John Grant: ‘Music has been a healing balm for me’

The musician, 50, on his anger problem, coming out, and why he’s glad he contracted HIV

Nowhere really feels like home. Whenever I move somewhere new, I call it a new backdrop for my bullshit. I’ve lived in Iceland for about seven years and I’ve got a flat in Reykjavik that I’ve just started to put pictures up in after a year of living there. I think the closest I feel to home is on the tour bus. I’m like a bowerbird. I build my nest wherever I go.

My childhood was filled with dread. There was this rising fear that something wasn’t OK – that being my sexuality. I knew it was going to be a big problem. Because I’m from a religious background, I had to think about things like eternal damnation. Pretty heavy stuff for a child. But I try really hard to remember that there were some idyllic moments, too. Playing football on the field or watching the lightning bugs in the summer. I try to capture those feelings in my music. How I felt before I learned what the world was really like. Music has been like a healing balm for me. I know I can always find joy there.

My therapists seem to think I suffer from PTSD – hyper vigilance. Trying to control your surroundings because you think people mean you harm. I think there’s something in that. For the first 20 years of my life, everywhere I went people would call me a faggot. I have a terrible anger problem. I think back and I get angry that I didn’t stand up for myself.

My best friend at church was gay. It became sexual between us, but I couldn’t admit what I was at that point. He loved me and I think I loved him. I look back on it and feel very sad. We’d have fumblings when we had sleepovers and then in the morning he’d want to talk about it and I literally could not say a word. He wrote me a letter saying: “I don’t think we’re sick like they say,” and I felt more anxious than I ever have. Years later I was working in a cinema and I looked up and he was there. He smiled. I tried to act really masculine. He walked off.

It took a lot of alcohol, but I came out when I was 25. It was complicated by the fact my mother was dying of lung cancer at the time and was disappointed that her son wasn’t following the Lord. Because of that, I found it hard to grieve for her for a long time. I loved her, though. Me and my sister were actually talking about things we remembered about her the other day and I was having a bit of a thing at the time, and I was thinking she would have said: “Oh honey, why don’t you go outside.” The worst thing you can say to someone whose empire is falling apart. But it’s true! Exercise and looking after myself better has been enormously beneficial to me.

I got HIV because I was using sex in a destructive way. I found out via text when I was out buying shoes . It just said, “I’ve got bad news…” I was terrified, but also relieved. The fear of getting it was always lingering and I was putting myself in dangerous situations all the time. Finding out I had HIV was kind of the turning point for me. It forced me to look at myself and ask myself why I hated myself so much. It allowed me to finally cut myself some slack. It’s been a good thing for me.

John Grant’s latest album Love is Magic is out now. He plays All Points East on 2 June


James McMahon

The GuardianTramp

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