With Both Rage and Poetry, Singer John Grant Journeys Back to His Youth

He also swears as often as he provides emotional insights. He’s playing Tuesday night at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club.

The image of an outsider is very useful for a singer-songwriter. For John Grant, it comes pretty easy. The American, who incorporates themes of alienation, heartbreak and addiction into his work, is making his Israel debut Tuesday night at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club. His singing and piano playing will be backed by a five-man band including guitars, drums and electronic music.

Grant, who was born in 1968, has spent years living in places as disparate as Michigan, Denver, Iceland and Brooklyn. Until the early 2000s he was part of the alternative rock band the Czars, which, like Grant, signed with Bella Union. That label was co-founded by bassist Simon Raymonde, formerly of Cocteau Twins, an early influence on Grant.

Whether in his lyrics or interviews, Grant doesn’t conceal his flaws and failures; he talks extensively about his life with drugs, which led to the band’s breakup. After eight years, following their sixth album “Goodbye,” five of the Czars’ six members left Grant on his own. He continued on his own for a bit under the same name but then took a break from music and worked in a hospital. In 2010 he started anew under his own name.

Members of the folk rock band Midlake convinced him to record his songs and performed on his first album, recorded in their studio. The disc, “Queen of Denmark,” begins a return to Grant’s past.

The 2010 album takes him back to his childhood in Michigan, where he was raised by a religious family - not the best environment for a boy realizing he was drawn to other boys. With a musical style influenced by the soft rock of the ‘70s, Grant invoked his “anger at the many years in which I was afraid to just be who I was.” One of his songs on the album, “Sigourney Weaver,” deals with his internal struggles. It recalls Weaver wiping out extraterrestrials in the movie “Alien.”

The album achieved what the Czars couldn’t, bringing Grant recognition and commercial success. He says he still can’t see himself as a musician, and still can’t believe it when people tell him after shows that his music touched them. He still often thinks each song will be his last. Every new album is a miracle.

The Iceland sound

His latest album, released last winter, is called “Pale Green Ghosts.” This beautiful effort continues his journey into his past - his adolescence in the ‘80s. It’s filled with electronic music and synthpop, buoyed by the synth programming of Biggi Veira from the Icelandic electronic music band GusGus.

Against a background of electronic spaces and a digital beat, Grant sings with honesty about his experiences, incorporating cynical humor, rage and poetry. Grant, who sounds like a folk singer even against a background of electronic music, uses the word “fuck” as often as he provides emotional insights.

In an interview just before he left for Israel, he described the electronic streak in his latest album as the fulfillment of a dream. It’s also part of his concept of returning to his youth.

“Well, this relationship to electronic music started way before my music career,” he told Haaretz. “I really fell in love with dance music and sounds in the ‘80s, listening to things like Eurythmics, Missing Persons, Devo, New Order, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Fad Gadget, Chris & Cosey, Yello, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, etc. So that has always been a very important part of my world, and since this album is mostly about my adolescence which took place in the ‘80s, it made a lot of sense for me to communicate with that time and place.”

Grant says he never had the right equipment and was wary about getting his career started.

“I didn’t know what to do or how to start to explore, and I didn’t have any synthesizers. I think the big thing was I was too busy being a drunk and doing drugs and never had any money for anything, so I couldn’t buy the equipment or work at how to make these sounds. Also, the people that I worked with didn’t have that stuff; they had guitars and so I worked in that framework,” he says.

“I can play the piano, so that was something that was easy to access, so I wrote my songs on that. I could never get anything to work when I finally did get a computer. My system was crap, I never had the right hookups, etc. So I think the reason I finally decided to go with Biggi on this record is because that’s all he does - make those sounds. He made them on analogue equipment, and I’ll never be without a Juno 106 ever again in my life.”

The next stage of his series will deal with his 20s. He says this will be the darkest stage of all and combine the Beach Boys and the industrial sound of German band Einsturzende Neubauten.

Like several of his songs, his latest album’s “Glacier” addresses his love of men and the scars from his struggles against homophobia. The song tells a story of shame and fury that ends with a personal and political message of pride. It becomes an empowering queer anthem.

Grant defines it as the song he wishes he could have heard as a teenager. The chorus describes pain as a glacier. According to Grant, the song “was inspired by a 10-hour drive from the west coast to the east coast of [Iceland] during Easter of 2012. I saw a lot of glaciers on the way and I thought about them as a metaphor for how pain carves a path in you but can also result in a new landscape.”

Grant often gets comments about the swearing in his lyrics.“I swear because I’m angry all the time,” he says. “As I say in the album, I can barely hide it. That’s why I keep saying ‘fuck’ - it’s in the right context. That’s how I talk. I know some people think it’s too much, but these are my feelings, I can’t act differently.”

Over the last few years Grant has developed a personal and professional relationship with Sinead O’Connor. She covered the title track of “Queen of Denmark” and provided background vocals for his latest album.

“Sinead is a good friend of mine. We met a couple of years ago, way before she covered ‘Queen of Denmark.’ When I started to record the album I saw her and she was interested to hear some of the new stuff. I played her some sketches and she was like ‘I’m singing on that.’ She just pointed out a fact and I had nothing to do about it.”

HIV-positive

Last year he performed with the New York disco group Hercules and the Love Affair at London’s Meltdown festival. It was there on stage where he revealed that he was HIV-positive.

“The reason that I chose to talk about it when I did on stage was because I’d already had the better part of a year, a year and a half, to deal with the diagnosis. I was on stage ... and I was singing a song about how unnecessary it was for me to get that disease,” he says.

“I talked to Andy from Hercules and Love Affair about the fact that I might want to say something before the song because that’s what the song’s about. I didn’t know if I was going to say anything about it, and I didn’t know what my motivation was. I wanted to be sure that I was doing the right thing. So I didn’t know if I was going to say anything until the moment I was standing on stage.”

Grant says it’s simply an important thing to talk about.

“You feel like you should be ashamed about this diagnosis,” he says. “You should talk about it because you shouldn’t be ashamed about it, and it shouldn’t be a strange thing to talk about, and it shouldn’t be a depressing thing to talk about. There have been a lot of amazing people who have been going through this a lot longer than I have.”

Hordur Sveinsson
Hordur Sveinsson