JOHN GRANT: The Queen of Broken Hearts
By Patrick Strange on April 12, 2010
Truth be told: I had never heard of John Grant before two months ago.
But one recent afternoon, I received an advance mailing of his debut solo record, Queen of Denmark (Bella Union, April 20), and on a whim, dropped it in my computer expecting to be disappointed—I couldn’t have been more wrong.
From Grant’s first croon on the album’s lead track, “TC and Honeybear,” to the slow fade on the album’s final pitch, “Queen of Denmark,” which ends with the line that gives both the song and the album their names, I was completely enraptured by Grant’s witticism, cynicism, humor, satirical bent, and most of all, talent. It also didn’t hurt that he had Midlake employed as his backing band.
After listening to Queen of Denmark several times, I sought out the records of Grant’s previous band, The Czars. The now-defunct group formed in Denver in 1994 and broke up 10 years later, but it left behind several solid studio records. Although there are certainly some shining moments from Grant’s previous foray, none of The Czars LPs live up to the ferocity and authenticity of Grant’s new solo record.
In fact, when I returned to Queen of Denmark to delve deeper into the quirky, unsettling world of Mr. Grant—a world that offers more slippery slopes than solid ground, more hard questions than easy answers—I found that not only was it better than what Grant had done before, but it was better than most of what I was currently hearing from others.
Queen of Demark has everything that a bookish, parody-loving, originality-seeking, sucker-for-perversity like me enjoys. From sci-fi torrents such as “Sigourney Weaver,” “Marz,” and “Outer Space,” to the scathing, tongue-in-cheek satire of “Jesus Hates Faggots” and “Silver Platter Club,” the record is a slow burn that rewards the open-minded and those that find humor in the decrepit condition of our lives and those around us. Combine vocal virtuosity with gorgeous musical arrangements provided by Midlake, and you have one hell of an album.
In fact, instead of the Midlake’s somewhat underwhelming recently-released third record, The Courage of Others, Grant's is the album Midlake perhaps wanted to make instead of its own.
So, as to not leave a stone unturned, I wrangled a chance to make a phone call with Grant to speak about his new album…and a lot of other stuff, too. Lo and behold, the 40-minute phone call turned out to be one of the more interesting and arresting interviews I’ve ever conducted. Very seldom do you encounter a person so forthcoming, vulnerable and self-examining as Grant, who turned an otherwise routine interview into an impromptu confessional. Among other things, we talked of debilitating self-doubt, attempted suicides, and growing up homo in the middle of Colorado.
It’s been nearly four years since your last record with The Czars. What took so long to come out with a solo record?
John Grant: After my band broke up, I had a lot of changes going on in my life. I finally got sober; I was an alcoholic, cocaine addict and my relationship was disintegrating. It was getting bad. After I got sober, I decided I wanted to move to New York. I always wanted to live in New York but I could never really get there because I could never amass enough money…because I was spending it on booze and drugs.
How did things go in New York?
I was doing music but I got discouraged and depressed about the music business. I said to myself, “Look man, this isn’t really happening for you and you’ve been doing it for a long time—it’s not happening and you have all these language skills and you’re 40 years old now. You need some stability in your life you need some insurance. Your teeth are falling out of your mouth one by one and soon you aren’t going to have any left.” I thought, “You need to fucking wake up and just realize that this is not something you were meant to do.”
So, I went back to school for two years at N.Y.U. in Russian Medical Interpreting and started working as an intern at N.Y.U. hospital. It was something that I really loved. It was difficult and super challenging but I was getting out of my head a lot more. I felt like I was doing something for other people.
Is this when you met Midlake?
Yeah. While in New York, I did some gigs with Midlake in the east when I first moved there. They couldn’t get this idea out of their head that I shouldn’t be done with music and that I should continue. They kept insisting that I had a lot more to say and they felt strongly that my voice should be heard. Then, they made this offer to me that I couldn’t refuse, which was to come down and live with them and work in their studio for free and for them to be my band and make an album with me.
It’s difficult to say “no” to an offer like that…
Yeah, I was a little bit afraid to leave because I was thinking, “Well, this is great what these guys are offering, but what if I give up all this stuff I’m doing in New York and move away to this little town in Texas that I don’t know anything about?” Anyway, at the end of the day, I couldn’t refuse that offer. I have to believe that I can still make a great album. I never made an album that I was really proud of and I really, really wanted to say to myself that I made something relevant. So, I ended up going down there. It was a long process and it took about a year, but we finally finished it.
Do you think if it wasn’t for Midlake, this record would have never happened?
It’s certainly possible. It’s hard to tell. I think that’s one scenario that I’m glad they reached out to me the way they did—only because I don’t know whether or not I would have gone back to the music. I was pretty damn discouraged and not only did I need someone there to reach out to me, it needed to be someone I had a great deal of respect for. Their musicianship is all over that album; it’s a huge part of what makes it so special.
Did the completion of the record revitalize your spirits?
I actually fell in the deepest depression of my life, ironically. During the making of the record I got into a relationship that brought up a lot of stuff that I hadn’t dealt with in a long time and it sent me into this spiral because the relationship didn’t work out how I wanted it to. I started to get into this horrible existential crisis where I thought, “You’re never going to get it. You’re never going to love somebody without hurting them. You’re never going to accept somebody else as well because you can’t stop beating up on yourself. You’re never going to realize your dreams professionally because you are struggling all the time with all this crap that’s going on inside your head and you can’t seem to get out of yourself. The best thing to do would be to kill myself.”
I felt like that was the only option, and that went on for about 10 to 11 months. I was in a hole that I couldn’t get out of it. I lost 40 pounds because I couldn’t eat. I even went into the hospital for a while because I couldn’t function anymore.
How did you finally pull yourself together?
I went to Stockholm, Sweden, and that’s where I started to see the silver lining. I was able to reconnect with some childhood stuff because I’ve always been a huge fan of Abba and I met all these wonderful people that were nice enough to indulge my Abba obsession. I met this guy who works for this record label co-op and he was so kind to me and took great care of me while I was there. He had heard the new record and I started to see that I had made a record that was affecting people. And that was a huge thing for me. It was the first time I could say that this was what I wanted to do and I did it.
So now that you are on the road performing the new songs, what has the reaction been?
I’m happy to be on stage and I want to connect with people, but at the same time I’m singing all these songs about really difficult subject matters, and in order for me to bring it across to the audience, I have to re-enter those characters and re-enter the feelings…When you think about it, especially the stuff I’m talking about, I’ve been excruciatingly honest about a lot of stuff in my life, stuff that a lot of people tell me that I shouldn’t be honest with because I give people ammunition—but that’s fucking ridiculous. I just don’t feel like I have a choice if I want to make music, that’s how I do it. The live situation is certainly a very strange thing; it’s a strange relationship that has to be forged in a matter of seconds, and at the end of the day, I’m hoping to give pleasure to the audience by letting them see somebody working through themselves in a way that’s very pleasing to the ears. I want to make people laugh and want to make songs that make them feel good and give them a good experience—that’s what I’m hoping and trying to do on this leg of the tour.
You’ve said that you’re not really proud of the things you’ve done before Queen of Denmark, but there are some great moments with The Czars, such as “Drug” from The Ugly People Vs. the Beautiful People…
That’s definitely the best song out of the ones that I wrote with that band. It’s definitely one I’m proud of. That song was about when I was really getting into cocaine and I had this guy I was in love with. He was straight and he couldn’t reciprocate my feelings and we were friends and I let him move in with me for a time and I continued to fall more in love with him. He was dealing coke and he introduced me to coke. I got heavily into that and it was mixed with my emotions for him and then the drug started to take more precedence. He ended up trying to kill himself on my sofa—blood all over the arm of my sofa. I almost burned the house down during that time because we had coke parties over there all the time and some guy left his cigarette outside and we woke up one morning and there were flames all the way up to the top of the door and if we hadn’t woken up, the house could have burned down.
One of the most interesting things about your songwriting is the way that you incorporate the mundane or various pop-culture references when communicating very intimate, emotionally intelligent subject matter. Is this intentional or just your natural process?
A lot of that is intentional and I’m glad that it works, because I’m actually a pretty optimistic person and there’s a lot of things I enjoy about this life and I can get excited about so many different types of things. You have to be very curious and be willing to retain that curiosity, like when you learn new languages, you are speaking like a child for the first several years and are sort of stuck in that world for a while. There are so many things I get excited about—I love sci-fi movies and monster movies. I see a lot of parallels. A lot of psychologists ask me why I was into all these types of movies, and I think in these movies where there are these weird forms of transformations into other creatures, it represents to me the possibility that spectacular things are possible. So, when I talk about Sigourney Weaver, a part of it is that I love that actress and I wanted to give her a shout-out. I love all the Aliens stuff—she was always convincing and solid in those roles. She almost made it all seem…plausible.
And about “Sigourney Weaver”…
“Sigourney Weaver” is about me moving from Michigan to Colorado and how horrible that move was in 1980. I was 12 and I already knew I was attracted to men and I was trying to get rid of that and I was hoping I could leave all that behind in Michigan, because it had already been expressed to me that that’s not a good thing…I needed to figure out a way to fix it. So, when I moved to Colorado and was surrounded by all these new people, I was in an atmosphere that felt really hostile and I noticed that those feelings hadn’t gone away. So, I’m glad that I was able to bring that humor into the song to soften it up a little bit. I also refer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but what I hated about it was those horrible, horrible British accents. Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves have two of the worst British accents I’ve ever heard. I was making fun of that and its funny because it works and the movie works and it’s a great way of describing how I felt; that I couldn’t get things right and trying to do certain things felt awkward. I think that’s kind of a funny way to express a very difficult sentiment—a kid trying to come to terms with being a fag in the middle of Colorado.
Well, it seems like it’s taken a long time to get to this point and to make a record that you feel happy about. What do you hope comes next?
I want to make enough money to pay off all my debts and move to Paris and write songs. It’s a long shot, but you got to dream of something. Hopefully one day it will come true.