John Grant Biography 2015:
It had already been an extraordinary enough journey for John Grant, from the point where he thought he’d never make music again or escape a life of substance abuse to winning awards and accolades and collaborating with Sinead O’Connor, Rumer and Hercules & Love Affair. But then in the spring of 2014 came the nomination in the Best International Male Solo Artist category at the BRITS alongside Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Drake, like some sort of fantasy dreamt up in a moment of outrageous hubris.
In actuality, it was a sorely belated recognition for one of the most beautiful voices of the 21st century, matched by a songwriting and lyrical prowess that conveyed every atom of pain, fear and endurance that has defined Grant’s life so far, not just with a striking level of self-awareness but the most life-affirming streak of dark and scabrous humour too. Despite all his personal and career setbacks in the past, Grant has continued to build on the incredible acclaim won by his first two solo albums, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark and 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts. In the autumn of 2014, he embarked on a tour accompanied by the Royal Northern Sinfonia orchestra while also playing a prestigious show for BBC Radio 6 Music with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Come 2015, Grant has begun recording his third solo album, and his biggest tour plans to date: not only confirming a show at London’s Hammersmith Eventim Apollo in November but also supporting the legendary Pixies across America.
It’s the latest leg of a journey that’s taken Grant from his birthplace in Buchanan, Michigan to being raised in Parker, Colorado, studying languages in Germany and, after his Denver-based band The Czars split up, basing himself in New York, London, Berlin and, most recently, Iceland, where Pale Green Ghosts was recorded. It’s also been a journey from The Czars’ folk/country noir to the lush ‘70s FM alchemy of Queen Of Denmark to the astonishing fusion of sounds that lifts Pale Green Ghosts to even giddier heights.
That Grant has made his mark is blatantly clear from how Queen Of Denmark was rapturously received. “Like a couple of similarly intense classics before it – Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now and Bon Iver’s For Emma… Queen Of Denmark sounds like a record its creator has been waiting his whole life to make,” MOJO concluded. Another measure of achievement, and the journey, is that one classic that Grant first heard in those new wave clubs was Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Mandinka’. Two decades later, O’Connor not only covered the title track of ‘Queen Of Denmark’ on her 2012 album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, but supplied goose-bumping backing vocals on Pale Green Ghosts.
Sinéad’s presence was a surprise, but not compared to the album’s portion of synthesisers and beats – unless you already know Grant’s enduring love of vintage synth-pop and industrial dance, and more current electronic acts such as Trentemøller and Mock & Toof. “Electronica is a huge part of my personality and my influences, though I don’t think many people see that fitting in to the John Grant image, whatever that is,” he says.
One of those prime influences produced Pale Green Ghosts with Grant: Birgir Þórarinsson, a.k.a. Biggi Veira, of Iceland’s electronic pioneers Gus Gus. Queen of Denmark had been recorded in Texas with fellow Bella Union mates Midlake as his backing band, and Grant intended to return there to record again. But a performance at the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, led to meeting Biggi, who invited Grant to his studio in Reykjavik. The initial tracks the pair recorded convinced Grant he had to make the entire record there.
Besides Biggi, the album features a range of Icelandic musicians, including saxophonist Óskar Gudjónsson on ‘Ernest Borgine’, named after the legendary American actor. On an album of typically caustic revelations, including sex, sexuality and the pitfalls of growing up in an era, and a particularly religious environment, that ostracised gay men, ‘Ernest Borgnine’ combines all these strands with the admission that Grant is HIV positive.
Grant’s frankness also led to being arguably the first person to announce such news in front of a live audience, as he did when appearing with Hercules And Love Affair at London’s Meltdown festival in June 2012. HALA mainman Andy Butler had asked Grant to collaborate on a track (‘I Tried To Talk To You’, one of two tracks Grant fronted on the dance collective’s third album The Feast of Broken Hearts) and requested that he, “dig deep,” with his lyric. “It’s what I wrote the song about so I thought I should talk about it there and then,” Grant explains his public declaration. “I thought I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, as there are lots of people in my situation, who feel like outcasts in society, people who had addiction problems, who feel ashamed and unlovable because of it. I wanted these people to know they have someone on a stage who is dealing with this too.”
Grant has also never shied away from discussing depression, but the fact that he has never looked back is testament to his capacity for strength and survival (Attitude Magazine crowned Grant their Man of the Year for 2013 as a result of his brutal candour and musical stature). He continues to be sought after as a collaborator; he translated the lyrics on Icelandic superstar Ásgeir’s album ‘In the Silence’, sang ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ on the 40th anniversary release of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, and made a guest appearance at Goldfrapp’s Royal Albert Hall show to duet with Alison on the classic Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra ‘Some Velvet Morning’
Going by the four new songs – including the gorgeously aching ‘Geraldine’, which legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb would surely have been proud to write, and the ominous and fearsome electronic pulse of ‘Black Blizzard’- that Grant unveiled on last year’s orchestral tour, the man’s incredible journey continues, and at such a high level of artistry and workmanship. It seems that nothing is out of John Grant’s reach if he puts his mind to it.