Our guest this week on the show is singer/songwriter John Grant. You might know him from his work with Midlake, the Czars, Sinéad O’Connor or Hercules and Love Affair. His new album is called Boy From Michigan. It’s produced by Cate Le Bon and fascinating, Blade Runner synths pulsing underneath incredible melodies and vocal performances. Grant joined Jason P. Woodbury for a freewheeling and candid talk, this week on Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions.
Episode Playlist: John Grant, “Billy” + “Boy From Michigan”
Thanks for listening. Transmissions is written, produced, and hosted by Jason Woodbury. Our audio is edited by Andrew Horton. Visual work by Sarah Goldstein and Jonathan Mark Walls. Our executive producer and top of the show announcer is Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage. If you enjoy Transmissions, please rate, review, subscribe, and spread the word.
Aquarium Drunkard: John thanks so much for joining us here on Transmissions. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
John Grant: Good to be here.
AD: I’m curious, what’s the weather like there? You’re in Iceland right?
John Grant: Yeah, can you see outside?
AD: I can.
John Grant: It’s a little overcast and cold and there’s still snow on the ground, there’s a lot of snow.
AD: Is it pretty comfortable for you overall? You’ve been there since 2011, is that right?
John Grant: That’s right, yeah. I dig cold weather. I like hot weather too but my body doesn’t seem to do as well in the hot weather as it does in the cold weather. Although I do love hot weather. I just sort of struggle in it. It sort of pisses me off but I mean what are ‘ya gonna do?
AD: So you’ve been in Reykjavik for almost a decade or so. Does it feel more or less like home right now for you?
John Grant: I feel I’ve spent so much time living in different places that I just sort of make a little nest wherever I am. I have my things around me and I feel at home wherever I am. I’m used to being around different cultures and I mean we could get into a three-hour long conversation about what the word home means.
John Grant: But I feel like you just make your home wherever you go. You find the people that you feel comfortable around. I’ve met some great people here. So I do feel like this is definitely a home for me and it’s definitely the main place I hang my hat these days. So I do feel comfortable calling it home. A lot of times I didn’t feel home in a lot of places that were supposed to be home, so it’s all quite relative isn’t it.
AD: Yeah it seems like this new record is tied into that and is an examination of the place where you came from, obviously calling it Boy From Michigan, hints in that direction. So much of your work reflects on the ins and outs of America. Being farther away from it, how does it affect the ways of looking at the country? Does having space make you feel like there’s a kind of distance that allows you to look at it from a different angle? Or does it still feel like you’re part of it to some degree?
John Grant: I would say a little bit of both. I definitely like being an American, I love our culture, a lot of aspects of our culture that I grew up with. Which is sort of what I’m talking about on…It’s very difficult to separate yourself from the place you are from right? When I left the States for Germany I thought Germany was gonna be easier for me. Boy was I wrong. I thought it would be easier to be gay in Germany, it wasn’t that. A lot of the problems that I was dealing with—there was a prison in my own mind, so it didn’t really matter where I went. But there were also aspects of German culture that were much more challenging. But I threw myself into that and I never spoke English there unless I had to, if somebody didn’t speak German.
AD: Talking to an American probably.
John Grant: Yeah, yeah. A lot of times someone who wasn’t as far along with the language. So I really threw myself into that culture. And you realize really quickly, anyone who is listening who has had a lot of experience abroad will tell you, it’s a really weird paradox because different cultures are extremely different and you really have to be careful, thinking you recognize words or thinking you recognize traditions because a lot of times there’s this concept of false friends. Something looks the same but it’s coming from a totally different angle. You learn that really quickly, there’s all sorts of blogs out there about the misunderstandings that come from expatriates when they move to a new country. But I still feel very American and very tied to the US, but also a lot of times you can get a little more wrapped up in the negative things that you see going on there. My friends back in Denver for example, and elsewhere like in Texas, they’re just going on with their daily lives. There are a lot of horrible things happening but a lot of people don’t see that in daily life. You’re just doing what you’ve always done. I was really going berserk for a while here, reading too much news and getting caught in the web of algorithms and targeting and all that bullshit. And it was really making me sick for a while.
AD: Was that happening while you were in the process of making this record?
John Grant: Yeah it was. Part of it was. It was hard to tune out completely while I was making the record. But I really did close myself off in the studio. Cate le Bon was living here and producing and she had her engineer with her, Samur Khouja. So the three of us were basically working on the record. But a lot of times I still had to write lyrics and stuff, they would go do things they needed to do and I would just stay in my studio and finish what I needed to do. So I spent a lot of time holed up in my studio. With them, but also alone. So I really felt like I was quite shielded from what was going on in the world because I chose to be.
AD: In terms of just the pandemic and all that?
John Grant: Yeah absolutely. And not just because of all the political stuff that was going on but mostly at that point the pandemic was becoming more real everyday. We went into the studio on the first of March last year. It was planned months in advance so everything was just kicking off then. And they had to make a decision on whether they were going to stay, and they saw that some beautiful things were happening in the studio and so they decided to. After checking out the situation in Iceland and deciding it was a relatively safe place to be in. Compared to other places where there was the literal shit show going on. They just decided to hole up with me and make this record because we were making great progress, so that’s what we did. So they ended up staying for two month initially. And then Cate would come back in June and both of them would come back in August to finish the record. It didn’t really start to affect me mentally or physically until I finished my record in October. You come out of your hole and it’s like “oh.” Like a gopher coming out of his hole and looking around after a nuclear bomb or something.
AD: The cover almost has a science fiction/post apocalyptic feel to it. The cover of the album. I mean if I have it right, it’s you with the glowing eye right?
John Grant: Yeah, yeah.
AD: What an incredible cover. It reminds me of Cable from the X-Men comic books.
John Grant: That’s really cool!
AD: His eyeball is like that.
John Grant: Yes! I really love it too. I have this huge love for the black light poster art of the ’70s and also the black velvet paintings. I remember seeing, I suppose I became aware of the black velvet stuff as well in the ’70s. You’d see these really cheesy ones with the crying clowns like in John Cusack’s apartment in The Grifters. I love all of it. There’s an incredible one of the Sleestak on black velvet. Which is—you’ve got to see that, it’s absolutely incredible. I got in touch with the guy from the black velvet museum in Los Angeles and they led me to this artist whose name is Gil Corral, and he did this artwork for the album. So he is this masterful painter in the medium of black velvet and he made this beautiful painting for me. Actually I should go grab it and show it to you.
AD: I’d love to see it
John Grant: You see that?
AD: Holy shit! That’s incredible. Yeah the jacket is really cool, I don’t think you see that on the cover as much.
John Grant: We took that off. We thought just the head was really…
AD: That’s incredible
John Grant: And he did a total of four paintings so there are several others. And so what you’re saying about science fiction. It totally ties into that. I think science fiction is amazing and I really love all of that, that’s what I wanted.
AD: I keep thinking about how the record in some ways feels like—it’s an examination of your personal youth but it also feels like an examination of a certain time as well and I think about that future lust of the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t know, maybe I’m too caught up in our current moment to reflect on whether that still exists or how that exists, but it does feel specifically different than the ’90s and the early 2000s. There was this hunger for the future in those decades. As a kid growing up in that do you feel like you had any sense of that?
John Grant: Yeah, absolutely. We were so excited about all the technology that was happening. We supposedly already knew about the bad side of technology from Hiroshima and all that stuff but I think we still thought we were gonna keep a handle on things. And we thought computers were gonna cure cancer right away and you couldn’t imagine. I suppose people like George Orwell could imagine how things were gonna be used, how technology was gonna be used. Although it’s very strange in things like 1984, they have very rudimentary technology, it’s like they sort of crushed the growth.
AD: People have a strange fraught relationship with technology because we depend on it and we understand it’s value and understand why it’s so remarkable, and in our time miraculous. And yet we are sort of permanently nervous about what they might become or what they might make us become and I feel like on this record – Well before we move on or before I get into that, when did you move from Michigan to Denver as a kid?
John Grant: That was when I was 12 years old. So it was really right before puberty started, because I was sort of a late bloomer too, so that period is sort of romanticized by me.
AD: The period before you moved or when you moved?
John Grant: The period before I moved. Because things were relatively simple and uncomplicated there before I went out into the big world. And so Boy From Michigan is about this moment when my buddy Scott said to me “You’re gonna need to watch your back out there,” because he saw that I was sensitive, more sensitive than some and I think he was just worried I was gonna get eaten alive. And I sort of did, he was sort of right. I wasn’t prepared for what was coming. Being introduced into a much heavier strict religious community. Turbo religion with the Southern Baptist out in Colorado. And also the caste system in America. We moved into a very rich school district so we were considered…we were just normal middle class back where we came from but I was definitely the scum of the Earth or total white trash coming into the new thing. And then there was the sexual component as well. In the world it wasn’t cool because it wasn’t traditional and it was wrong for reasons other than God. And then in church it was like, “You’re gonna be separated from your family and god for all time if you keep being a pervert.” And I guess in the world it was seen as more of a genetic defect. And whereas in the church or at home it’s seen as a spiritual defect.
AD: It’s sort of bad on both sides.
John Grant: Yeah I mean it was just nasty and because of who I was I wasn’t able to…There wasn’t really any help available that I could recognize, and if there was somebody that was willing to talk about it I was too scared to talk about it as well. So there is that aspect of it that was particularly painful to think about. Because I was too terrified to have a discussion about it.
AD: You’ve said in other interviews that you think people knew you were gay before you quite understood that you were gay.
John Grant: Well yeah, I must have thought my name was actually “faggot” when I was a child because I was hearing that from as young as I can remember. Of course they weren’t saying it to me when I was two years old but my parents did say once that they could tell that there was something different about me when I was two. I was told long before I knew about sex or who I was attracted to. I’ve always felt a lot of rage about that. Someone attacking you and telling you who you are before you’ve even had a chance to become cognizant of it yourself.
AD: Yeah that’s brutal. That’s a really cruel way to interact with a person.
John Grant: I can’t even really imagine it. I’ve always been sort of flummoxed by people’s audacity and their arrogance and just the level of hatred. So it did cause a lot of anger in me. Because the thing that was so horrible about it was I believed that I deserved to be treated the way I was treated. That’s the worst thing about it.
AD: I’m just imagining the internalization of what that must have felt like. It must have been really brutal. And that anger was probably hard to deal with, and destructive.
John Grant: Absolutely and I still deal with it. I think it’s something that I’m gonna have to deal with for the rest of my life. I have a lot better tools to deal with it these days. You feel a lot of shame because you feel like, “Why couldn’t I see that I was ok?” or “Why couldn’t I do a better job of just being myself?” But it’s understandable. It’s a perfect storm. There was no space for me to be myself and then I internalized the hatred that was directed at me and wielded that towards myself. Which we see in all sorts of communities. That’s what happens. Then the story of each of our lives, with you and me and everyone out there—because I don’t consider my story to be particularly special, it’s just one of eight billion stories, everybody’s got one. As soon as we turn 18, we’re responsible for figuring out how to thrive and get the job done in this world. It’s up to you to figure out how to process whatever it is you’ve been through and figure out how to live in this world, in a productive way. And find your community and find your home. And it can be done. I feel like I’m quite happy and quite optimistic but there’s definitely a lot of scarring from what I experienced back then.
AD: I think you say that in one of the songs, “The American dream can cause scarring and some nasty bruising” I think that’s the lyric. I might be getting the lyric a little wrong.
John Grant: There are certain people who were invited to the American dream and certain people who weren’t invited to the American dream.
AD: That’s why I get so frustrated hearing people complain about “cancel culture” and all this stuff. Because even if there are some potentially honest ways we can talk about the toxicity of a social media environment it’s like, shut up, you’ve canceled peoples’ entire existences through gross disgusting hatred. The sort of thing you’re talking about.
John Grant: Absolutely. And when you react to that because you can’t take it anymore. Finally that voice comes out of you saying, “You don’t have to let this happen and you don’t have to be destroyed by it and you don’t have to be destroyed by your anger and you don’t have to be destroyed by the rage you feel because of these people who have attacked you your entire life and tried to tell you that you aren’t welcome here and this and that.” You really don’t have to do that, you don’t have to put up with it. And I find, we have this huge conversation. What is this paradox of what we’re experiencing? The bully pushes and pushes and pushes. When you let him get away with it he does more. He says, “Look what this pussy will let me get away with.” And then when you start to push back they go “Wow, look how he’s acting can you even believe he’s totally unhinged.” That gaslighting. Like you’re saying, we call that shit out, like “Fuck you, you can’t turn that shit around on us.”
AD: That’s right.
John Grant: You know what you’ve done. And it’s fucking bullshit.
AD: Absolutely. I feel like I want to state at this point. This is one of my favorite things about this record, and your discography in its whole. We’re talking about the scarring and some of the pain, and we’re talking about these things that are woven into the fabric of the music and the lyrics. But also your records are so vibrant and joyful and expressive. On this record I hear traces of DEVO, I hear ABBA, I hear beautiful electronic stuff. And it’s so exciting to listen to. And your voice sounds amazing and it’s this lush thing. So I guess what I mean to say, or what I would like to get at—it’s funny too, your music’s really funny too. When you’re in the process of making stuff do you think of it almost in terms of balance? You mention the happiness and optimism you have and I think that that’s part of the record as well. Do you think that some of that comes from the music in a way that maybe the lyrics just wouldn’t be able to get at? And what’s that relationship like?
John Grant: That’s a really beautiful way to ask that question. It is sort of a tightrope walk. I want to express at the same time the great pain of the human condition, because even the people who have victimized or attacked and bullied, this is hard for me to say sometimes, have their own stories too and were made the way they were through what they’ve been through and everything else. The difference is the other people—the problem is they’re the ones going out into the world and attacking so that finally you’re like, “Wait a minute either I have to stand up for myself or commit suicide and i’m not gonna commit suicide” because I can’t imagine what that would do to the people who care about me.
And there’s just so much. The beauty of existence is overwhelming as well. The vastness of music, culture, and nature, and even technology and, you know I’m a big synth nerd, and I love Blade Runner. I mean that was probably the ultimate expression of my love for science fiction, seeing Blade Runner. So I do know that there’s intense incredible joy in the world and I feel that. I love humor and laughing has always been extremely important to me. So those are all aspects of me, and I want all of those to be represented in the music. And I also don’t think that what is considered to be the dark material can necessarily be categorized as negative because pretty much everybody’s got it whether they’re aware of it or not. Some of us are forced to be much more aware of things than others. And so I think it’s all valid. I want to be able to say this sucks and this is bullshit. If you’re struggling with suicidal ideation, you should be talking about it. Because it’s all part of the human condition and it’s all valid. I guess what i’m trying to say is that’s what everyday life is like. You never just get HIV or whatever this difficult thing you’re dealing with, it’s all mixed up. There’s beautiful music and lots of assholes and lots of incredible wonderful people as well and lots of beautiful moments of getting tangled up in chords. And dropping your phone and traffic and noises and shit coming from all sides all day long and I want all of that to be present in the music.
AD: Yeah the grotesque, the sublime. There are songs on the record, I’m thinking of “Mike and Julie,” where it’s just this, it feels like you’re just dropped into this moment of you being a young person and having a sense of this vastness of the world and this complexity of the world but probably not even having the language with which to address that. And that’s such an important and scary part of being a young person in the world. That you get a sense of that vastness you’re talking about long before you’re given the language to sort of reckon with it. Before you even know what to name it. The record gets into that to me. It feels like it has a sense of that in there. The possibility and the potential and I guess that ties back to the future thing.
John Grant: I totally agree.
AD: It feels like an optimistic record to me in that way.
John Grant: I see all of my records as optimistic because it’s about showing up. Continuing to show up despite however you may be feeling. Because there is incredible shit in store for you. Yes it does get better but it also gets harder. It continues to get harder.
AD: Yeah absolutely. I just finished the biography of Ram Dass. And by the end of that book, he suffered a really bad stroke and a lot of his facilities were taken from him and some of the most painful writing in the book is at the end where he’s also talking about access to this immense sense of peace that he’s found. And the two things aren’t happening at different times, they’re happening at the same time. And that’s the human thing. I read in the biography of this record that Cate suggested you read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. When was that?
John Grant: She gave me that a few years ago, way before we started working on this record. She said she was gonna kick my ass if I didn’t read the book because “It’s incredible and you’re gonna love it.” I already knew that Kurt Vonnegut, I mean he’s a master of what we’re talking about. The nasty truth together with the beauty of everything. Absolutely life affirming and lifting and hilarious and devastating and heartbreaking and so, I did my homework like Cate told me to and it is a masterpiece. He’s written a lot of them. Gosh there’s so much incredibly good stuff out there.
AD: When I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher…we had a short story anthology and there was a Vonnegut [story included], “Harrison Bergeron,” and I wrote an essay about it or something like that. And this teacher, I’ll be forever thankful, because I was not a sheltered kid but I was coming from where I was coming from. And he was like “You need to read Slaughterhouse-Five.” And I read it as a freshman in high school. And it did change my life. I don’t want to sound goofy but…
John Grant: I mean it’s true, he’s one of those writers who changes your life.
AD: Well it’s because it’s what you’re talking about. And I grew up in a very religious culture as well, and I think that when you grow up in a religious culture you recognize prophets. And a prophet is a critic. It’s somebody who can talk about the bombing of Dresden and the pure inhuman cruelty inflicted on humans by other humans and also write about the transcendence of existence, and that to me is what a prophet is. So I can’t help but hear your music through that lens as well.
John Grant: That’s a beautiful compliment which I humbly am delighted by. [Laughs]
AD: When you were a kid growing up in church did you recognize that you had a remarkable voice? Singing in church?
John Grant: Definitely not.
AD: Did you sing to yourself?
John Grant: I mean I sang. I was considered to have a decent voice. There was a moment in my senior year of high school, and I’ll probably have to express this in a song at some point, but it was a scene. I mean it happened, but the scene was like, I all the sudden became so conscious of myself that I was paralyzed and could no longer be myself around people I could always be myself in front of and who I had always felt safe and totally comfortable in front of. All the sudden it was like my skin was invisible, like my skin was completely transparent, and each set of eyes on me was like a physical pain I could feel, bearing into me. And that happened in one single moment in my senior year in high school. It had been building up to that and building up to that and all the sudden I realized that everything changed. And I couldn’t, I was totally paralyzed. I couldn’t act, I was in an acting class and I was trying out for a scene, I was trying out for a play, and I had always been one of the kids that was considered to be a good actor. And the teacher was very encouraging to me, I talked to her recently, she’s still one of my favorite people. And that was 30 years ago. And it’s interesting to hear her talk about what that time was like through her eyes. But it was just a terrifying horrifying moment. I don’t know if you’ve seen Hereditary?
AD: I have.
John Grant: But it was like some of those scenes you see Toni Collette going through. I mean totally different subjects, but I keep going back to that movie over and over again because I think it’s so incredible. But there are these moments where you see realizations, horrifying realizations, come across her face. And that’s what that moment was like for me. And it was sort of like having your spine broken in half. Why did we get on that? What question was I answering?
AD: I think I was asking about, when did you recognize you had a voice?
John Grant: Oh, yeah. So my point in telling you that whole thing was that when I was young I was hopeful and very open and very gregarious and unafraid and then I had this moment when I was still very young, 16 or 17, where I was broken in half and my voice was almost inaudible from that point. And I never had the guts to really sing the way I knew I could, even in the theater, because I hadn’t found my voice yet. There’s a way of projecting, there’s a confidence you almost have to have to even understand you can project your voice. And I totally lacked that because I didn’t believe I would be accepted. Becoming what I knew I could and would become. I didn’t think there was any way I would be taken seriously in that role because it would force me into a position of being vulnerable.
And then the questions would be even more harsh. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend? Why aren’t you developing, why aren’t you as manly?” Because when you’re a late bloomer people assume you’re genetically defective. Say you don’t have a strong beard growth. All of that ties into the fact that you may also happen to be a homosexual as well. Back then it was all tied together. It was like, this is part of why you’re a homosexual, because it’s a genetic psychological defect. You’re not a man. So it was so complicated, it was so layered. And sometimes I feel ashamed, or even being on a show like this, when I see all these gay men out there, it’s wonderful, who have such confidence and who, from a very young age, have not questioned. It’s an incredible thing to see but it makes me, sometimes I even feel resentful towards them because it makes me feel, I should just be overjoyed that they feel that way, but there are times when I feel, “Why the fuck can’t I be that way? Why couldn’t I be that way back then?” And you can’t really do that. You can’t compare yourself like that. But you do.
AD: Well I mean you can’t help but do it. That’s the thing that sucks so much. I think about how you are just maybe perhaps one of the most open and honest [people I’ve had on the show]. And you don’t seem to hold back now and I’m sure that in the process of writing this record, where you were examining a time in your youth where that was not who you were, there must have been some sort of confrontation—not confrontation, but almost a speaking to your younger self. Do you think back about that time? When you think back about that time, this is the thing that happens for me for sure, are you able to almost re-inhabit those moments pretty easily?
John Grant: Oh yeah I mean a lot of them are a lot of them are just like it happened yesterday, but I will say that “Mike and Julie” was…you know, what happened that weekend in Oklahoma, out in the middle of the countryside, I had forgotten all the details about that weekend. I had forgotten who was there. It came back to me because that song is basically about, Mike and Julie, but it’s also about Mike, the first the first man that I was really sexually active with and also who I was very in love with and he was in love with me. He was very vocal about it and I was so ashamed and so terrified of what was happening that I literally was never able to say a single word to him about it.
I wasn’t able to accept his love and when he wrote me the letter that said, you know, “I don’t think we’re sick, I don’t think we’re what they’re saying we are. I think we’re OK, and I love you and I want us to be together,” and for me, I mean I couldn’t even look at it, you know, I couldn’t deal with it. And so you know, thinking back on that, that’s a pretty painful memory. And then there was this weekend, you know, there’s so many there’s so many different things going on inside of you and part of it was also like, “Wait a minute I haven’t come out yet, like even I don’t even wanna be told by another gay man who I am before I tell him who I am.” So there was so many different levels of shit going on there, but I think it makes you understand how nuanced you know, like when I hear people like people are forcing people out of the closet, I just I don’t like that at all, I really don’t like that at all I really really feel like it’s a very very delicate personal issue, I mean it’s almost not even an issue anymore these days is it.
AD: I mean it still exists.
JG: And there’s a lot of other conversations going on that are being addressed but this does still exist especially, you know like maybe in the film community and maybe in the music community when you’re having an image built for you that’s supposed to project this type of thing and that you know when people get used to the money that you’re raking in because of this specific image they’ve built for you, I’m sure we can think of a whole list of actors that could fall into this category possibly but, I don’t think it’s good I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s fair for people to to decide who should be able to handle that, I mean it’s it’s grotesque even, it’s really arrogant to fucking do that I think.
I mean, when it comes to like pastors who are preaching from the pulpit you know that you’re going to hell, and fucking young boys behind the scenes, obviously there are exceptions. But yeah someone who’s dragging the gay community through the dirt while themselves, totally closeted and just playing both sides of the fence and stuff, I get that. It’s such a delicate issue you know. Mike and Julie was like that, you know, like I said a lot of things were like they happened yesterday, and Mike and Julie was like something that I had to slowly sort of remember, and I even had I ended up talking to Julie after 30 years since I’ve talked to her or seen her, because I sent her the song. In the interaction that I had with Mike in the meantime was quite sad, it was back in the early ‘90s, I was working at my favorite art house theater in Denver called the Mayan, which is still one of the most beautiful landmarks in the world and pieces of architecture, and I was selling popcorn at the concession stand there, you know, just working, and you know how you’ve got this long line in front of you before movie because it’s just crazy before the next showing.
The customer I just finished serving walks away and then right in front of me is standing Mike, and I haven’t seen him since that weekend and nothing was said, I mean he just ordered what he wanted and paid and walked away. I feel like I saw that he knew who I was you know and I guess I can’t see with 100% certainty that I knew who I was because I probably look quite a bit different at that point I had a beard and I had some cap on and maybe he didn’t know who I was, but I knew immediately who he was, but it was a sad moment because he just walked off and I just thought about everything that had happened and I never saw them again after that or had any contact with him.
AD: Yeah, you talked about in the biography that this was a difficult record to make, was that difficult to go back and re-examine those feelings, or was the difficulty maybe more in other areas?
John Grant: I mean I would say it was heavy because what was going on in the world was heavy and you know processing all of the stuff at the same time that all the stuff is going on, even though I was trying to close myself off, and you know Cate and Samur were going through their own personal things, trying to deal with how quickly the world is changing, so there were a lot of reasons why it was difficult. I mean every album is difficult, because it’s simply a difficult process, you know? It’s just sort of like a tiny little microcosm of life, you know, incredible joy and incredible fun and lots of laughing, and then there’s also you know the heaviness of dealing with these raw moments, and the difficulty of distilling these things down to their essential elements to fit them into a song and try and express them through the music and the lyrics the vibe of what you’re trying to get across, and if you’re going to do it the right way you sort of have to sit with it. Well yeah, it’s just it’s just logical isn’t it? When it’s right you know. You know when you haven’t got it yet and you know when it’s right, and I have to say it came quite easily but you know, being ready for it and being able to process it when it came was a little bit of a different story I guess.
AD: Yeah, speaking of heaviness, “The Only Baby” is a very heavy song…
John Grant: ….and there’s a lot of humor packed in there too.
AD: Yeah of course! And the video gets to that in a weird way, I had already used the term grotesque when we were talking about this, but there’s an invocation of the grotesque in that video, and in the song, because there was a feeling maybe, I don’t know if it’s gone away from people, that 2016 to 2020 Donald Trump era, that was sort of of an aberration. Like a hiccup in an otherwise functioning system. But now that is gone everything is OK. So when I listen to the song, the refrain at the end, “That’s the only baby that bitch could have,” it’s to me, it feels like we’re talking about the idea that it’s not an aberration, it’s the logical conclusion of a culture that worships a god that is money or commerce, and we could get into all the ins-and-outs of, you know, “People do want to to work, and they do want to make things, and they do want that purpose that a sort of industry provides,” but at the same time it’s a balancing act.
JG: We haven’t juggled these things very well at all.
AD: No and as somebody who grew up in a religious culture, I think you tend to zero in on that idea that maybe…there’s a great song on the last Blake Mills’ record called “Money Is The One True God” and you know, I think there’s some truth to that. Were you reflecting on the fact that this was a logical sort of point to some degree or another you know, but that this is where we’re headed?
John Grant: It’s where we were always headed because it didn’t start out well, you know. People say well, “That wasn’t us” and, “You can’t live in the past, things are fine now, we’re not doing that now” but you know if you build a foundation on that, and you’re building a bunch of shopping malls over graveyards you know, how can it possibly end well?
AD: That’s one of the quintessential horror stories right, is the burial ground under whatever. It feels like in a weird way, that’s what the Trump era was, like an apocalypse in the real sense of the word, like a revealing. The facade got shredded entirely, and it was always pretty flimsy to begin with.
John Grant: Yeah, I think we have to be critical of who we are and where we come from, and not in my life am I gonna have this flag worshiping, because there’s people living all over the world you know I’m in there’s people all over the place, and you know I think what we’ve done is particularly bad, because we’ve said this is the model for the rest of the world and we have screamed that at the top of our lungs. I would just fucking love to disappear back into the ‘80s and spend the rest of my life at an arcade in the mall and have Orange Julius every day and hot dogs and shit, you know, I loved that when I was a kid, I did. I’m a part of it, I am a product of the system, and I am observing partly what I have become, and you know the rude awakening of realizing what you’ve become as a result of not taking a good hard look at where you are and where you’ve been. It’s not living in the past, it’s like if you don’t fucking know where you came from when you don’t have a future.
AD: Absolutely yeah and you and you’ve been very open about the struggles that you’ve had in your life, you know, certainly there’s a direct connection between the sort of self-destructive urges you know. Does that sort of emerge out of that unexamined starting point?
John Grant: Yeah, because basically you’re just internalizing what happened to you and then you wheeled the axe against yourself, you know like I talked about, and that is the thought that is wrapped up in the DQ comment in the song “Just So You Know.” “Just so you know, I always knew that you loved me and sometimes I still get my DQ on,” and no I’m not talking about Dairy Queen, I’m talking about Don Quixote, who’s battling these windmills, which is a metaphor for projecting what happened to you onto the present, because you haven’t been able to process it and you have become the one who is wielding the weapon against yourself, you know brandishing that hatred against yourself now, and I am no exception.
AD: That’s such a scary thing to think about too, that you’ve internalized these things and that you are the one punishing yourself now, those who punished you don’t have the power over you that they used to have, but you have built a version of them you version of them in your head. But the fact that you’re making this art that strips that further back and also turns it into something that like I said, feels so joyful, and so life-affirming is…
John Grant: You know because it’s gonna end in death anyways, it was always going to end in death, and that the truth is, that life is hard, and it’s hard for everybody, and there is a silver lining, and the silver lining is that you can be awake, and you know my joy comes from—I mean shit, it’s the stuff that our parents and our grandparents were telling us we were kids, you know, when they look at you and they shake their head and say “you don’t know” and it’s like at some point a little boy has to wake up and realize that me sitting here for example talking to you, thinking about—yes I know it sounds corny, but it’s also quite miraculous— thinking about all of the processes that are taking place for me to be able to sit the way that I want to sit, and voice myself to you, and look at you and see you with my eyes, and hear the sound and see the colors.
I mean it’s truly incredible and packed into my music as well is also the idea of taking everything for granted, because you’re because you’re self-absorbed by trying to dig your way out of this hole, and all of that is happening, like you said, at the same time. In the end as we talked about before, you are responsible for yourself and yes, we go through horrible things in our childhoods, but it’s just logical that nobody can get out of it but you, nobody can learn how to live but you, nobody can do it for you, so you do have to go out there and show up anyway, you know and you have to not quit because maybe you have to move, maybe it’s right in your backyard, maybe you have to go across the ocean but you know, your place is definitely there.
AD: It’s up to you to to find it, but also I think probably to create it
JG: Exactly, to use the word that I really hate from the ‘80s “proactive,” you have to take the initiative and continue to show up while trying to be cognizant of the fact every day that is you know that there is great beauty and great incredible shit happening all the time, but I still want to talk about all of the stuff that’s happening because every day life, that’s what it’s like right, it’s all happening at the same time.
AD: Yeah, it’s all at once, and that’s what makes it unfathomable, but also, if it wasn’t, what would we do? I wonder if you are still working on a biography?
John Grant: I am, sort of, you know when they wanted me to write it right away, which was years ago, and I just feel like I’m still right in the middle of the process of everything, you know.
AD: Do you mean in the process of the story that would be the book?
John Grant: Yeah I really feel like I’m still in the middle of the process it’s not like I got a career in music, if anything you know that the whirlwind of the music industry and just traveling all the time sort of keeps you from being able to process process things, and so that’s another thing about this record, was that I had the time to actually let it happen the way that it needed to happen. It’s actually come out fully formed you know.
AD: Does it feel different than the other records in that way?
John Grant: Yeah, my third solo record was sort of like there was a touring schedule before I even started recording.
AD: Yes that’s heavy. That hangs over you.
John Grant: It was sort of horrifying for me because I just had two really great albums behind me that I was really proud of, but I look back at that record and I think you can recognize me quite clearly through all those lyrics on that record, and I’m actually really proud of it but it was probably the most difficult one out of all of them.
AD: Yeah, that’s interesting because obviously what you’re talking about on this record is also difficult, but I’m glad that there was a sense of maybe ease? Or just time for it to happen.
John Grant: I don’t know, maybe everything is exactly the way it should be, who knows? You know like with every record. I definitely felt like I could take my time, to some extent. I mean there’s always somebody in your ear going “money, you’re not earning money, you’re spending money.”
AD: How about the part of you that tells you, you’ve already alluded to it a little bit, but when you know it’s right, are there times where it’s harder to get to that point because you don’t have sort of an end time in mind? Does the deadline aspect feel for you like it can be beneficial?
Joh Grant: Absolutely and I think there’s always a time when that needs to really come into play, because you know, there is a time when you need to stop and you know and it is done, and if somebody’s not there saying “stop,” then you might just never finish you know? I mean I really don’t like having a tour planned before I go into the studio, that’s not good, but you also don’t wanna have endless time either, you need structure. Cate was very good at helping me focus because I’m a bit of a child you know, who is easily distracted.
AD: So she was at least helpful in terms of pointing you in the directions that you felt like you needed to go?
John Grant: Well yeah or just saying, “You started going in this direction and we know it’s the right one, so keep going,” or “come back to that.” I’ll just go off on tangents talking all afternoon because I love to have great conversations and so do other people, but you’re trying to do something else, so it’s good to have somebody’s presence you know, you’ve got other people to think about too, there are people who have come to this country to work with you and you’re here to do a job, and when nobody else is around you can just quit and lay on the sofa and read and play video games if you want to, no one can stop you. But when you’ve got some structure that’s something that I really benefit from too.
AD: Well this record to me feels like such a great statement, and like I said, it’s a deeply enjoyable listen and it feels like a great statement about what makes survival worth it…
John Grant: What makes it worth it to just keep showing up in spite of the knowledge that it is going to continue to get harder and you get harder and harder lessons as you know as you go along, and you’re ready for them. But you become much more adept at navigating the landscape, and you gain wisdom, and one of the beautiful things about going through some of the things that I’ve been through is that you develop compassion for other people’s situations and just other people in general.