Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing
Songwriters have always been drawn to love songs, whether it’s the joy of falling in or the heartbreak of falling out of it, love is the universal story in the history of music.
As the title of his fourth record Love Is Magic spells out, John Grant remains entranced by it: his lyrical palette has covered a multitude of themes on the human condition, yet he finds himself returning to the meaning of love. “It seems that’s the big thing for me - love," he tells me. "Learning how to love yourself, to be somebody worth loving, making progress, working on yourself and getting somewhere with it.”
A conversation with Grant is not unlike the songs he writes - taking in hilarity, acerbic wit and the absurdity of modern politics. It’s also a masterclass in the nature of love and he’s incredibly open about the subject; from the recent split with his long term partner to coming to terms with the death of his Mother. Nonetheless, there’s a palpable sense of optimism in his voice about the power of love, which is writ large on Love Is Magic’s title song, "When the door opens up for you, don’t resist, just walk on through / there is nothing left to lose.’"
For all the backstory of his triumphs over adversity, it shouldn’t be forgotten what an accomplished songwriter Grant is. His records - from 2010’s Queen Of Denmark, 2013's Pale Green Ghosts, 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure and now Love is Magic - are illuminations on matters of the heart and the ups and downs of modern life. “People want to hear about the stuff they’re going through”, he says before breaking into laughter. “It’s all these self-absorbed cunts who just want to hear about themselves!”
Before we met I compile a list of 50 love songs as a conversation starter which I share with Grant. “‘You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin’ is one of my favourites, it’s so amazing,” he tells me. “I love ‘Crazy in Love’, ‘Woman In Love’ by Barbra Streisand, I fucking love that. ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette, I love that too….’How Deep Is Your Love’…oh my God, it’s so good!”
The Bee Gees classic prompts a memory of a time Grant heard it in New York under unusual circumstances: “I was getting a massage and all of a sudden the woman ripped down my underwear and climbed on top of me. The song that was playing was taken off and someone put on ‘How Deep Is Your Love’. I said ‘This isn’t that kind of party is it?”
Was it that kind of party? He shrugs and says “No, it wasn’t that kind of party…”
Grant continues reading through the list, picking out “Love Is Not Love” by his friend Cate Le Bon “Oh, that voice, it’s so crisp and clear,” he remarks. He notices I’ve accidentally duplicated a Joy Division song: “‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is on here twice, which I think is appropriate.” We reach ABBA’s “The Winner Takes it All” and he tells me about the moment his father surprised his music-loving son with a hitherto unknown admiration for it. “Strangely he never said a single word to me about ABBA, but then one day he said ‘That’s a great song.’ I was like ‘What the fuck are you talking about?”
Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black” gets an approving nod but Grant suggests a replacement: “The song of hers that absolutely destroys me is ‘Love Is a Losing Game’…the sound is un-fucking-believable. Mary McGregor’s ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’ is one of my all-time favourites, that whole album is pretty damned good. There’s a song on it ‘This Girl (Has Turned Into a Woman), where she’s like ‘Thanks for forcing me into sex last night, I needed to get that out of the way’, you know, in the ‘70s?
“I haven’t heard ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ by Sharon Van Etten but I love her voice, I’ll listen to that.” Grant looks up from the list, puts on a nerdy voice and jokes “I wish I’d written mine down for you. I wish you’d called me last night! Can we have ‘How Much I Feel’ by Ambrosia on there? And ‘I Need You’ by America?”
As with every love song we cherish, “I Need You” is filled with memories for Grant; he tells me a story about the song and the man who was the inspiration for Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts. “I remember singing ‘I Need You’ to him, not trying to do a performance of it, just singing it to him. We were in a car and it came on the radio and I said ‘Listen to this fucking song, how incredible is that?’ It was already way over, he was looking at me while I was singing it like ‘Yeah, it’s a great song, but I don’t feel the same way about you.’ Basically I was saying ‘I have severe problems and I think I need you.
“But I didn’t need him, at all.”
We return to why love songs are so important to us and his explanation is simple: “It’s because that’s what everybody wants, everybody wants to be in love. These people haven’t written their lyrics from another galaxy, they’re humans. Everybody feels the same shit and people relate to them deeply, feeling understood is one of the greatest things, it’s all anybody wants. It’s more than ‘I don’t want closure, I don’t want you to fix me, I don’t want your advice.’ It’s just ‘I need to feel understood.’”
There’s also a comfort in love songs, where the writer tells a cathartic story that speaks directly to the listener? “Absolutely. We’re all the same, but there’s billions of little variables in everyone. There’s unique takes on everything and that’s why we don’t want just want one love song either. We want all of the different variables and ways of looking at things, because they’re myriad.”
I half-joke that geeking out about love songs is a reason why we obsess over them. “Well they’re so damn good, what are you going to do?” He finds Barbra Streisand’s “Draw Me A Circle” in his phone and tells me I need to listen to it. “She’s basically describing how to draw this picture” and he half talks, half sings the story. “‘Draw me a circle that’s perfectly round’ - it’s all chromatic, very difficult singing - ‘Now draw two eyes.’ At the end of the song she says ‘It’s a picture of me, after being with you’ and there’s a giant smile on the face of the picture she’s made.”
Taking his advice, I listened to “Draw Me A Circle” as soon as I got home and he’s right: it’s a beautiful love song. Yet as he points out, not all love songs are golden. “There’s also the horrible, clichéd ones on the radio that we immediately forget about. ‘I can tell what your pussy is like from across the room. I’m going to fuck you like nobody else has.’ You know, the really romantic stuff!”
"I feel angry about being a fucked-up human and sometimes it makes me angry to go out and see everybody walking around drunk, laughing out loud and totally loosened up"
Love is Magic certainly deals in the romantic stuff, where the narrative is that spite of how difficult life can be, we should still cling to love. “The fact is the best case scenario means you’re going to watch the other die. It’s harder when you really care about somebody and you’re together your whole life, because someday you have to lose them. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I think it’s worth it” he explains. “There’s a lot of people that love me, but somebody to grow old with? It’s really important to learn how to love. I’d like to be loved by someone, but if you can’t do that to yourself, then you’ll never be able to have someone love you. If you can’t truly get the hang of loving yourself then you’ll never have anybody to grow old with.”
I ask if being alone is a bad thing. Grant sips his coffee and answers, “Not necessarily. I think part of loving yourself is being able to enjoy your own company and just being fine being on your own. I’m never bored, but there are times I don’t go out because I feel I can’t interact with the world in a healthy way. I feel angry about being a fucked-up human and sometimes it makes me angry to go out and see everybody walking around drunk, laughing out loud and totally loosened up. Although I guess I had plenty of that too for a while.”
Our conversation turns to his first experiences of romantic love and how we often only realise what went wrong with the benefit of hindsight. “The first couple of relationships I had I totally fucked up. With the first one, the guy was totally in love with me - I was probably totally in love with him too - but I couldn’t talk about the sex we were having, I couldn’t even have a conversation with myself about it, but he wanted to talk about it. It was a great match, but I couldn’t address it.” They bumped into each other years later and whilst the moment had passed there was the mix of awkwardness and regret that first loves often instil in us all. “It was ‘Hey, what’s up? OK, Bye.’ There was nothing to say and I thought “Oh Jeez, that was horrible.”
Grant’s candour about relationships makes me wonder what it’s like to write a love song. Are artist’s stories effectively an open book for both listeners and ex-lovers to read? He says it’s not like that at all - that instead a love song is as much about the writer as the story.
“Every love song is six billion times more revealing about the person that wrote it than the subject of the song. A lot of the time you can see why they broke up with you just by listening to the song you’ve written for them. It’s like ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be with a cunt like you either and what you’re saying is pretty horrible.’ People can hear your maturity level in your raging, you wouldn’t say something negative or hurtful to someone that you truly cared about would you?”
Perhaps love is a battlefield, where we say things in the heat of the moment that we regret? “You can, but it doesn’t make sense.” He pauses and then reconsiders, “I suppose it does make sense, I’ve done plenty of it, but the last relationship I had was very respectful, kind and good in that way, with no weird bullshit games. You can have a phase like that, but at some point you’re going to get to the nitty-gritty of shouting at each other. I think that does have to happen.”
The story of his last relationship is beautifully told on "Is He Strange”, where the lines blur between first and third person. The words move from the initial rush of infatuation (‘He was just standing there’) to the transition of falling in love (‘And in that moment, everything changed’) to parting and a plea for forgiveness (‘I'm just sorry that I let you down.’) “It’s about me, just singing to him. Well, not really singing to him, I’m singing about him, sometimes to him, going back and forth.”
"In life you aren’t always able to think of the things you want to say in a certain moment, but I feel proud performing something where I nailed what I felt on the head in a very succinct and specific way"
When it came to writing the lyrics, Grant says he was avoiding them and he had to put pressure on himself to finish it. To unlock the story, he decided to use word association, “I was thinking about it constantly, that’s why I started with ‘liquorice and nuts’ because I was ‘I don’t know what to say, so I’ll start by saying that and the rest will come.’ I like the line ‘He’s not some flower you can pick’, it’s this adult thing of figuring out you can’t possess other people, nor is it desirable to do so.” The end result is incredibly moving, so much so that when sang the final words, ‘And I only hope that you can see / you’ve transformed this heart inside of me’ the engineer was reduced to tears.
Using the song as a springboard, as we all do with love songs, Grant identifies a wider truth about the nature of loving someone. “It’s not about constantly projecting your idea of what you want them to be or trying to change them, but simply marvelling at them every day. It’s enjoying every little tiny thing about them and just letting them be. With the latest one, I still find myself thinking ‘I bet he’d love this, this is exactly the type of thing he’d be into.’ I love thinking about the people that I care about that way and wanting to delight them with a gift, whether they’re a friend or a romantic interest.”
What it like performing a love song night after night on tour, where you’re re-living such personal stories? “Sometimes there are nights where you don’t inhabit the song and you can still pull it off, but there are a lot of nights where you inhabit the song.” He describes inhabiting a song as moment of crisp clarity. “In life you aren’t always able to think of the things you want to say in a certain moment, but I feel proud performing something where I nailed what I felt on the head in a very succinct and specific way. The older you get and the more you read, the more you realise what an incredible gift it is to be able to express yourself with finesse and nuance. When I get it right in a song it’s a special thing; where I feel delighted by the chords, the melody and the words.” He then adds a delightful quip. “Maybe it’s a little bit of auto-erotica or something, but you know, I’ll take what I can get!”
Love is Magic’s opening song “Metamorphosis” is a very different approach to love and loss, which on first listen sounds like a bricolage of Grant’s bemusement with modern culture. “People are like ‘Ain’t nobody got no business starting no album with that shit’, but as far as I was concerned it was the only way to start the record, with this slap in the face of the everyday. Nobody is going to change the everyday for you just because you’re going through your shit.”
He describes it as “a snapshot of the chaos of life, with a tiny moment of clarity in the middle.” The middle section sees the hyperactivity of the opening verse slow right down, where the line ‘As I enjoy distraction, she just slipped away’ emerges and prefaces a passage about his mother’s death. “I think about dreaming of her now and how her face is vague, because your brain is trying to make up the picture. The police have that age progression software and it’s like your brain is trying to do a combination of what she looked like then and what she would probably look like now.”
"Nations are falling and empires are crumbling all around us and there’s things that are there unchanged on a daily basis and I like expressing that"
When the song speeds back up, hidden amidst the cultural references is mention of a Whirla Whip, an ice cream parlour his Mother took him to as a child. “She knew I’d love it but I was a cranky teenager. I was ‘I don’t want to go to that stupid place’ and then I went and it was the greatest thing ever - they had a giant machine with all these different flavours that crushed everything into a new ice cream. I had strawberry with cream cheese, doesn’t that sound horrible?” Grant’s laughter changes to a sigh as he says “My Mum was incredible and I was a cunt. I was a selfish cunt.” Aren’t most of us like that when we’re children though, where we only realise how amazing our parents are when we get older? “My Dad says that to me too. ‘Don’t worry about your mother, she’s fine.’
As well as exploring his personal stories on Love is Magic, Grant also puts a lens on the political climate, most notably on “Smug Cunt”, which was originally written about Vladimir Putin until he decided the metaphor was a better fit with Donald Trump. Writing about modern life has resulted in a broadening of his lyrical focus. “It’s all happening simultaneously. You’ve got this crazy political shit going on but you’ve also got to worry about your bowels, because as a human you’re tied to that. Nations are falling and empires are crumbling all around us and there’s things that are there unchanged on a daily basis and I like expressing that.”
I tell him my favourite song on Love is Magic is “Tempest”, which I’m about to discover is also a political song. “I’m really happy you said that, I’ve heard people say ‘This is a throwaway song, I don’t know why it’s on there.’ You can’t take it personally, but it’s funny to hear that, because I believe it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It’s my favourite song on the record, it’s one of my crowning moments and I know it is. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was when it came together the way that I wanted it to. I never do this with my own stuff, but Paul (Alexander, from Midlake, who co-produced Love is Magic) and I were looking at each other when we were listening to it going ‘Fuck, this is so beautiful.’ I know that sounds wanky, but it’s not actually. You’re more than welcome to be pleased with yourself occasionally.”
I thought it was a love song, about spending time with someone you love – ‘Come play Tempest with me, or maybe Millipede / We can while away the hours’, but Grant politely corrects me. “It’s not, it’s an extremely political song about the cathedrals of consumers in the U.S. There’s churches and then there’s the real churches, which are the malls, the places of commerce where people really worship. It’s about how Donald Trump is the natural choice for a nation that worships at the altar of the almighty dollar and would sacrifice their lives for that, rather than anything else. You go to a church and people are ‘This isn’t important, these days the message has switched to ‘God wants you to be rich.’” I tell him that surely God wants us all to be in love and Grant bats back with, “Yes, and rich. He wants you to be up to your ears in tail 24/7 and rich!”
Grant’s combination of love songs and political observations, delivered in a rich baritone, reminds me of Scott Walker’s musical journey. Walker wrote two of his greatest songs on his fourth solo record Scott 4, the political "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" and the blissful love song "The World's Strongest Man." Grant performed the latter at last year’s Proms night in honour of Walker, where he nailed the vocal, but he modestly shrugs off the comparison and instead talks about how hard the song was to sing. “I don’t know how I got through that, it’s a tough song, all of them are. “The Seventh Seal”? With the amount of lyrics it’s a fucking Charles Dickens novel! I told them “I’m sorry, but I’m about to turn fifty and I need a tele-prompter!”
Yet like Walker before him, Grant has grown as a songwriter by learning to let go of the conventional rules. He explains “‘The rules’ can make you not do things like “Metamorphosis”, because you’d say ‘Oh no, that structure’s wrong.’ There isn’t anything ‘wrong’ in music, you can do whatever you want, you don’t have to stick with something. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure if every time you sit down to write a song you don’t poop out a masterpiece in five minutes.” Grant says he used to think that was what being a good songwriter meant, where artists like Nick Cave “pooped out masterpieces whenever they felt like it, they push the button and it pops out. I think we all do it occasionally, but there’s a lot of work that goes into a lot of them and some of don’t come for a long time.”
I point out the lyrics to Queen of Denmark’s “Caramel” are written in the classical form of a sonnet. “Oh really? I didn’t know that, that’s pretty cool.” He recalls a conversation with Villagers’ Cormac Curran that reminded him he uses the rules of writing instinctively rather than consciously. “I said ‘What’s with all the circle of fifths?’ I’ve never really understood them.’” Curran replied that Grants’ songs featured more of them than anyone he’d worked with. “A circle of fifths is basic music theory, but I don’t write with theory. They’re just in there because I played lots of classical music, absorbed it and loved it.”
"There’s so many love songs but we need more of them...you can have billions of them but you’ll never get enough, because they’ll never be able to cover every nuance"
As we come to a close I ask what he thinks the future holds for love songs. “Well, the game has changed, it’s changed a lot. The tender, vulnerable love songs are still out there, but what’s in your face all day long is definitely this other thing - sexual prowess, manipulating, taking no shit from anybody, giving someone such crazy orgasms they can’t even think of being with someone else because they’re addicted to what you do to them.” He says it’s a symptom of people becoming increasingly self-obsessed, “it’s been a gradual thing of ‘realise yourself’ and not ‘realising yourself’ means you’re a loser.”
So what are the must-haves for a love song? “It has to have honesty in the lyrics no matter what the feelings are,” says Grant, “whether they’re negative or positive. For the melody, I like minor keys for love songs, melancholy is really good, but not too much melancholy. There should still be hope there, even if you’re in total despair. There’s so many love songs but we need more of them. You can have billions of them but you’ll never get enough, because they’ll never be able to cover every nuance. It’s different for every person.”
Grant finds one last song on his phone that proves the point. “Here’s a song we don’t have on the list and one that’s sorely lacking, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ For me, it’s one of the masterpieces of the world and I get goose-bumps just thinking about that melody. I don’t know what it is about it, I just know that it’s fucking stunning and you can’t live without it on any list when it comes to a love song.”
There’s so many words about the language of love in the lexicon of music, Love is like an energy, Love is a battlefield, Love is not love, Love is in the air, Your love is killing me, Love is all around. Such words are of course all true, but ultimately John Grant is right, love is magic.