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You're Worthy Simply Because You Are: Best Fit talk to John Grant

You're Worthy Simply Because You Are: Best Fit talk to John Grant

08 March 2013, 10:30


My interview with John Grant could have started better. For someone with a dislike for being woken up suddenly, I manage to offend against my own pet hate: it’s midday on a typically rainy London Sunday and Grant, in town on a brief promo trip, is asleep in his hotel. My call wakes him up and there are, patently, some cross-wires, as he is not aware that we’re supposed to be having a conversation.

A hastily re-scheduled attempt 15 minutes later finds Grant scrambling to check out of the hotel and arrange for a taxi. He apologises for the inconvenience and we agree to try again in another 45 minutes when he is – hopefully – safely installed in a cab. I look at some of the more personal questions I have planned on asking and worry that they may not be appropriate for what increasingly looks like it is going to be a rushed job, on the phone, in the back of a hackney carriage. As it turns out, I needn’t worry. The setting is immaterial. John Grant can be honest, interesting and engaging even in circumstances such as these.

A little over a year ago, Grant found himself unexpectedly relocating to Iceland. An alumnus of Denverite thoughtful-rock outfit, The Czars, Grant’s original plan was to make the follow-up to his 2010 solo album, Queen of Denmark, in Texas again. But a quick jaunt to Reykjavik for the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011 resulted in a chance meeting with Gus Gus co-founder, Biggi Veira. Suddenly, plans were changing.

I open our conversation proper by asking Grant at what point he thought, right – I’ve got to stay here. “I think it was while we were recording the song ‘Pale Green Ghosts’,” he says. “There was a moment when I was sitting in the studio, letting the enormity of this track wash over me, listening to Biggi make the sounds for it and I just realised that he and I had to make this record together. That was the last week of January 2012. We were basically just meeting up, ostensibly, to make some sounds for me to use on my record in Texas and then at the end of that week we had ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and ‘Blackbelt’ almost done. They still needed work doing but the base skeletons of the tracks were there and I realised I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to work with him and he was clearly into it as well. Of course, that was a big part of the equation – whether he would have the time and the desire to continue working on it and he was really excited about it too. It was with a sort of horror that I realised that I would have to change my plans and upset a bunch of people and stay in Iceland and do the whole thing there”.

This bunch of people he refers to included two members of Midlake, with whom he’d previously worked on Queen of Denmark. “I was going to do the rhythm section with McKenzie and Paul and I was going to work with the producer John Congleton, who works with St Vincent”, Grant explains. “It wasn’t as much about me not thinking I could do the record with them, because I know that we would have come up with something great too, albeit different. But I felt that I had to do it with Biggi”. Was it a difficult decision to make? “Oh yeah, of course”, he says. “But everybody was fine after a while. It was just the shock, I guess, because nobody really knew what was going on with me. It was like, why is he freaking out and staying in Iceland all of a sudden? But I think – them being artists as well – I think they understood that these things happen, you know?”

I ask Grant whether the majority of the songs that ended up on the record had already been written by the time he decided to stay in Iceland and record it with Veira. “Well, most of them had a skeletal form”, he confirms. “Like the idea for the lyrical content. A lot of the time, I have an idea of what the chorus is going to be like and then I go about structuring the song in the studio. So, I’d say a little more than half of the album was basically formed in my head and just had to be recorded. And the rest of it Biggi and I worked on in the studio”.

We then turn to discuss whether, if The Czars, were still together, there is a possibility that the band’s sound would eventually have progressed towards the electronica of Pale Green Ghosts. After considering this for a moment, Grant is decisive: “It would have had to, you know? Because it’s just something that I always wanted with The Czars, anyway. But the thing was, I never had any money. I was always wasting my money on booze and such things so I never had the money to figure out how to make all these sounds that I wanted to make. It took me a lot longer to get there. Even now I chose to work with Biggi because he was a seasoned pro at making these types of sounds. It was a huge learning experience for me”.


Conceptually, Pale Green Ghosts very much continues the themes underlying Queen Of Denmark, in its exploration of the loss of love and in trying to figure out what you do with the void left by the demise of a relationship that previously filled every nook and cranny of your life. The lyrics are frequently close-to-the-bone personal and there is always emotional intelligence, self-awareness and humour going through them.

The oldest song on Pale Green Ghosts is ‘You Don’t Have To’, which, in its original incarnation, was recorded as a duet with Anna-Lynne Williams from Trespassers William and played live by Grant in gigs since 2011. “That song was written a long time ago”, he says. “I wrote it not too terribly long after I wrote Queen of Denmark and so it was one of the only songs that wasn’t about the relationship that I talk about on Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts. It’s basically one of two songs that I wrote about a previous relationship but I really like the fact that I saved it until this record because it fits this relationship much better”, he says, laughing. “I didn’t like the original version because it wasn’t sounding like I wanted it to sound – I wanted it to be more of an electronic thing so I ended up not putting it on that album. But I always knew it was an extremely important song to me”.

I tell Grant that, lyrically, my favourite song on the record is ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’, which offers a frank and accessible way of talking about unrequited (or no-longer-requited) love. Here, the protagonist’s self-acknowledged merits and personal achievements seemingly pale into insignificance as it becomes clear that the lover whose reverence is most sought doesn’t actually give a fuck. Presumably, despite Grant penning such a heart-wrenching song, the ex in question will, in all likelihood, remain unmoved. “I don’t have contact with him anymore”, says Grant. “I can’t seem to do the friendship thing with him, you know? I just don’t see the point.”

“I think when you still have that love for somebody it just doesn’t really work,” he continues. “They don’t feel that way about you and you’re just torturing yourself. It was important for me not to have contact, just to move on and forget about that relationship. And, as I talk about on ‘Vietnam’, he doesn’t really express much of anything. He’s definitely quite a different person to me. For him it’s not necessary to talk as much and as openly about things as I do. I think he’s rather chuffed that he was able to, you know, function as a muse for me and that he continues to do so. I think he’s delighted that he has caused such a wave, a commotion in somebody. It’s a triumph for him. I’m sad to say it but I think… I feel like in many relationships, at the end it comes down to a sort of competition: who gets out less scathed; who wins. He was very much a competitive person in the realm of sports, for example, and I think that sort of is a win for him, because he sees that he still affects me and yet he has been able to move on unaffected”.

Does writing this sort of song provide Grant with catharsis? “It can do. For the most part it’s more about talking about somebody that I don’t have access to anymore, though”, he says. “It’s about being able to express myself to him as I can’t do so in the real world, in a real conversation, because that communication doesn’t seem to be possible anymore. And so, I suppose there’s a part of my being that wants to… …not so much have the last word but at least be heard. The reason that I do it can’t be about wanting him to hear it. It has to be about me figuring my stuff out and moving on.”

“My favourite line on the entire album is the metaphor of vulnerability feeling like a cold wet concrete room lit with fluorescent lighting. I couldn’t have expressed that more succinctly or any better. It makes me really proud because it’s hard to express what vulnerability feels like at a certain time and so it’s clear to me, in that song, even if I didn’t express that side of it, that you do have to figure out a way to continue being vulnerable, to continue to be open to the myriad possibilities that present themselves any given day. Maybe the unexpressed question of the song is: so, what are you gonna do to achieve that? You can mourn this relationship, you can make it last for two more decades, that pain and the hope that something will work out at some stage. But that’s pointless. You know, I got sober in the first place because I wanted to be awake to life and face life. So in this song, I am saying to myself, I know you want to shut down and be angry but you can’t afford to become that guy. That’s the reason I gave up all the addictive stuff in my life so that I can actually get back to the journey of my life. Anger and hate is just another form of alcohol. It keeps you going when that vulnerability is over-whelming”.

Then there’s ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’, which looks at that commonplace quandary of loving a person that everyone thinks is not right for you and, despite accepting that there may be truth in that, you just can’t shake the love for that person. “You know, I saw the way my friends reacted to him”, Grant muses. “They knew that he was great. And when a relationship breaks down like that everybody goes from saying ‘he was amazing’ to ‘oh, well, he wasn’t the right one for you, anyway’. I really like that song and it’s probably the one I feel is the scariest”.

In what way is it scariest, I ask. “Well, when you say to somebody ‘why don’t you love me anymore?’ you’re really revealing your vulnerability, that you really deeply care and that you want to know what happened”, Grant says. “In the game of love, if you will, it’s not an acceptable question. No-one is going to answer that truthfully. I mean, there are people who answer that truthfully but most of the time you’re asking a question that you don’t want to know the answer to. And most of the time they’re not going to give it to you. They’ll deflect and try to avoid it. That song is a comedy to me, it’s all about the absurdity of asking that question. When somebody has fallen out of love there’s nothing you can do about it. You can maybe force them to give you an answer but that won’t help. And here, your friends are trying to comfort you but you know that the person was great because, otherwise, you would not have been with him in the first place”.


The song ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ also sees Grant pondering which Jane Eyre character would work the best for him. He laughs when I mention this. “Yeah, well I know which character I am”, he says. “The one that would work best for me, however, would be Jane Eyre or The Guy. Because they do find each other, eventually. And that’s what I feel would work best for me. But in this situation, I’m the guy she goes to stay with, trying to find new love, and he really falls for her but then she goes back to the other guy. ‘Yeah, you’re awesome and everything but your overtures are misplaced here’. And then he gets all mad at her, right? Because she runs off and goes back to the other guy. I wish I was Jane Eyre. But I’m the guy who gets the shaft”.

Sinéad O’Connor contributes chilling backing vocals to ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Anymore’ and it transpires that she and Grant are now BFFs. I ask him how his musical love-affair with her came about. “Well, it began with me driving down that highway that I talk about in ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. That’s why it ties the whole album together. I was going up and down that highway to see this man – he lived in Boulder when we first met. That was in 2009. But in 1987 I was in Boulder for a completely different reason. I was in a club, which was where I first heard ‘Mandinka’ for the first time. We were there every Monday night or whatever and they played it every time. And that’s when I fell in love with her voice. And that song, of course, is amazing.”

“So it started there. I bought everything she ever did. Cut to twenty or so years later where she is covering ‘Queen of Denmark’ and a dialogue begins between us via email as a result of her covering that song, because I wanted to meet her. And she ended up asking me to come and stay with her when I was in Dublin doing a show. So I went out and met her and quite naturally a friendship developed – we just clicked. We do a lot of laughing together, which is one of the things I really love about her. We were hanging out when she was doing the Graham Norton show and she asked me if I had any new stuff. I played her ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’ and she took the headphones off and said: ‘I’m singing on your album!’ And I was, like, no problem!”

Speaking of ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, the middle-section of the album’s title track is sprawlingly beautiful. The electronic meets the cinematic in epic wedlock. With Grant due to hit the road for some live shows in support of the album, I ask him how easy it is to translate the recorded version of this song to the live setting. “Hmmm… I don’t know”, he hesitates. “We’re working on that right now. We’re about to start rehearsals and the band are ready to go, back in Iceland. I am working with somebody who is helping me to set up the live show and figure out how we are going to do the sounds and everything. But to answer your question, I don’t really know. Some of it is going to be sampled but I want to do it in a way that lets me manipulate things live on stage and create longer sections and do things as we see fit, sort of ‘in the moment’. Which you can do pretty nicely with programmes like Ableton Live. I’m really excited to get back to Iceland and actually know what we are going to do with it. But you’re right, it’s special and it may not be easy to do”.

Was it the obvious choice for first single? “I was thinking of everything from several different angles”, Grant explains. “How people would react to it, for example. But I was so excited about it and about ‘Blackbelt’ that I wanted to start the album with them. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is not as over-the-top in terms of the change in style of the album. I think it’s much more of a smooth entrance into that world. I am using a string section and there is a strange film-like quality to it that is based on the second movement of Rachmaninov’s ‘Prelude in C-sharp minor’. I am talking about my history in Colorado again and I am expressing my love for Russians in classical music and also this love for electronic sounds… I guess it felt like one of the songs I was most excited about so I wanted to present the album with it as the opening statement. ‘Blackbelt’ I thought would be a really good way to continue after ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ because it’s catchy and easily-accessible”.

Another equally catchy number on the record is ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, which could easily be a single. “I agree”, Grant says. “That song is very, very deceptive, though. It sounds like one thing but it is actually a totally different thing. That’s what I love about it. And to me, it’s one of the biggest triumphs on the album because, first of all, it’s one of the only tracks on the album where I am trying to tell someone else’s story and, at the same time, it is dealing with a horribly dark violent incident of one of my dearest friends blowing their head off with a gun last January. I wanted to tell his story in a way that would invoke his person and I think that is exactly what the song does. When I first met him he was this acoustic guitar-playing, hairy Jewish guy. He had long frizzy hair and super total hippy vibe. He went from being a high-school teacher – brilliant mind – musically talented as well, just absolutely dazzling command of English – he went from that to being this really over-the-top drag queen with this larger-than-life personality and he completely transformed his body.”

“Before he took his own life, he had lost his job at this high-school and he’d lost the woman that he loved. I wasn’t there for any of it because I was going through getting sober and so I wasn’t going out anymore. I didn’t see him as much. I don’t really know what was happening with him at the time. I just know that I had lost touch with him and when I heard about what happened I was then given pieces of the story. He was determined to take his own life, his time here on this dimension, for him, was over. One night he was at the house of the girl that he had recently broken up with and I guess it was time for him to go home and he didn’t want to leave. They’d been together for, like 15 years, and she was trying to establish boundaries and saying no, you can’t stay the night. He went out into her driveway, got a gun out of his car and shot himself in the head in her driveway. And so, it is a song about something so horrific that you can’t get your head around it but then, at the same time, it is meant to invoke him as a person and for you to get a taste of how amazing he was. When Biggi and I were doing this song we were listening to Divine records, which is very appropriate. He was just like Divine, as over the top as Divine”.

I suggest to Grant that ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ links, sonically, to his collaboration with Hercules and Love Affair, which is due for release later on this year. “Yeah, we’ve done a couple of songs together”, Grant tells me. “I’ve actually done some more with him in November and I don’t know whether he’s going to use some of that on the album or not”.


During Grant’s show with Hercules and Love Affair in London last year he performed a new song he wrote with Andy Butler, ‘I Try To Talk To You‘. Before doing so, Grant revealed to the audience that he was HIV positive. I ask him how daunting an experience this was for him. “If it was daunting then it was only because I was struggling with whether or not I should say anything”, he says. “Because I over-think and over-analyse everything. I don’t think it’s a big deal these days to talk about stuff like that, you should easily be able to talk about it and not have people feel weird about it or that it is the wrong thing to do but I really truly wasn’t sure why I was doing it. I wanted to be sure as to what my motivation was for saying something like that on stage and it’s a difficult thing – you go back and forth in your head: am I trying to be sensational here in doing this or is it actually the natural, correct thing for me to do? I couldn’t really decide until that moment. What I decided at that moment was that it was part of the experience of doing that song with Andy. He wanted me to talk about something that moves me deeply and what was really bothering me and what I was dealing with, to a huge extent at that point, was the HIV diagnosis and simply the psychology of the diagnosis and how it was affecting me and affecting my tendency for self-destructive behaviour”.

The effect of the diagnosis on Grant’s psyche was a turning point in his life. “I didn’t tell my family for a year and a half”, he confesses. “I knew that it would be so easy for me to use this diagnosis to punish myself even further. This is more proof that you’re just a fuck up and that you can’t do anything right”, he says and then takes a deep breath. “Part of the reason I didn’t want to talk about it to my family is because I knew that there was a possibility that, with certain people, I would just get the ‘yeah, well you know, this is what happens when you’re a pervert and when you are leading that kind of lifestyle that is unacceptable’. And it was, like, no – I’d decided I can’t afford to go down that road anymore. It was important for me to deal with it. I used that moment because I was about to sing that song that had been written all about that. So the moment was daunting – there were so many reasons going through my head as to why I should or shouldn’t say it. I had to decide in that split second”.

Could he sense how the crowd took the news? “The crowd got quiet really quick but I tried to make it clear that I was talking about the positivity of moving past all the self-judgement and past the shame of feeling diseased and that you got what you deserved”, he says. “But I’m sure that there are at least a million people dealing with this kind of thing better than I am but I am dealing with it in the context of John Grant. I’m sure there are lots of children born in Africa with HIV who deal with it better than I do. You know what I’m saying? What’s interesting to me is how you deal with it once it happens. In the context of who you are. And in that song with Hercules, I am asking: are you going to use this to go further down the path of destruction? Are you just trying to prove to yourself that you are not worthy of love and of enjoying your life or are you going to use this as an opportunity to wake up and realise how you got yourself into this situation and why you got HIV and move past the shame? I think the crowd also seemed to understand that I was talking about loving yourself and dealing with yourself more gently and tenderly. I feel like it was a really good thing to do. Maybe these aspects of the issue don’t get talked about a lot”.

More than an hour has gone by and, before our taxicab confessional comes to an end, I hazard a cliché and ask Grant whether he feels, at this point in his life, that he is open to love again. “I feel like I still need to spend more time with myself, sort of reassessing my attitudes towards myself, and what I think love is and what I feel the role it is supposed to play is”, he says. “It’s not about somebody making you happy – it’s a team effort, about both of you bringing things to the table and making things work. At the same time, there are still days when I want to shut down. I still get days, you know, when you crush on somebody and you notice that they’re not interested and it’s like: see? it doesn’t work, I can’t be bothered with trying. I can’t put myself out there and allow myself to be hurt again.”

“But, ultimately, if some amazing guy comes along, who the fuck am I trying to fool? Of course, I’m just going to go for it. So if something happens, I am sure that I will do my best to try and be open to it. But I think it is really important that I try to enjoy the moment and what’s going on right now and not see it as ‘life starts when somebody loves you’. There’s so many exciting things happening in my life right now and so many people I get to meet every day and have exciting conversations with, like this conversation with you, for example, and I get to see all these amazing cities and I still have that total child-like curiosity about the world, that proves that I’m gonna be ok. And I just need to concentrate on enjoying myself”.

That sounds like a very positive outlook, I point out. Grant laughs. “Well, yeah, but equally, when I hear people say ‘there’s definitely somebody out there for you’, my thought is: (a) ‘I’m going to strangle you with your own intestines’ because I hate those clichés and (b) maybe there is somebody out there for everybody but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to recognise them when they come along and that you’ll be able to take advantage of it. I don’t think that it’s a given that there is someone out there for everybody. Yes, you need to be open to it but it can’t be the goal. It can’t be what you’re living for or the thing that’s going to save you or make you worthy. You’re worthy simply because you are. And no ‘somebody else’ is going to make it more so or less so. That is not to say that I don’t wake up sometimes in the morning wishing that there was somebody lying next to me and that we can go and make breakfast and have sex on the bathroom floor and go to the movies in the afternoon and have fights and the dynamic of a relationship. Certainly, I long for that, but I also realise that I need to think about what that longing is. Why do I long for this? Why would this complete me and validate me as a human being?”

We say goodbye and I am left with what must be the best mantra I have heard in a long while. You’re worthy simply because you are. We could all do with reminding ourselves of that every now and again, couldn’t we?

Pale Green Ghosts is out on Bella Union on 11 March.

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