“I suppose I never really tire of going back over my life, and trying to figure out what the fuck happened.”
John Grant—musician of international renown and Reykjavík resident for the last decade—has some stories to tell while he does that figuring. Drug and alcohol addictions, past indulgences in self-destructive sex and religiously inspired self-loathing—to name but three topics—are all reflected across John’s work.
But his new album, ‘Boy From Michigan’, focuses that storytelling on the early years, when a young gay man emerged into an environment where being himself simply wasn’t an option.
“Pandemic-schmandemic, right?” John quips, his eyes flashing their characteristic twinkle. While the past year was one of unprecedented restriction for most musicians, it supplied John with a captive crew of collaborators—and no excuse not to knuckle down and get creative.
When COVID-19 first blew into Iceland, John was in Reykjavík with his close friend and fellow musician Cate Le Bon. They had assembled a band to play a few live dates, but with the gigs cancelled—and routes home for the international tour party shutting down—they decided to make the most of the situation.
“We holed up in the studio for two months—even though the others were only supposed to be here for four weeks—and recorded an album,” John says. “We thought we might as well just do it, because we’ll never get this time again.”
John had to steel himself against some old familiar foes; the voices of anxiety, self-doubt and self-loathing.
“When I get up in the morning my brain is just like ‘Don’t go into the studio, you fucking gross faggot. You don’t have any business trying. Nobody wants to hear your fucking voice, because it’s pathetic.’ You know?” John pauses for a moment, then concludes: “But I just have to be like, ‘Yeah, I hear you. See you later!’ And I go.” He finds the voices usually fall silent once he reaches the studio, where he’s in his element.
The presence of his fellow musicians helped John overcome any inertia those voices might have imposed. “I mean they’ve travelled and they’re here to do this,” he says of his creative crew, “so you just deliver. And Cate was good at helping me focus.”
“I’m pretty particular. It’s funny, for somebody who doesn’t feel like he knows what he’s doing I have very specific ideas about how I want it to be,” he laughs. “So yeah, I’ve managed to poop out another record with the help of Cate Le Bon. And I’m so proud of it.”
Heaven and hell on earth
John’s loving relationship with Iceland started back in 2011. Promoting his debut solo album ‘Queen Of Denmark’, he visited Reykjavík to play the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival and experienced a life-changing moment in a downtown gentleman’s outfitter.
“I was in a store called Dressmann, on Laugavegur—which is no longer there—and this guy was staring at me,” John recalls with a smile. “And I thought maybe he’d caught me looking at him and I was gonna get beaten up for being a faggot, you know?”
“And he was like, ‘Are you John Grant?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but how the fuck do you know that? Like— seriously—how do you know?’ I was supposed to be incognito. Anyway, he offered to show me around and he and I are still fantastic friends. He is one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met.”
Soon afterwards, John moved to Iceland for the “crisp air and deep connections” that he had found here. John’s new friends included a man who would become his long-term partner. Biggi of Icelandic electro legends GusGus also came into John’s life around that time, and went on to produce his second solo album, ‘Pale Green Ghosts’.
The following years saw two further albums from John—‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ and ‘Love Is Magic’—with ‘Boy From Michigan’, his fifth studio outing, bringing the story up to date.
However, John’s development as an artist has been superimposed on a roller-coaster ride of personal issues and challenges: anxiety, depression and the drugs prescribed to counter them; hedonistic, self-destructive sex which led to him contracting HIV; and episodes of addiction to booze and other narcotics.
Preceding and underpinning all these issues was John’s experience of growing up gay within a strictly Christian environment; an intolerant atmosphere, where homosexuality was regarded as a wicked lifestyle choice. It meant going straight to hell, and gave licence to those around the purported sinner to create hell on earth for them as a taster. This environment precipitated lifelong personal struggles within John, which have taken time to address.
“My sensitivity was not something to be destroyed and crushed, which I tried to do with alcohol and drugs,” he says. “It was actually a very beautiful thing about me and it has taken me decades to start to think about wanting to be able to accept it someday.”
Reaching back to Michigan
John Grant’s past is writ large over his work, along with the clear evidence that it’s not always an easy thing to share.
“You know, there’s a lot of ugliness in my story,” he acknowledges. “I feel rage and hatred in my heart for the fact that I couldn’t defend myself against the people who were attacking me on a daily basis, because I believed that I deserved that treatment.”
To tell his story, John has made himself an open book through his music. There is no separately created public persona; what you hear from John the artist comes straight from John the person.
This transparent approach is consistent across his first four albums, each reflecting elements of his life from across the years. ‘Boy From Michigan’ reaches furthest back, with themes revolving around John’s upbringing in Michigan and Colorado.
“The album is sort of childhood viewed through the prism of adulthood,” he says. “I definitely romanticise that time in my life; I’m a little obsessed with Michigan, you know.”
Album tracks “The Rusty Bull” and “County Fair” both evoke a folksy mix of John’s real Michigan childhood spliced with his idyllic fantasy version, while the song ”Boy From Michigan” juxtaposes a warm, welcoming groove in the verses with a jarring, anxious feel to the choruses. Its refrain carries a warning from John’s childhood friend—delivered just before John moved from Michigan to Colorado—about the treacherous world beyond what they currently knew.
“It was sort of out of the frying pan, into the fire—because that’s when the shit really hit the fan,” John says of the move.
The track “Mike and Julie” depicts the teenaged John—now in Colorado— deftly side-stepping the issue of his sexuality by positioning a female friend between him and a male admirer. Closing the Colorado chapter of his youth, “The Cruise Room” reflects John’s last night in Denver before emigrating, hopeful that Germany would offer a more accepting environment.
Closing the album, however, is “Billy”—a gentle ballad, lamenting a relationship stifled by society’s expectations of manhood.
“I think part of the fight for me is about the cult of masculinity,” John says. “I was quite sensitive and I sort of got crushed by everything around me because I had no defences. And when it became about me being gay, I didn’t really want to talk about it. But I was forced to deal with the issue on a daily basis. ‘Quit that faggot shit,’ you know?
Are we not men?
As the young John started to develop an interest in music, what appealed to him immediately marked him out as different.
“What my brothers were bringing to the table—because they were seven to nine years older—were bands like KISS, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” John remembers. “But for me it was Abba, which led to side-glances and, like, ‘Fuck, we’ve got a live one here, boys! Let’s see if we can get him on the Aerosmith bus!’”
“Oh, and Donny and Marie—we were listening to that too,” he laughs, embarrassed, but not.
John was captivated by the post-punk and new wave movements of the early eighties, and “Rhetorical Figure” from the new album is a direct connection to that scene. The song channels Devo, John’s favourite band of the period and still a major influence on him. “I love songs like that,” he enthuses. “I can’t get over songs with that kind of bass. I’ll never stop making songs like that.”
John adopted the flamboyant fashions that came with the new music, but his need for self-expression soon ran into the brick wall of conservative social intransigence.
“My mother was an extremely sensitive person and so lovely, but man she really struggled with me. She was so ashamed of me when I would come to her store wearing eyeliner. And it wasn’t just like, ‘I can’t believe you’re wearing that’. It was a deep shame and disgust, like ‘I can’t believe my son is…’” John recalls, his voice trailing off.
Angry orange baby
“All this stuff going on in the United States today makes me feel like everything from my youth is happening again,” John says. “There’s all the nastiness and hatred, but people aren’t even ashamed of it now. It’s just right on the surface, unapologetically.”
The album was written and recorded during the final months of the crumbling Trump regime. That bizarre, psychotic chapter of American history is reflected in “The Only Baby”, which finds John musing on the idea of the former president as the bastard son of Liberty, the nation’s virgin mother.
“I think something was brought to the surface and unearthed by that vile cunt,” John says, precisely and deliberately. “Of course, he’s not the problem. But he certainly stirred the pot.”
“Christianity was assimilated by capitalism, so that it no longer resembles anything near the teachings of Jesus,” he continues, animated. “It’s the exact opposite. And the paradox of the whole thing is this; tolerance that allows intolerance leads to the death of the tolerant. Period. And so it is a paradox, yes, but this cannot be tolerated.”
Asked whether he still sees himself as an American after ten years away, John’s response is instant: “I’ve always been told that I was a weirdo there, even apart from the obvious. Like, ‘Oh you’re so European!’ And I’ve always thought to myself, ‘My favourite band is Devo from Akron, Ohio—that’s pretty American!’ I’m an American boy through and through.”
“Does a mother stop loving her child who has a heroin addiction? No, she has a deep love for that child and that will never change,” John continues. “And her heart aches because of what that child is going through. And I’m sure we feel the same about our countries, don’t we?”
The importance of human contact
“It seemed that Iceland was unaffected—unspoiled—by the world,” John reflects. “I became fascinated with it back in the eighties because of The Sugarcubes. That album came out in 1988, and I loved it so much.”
While he may never shake a feeling of residual love for his country of birth, John’s heart is clearly in his adopted Nordic homeland. This connection has, in part, to do with the way that Icelandic society is relatively accepting of diverse sexualities. As he says, telling Icelanders that you’re gay will usually be met with polite indifference; a far cry from the standard reaction back in Michigan.
John has brought his considerable language skills—which already included fluency in German and Russian—to bear on Icelandic. This is a man who keeps language textbooks by his bed, and creates tables of Icelandic grammatical declinations for fun. But even John—like many new Icelanders—often finds his new tongue tricky to grasp, and sometimes feels reticent to put his language skills on display.
“Having standards and perfectionism—and not wanting to communicate like a child—is a pride issue,” he says. “I was never affected by that before but I am now, and my unwillingness to try to speak Icelandic in certain situations makes me angry.”
John recognises that the language of another culture is an invaluable tool when attempting to assimilate into it. “You can communicate with Icelanders on a certain level in English, but you’re missing out on a huge world of who they really are. So I’m not going to give up,” he declares, “even if I often feel like it.”
On the subject of cultural integration, John has made numerous connections in the Icelandic music scene over the decade. However, when asked if he feels like an Icelandic artist he says: “I never feel a part of anything anywhere I go; it’s sort of a natural defence mechanism. I suppose I’m still very scared to join any club. I do go out and take part in things, but I do enjoy my solitude here. But also, of course, as a human I desire contact with other humans.”
The importance of human contact to John is plainly evident in “Just So You Know”, one of the new album’s most touching moments.
“It’s to be played at my funeral,” says John of the track, “so that there’s no guilt for the people left behind. I feel all this guilt about my mother, because she went away and then I couldn’t say anything. And I wonder if she knew that I loved her. So I’m saying to my people, ‘Yeah, we had some rough times. But just know that I deeply felt your love.’ I think that is such a beautiful gift to give to your loved ones. To say ‘Yeah, don’t worry. I did know.’”
In time, John’s Icelandic partner—the one that he met when he first arrived—transitioned to the role of close friend. But one kind of meaningful human connection is no less valid than another.
“That last relationship was great and perhaps an indicator that I’m making progress,” he affirms. “Self-love means that you choose somebody good for yourself, right? So I think at least I’m on the right track.”
‘Boy From Michigan’ will be released June 25th on Bella Union. Watch the video for the title track below.
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