorexic state for a long time – because I simply felt ashamed, or felt like it was too much of a buzzkill to have to start the process of seduction by having that conversation. I also isolate a lot and I don’t put myself out there a lot, and that’s probably a result of that.”

Grant mentions a sexual encounter with a guy “not too long ago”, something he describes as a “rare occasion for me”. “I told him at the beginning of the sexual experience that I was HIV-positive. And he was like, ‘Why would you tell me that?’ I thought, ‘Whoa, is that not what you’re supposed to do?’ I mean, it’s pretty important information, isn’t it?

John Grant performing in Edinburgh in 2022
John Grant performing in Edinburgh in 2022 (James Edmond/Shutterstock)

“It’s definitely not like it’s no big deal for me,” he adds. “It’s still an issue and I haven’t gotten over it completely, dealing with stigma and my own shame around it. But I’m surrounded by really good people and that, to me, shows that I’ve made a lot of progress.”

We chat some more, about music, about keyboards, about who Grant finds “cool” in music nowadays (he muses for several whole minutes, before answering: Andre 3000, Erykah Badu, and Liverpool-based soul singer Jalen Ngonda). He speaks snippets of Icelandic, attempts to describe to me some idiomatic expression that can’t be wrangled in English. “Take the phrase, Kría blund,” he says. “It means to take a nap. Kria is an Arctic tern, a bird. And blund is a pause, or break. So basically, this bird, before it dives in the water to catch a meal, it hovers and pauses in the air for a moment.” These are, he argues, the sort of subtle and specific ideas that monoglot English speakers can’t conceive of – “because they don’t exist in your language!”

He continues: “I do make sure that I [practise languages] every day. I can’t not do it. Learning just brings me incredible joy, makes me feel calm. When I walk into a record store, or a bookstore, I can feel my anal sphincter loosening a little bit. I relax, and stop tightening up.”

He grins, amused by his own provocation. “I know a lot of people have that experience – they don’t necessarily describe it in that way,” he says. If that isn’t the John Grant songwriting philosophy, I don’t know what is.

‘The Art of the Lie’ is released on 14 June via Bella Union

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