John Grant’s head is like a prison, and inside are words waiting to get out. These words flood the melodies of the songs on his second LP, the critically praised Pale Green Ghosts, and they also free-flow in conversation like he’s been wanting to get something off his chest.
The former Czars singer is personal without any probing, a patient sitting across from his therapist exorcizing all his inner-most demons and the sea of emotions welling inside: anger, disappointment, regret.
All of Grant’s words are laced with these feelings. And these feelings are a result of, as Grant puts it, “self-hatred” and “self-loathing.”
Without reservation, the Iceland-based artist chats with the same easy candidness of his debut, 2010’s Queen of Denmark, and its recently released follow-up Pale Green Ghosts, rife with frank confessions regarding his flawed self-assurance, being a target of small-town homophobia, his addiction with addiction and the result of the latter: his HIV diagnosis.
“Who wants to hear about some diseased faggot and his disease that he got that he deserved because he’s living this horrible lifestyle?” Grant says outright when he explains his HIV catharsis piece “Ernest Borgnine,” a self-proclaimed “expression of anger and absurdity” that sorts out his behavior through the perspective of the track’s actor-namesake – a song he says isn’t a fit for radio audiences.
No matter; it wasn’t for them anyway. It was written for Grant.
“I needed to explore why I allowed myself to get HIV after I spent so much time getting sober and turning my back on self-destructive behavior,” he says. “Why did I have to keep the self-destructive behavior in the realm of sex for myself?”
It was always some realm for Grant. The realm of drugs. Of alcohol. Of sex. “It didn’t matter what I could get my hands on to achieve that different state of mind,” he says. “I can do it with food, or with spending money.”
He could do it, unprotected, with an HIV-positive man. And he did, resulting in his seroconversion. “This shouldn’t have happened – and yet, here we are. And what does it say about you that you still allowed this to happen?” By turning the song’s perspective onto Borgnine, an actor Grant adores and once met at a New York restaurant, he found his answer: “That you weren’t completely willing to let go of your self-loathing. That I still had a long way to go … and still had many things that I needed to let go of.
“I was holding onto things that were still hurting me. The truth is, it was self-destructive behavior just like any of the other addictions that needed to be dealt with – and it came directly from the self-hatred and self-loathing of the last 25, 30 years or whatever. Getting the HIV diagnosis was a huge wake-up call for me that (I) still have a long way to go.”
Being open about his status, which he revealed during his opening gig for a Hercules and Love Affair show in London last year, was part of the process. That was, for him, acknowledging he wasn’t invisible anymore. That fantasy world he’d always escape to? It was gone.
“I have a very strong tendency to want to avoid things and hide from them,” he admits. “I was standing on a stage when I said it and I was about to sing a song that had everything to do with that, but I didn’t want to be dramatic. I knew I wouldn’t be able to decide until that moment.
“This whole shame thing is what gets me into a lot of trouble anyway – this hiding, this feeling like I should be ashamed and that I’m a lesser human because of this.”
Now, though, he’s more because of this, as Grant’s revelation – to himself, and to the world – has broken down the same doors that many HIV-positive people hide behind for fear of being judged. Not to mention, he’s been sober since 2004.
“I don’t think that I’m this maverick who’s going to change the way people think about certain things,” Grant says, “but I can talk about my own experience. And by being open about it – who knows, maybe there’s people out there dealing with certain issues. Maybe they’re ashamed about it and maybe they’ll think to themselves, ‘Well, if he can say something about it – and he’s up on stage – then maybe I can admit it to myself. Maybe I can deal with it.’”
The cover of Pale Green Ghosts doesn’t reveal much. Sitting in a coffeehouse Grant frequents in Reykjavik – the largest city in Iceland, and also the capital, where he currently lives – he’s stoic and still as he sits alone at a table with two books and a brew. There’s mystery and intrigue, and none of the transparency of his unambiguous words.
“It was really early in the morning, and I didn’t want to show any emotion,” he says. “I suppose in photos maybe I look serious, because I don’t want to reveal too much of my vulnerability with my eyes, which is really easy to do in photos if you don’t control it.”
That Grant can be completely guileless musically but less so in photographs is telling – a contradiction that’s not lost on him.
“There’s a part of me that wants to look strong and not vulnerable at all, because I learned that’s what a man is,” he says. “I’m sure that’s in my subconscious when I’m having my photo taken. I want to appear strong and like an impenetrable fortress … which I’m not.”
His sharp tongue is his shield. Even when he’s self-analytical on album standout “GMF,” saying he’d be the underdog if ever cast in a film, he masks his insecurities with biting wit and self-boasting that even he doesn’t seem to entirely believe (the song’s acronym refers to him, the “Greatest Mother Fucker”).
“Humor has always been my default protective mechanism,” Grant says.
I tell him he’s good at self-deprecation.
Grant laughs. “Yeah, I’m a pro.”
One of the most poignant moments on Green Ghosts comes during the coda. “Glacier,” he says, is about “the whole gay marriage circus” and his feelings of frustration, despair and disappointment. The song inspires with a mantra that could just as easily be his own – “don’t become paralyzed with fear when things seem particularly rough” – but in conversation, that passion turns to anger.
“The Bible is not the Constitution of the United States, and in this country, you don’t get to force your beliefs on somebody else,” he says. “You don’t get to do that. That’s called totalitarianism. That’s called a dictatorship. That’s called a theocracy. And that’s not what we have here in the United States of America.
“It’s an atmosphere of compassion on that song, where I’m saying, ‘Don’t let it destroy your life.’ That’s why I wrote this song, because I know that there are a lot of other people out there who feel that way. Of course, these days, it does seem like there’s a lot of changes, you know. But there are still a lot of problems, too. I don’t think that things have changed as much as a lot of people think they have.”
Though Grant’s stream-of-consciousness songwriting is, again, at the forefront of his work (as is that rich baritone of his), the sound echoes ’80s electro – the music of the singer’s adolescence, which Green Ghosts is firmly rooted in. “That’s when all the problems really started and where I began to see that I was up to my ears in shit,” he says.
Grant spent the first 12 years of his life in Buchanan, a city on the far west side of Michigan that’s no more than five square miles. His first album, Queen of Denmark reflected those tumultuous childhood years.
“It was a nightmare,” he says of small-town life. “It was like a horror movie, because you saw yourself turning into this creature that was completely unacceptable. The more you realized there was nothing you could do about it, the more horrible it became – because you were also starting to realize just how serious the people were who were telling you that it was not OK – and that people would much rather abandon you as a person then deal with your ‘sickness.’”
That time, though, was also the beginning of the bond he made with the music that would inspire Green Ghosts: electronic, new wave and romantic sounds of the ’80s.
The Eurythmics’s sophomore LP, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), was his first crush, but he also fell in love with Devo and Yazoo.
What’s the sound of a 44-year-old man who’s weathered everything from drug addiction to HIV? “Lots of distortion and Wall of Sound guitars mixed with huge cinemascapes and electronic Vangelis-esque Blade Runner-scapes.”
It’s a sound that could inspire his next album, which he suggests may follow the trajectory of his work so far and explore the next phase: adulthood.
“The songs just trickle in and happen, whether you like it or not,” he says of the follow-up LP, “and then – this is gonna sound really stupid and retarded – but the songs choose what kind of clothes they’re gonna be wearing sonically, and it really makes sense to me.
“I think you will also hear the sounds of Pale Green Ghosts, though, just because I love synthesizers so much and I can’t get enough of them. But maybe I’ll do a country album at some point, too, because there’s lots of country music that I think is amazing. I could do anything. That’s the tough part: figuring out what you’re going to do, because you can do anything. I can imagine doing a metal record, too.”
How about a country-metal record?
“Yeah,” he laughs, “thereby ending my career permanently.”
See, he’s much more in touch with reality these days.
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