The first time I heard John Grant’s music, he was performing his opening number at the 2014 Mona Foma festival in Hobart. Tall and serious, he wore a handsome beard and was dressed in black. Fronting a band of similarly hirsute, dapper men, he stepped to the mic and sang over a slow electronic groove:
Remember walking hand in hand side by side?
We walked the dogs and took long strolls to the park
Except we never had dogs
And never went to the park.
Remember how we used to fuck all night long?
Neither do I because I always passed out.
I needed lots of the booze
To handle the pain
The song is You Don’t Have To, a highlight of Grant’s 2013 album Pale Green Ghosts. It’s also an apt keyhole into Grant’s musical universe, which brims with black humour, scathing personal critique and honesty so brutal you might mistake it for parody.
“That’s one of my favourites,” says Grant over the phone from his adopted home in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he’s been based since 2013. “When I sing ‘We used to fuck all night long’, it’s not to shock, it’s to use the word ‘fuck’ instead of saying ‘we used to make love’. Because none of it had anything to do with intimacy at all. We didn’t ever make love, we just used each other with specific goals in mind that didn’t have anything to do with an intimate connection. That song is so honest because we have this revisionism when we think about relationships, we look back on things and we distort them. And when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’.”
Grant’s predilection for revisionism is tethered to his past. He was born in Michigan, but grew up in Denver, Colorado. Grant was ostracised in school and at home because he is gay. It sent him down a path of self-destruction – booze, drugs and casual sex – that caught up with him when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2011, at the age of 42.
It hit hard at the time, but true to form for the singer, it remains fodder for the creative mill. On the opening track to his new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Grant laments not the disease, but its station in severity: And there are children who have cancer /and so all bets are off / ‘cause I can't compete with that
His hand-wringing is hilarious, but it’s also a way of coping.
“I like to distort things, glorify them or think they were worse than they were for the sake of drama,” says Grant. “Maybe it’s a way of deflating and deactivating those defence mechanisms. That escape from reality, to deactivate that denial.”
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is Grant’s third album, and is, in his words, “sort of a piss-take on what it means to have a midlife crisis”. The title is literal. According to Grant, “grey tickles” comes from an Icelandic translation of “mid-life crisis”, and “black pressure” is Turkish for nightmare. Grant says he often jokes about feeling like he’s been having a midlife crisis since he was born. You can see it in the album’s cover art and promo photos, too – a handsome Grant wearing a polo shirt, drenched in blood, holding a croquet mallet.
“That is a symbol of the rage I’ve felt from years of being treated like a second-class citizen,” he says referring to the homophobia he experienced growing up. “People [thought] I deserved to be treated like an inferior human being, so I definitely still feel a lot of rage. When I see people calling others ‘niggers’ or ‘faggots’ or something, it makes me want to go out with a croquet mallet and bash their heads in. Because I don’t understand that way of going out into the world. It makes me furious.”
His songs, fortunately, are his outlet. He agrees his latest album is his most playful, though it still brims with rage. “I suppose the theme of it is perspective,” he says. “Why does a mid-life crisis take place? Because one lacks perspective. But having gotten a lot of perspective about who I am over the last six or seven years, I have made a big leap forward in terms of working through my most difficult issues. And that frees me up, because then you can turn out towards the world.
“I think we should talk about the entire human experience,” he says. “I think a lot of people out in the world being outrageous or awful are reacting to the world constantly telling them what feelings it’s okay or not okay to have. There’s so much absurdity, mixed in with conditioning and etiquette and political correctness, it keeps people from having real conversations. I don’t want to have any part of that in my lyrics. I want to talk about the way things are without worrying about whether it’s good or bad.”
Grant’s knack for excoriating lyrical content is one of his great gifts, and it runs through the new album deliciously. Even on your worst day, I hate no one less than you he croons on the electronic mince of Voodoo Doll, while on the fuzzy You & Him he teams up with Amanda Palmer to spit, You and Hitler ‘oughta get together / you ‘oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters.
On past albums those sentiments are less couched in grand orchestral arrangements than wiry, fun, synth-funk. The perspective has changed. Part of which is due to Grant now being in a stable relationship with an Icelandic native. Does he miss being irresponsible?
“Sometimes, yeah,” he says. “Sometimes I miss having sex high on cocaine. But what I have in its place is something much more lasting and deeper. So I don’t feel like I had to give anything up, and I gained quite a bit more. It’s a very good, nurturing, respectful, healthy relationship. [My partner] has a lot more of a close-knit family than I do, so it makes a lot of sense to be here. It’s good for me.”
Despite feeling comfortable in Iceland, Grant still feels keenly American – a “product of consumerist society”. But for a man who found solace in escaping his own culture, as well as having an intense fascination with other languages (he currently speaks five), Iceland is sanctuary. The combination of landscape, climate and language were the lures, but it was also timing.
“I didn’t have a mortgage, or a car or dog or partner or anything to keep me from moving here,” he says. “I could imagine living in lots of different places but this has been a good fit for me. I always say, ‘All you’re doing is selecting a different backdrop for your bullshit wherever you go’.”
It sounds angry but he’s laughing.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is out now.
John Grant plays:
Meredith Music Festival March 12
The Forum, Melbourne March 13
Botanic Park, Adelaide March 14
The Metro, Sydney March 16