John Grant: ‘Happiness, to me, has always sounded quite obscene’

The songwriter has delved into his early years for his latest album, Boy from Michigan

Reykjavik is a long way from Buchanan, Michigan in every sense: geographically, spiritually, culturally. John Grant is in his apartment in the Icelandic capital "looking out the window at the wind blowing in the trees, which I always love to look at", he says, succinctly summing up his aptitude for finding beauty in the seemingly mundane. "Am I happy?" He sighs contemplatively. "I mean, I'm as happy as I can be in a place."

To call Grant a "candid songwriter" is like referring to Donald Trump as a man with a narcissism complex; so when one of the best songwriters of his generation is about to release what is deemed his most autobiographical record to date, it's saying something. Considering how Grant has bared his soul over the course of his career, it feels like the well must surely have run dry at this point – but five solo albums in, he is still mining his personal life for a collection of songs built to tug on the heartstrings and propel you to the dancefloor on Boy from Michigan.

As with his previous work, these songs are words to live by. Grant has spoken and written about his alcohol and drug addiction, his sexuality, his HIV diagnosis and other parts of his life with a refreshing frankness in the past, and has been equally true to himself when it comes to his music – be it with his former band The Czars or the steady incline of weird synthpop that came to a head on 2018’s Love is Magic. That album provided a radical departure from his previous fare, and he admits that he “didn’t like everyone’s reaction to it”. “People gave me a lot of s**t – including my manager – for having Metamorphosis as the first song on that album,” he recalls. “People were saying, ‘It’s so weird and jarring and discombobulating’, but it wasn’t that way for me at all. So I don’t regret any of that, because it felt like what I needed to do, and what I wanted to do. I’m not necessarily looking to discombobulate people – but I suppose it’s not a bad thing to be once in a while, right?”

I keep coming back to [the election] – I haven't seen anything that disgusting in my lifetime. Well, I mean, Chernobyl was pretty bad...

There is no better time to capitalise on such a feeling. Work began on Boy from Michigan in Reykjavik (his home for the past decade) just as the world was thrown into chaos last year, although he says that he "sort of held [the pandemic] at arm's length" for quite a while. The stress, he says, started to impact him in August, as the finish line of the album came into view and the US presidential campaign began to ramp up; he admits that "when winter came around here in Iceland, I went into a really deep depression. I finished the album in October of last year, and then I sort of just slumped over".

Working with Welsh musician Cate Le Bon, who produced the album, led to several fraught moments, he says, though that is something he has come to expect of the process.

“There’s always arguments when you’re making an album with somebody, and I think it’s important for that to happen, as well,” he says. “That is not something that is abnormal to me, because you have different opinions about things and you should fight for them. Cate is a badass. I love her taste, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make a record with her – but also because she’s my friend and I really love her as a person, as well.

“It’s just really hard to make a record. There were lots of stressful moments, but there were much more moments of pure bliss, when you’re getting a song right. So for me, it was quite a normal album process, but maybe made much heavier by what was going on in the world, and the election. I keep coming back to that, but I’m sorry – I haven’t seen anything that disgusting in my lifetime. Well, I mean, Chernobyl was pretty bad...”

The title of Boy from Michigan is no accident, given that this album focuses largely on his childhood and teenage years, the latter of which were spent in the town of Parker, Colorado. The album's opening triplet – which he refers to as his "Michigan trilogy" – are shrouded in a comforting blanket of nostalgia and warm memories. The wistful County Fair sounds like a sister song to Marz, an earlier solo song written about the sweet shop of his Michigan childhood. It's a testament to Grant's skill as a songwriter than he can spin lines like "We'll ride the Zipper and the Tilt-a-Whirl / We'll watch cotton candy twist and swirl" and make them sound like poetry.

It was the right time to delve deeper into his early years, he says, because it felt like a retreat from what was happening in the wider world. Other songs on the album, like the almost 10-minute The Only Baby, are a denunciation of Trump’s regime and the obsession with “the economy”.

I believe when your country starts out the way our country did, you don't just throw a carpet over that s**t and move on

“I guess I felt like everything was being destroyed,” he says. “I mean, my country... things are metastasising and getting much worse with the conspiracy theories. I don’t know, it doesn’t look good for the States right now. It really doesn’t. And I saw this happening and I wrote The Only Baby because I believe when your country starts out the way our country did, you don’t just throw a carpet over that s**t and move on. I keep having this image of bulldozing over the corpses and building malls and shopping centres on top of them, and building your little man-made structure that you call ‘the economy’, which everybody is beholden to. So I was so horrified by what I was seeing that it just naturally made all of this stuff come out of me.”

Then there are softer-edged songs like The Cruise Room and Mike and Julie. The latter has hard-hitting lines like “I know I can’t run away all my life, but I will be damned if I let someone else decide who I am” and addresses his difficult teenage years in Colorado, when he found himself more displaced than ever as a gay teen in a orthodox Methodist family and an unforgiving school setting.

“I think I have a lot of shame connected to my Colorado years, because I so completely and totally hated who I was throughout all of that,” he says candidly. “And I couldn’t place myself, and I wasn’t myself, and I was ashamed of myself. I’m about having compassion for that child, for that young man now, for sure. It is painful. But for that, writing a song like The Cruise Room or Mike and Julie – I mean, those are two of the most beautiful things that have ever come out of me. And they came out of me because of what I experienced, and because of what was going on with me during that time, so it’s okay. It is what it is, right? That’s a cliche, but I accept it. I came to Iceland and met one of the most beautiful human beings on planet Earth, and had a wonderful relationship with him. And I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been to all these other places. And that sounds like a cliche too, but I think it’s probably true – don’t you?”

Y'know, happiness, to me, has always sounded quite obscene

Considering how he has been so open and eloquent about his experiences in the past, it would make sense for Grant to transfer his storytelling skills from the songbook to a memoir. In fact, he says, he signed a deal “many years back” to do just that, but needs to “figure out how”.

“I’m right in the middle of this period of finally having some success in my career, and I really feel like it’s just not time for me to do it yet,” he nods. “But yeah, I will definitely do it. And I feel like I need to write it myself. I feel like I could and I should be the one to write it.”

He admits that he is not where he thought he’d be at 52, five albums deep into a dynamic solo career that shifts and realigns with every album release. “But I’m content,” he notes. “Y’know, happiness, to me, has always sounded quite obscene. I get very excited about things – and about simple things. Like looking out the window and seeing the wind blowing in the trees; that fills me with joy. And I feel like that’s a very good sign of where I’m at. Yeah, I mean.... s**t. The best-case scenario is that you’re gonna die, right? And you’re gonna lose everybody that you love. I feel okay about that. I mean, I don’t really like it much,” he chuckles, “but yeah. I would say I’m content. I have wonderful friends, and I haven’t quite found that person for me yet, but I know that not everybody does find that. So if I don’t find that, I think that it’ll be okay because I’ve got a lot of quality people in my life.”

As a listener, you get the sense that Grant, more so than most songwriters, has used his music to exorcise his demons. Having confronted a particularly painful part of his life with depth and directness, how cathartic was the process this time around? He answers with no hesitation or reticence.

“I think I’ve made peace with everything,” he says firmly. “I think I’ve made peace with death, and I think I’ve made peace with the fact that I find it extremely difficult for me to show any compassion or love towards myself. It’s been almost impossible for me to do that, but the fact that I am doing that slowly but surely, and I’m making lots of progress and I’ve built a great life. I mean, I pretty much have everything that I ever wanted, except for that idyllic house that one has in one’s mind, with the lake by the door or whatever,” he smiles. “I’ve got all the friends that I could want, and I’ve got my favourite posters framed and hanging on the wall. I have an apartment where I feel very comfortable and I’m surrounded by my books and my albums and... so I do feel like I’ve made peace. It’s not necessarily a negative thing for me to look at something and for it to feel extremely painful, because I feel like that is a natural part of life. Yeah, it’s hard for me to look at that time in Colorado, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s a bad thing for it to be hard for me to look at something. We always knew that it wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, right?”

Boy from Michigan is released on Bella Union on June 25th

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times