As singer John Grant’s painful past fuels his powerful autobiographical songs, his soul-searching work brings him closer to inner peace
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]iscover Iceland’s Greatest National Resource…Icelandic Glaciers. This gigantic eye catching advertisement swiftly whizzes by, covering the entire length of a double-sized Los Angeles Metro bus. I’m seated at a cozy corner table at the Ace Hotel restaurant looking out on downtown traffic at 9th and South Broadway, waiting for the arrival of the eclectic singer, John Grant, who lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, where surely he has come to know about glaciers. “Glacier” is one of his popular songs about John’s struggles growing up gay, and he was recently joined on-stage by Kylie Minogue [A&U, February 2013] for a duet of the song in tribute to the victims of the Orlando masscre.
The musician is widely famous in Europe, not—yet—all that visible in the U.S. Currently on a national tour, John has collaborated with Elton John, Sinead O’Connor, Hercules & Love Affair, Tracey Thorn, and Alison Goldfrapp. He’s been called a “diarist of the human condition,” as his narrative songs are deeply personal. One reviewer wrote about his live performance, “Leaves his audience awestruck and on its feet.”
His folksy electronic pop-rock poetic music and his honest-to-the-core velvety baritone voice landed him a Best International Male Solo Artist nomination at the 2014 BRITS. Several of his songs have been used in films and TV shows, including the HBO series, Looking. Last year he released his third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure (an Icelandic expression meaning “midlife crisis”), following his debut album, Queen of Denmark (2010), and Pale Green Ghosts (2013). His current album debuted at #5 on the U.K. charts. The songwriter is a bookworm (just finished the Madeline Kahn biography), a horror fan (loves all the Exorcist films), and enjoys the music of Donna Summer and Karen Carpenter, his first inspiration.
Moments later, a Brit, Matt, Grant’s tour manager of three years, appears and escorts me backstage to John’s dressing room.
Grant performs tonight at The Ace Theatre, a majestic Spanish gothic superstructure built in 1927 by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplain (originally known as the United Artists building). Several years ago the city talked about bulldozing the structure. What a pity it would’ve been to destroy such a sacred historical ornate relic. Pickford had it built as her own private screening room.
On entering John’s petite dressing room, there’s an immediate disarmingly magnetic quality about him, a warmth and softness that belies his ruggedly handsome bearlike appearance. He could be Zach Galifianakis’ brother. Though a stagehand is fussing about, along with his personal manager of many years, Fiona, Grant is serene. Matt introduces us and soon everyone departs. As he walks out the door, Matt tosses, “I’ll leave you guys to it.”
The musician is clad in dark blue jeans, a black T-shirt with a graphic of the Tokyo subway map, and a black knit hat that sports a small logo, Lucky Records Reykjavik. I quickly learn that the man doesn’t harbor secrets and is refreshingly raw.
Flipping through pages of an A&U issue I brought, John makes several comments until he stumbles on an article about Anjelica Huston. “Class act…,” he notes thoughtfully. “She has an interesting background, doesn’t she? I didn’t realize she was raised in Ireland. It’s on my radar to read her memoir.” He quickly scans over the story and repeats a byline, “No shame about being HIV positive…” He mulls it over a moment then slightly bristles.
“When I hear people telling me that I’ve gotten that disease because I’m a pervert who’s going to hell, I respond, ‘Oh, so my mother had Christian lung cancer?’ [His mother died of the illness in 1995.] There’s some serious non-loving going on there,” John points out, irritated by the obvious hypocritical flaw. “Ridiculous. Yeh, so what’s your fucking excuse [why you have a disease]?!” He clears his throat. “I’m just so surprised the way people act in this country,” he groans in somber disappointment, correcting himself, “Of course, it’s everywhere. Don’t get me started on Russia.”
I mention the homophobia on the island of Jamaica and Grant responds, “[Sometimes I feel like] I’m never going to be welcomed or considered a human being [there]. [But] I recently saw Gully Queens [Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens on Viceland channel] about Jamaican homeless LGBTI youths. They blow my mind. The circumstances that people are thriving in and they find their way. They’re taking care of each other,” he avers, sitting on the edge of an Old World Luther-style crescent platform chair, with leather seat and back, enhancing his Viking appearance. His elbows are planted firmly on the chair’s arms, while his hands are folded in front of him. He maintains this defensive position most of the time.
[quote_center]I suffer from PTSD, due to the hatred and abuse I took for twenty years. I was rejected from outside the home and from inside the home. It left me crippled, battling addictions because the need to escape was so big[/quote_center]“I suffer from PTSD, due to the hatred and abuse I took for twenty years. I was rejected from outside the home and from inside the home. It left me crippled, battling addictions because the need to escape was so big.” He pauses. “I’m so ashamed sometimes, because I look at these kids, and in places like Russia and Jamaica, and they are thriving. But maybe they don’t have someone at home telling them they’re going to hell,” he says, “I don’t know….”
“I don’t want to be any different than I am, but I certainly don’t….” John doesn’t finish his thought and mumbles a few inaudible words. “My brain resets every day. When I get up, I set about writing [out] my thought processes. I experience a constant knee-jerk reaction by projecting the past onto the present where a lot of these dangers no longer exist, but I react as though I’m still in it. It’s understandable,” he attests, crossing his feet at the ankles. “But it’s not something I feel particularly proud of.”
Though he is forty-eight (this month), the bullying John experienced in his childhood is as fresh as the snow in winter. Raised in Buchanan, Michigan, his fundamentalist family moved to Parker, Colorado, when he was twelve. Badgered by kids at school for being gay and his lack of supportive parents (“Homosexuality was not an option!” he blurts) made him feel like an alien. The negative jabs of others seared him and over time, and he developed a massive dose of toxic shame. This led to twenty years of self -destruction, wrestling with drugs (mostly cocaine), alcohol, and eventually sex. He suffered from agoraphobia, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression as well. John lauds therapy, Paxil, and Alcoholics Anonymous as lifesavers, navigating his way to a healthier self.
A stagehand fleetingly pops in looking for Fiona. “Haven’t seen her,” replies John.
Delicately stroking his beard, Grant reflects on his childhood. “I knew I was gay from a very early age. I wrote the song ‘Sigourney Weaver’ about being in middle school with the hyper-rich and coming from a small town in Michigan. There was all this disgust and hatred thrown at me from the perspective of class, which got mixed in with the hatred that was being directed towards me for being gay. Others had already figured out that I was gay even though I wasn’t able to have any sort of dialogue with myself,” he recalls. “I hadn’t expressed anything to anybody. There just seemed to be rejection no matter where I went: ‘What the fuck are you looking at, faggot?’ ‘I’m going to kill you, fucking faggot!’ ‘What are you fucking doing here you fucking faggot?’”
Grant’s chilling words cut close to the bone. His tone is fiery as though those hate-filled words were just uttered. At home he was constantly reminded that he must fit into the picture that his parents had of him, that it was not okay for him to be authentic. Try to imagine it for a second. You’re bound by the intolerant judgment of your peers and your family. Unfortunately, many of us can.
The only sexual advice his pious parents ever gave him was that masturbation was wrong, but it didn’t prevent John from experimenting. When he was six, he played around with a kid next door. One time the neighbor’s sister caught them. Later, the boy’s cousin approached John and fired, “I know what you guys are doing and I’ll ruin your life if you keep on.” It scared the hell out of Grant. (At fifteen, he had his first sexual experience with a boy he met at church.)
[quote_center]Being positive was one of the greatest things that happened to me. It caused me to get more serious about being in recovery, too[/quote_center].During his formative years, John just swallowed his true feelings and morphed into what others wanted him to be. He was riddled with stress and it climaxed during his senior year in high school.
But there was a silver lining, someone who believed in…him. His drama teacher confided, “You’re one of the people that I would encourage to act as a living, if you feel you want to do that.” Of course, his parents wouldn’t have any part of it, grousing, “No son of ours is going to get into a disgusting field like acting.” But John was a good actor.
He was good at auditioning as well. When the time came to audition before his fellow thespians, whom he’d known for several years, it should have been just routine. But this time it was disturbingly different. He tried out for the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland, which was going to be performed around elementary schools. “In that moment on stage, everything just came together…and changed. I couldn’t audition in front of these people who I knew for years, who loved me exactly the way I was,” he laments ruefully, removing his hat. “It was a horrrrifying experience!” He soothingly tugs on his beard and looks down. “I feel like I’ve spent every moment since then trying to get back to that unaffected child or young person. I’ve made progress, but it’s an ongoing battle.”
When he was twenty, John lived in Germany where he attended a conversion conference. Brainwashed in his youth, his parents voices echoed: “We still love you but this isn’t something that you choose. You’ve got to be healed.” His engineer father had once revealed to him that they knew he was different from the age of two. John’s invalidating mother once stung him when she confessed, “I’m disappointed in you.” At the conference, John met some “wonderful people,” and ended up sleeping with his roommate. He lets out a guffaw and adds deliciously, “And he was cute.”
Grant returned home to Colorado and in 1994 started a band, The Czars. Despite favorable reviews, they didn’t build an audience. The band broke up ten years later due to John’s unbearable behavior. He hit rock bottom.
It was a nurse that mended John’s life. He met her at Denver General Hospital where he was getting tested for STIs. She urged him to seek rehabilitation through AA. In 2004, John kicked alcohol and drugs. Freshly sober, he made a commitment to start over. He laid down roots in New York, where he lived for three years. While there, John worked as a flight attendant for a small airline (“The worst job I ever had!”), a clerk in a record store, a waiter, and a professional translator. He trained to be a Russian Medical Interpreter at New York University School for Continuing and Professional Studies, and then was hired by a hospital to translate between doctor and patient. (“That was an amazing, amazing job,” he emphasizes solidly.) On the downside, he also began replacing his former addictive substances with sex—a lot of sex.
Several years later, John received a text from a former one-night stand admitting to him that he had just been diagnosed HIV-positive. “I was in shock,” declares John, who was on a press junket in Stockholm. “This guy was actually a journalist who came to interview me while I was in London. There was this crazy sexual thing going on between us during the interview.” Due to a tech rehearsal, the interview was interrupted, and on a later date, they reunited in Den Haag, Netherlands, and completed the interview.
“I put myself in this situation,” concedes Grant. “I had the choice to put on a condom. I knew what I was doing.” He cracks a faint smile. “I was not taking drugs and alcohol but I was still engaging in destructive behavior. Changing my attitude toward sex seemed like such an insurmountable task that I just decided, ‘Well I’ll just give into it and do whatever the fuck I want,’” he says. “You can’t pick and choose which destructive behaviors you’re going to keep, you have to go all the way.”
Grant credits being diagnosed as a “gift,” as it empowered him to take responsibility for his life. “For once in my life, I took control,” the poet-singer recounts with pride. “Being positive was one of the greatest things that happened to me. It caused me to get more serious about being in recovery, too.”
To ease the anxiety over his diagnosis, John wrote a song, which is how he copes with pressing issues. “Ernest Borgnine” was created.
Got off of the hooch and the crack and skipped the smack down—
But then you had to find yourself a lower low.
Doc ain’t lookin’ at me; says I got the disease.
Now what did you expect? You spent your life on your knees.
The repeated phrase in the chorus explains where the idea came from: I wonder what Ernie Borgnine would do. “He was a favorite actor of mine and I’d ask, ‘What would this film hero do in a situation like mine?’” John was mesmerized by Borgnine’s performances. “I always saw him in these disaster flicks, really liked his face, and thought he was a great actor,” he opines. “He’s just sort of one of the fixtures of the seventies for me, and that era is one of the greatest things that ever happened, besides the eighties, which I think were even better!” the songwriter exclaims with overwhelming enthusiasm. “I really am stuck in the seventies and the eighties.” (When asked to describe his music Grant answers, “It’s a mixture of the seventies and the eighties.”)
The artist ponders pensively. There’s stillness. “I used food, I used money, I used sex—all for escape,” announces John. “For decades I’ve used everything for the wrong reasons.” He takes a deep breath and let’s out a hearty sigh. “Ya know, it’s a horrifying place to be self-aware and none of those toys to play with anymore that helped you forget.”
Though John relentlessly confesses in self-disparaging words, with insightful humor, his next move in life was bold and gutsy. With his trademark frankness, in 2012 at a live performance at the Meltdown Festival in London, he came out publicly about his status.
[quote_center]I felt shame for being HIV-positive, but I thought, why not?! I knew it was time for me to own this.[/quote_center]He wasn’t sure he’d do it and even when John walked out on stage, he wasn’t definite. He hadn’t even told his family. “I felt shame for being HIV-positive, but I thought, why not?! I knew it was time for me to own this. I realized that I was not the only one who was going through this. So I guess I came clean to help others. It was really about doing it for them.” After confessing, John sang “Ernest Borgnine” to a stunned crowd.
Someone lightly raps on the door. John answers, “Come in.” A fellow enters saying, “Excuse me.” John pronounces, “This is my incredible keyboardist.” Chris extends his hand and we shake. He grabs something from the table and walks out. There’s an obvious affection between the two.
Living with HIV for John has been a challenge. “There’s been weirdness going on since I’ve started taking the drugs,” he specifies, currently taking Truvada and raltegravir and the virus is undetectable. “Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, it takes me time to focus. It’s like everything is a moving mosaic made up of tiny little tiles moving very slowly. I have nightmares and vivid dreams too. You know, you hear all about these kinds of things [when you’re infected].”
Grant maintains sobriety by the using the foundation he’s laid down for himself and by using the support of the 12-step program. “It…is…tough,” admits John, gradually and gently. “Anything that smacks of my upbringing, especially God-talk, is very difficult for me to stomach. It’s so deeply ingrained in me,” he says. “It’s very hard to conceive of believing in anything, even though I feel like I do. But on the surface, I wonder to what extent I’m capable of actually believing in something on my own, which isn’t connected to programming that I received.” For an instant, John sits back, presses his forefinger to his mouth, as if he’s shushing someone, looks upward, then returns to his usual position of leaning forward. “I do experience incredible things in these programs, and I’ve met incredible people who are there for you consistently and are not judgmental. I’ve learned anytime that I see shit that I don’t like, I move on.”
Therapy helps as well. He’s had plenty of it on an irregular basis. Before his national tour, he had a session with a new therapist in Iceland. “It seems promising,” he boasts. In their first session, the therapist asked, ‘Why do you think you’re here? Your sponsor called me and as a favor to him I’m seeing you, even though I’m not accepting new patients right now.’ “I told him my story and he said, ‘Ahh, let’s get you signed up for another appointment, shall we?’” John is amused. We laugh.
Iceland is therapeutic for John too. “I feel safe here,” he remarks. John first visited Iceland in 2011 to attend the Iceland Airwaves Festival. Soon after, he moved there, captivated by the country’s beauty. Though he’s fluent in German, Russian, and Spanish, he hasn’t quite tackled Icelandic completely. “I’m making great progress in Icelandic,” he insists, “but I’m not fluent. It’s a very hard language. There are one hundred and twenty forms for every adjective and sixteen forms for every noun—and that’s the good news!” He chuckles.
Of many things Grant likes about Iceland, one is his Icelandic boyfriend, a graphic designer. He doesn’t want to mention his name, as he honors his beau’s wishes to remain private. They’ve been dating for nearly three years. When time permits, his partner will cozy up with him while John’s on tour. They recently returned from a trip to Japan. “He’s quite something…,” he coos.
Mystery is not a high priority for upfront, straightforward John. On their second date, John revealed his HIV status. “I didn’t want anything to develop between us, and then lose it.” Afterwards, his beau went home, researched it, and returned, saying, “Hmmm…I can deal with that!”
Their relationship is developing, Grant says. He’s content with their connection, which is a barometer of the progress he’s made in intimacy. “Being close to someone was never a possibility for me before,” John divulges. “It isn’t possible if you don’t have access to yourself. You just don’t have anything to bring to the table.”
This is a new position for the crooner and it’s tricky. Sex was always an escape, a validation, and he was usually high. “Having sex in the moment, with somebody I deeply care for, brings up a lot of fear of intimacy for me.” He arches an eyebrow and deduces, “This is not a fantasy.”
“Sometimes I wonder why sex is such a complicated issue with this person who you feel so deeply for and yet, you know that you’re willing to fuck at least fifty of the guys you saw earlier today, no questions asked,” he smirks. “That’s a problem for me. It doesn’t make sense. I’m uncomfortable talking about it and feel embarrassed or ashamed. But I talk about it because I know I shouldn’t be ashamed.”
I mention the “Madonna/Whore Complex,” a psychoanalytic term for those who have the inability to express their full desire with a loved one, tending to place them on a pedestal, thus finding it easier to have anonymous sex, where there’s no preconceived intimacy.
The door creaks open. Matt pokes his head in, “Be ready for you in five minutes for the sound check.” John replies playfully, “Yeh, I’ll believe that!”
Music keeps John healthy. Music is his life; life is his music. He listens to a litany of singers: Gary Numan, New Order, Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, Alien Sex Fiends, Skinny Puppy, Vicious Pink, Blamage, Visage, Culture Club. There’s urgency when he names these musicians. It’s his passion. Without warning, John eagerly asks, “Oh, have you heard of Susanne Sundfør, from Norway?!” I haven’t. “You have to hear her, Dann! Her voice is pure, angelic…”
John swiftly drops to the floor, knees scooting under the coffee table and hurriedly clicks on his laptop that lies on the table. He needs to get to the stage. John is like a kid who’s found buried treasure. Trying to call up a YouTube video, he finds the reception is poor. Disappointed, he searches for his phone and tries to pull up the singer’s video. “I really want you to hear her,” he proclaims. The cell works! The video plays while he holds the phone in the palm of his hand. We watch together. At one point he says, “Look, I’m all chills.” Indeed. I look, and his arms are splotched with goosebumps.
John’s reaction to Sundfør is really him looking into a mirror. He’s the one who sings with purity, beauty, and fervor. After the interview, I sneak into the theater and listen to Grant sing for a sound check. Aside from the technicians, I was the only one in the 1,600-seat venue. His live performance can’t compare to viewing him on YouTube. The Internet screen does not do him justice! He’s the Tennessee Williams of music. John’s killer voice, laser-sharp sensibility, and luscious bewitching phrasing, transfix me. This time, I had chills.
The Susanne Sundfør video is nearly over, so John lowers the volume. He looks at me with those striking, dancing blue eyes and reflects. “There was a moment when I could have said that I could go back to that [addiction] and finish the job [suicide]. But I said to myself, ‘Wouldn’t you like to actually find out what’s at the bottom of all this shame and self-loathing and what’s been keeping you back from actually realizing yourself all these years?
“I realize I connect with people,” clarifies John, with a pleasant satisfaction. “I like doing what I do and I feel comfortable on stage. I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin in any way shape or form for years. I still struggle with that, but it’s getting better.” John briefly glances to his side at the dominating theatrical makeup mirror, with its illuminating lit high wattage bulbs, which expands the width of the room.
“Of course I still have a lot of shit to deal with. Happiness is not this Holy Grail where you get there someday. It’s right now. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of pain. They aren’t mutually exclusive.” He grins, glancing down at his blue leather trainer shoes. “It’s acceptance. Acceptance,” John repeats eloquently, with a knowing nod. “My latest album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is all about acceptance.”
A faint crescendo of a rockin’ beat of African drums can be heard. It’s his phone. John switches it off. He knows it’s Matt calling. He abruptly says, “I gotta go.” With a bear hug (he gives good hug!), he’s out the door. “I hope we run into each other again. Thank you,” offers John genuinely, concluding, “Don’t forget to check out Susanne Sundfør…” as his husky resonating voice echoes down the hall, slowly fading out.
For more about John Grant and tour dates, log on to: www.johngrantmusic.com.
A special appreciation extended to Matthew Hetsnecker for his support.
Dann Dulin interviewed Joel Goldman for the June cover story.
Words by Grant
What do you do in your spare time?
I like to buy a shitload of books. I put them around, my home, sit myself down, and stare at the ceiling (he chuckles.) I love being surrounded by all these incredible books. After a tour I love going home, picking a book out and spending time with it. I have a gigantic shelf of reference books in all different languages. It’s a great way to bust your own balls, with keeping your languages fresh, by buying a Russian/Spanish dictionary or a German/Icelandic dictionary.
One of the press shots for your new album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, depicts you holding a croquet mallet, all splattered in dripping blood. How did that idea come about?
It’s just me fantasizing about the times that I did want to take a croquet mallet and bash the head of someone who was directing this hatred towards me. It’s also because I love horror flicks.
If you could invite any famous person to dinner, who would that be?
Name a few of your favorite films.
Wings of Desire. Adaptation blows my mind. Tootsie is one of my all time favorites!
Briefs, boxers, sockjock, thong—or nothing at all?
Complete this sentence: I know it’s going to be a good day when . . .
I manage to get out of bed.
What celebrity would you like to have wild animal sex with?
Lady Gaga, Madonna, or Gloria Gaynor?
Name one word to describe John Grant.