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Offsetting unsettling lyrics about depression, self-hate, toxic relationships, religion-fueled ignorance and societal cruelty with utterly gorgeous melodies is one of the oldest tricks in the songwriter's handbook. But most excel at half of that combo while falling far short in the other. John Grant excels on both counts, plus he sings like an angel while displaying devilish wit. Imagine one of Paul Williams' soul-stirring classics for The Carpenters like "We've Only Just Begun" with additional lyrics by Kurt Cobain, and you've got the gist of Grant gems like "Where Dreams Go to Die."
It's a quality that ranks the 44-year-old musician formerly based in Denver and now living in Reykjavík the most masterful current singer-songwriter you've probably never heard. And it's why British rock magazine Mojo deemed his 2010 solo debut Queen of Denmark their favorite album of that year: Grant boasts chops akin to the introspective bards of the early 1970s without mimicking any one of them (except on "Chicken Bones," where he's paraphrasing Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown" and subverting it with AM-radio-unfriendly lyrics). On this year's Pale Green Ghosts, he skirts the retro ghetto by partnering with Birgir Þórarinsson of Iceland's GusGus — the most accomplished veteran EDM act you've also probably never heard — for massively cinematic electronic/symphonic balladry that's as sonically refined as it is emotionally raw.
In May, the singer called from a London studio where he was recording "Saddle the Wind" for The Lone Ranger. A half-hour into our conversation pondering his HIV contraction, the causes of his cocaine and alcohol addictions and his sobriety, Grant suddenly nails the crux of his rigorously personal but ultimately universal work.
"These albums," he postulates, "maybe they're just studies in broken human love — the inability to love, or the inability to love oneself and the damage that causes to environment around one's self."
Unlike Grant, I've never been an alcoholic or a drug addict. But my dad was one and my brother is another, and I've struggled with depression for much of my life; it's like a bad relationship I've long outgrown but can't quite sever. So the things Grant sings about, I know all too well. Like him, I'm gay, and although I dodged the HIV bullet, there was a time in the '90s when so many of my friends, mentors, colleagues and ex-lovers died of AIDS, suicide and other calamities that I checked myself into a psych ward because I saw no alternative to cope with so much loss. Soon I found a support group and made some new friends.
Just last month, one of them killed himself. Pharmaceuticals had helped him manage AIDS in his body for decades, but the drugs he took for bipolar disorder couldn't similarly control the demons in his soul. In a world where being gay still means fewer rights and more messages that you're not as worthy as every other human, that kind of failure too often proves fatal. Facing it dead-on and spinning it with humor is Grant's specialty.
"I think the total rejection of the self, the total avoidance of self, was what was making me drink," he tells me. "I felt very uncomfortable out in the world. Alcohol made it possible for me to go outside, even though I seemed to do a pretty good job in the daytime without alcohol. I suppose I stayed home most of the time. I was so ashamed of who I was. And I also felt like an outcast in gay society as well because I wasn't good-looking enough, my body wasn't good enough. Even when I was able to open in the gay scene, it was still like, 'Yeah, but your presence isn't even wanted here either. Nobody gives a s--- whether you're gay because they don't desire you.' I would say that I'm still in the process of finding my place. I would love to be part of a community."
"I think he just has to do what he's doing and he'll find that he's not alone," says Bob Mould, venerated former Hüsker Dü/Sugar singer who wrote about his own passage to sobriety and self-acceptance in his memoir, See a Little Light.
"He may feel alone in the room when he's working on his music, or he may feel detached on stage when he's not sure if it's connecting," Mould continues. "But people will hear his voice, they'll hear the message and they'll come to him, and he'll see that it actually doesn't matter if he fits in or not. He's an upper-shelf songwriter. He understands the history of pop music clearly; you can hear it in the way he knows how to turn a phrase at the right moment, the chord structure. He keeps melody very much in the forefront. I'm guessing that the people who like his work take it very seriously."
Mould isn't the only musician to recognize Grant's depth and grace. Sinéad O'Connor covered "Queen of Denmark" on her 2012 album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? with trademark vehemence, and provides background vocals throughout Pale Green Ghosts. "He's strong-minded, but so am I," says GusGus's Birgir Þórarinsson, who recorded most of Ghosts in his Reykjavík home. "Doing this album was rather effortless compared to some of the stuff I've worked on." It was the support of Midlake, the lauded folk-rock band who co-produced and performed on Denmark, that Grant credits as transforming his life and music.
"The atmosphere Midlake created for me in Texas enabled me to completely be myself, and that made all the difference for me," he recalls. "It was one of the first times I felt very much at home in my own skin. In my family, I was loved, but only if I would fight this gay thing and not let it take over me. I would be loved unconditionally if I could be cured of my 'sickness,' but it certainly would not be OK if I couldn't. And the Midlake guys, even though none of them are gay, they brought me into their homes and were like, 'We like you. We don't care what you do, who you're f---ing, or what you say. You are special.' That was a huge thing for me, and I suppose that's what made it possible for me to open up."
It may come as no surprise that Grant's childhood was marked by rules, religion and abuse. He fled to Heidelberg to study German, but panic attacks and agoraphobia interrupted his education. Returning to Parker, Colo., a commuter town outside Denver, to take care of his terminally ill mother, he began a 10-year bender while fronting the Czars, a somber rock band Mould also rates highly but Grant now dismisses as overly imitative. "I wanted to be Radiohead," he says, characteristically self-reproaching. The singer's booze 'n' coke-addled behavior took such a collective toll on his bandmates that all of them jumped ship in 2004. Soon after, the singer found AA.
"I met a lot of great people there," he says with a sigh, "people who went through some really hard times with me, a lot of stubbornness and wallowing around in self-pity. I was angry because the addictions and the neurosis and all the depression and maladaptive ways I had for dealing with life came about because I was constantly rejected and told that I wasn't OK the way I was."
"But then there's a certain point where you have to take responsibility for yourself, and it doesn't matter what happened in the past anymore. What matters is that you figure out how to — and this sounds really retarded — become the best version of yourself that you can, and how to enjoy your life. That really, really made me angry. But that is the way it is."
The acclaim Queen of Denmark earned in the UK foreshadowed the accolades Frank Ocean's Channel Orange would acquire worldwide two years later. On both albums, a relatively unknown musician sang love songs explicitly addressed to other men from a pained and alienated perspective gay people know all too well, and it won them accolades typically reserved for straights. This wasn't completely unprecedented. Some gay songwriters get their props, like Elton John, Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Stephin Merritt and Rufus Wainwright. That's a mighty high bar, though; arguably a higher one encountered by the average buzz act. But as far as UK tastemakers were concerned, Grant had joined their ranks.
Yet all those accolades couldn't save the singer from contracting HIV in the wake of Denmark's breakthrough — a subject he addresses with self-deprecating honesty via Pale Green Ghosts's "Ernest Borgnine." Like many addicts, Grant still craved a familiar escape from his pain long after he got clean and sober.
"When I got the diagnosis," he says, "I thought, 'It's finally caught up with you. You wanted to keep your sex life the way that it was. I'm not drinking alcohol and I'm not doing cocaine anymore so maybe I can still have this.' I was still figuring out a loophole, a way to punish myself for being gay and not being good enough. There was this moment after I got the HIV diagnosis where I was sort of teetering on the fence thinking, 'Well, you can go back to your lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. You won't have a career, and you will most surely end up dead. Or you can take this hard lesson that you're being given and continue on that road to fully facing yourself and becoming whole.' That's the road I've chosen."
Like Grant and many other gay folk, I got the message early on that love must be earned, and that I must compensate for the double strikes of being homosexual and growing up in a family of alcoholism and mental illness. And although I earned the education and writing career to do that, I still beat myself up in other situations where I can't possibly excel, where it's hardest to love myself, and I recognize that tendency in Grant with brotherly compassion. At the beginning of our conversation, I liken his overseas accomplishments to the title character in Django Unchained who elevates himself above his former slave status through exceptional marksmanship. And although he's flattered by the analogy, he understands with any uncertainty that his musical abilities can't protect him against his worst enemy — himself.
"I'm not saying that I don't have skills," he reflects. "I'm saying I don't feel like I can use my skills to achieve self-esteem. I feel like it's cheating. I think that I should have self-esteem simply because I am a human being who deserves love and deserves everything just as much or just as little as everyone else. A lot of times, my self-esteem is attached to what I do. But I could get throat cancer and lose my voice. Then what? Would I be worthless? The answer can't be yes."
Great songwriters take uncomfortable feelings of sorrow, loss, shame or longing, and through a careful articulation of their truths, create something astoundingly beautiful. By holding a mirror to our own realities, these alchemists direct us to look at things inside us that we're not fond of. And if we're not quite up to the task of loving these foibles, maybe we can at least hate them a little less. For if these composers can heal their own scars through their music, then possibly so can we in our daily lives.
Grant offers that kind of verity and rapture to an audience that's typically marketed empty glitz. In San Francisco, the second stop on his current tour, every under-exposed number in his two-hour set was met with a roaring response most singer-songwriters would be lucky to get for their biggest radio smash. The audience was mostly male, but the opening chords of "Where Dreams Go to Die" were met by a woman's voice at the back of the club roaring, "I LOVE THIS F---ING SONG!!!"
Before "Glacier," he addressed the widespread, violent, government-sanctioned homophobia now sweeping through Russia, a country that once enchanted but now repulses the fluent Russian speaker and classically-trained pianist whose childhood specialty was the fervently Romantic concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff alluded to in the song's climactic flourish. For the oppressed, he sang hard-won words of hope in a caramel-sweet baritone heaving with passion, words that sum up his essence:
"This pain, it is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes
And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals and other stuff.
So don't you become paralyzed with fear
When things seem particularly rough."