John Grant On Playing Grace Jones’ Meltdown, And Finding Creative Space In Iceland

“Sometimes I wish I could just make something that sounds like a Mazzy Star record – but I can't really seem to stick to one style...”

“I wouldn't expect anything less from Grace, you know?” says John Grant over the phone from his newfound home these last 11 years – Reykjavik, Iceland – where he lives what he terms a rather “reclusive” life whenever he’s not on tour.

The “Grace” he’s referring to is none other than the icon that is Grace Jones, who is helming the 27th edition of Meltdown at London’s Southbank Centre this June. Grant will be playing the festival alongside an eclectic mix of artists from an eye-watering array of genres and nationalities, curated by Jones, plus a performance from the woman herself, set to include reimaginings of top tracks from ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ to ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, complete with backing orchestra. Grant shares how the line-up of both up-and-coming and established artists is a testament to the kind of boundary-pushing creative force she is – indeed, he seems just as excited about catching the rest of the gigs as performing.

“Obviously I really want to see Grace,“ he says, “because I've been a huge fan for so long, and I've never seen her live. So that's going to be amazing.” Others high on his hit list are Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo (“she's a true badass”), German-American Meshell Ndegeocello (“she's never put out a single bad thing in her life…she's one of the most talented musicians around”), Hot Congotronics, a unique collab between Hot Chip and Congolese collective Kasai Allstars, (“I bet that's gonna be a super cool combo”), English post-punk band Dry Cleaning (“I really enjoyed their album”), dance music legends Skunk Anansie (“that's gonna be pretty dope“) plus there are those he’s keen to discover, such as much-talked-about from the UK live scene, black feminist punk band Big Joanie.

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The excitement is also driven by his chance to play in London, a city he calls his “musical home”: “London is the centre of the action for me. It’s been that way ever since I was young because all the music that I was listening to was coming out of there, either Sheffield or Hull or London – all over the UK.”

Though, remarkably, that’s not to say it's a gig he feels over-confident about: “London is always sort of intimidating to me,” he admits. “There's a crazy energy there. It's always a heightened experience to be in the bigger cities, whether Tokyo or New York or LA – but London's super high energy. You always feel like you really got to ‘bring it’. But all you really have to do is just do what you do, you know? I love to dip my toe in that and then go back to this really chill life that I have here with my studio and my apartment and my little coffee shop that I go to…”

It’s undoubtedly surprising to hear that the accomplished electro-pop musician, now onto his fifth solo album, well renowned for his candid approach to songwriting and performing and for whom his home country of the US looms large in the content and sounds of his music, would be found tucked away in Iceland. But as we discuss the “crazy” weather (“I wrote a tiny little poem in Icelandic, my first attempt at something like that in the language, which means, ‘no matter what direction you're going in, the wind is always blowing against you’. Which I don't mean in a figurative sense but rather in the most literal of senses. It's pretty nuts”) and extremes of long days and long nights across the seasons (“that’s a little bit discombobulating”) and he describes the little nook of the world he has found for himself there with glee, it seems to make sense: he really does sound happy as Larry. “It's really raining outside today. But I'm just enjoying being in the cosy warmth of my studio, working on a little remix. It's certainly not perfect – but it's more than I could have possibly ever hoped for. It's pretty amazing.”

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It definitely seems to be an environment that breeds creativity, he says, if the roster of formidable artists who have emerged from that part of the world is anything to go by: “There's Bjork and Sigur Ros and many others, it’s definitely a really creative place.” He attributes that fact partly to the attitude of the people and society there toward creativity itself: ”A lot of it has to do with the fact that the arts aren't seen as something inferior to other things. That's a huge part of it. In the country that I come from and the country you come from, your parents let out this very heavy sigh of disappointment when they find out that you want to be an artist. I think people in our countries expect you to go and become a ‘productive member of society’, which means becoming a lawyer or a doctor or learning a vocation, becoming a plumber or something like that. Here it is quite bewildering to see parents equally excited about their child becoming an artist. It's not even a question. It’s just as respected as any other career. So I think that really has an effect on people here.”

It’s also an environment he finds healthy in terms of their attitude toward the business sides of things, something he can see has tainted his own view of being an artist: “I think you change quite a bit when you get into music as a career,” he suggests. “It definitely changes the way you love music. I certainly don't feel any less passionate about music, but it's probably all down to the business. Whereas the Icelanders, they don't worry about the business side of things as much. They're just sort of having fun, they don't really care whether the album comes out, they're just doing it to do it. If you want to connect to that here, that's certainly something that can be quite refreshing and give you a second wind to do your own thing.”

How places, environments, attitudes and societal culture can impact who you are and your creativity become all the more relevant when we move on to discuss his most recent album. The intensely personal ‘Boy From Michigan’, released last year, three years on from ‘Love is Magical’, is arguably his most autobiographical to date, offering much in the way of reflection on his childhood and upbringing – and his move to Colorado when he was young where he was bullied at high school.  

It was prompted by a plethora of factors, he says, not least hitting the milestone of the big 5-0. “A lot of it was the growing intensity of the COVID pandemic,” he explains, “the growing lack of certainty about things and also the political situation in the States with the new Christian fascist right that we have. I mean, it's not new, but it's certainly become super emboldened by ‘Dr. Clumps’, the former US president from the last from the last cycle, if you will.” There’s a literal “he who shall not be named” stance toward Donald Trump, and the topic of US politics frequently riles Grant up from his usual laidback state. “It was very depressing to me because it felt like, not just going backwards, but like a violent atomic explosion of backward activity,” he says of the recent era of political tumult. “So that was definitely making me think about where I come from and how I see the world and thinking about why I chose to get out of there.”

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What the album captures, perhaps counter-intuitively, is not an out-and-out critique of his home country and its current state. It’s something more nuanced than that: an attempt to disentwine how growing up there has shaped him and the people around him, what elements of both the good and bad sides of American society have permeated his consciousness and how he may have absorbed many of the things he might objectively criticise, whether consumerism or ideals of the American dream. “I still love it,” he admits. “It's part of me and I'm saturated in it.”  

For example, there’s a trilogy of tracks devoted to his early Michigan days where little splices of small-town life and its characters vividely evoked in his beautifully versatile vocals amid psychadelic snyths and jazz vibes: the title song, ‘The Rusty Bull’ and ‘County Fair’. But, as ever, its wise not to be too seduced by all the candy floss and nostalgia. A dark undertow creeps in before the mood turns out and out dark. “The American Dream can cause scarring / and some nasty bruising”, he sings on ‘Boy From Michigan’, while the moody ‘The Rusty Bull’ recalls a giant sculpture that used to terrify him: “And he visits me, while I lie in my bed. He says: ‘Your daddy can’t undo what’s done” / And 40 years later I’m still trying to run.” The melodic ‘Billy’ examines the “cult of masucinility”, in the grimly abasurd ‘Your Portfolio’, the American economy is quite literally a giant dick, and ‘The Only Baby’ suggests that Donald Trump is the inevitable offspring that would emerge from the White House in the context of America’s history of oppresion and slavery.

A key topic that also looms large in this record is coming to terms with his sexuality – with some of his first encounters with men relayed in visceral and tender detail in dreamy ‘Mike and Julie’ and melancholy ‘The Cruise Room’ – and the fact that the religious atmosphere that he was born into made that hugely challenging, both in the repression he felt from without but also the resistance from within, due to internalising the notion that to be gay is to be sinful: “I really got a fast education when I left the States and went to Germany back in the day in the 80s, and 90s,” Grant recalls. “It was quite a rude awakening. But I also noticed the chains of religious indoctrination did not go away: that prison is inside your head.”

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As he in his music, Grant is disarmingly honest and frank in our chat about sharing the reckoning he had with himself during that time. “I went to Germany thinking that I was going to get away from a lot of that stuff. But I found, as I was trying to come out as gay man, it was never really about coming out as a gay man but simply trying to accept that part of myself. Because that was really something that was equal to death. For me, it was equal to death and a life of misery. That's what I was taught. And so it was really, really difficult for me to break out of that. It took a lot of alcohol and cocaine for me to break out of that, which ended up being a big problem for me. Because I was so tied to what I was taught and how I was indoctrinated and conditioned, that loomed really large for me.”

He notes how it can be difficult for others to empathise if they haven’t experienced that upbringing, perhaps one of the drivers of sharing his via the medium of music: “They can't conceive of what it's like to actually believe that you're going to be separated from everyone you love for all eternity by simply being who you are, and being separated from anything that's good. Because you're taught that you are psychologically and physically, genetically inferior to other people. Sort of like a mellower version of what the Nazis were trumpeting and saying out loud during their little experiment. And so I really struggled to come to terms with all of that.”

It’s this link to religion that means Grant is filled with horror on both a personal and societal level when he sees the rise in the far Christian right and fascist extremists in the US: “All that trauma that I experienced when I was growing up – it felt like that was all reactivated…There's a lot of it mixed in with my family, too. I haven't talked to my dad in five years. I definitely love him and think did the best that he could and provided for us and everything. But I still feel like that conditioning I was subjected to as a child, all those things are activated when I'm around my father.”

What was happening at a political level triggered a self-reflection deeper than he had been through before: “For this album, I am looking at all of that stuff and thinking about why I've done the things that I've done. Why do I write music the way that I write it? Why is humour such a huge part of everything for me? Because that's one of my defence mechanisms, but I also love comedy and humour. And that's always been a lifesaver for me as well as music. So, all of those things are basically in every album that I make. Some of them err on the side of humour. Then some of them tend towards the darker side, where you get down to brass tacks and are thinking about ‘why the fuck am I doing what I'm doing out in the world? And why have I become what I become? And what is this place that I came from, and all these things that I believed and all these things that I take for granted?’"

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However, he resists drawing his past in black and white terms or vilifying those around him: “A lot of what I'm doing is observation, because it's obviously not lost on me that there's people out there living very hard lives. And, as I say in one of my songs, there are children with cancer, acting with a courage and a resilience that I can only hope to mirror in my own life. It's just trying to figure out how to live your life for me, and observing what happened and observing how that's affecting me now. And being honest about how that still affects me and how I've internalised those things and still struggle with those things to me is not any sort of defeat or playing the victim or wallowing in one's misery. It's about sorting through shit. The things that you struggle with on a daily basis are often rooted in those things.”

As is his trademark of sorts, there’s a heavy use of comedy through, with wit and dry humour becoming both a shield and sweetner that helps him share his stories: “There's a huge dose of humour that comes along with all this because there's that knowledge that you are totally insignificant,” he explains. “That there's that billions have gone before you and will come after you. And that dying is natural, and there are myriad examples of what it means to have a human experience. I just think it's fascinating. One thing that I can do is put my my one tiny little story in the pot. There's billions of them and when you think about how they're all relevant, that's overwhelming. I don't think we can conceive of that.”

Ultimately, it’s an album that seems special to Grant, the personal nature of it offering some kind of release or allowing a greater understanding of his complex journey to where he is now. “I'm really proud of that record,” he says. “It feels like having the chance to say your piece and sort through things thoughtfully, instead of how everyday life is where you don't really have time to react or time to think about how you want to react to time to think about what you want to say in a situation. And when you're doing your art, that's just one tiny little corner of the world, this tiny, tiny little space that you've carved out for yourself, where you can have your say, and think about it.” He recognises that he’s probably not alone in going through such an intense period of self-reflection during the pandemic: “We all had quite a bit more time to think about this stuff during the pandemic, I think everybody goes through some form of this.”

The rich soundscape of the record feels like it expands into new corners of Grant’s already genre-bending brand of electro-pop. “I feel like there's a lot of longing,” he suggests, “there's a lot of longing for the simplicity of childhood. There's a lot of bad stuff that takes root in childhood. But there were also there was also a simplicity and an innocence to things which, in some ways, was great for me as a child, to not be aware, when I look at all the things that were going on…that there was actually an established gay scene, where people were actually living their lives as gay men, in big cities and in all sorts of ways across the world. I didn't know anything about all that stuff.”

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A big contributor to the sound of the album was working with Welsh Cate Le Bon as producer: “She's one of my favourite musicians out there. I love her and her music and so it was sort of a no brainer for me to work with her.” In some respects, the pandemic aided the process by them finding their schedules cleared, with nothing to do but flesh out sounds. Though the spectre of Covid was also “tense”: “it was eating away at you. But it was also a special time because we could just concentrate on doing this record. I’ll probably never have it like that again.”

Working with Le Bon helped ground his tendency to flights of fancy: “I sort of jump all over the place,” he says. “But one of the great things that Cate helped me do is make it into a cohesive whole by bringing her guitar sound to a lot of things and mixing that in with some of the musicians that she works with, playing saxophone and clarinet and weaving the whole thing into a cohesive whole. That was a big part of what she did as a producer, while just letting me do my thing, and be myself and write my songs and use all my beautiful synths that I love.”

His own synopsis of its influences reflect its weird and wonderful soundscapes and textures, that sizzle with psychedelics and often conjure outer space despite being rooted in the past: “It's very Blade Runner and 70s Americana, American and British new wave sounds, like synth science fiction by way of Vangelis: I love all those things. Sometimes I wish I could just make something that sounds like a Mazzy Star record – I love albums that are uniform and that stay in a certain lane or in a certain wheelhouse – but I can't really seem to stick to one style like that. I don't really know how else I can do it. It feels very right to do it that way to me, to do all these different styles because that's what everyday life feels like to me. You get all these different things when you go out into the world.”

I suggest that, while the accomplished artist may have turned half a century, what makes his material and approach unique is a childlike interest and curiosity, both in the way he puts together lyrics, with a strong streak of humour and unfiltered honesty, but also in the way he puts sound together, never sticking to just one thing but constantly experimenting with different genres, instruments and influences. It's the uninhibited sense of play that is the core of what makes the John Grant grant sound what it is. “I would say that's a really good way to look at it,” he responds. “And that childlike curiosity is something that I will always fight to hold on to.”

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While he feels it's hard to be hopeful right now, “I always feel optimistic, because I know what's coming, which is death. So, I feel like, if you're going out and really trying to figure things out and have a good life and sort through the muck of the past while living in the present and looking forward to the future – I think that's optimism. But I don't feel optimistic about America. I think it's beyond broken.”

There’s a sense that trying to understand the last few years of politics “breaks your brain. Because you just can't believe it” but that it’s also important to finding a place between being engaged but not letting it take over your life: “You have to sort of get on with your life, you gotta go wash the dishes, make your bed and work on your next record and keep going and try not to be part of the problem. But it doesn't seem like enough has been done. The world is full of people who are willing to do anything to succeed…When somebody's willing to do anything, no matter what – steal, kill, maim, torture and lie – to get their book that they worship inserted as law into the Constitution. It's fucking scary….all of us who are against theocracies and fascism have to be especially vigilant right now, I think.”

I ask if there’s now new music brewing: “We're working on it now. But I'm just getting started with it. It hasn’t been a year yet since the other one came out. So I'm just sort of, working on some other things, doing some remixes, working on soundtracks, writing songs occasionally for other people, not necessarily for specific people, but just songs that other people might want to record, sort of trying my hand at that and seeing if I can do that. And certainly, there's always a tonne to do, but I'm definitely got my sights set on the next record and thinking about what it's going to be and what it's gonna sound like and that's always really exciting.”

More than anything, he seems in his element in his corner of Iceland, his bit of respite from the world where he seems to have found something like peace within himself: “I'm doing more than I ever have. I can basically do everything in my studio that I want to do. And that's something very new for me. I still feel like quite an infant in the world of music.”

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John Grant is playing Meltdown Festival at Southbank Centre on 17 June 2022. The festival is taking place from 10 to 19 June 2022. For more information and tickets, visit here https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/festivals-series/meltdown. For details of Grant’s upcoming gigs, visit here https://www.johngrantmusic.com.

Words: Sarah Bradbury

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