When John Grant entered the studio to record his new album, Boy from Michigan, the US presidential election was in full swing. Even in his adopted home Iceland, the media covered Trump 24/7, so for the American singer-songwriter the politics of the day were personal. A reminder of his own hinterland in America’s Rust Belt.
I thought about what was going on very intensely, because most of my family was on the other side, ”he said. Independent Sunday, that is to say on the Republican side. “I love these people, they are part of my soul – so I felt personally betrayed.
“One of my brothers said they [political parties] all the same and I just thought, ‘No, this is an abandonment of all decency. You tricked people into putting swastikas on their Bibles. So I mean … are you kidding me? It’s just a whole different ball of wax.
Talking to Grant is a bit like listening to him sing. There are outbursts of pain and longing, little moments of self-mockery – he compares himself to a character in a Woody Allen movie inviting a host of therapists into his home – and hilarious smut. At one point, he mentions that he feels like sailing “right now”.
In her soft American accent, there is even a hint of the beauty of the burnt sugar of her rich, sonorous voice. The new album is full of the biting Morrissey lyrics, peace of mind and sorry electronic textures it is known for.
It’s a love letter to his hometown in the American Midwest, he says, but also a memory of a time when he was, in many ways, an outcast.
“In some ways it was pretty idyllic,” he says of his childhood there. “I remember the smell of the earth after the beginning of the spring snowmelt, the apple farms, the mist coming from the lake.
“But there was also this very dark specter hovering over my head in the form of religion and sexuality – and in many ways I was at the bottom of the social totem pole.”
His parents were Orthodox Methodists. When he was 12, they moved with Grant and his sister from Michigan to Parker, Colorado, a wealthy conservative town. They made it clear that homosexuals “were going to hell”.
He was beaten after school, which caused him to get wet – but he couldn’t tell his parents as that would have involved explaining the reasons for the attack.
“I felt I deserved to be treated this way. When I have a really tough day, that’s what comes back to me. What I was told was that being gay would separate me from my creator and my family for eternity.
“Think about the enormity of absorbing this when I was a kid. That’s what pierced me, and it’s pretty extreme.”
He had a friend in the local church group and the friendship turned sexual.
Years later, Grant met the man in a movie theater.
“I was going through a period where I was trying to be more of what I thought I was masculine. When I saw him, it was only a brief moment – I was selling popcorn and soda – and there was something in his eyes that made me feel he recognized me.
“I was halfway out by then, but it was a very long and slow process for me to come to terms with myself.”
The new album also features a song, “The Cruise Room,” which is a tribute to his favorite Denver hangout, an Art Deco-era bar at the Oxford Hotel in the downtown area of the city.
“Denver has a bad reputation from me, because that’s where things went wrong in my life. But there are a lot of people there who are so important to me and a lot of places that I love.
“The Cruise Room was a place I went to several times in the late 1980s. I usually went with friends the day before I returned to school in Germany.
“I had a particular friend, whom I have known since 1987, and I met her there and I always played Patsy Cline on the jukebox. I had this thing that I wanted to get out into the world and learn different languages and absorb all these cultures, but I was also heartbroken to leave.
In Germany, Grant’s language skills improved, but his mental health deteriorated.
“I was struggling with a severe anxiety disorder at the time. This is the reason why I left school in Germany. I couldn’t function.
He returned to Colorado and founded a group, The Czars, which was adored by critics but mostly ignored by the public and which quickly broke up. Her mother was also terminally ill during this time. In a song about the time, he sang, “How I loved the distraction / She just escaped.”
“I really didn’t care about her at all,” he said. “I was getting drunk and trying to deal with my sexuality.
“She was at home dying on that chair and praying a lot that God would heal her. Talking about our relationship in any way was not allowed, because it was like, “You’re negative, you’re hindering her healing. “
“She was disappointed with me – because she felt I was giving up everything my parents had taught me. But I also knew that she loved me very deeply.
He worked as a flight attendant and translator in the mid-90s and it was a time of adventure: he was pretty libertine during that time. He says endless casual sex likely has its roots in the lack of acceptance he experienced as a child.
“There is also the really fundamental thing of wanting to experience intimacy with another human being, but I also think that wanting to be wanted and loved comes into play. But there is also an aspect of self. punishment.
“Trying to achieve intimacy through anonymous sex is impossible. You are throwing away the most precious part of yourself at the expense of having the real thing, and it’s so damaging.
After more than a decade away from music, he was brought back by the band Midlake, who had worked with The Czars and still believed in their talent. They produced his first solo album Queen of Denmark – which caused a word of mouth sensation in 2010 and was named Album of the Year by Mojo magazine.
Both him and the follow-up, Pale green ghosts, dealt with the aftermath of a relationship that devastated him.
“The relationship I write about in Queen of Denmark and Pale green ghosts was something I had been dealing with for years. And it wasn’t really about the person, I understood belatedly, it was about me dealing with something inside of myself.
“So I was facing this new success, I got used to it and I just learned to play. I was a very late bloomer. It was a very hectic time where I was out of my comfort zone 24/7. And it was sink or swim by then.
In many ways, he was the artist of the artist of this period – and other singers like Kylie Minogue and Tracey Thorn have claimed a duet with him.
Sinéad O’Connor is also a fan; she always opens her concerts with a cover of “Queen of Denmark” and provides the ghostly chorus on Grant’s brilliant and painful “It Doesn’t Matter to Him”.
“Singing with Sinéad was surreal for me, more than anything, but also simply joyful.
“I felt like there could be all kinds of bullshit in the house – and then I sing along with Sinéad, so how bad can that be?” I feel like 10 minutes ago I was just that boy on a dance floor completely in awe of that amazing voice she has.
“The fact that she counts me among her peers now is just amazing.”
Ten years ago, Grant was diagnosed with HIV. In 2012, he decided to reveal the diagnosis on stage in a preamble to his song ‘Ernest Borgnine’.
“The reason I decided at this last moment to talk about it publicly is because ‘Ernest Borgnine’ was a song about having it – so why shouldn’t I tell these people about it?”
“It was an act of rebellion on my part, because I thought I shouldn’t think about it too much. I shouldn’t be feeling that shame and embarrassment that people think I’m supposed to feel, saying something like that.
“It’s not a sensational fact. I am insignificant; there are millions of children who die each year in Africa from this disease; and so there really shouldn’t be any stigma attached to it.
Still, coming to terms with it has been a process.
“There’s always a shame in that, because it was something that was preventable for me – and I couldn’t stop my destructive sexual behavior to prevent it from happening.
“After I got sober from alcohol, I clung to my destructive behavior in this area – not realizing that was basically my main problem. I clung to it as a little treat for myself- even – like a pat on the back for giving up coke and alcohol.
He moved to Iceland ten years ago and learned the language (he also speaks Spanish, German, Russian and Swedish). He says he’s inspired by the “otherworldly” tundra around Reykjavik and the friendliness of the people.
But even in the peaceful lunar landscape, he must navigate his demons.
“I still face anger all the time. You bring all this baggage to the situation, but I have learned different techniques to deal with it on a daily basis. It’s understandable to feel that way, but it’s problematic as I judge myself extremely harshly for it.
“A lot of times, because of the things I have been through, I am in a state of PTSD. Sometimes I feel like I’m projecting things onto a situation that doesn’t really fit. I find it extremely difficult and I yell at myself and degrade myself for being a c ** t so stupid. Sometimes I wonder. I’m almost 53, what’s wrong with me? “
Part of the wonder of Grant’s music is listening to this injured bear calm down. At Pale green ghosts, he compared the pain with which he lives to a glacier, moving through it “carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes”.
And one of the wonders of her own inner landscape is painstakingly cultivated self-compassion.
“You never really get over some of the things that happen to you, but you can develop an understanding of yourself,” he says. “One of the ways I forgive myself as I look back is to tell myself that – whatever I did – I was acting quite normally under the circumstances.”
‘Boy from Michigan’ is now available on Bella Union