John Grant: 'I'm sensitive. I spent a lot of time trying to destroy that'

The rollercoaster-loving, Chris-Morris-worshipping songwriter is back with more mordantly funny and exquisitely painful songs about nationalism, Chelsea Manning and love

John Grant was born in 1968 in Michigan and raised in Colorado, in a Methodist household that disapproved of his homosexuality. His mother, who died of lung cancer in 1995, called him a “disappointment”. He was a drug addict, the frontman of the Czars and a waiter before releasing three acclaimed solo albums of heartfelt melancholy and exquisitely raw lyrics that resulted in a Brit award nomination in 2014 for best international male solo artist. He says his new album, Love Is Magic, is “more of an amalgamation of who I am” and captures “the absurdity and beauty of life”.

On Love Is Magic, you collaborate with the electronic artist Benge [Ben Edwards, who plays in Wrangler with the former Cabaret Voltaire man Stephen Mallinder]. How did that come about?
I had an amazing time doing the Creep Show album with them last year and we clicked. I felt he could help me realise my vision. When Wrangler opened for me at the Royal Albert Hall, I went on stage to remind everybody that they were seeing British royalty. I wasn’t talking about myself!

John Grant
‘I spent my 50th birthday in Ohio riding the nastiest rollercoasters in the world’ ... John Grant. Photograph: Shawn Brackbill

This album is different. The trademark, Dennis-Wilson-esque, melancholy piano songs are dreamier, but the playfulness is reminiscent of madcap 70/80s electronic pop, such as Telex or Devo.
That’s probably what I’m going for, plus the Carpenters and Einstürzende Neubauten. I feel it’s my best album. It was difficult to make, but the most joyous time in my life, up there with Christmases with dinosaur models and snow. Making the album in Cornwall and a small town in Texas was incredible. You end up feeling like a rag doll. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is not always the easiest road.

There is more humour. It is as if you are on stage: moving, melancholy, insightful, but mordantly funny.
I’ve been taught by the best. Chris Morris, Julia Davis and Mark Wootton. British comedy! And I grew up on Woody Allen – I still don’t know whether I’m supposed to throw away my entire collection of his movies or not.

The track Metamorphosis has some eyebrow-raising juxtapositions – a rape, a “baby in the whitest house playing with his toys” and “hot Brazilian boys”.
I saw the lyric as a headline in a paper – “14-year-old boy rapes 80-year-old man”. You see that, then you buy a cheese sandwich, then you have an anxiety attack and think about not being able to grieve your mother’s death. These things happen to us all in moments. I hope my funeral is funny. It’s been good, but half the battle is opening your eyes to notice things around you.

Last year, you saidyou develop coping strategiesif you don’t kill yourself when you are young. You are now 50. Are they working?
I happen to be sensitive. I spent a lot of time trying to destroy that as a way to cope with the world, but the trick is to find something that allows you to stay sensitive.

You have had a nomadic life and now live in Reykjavik. Is that why several songs address nationalism?
It feels like the assholes are winning. People think they’re patriotic when they’re just victims of conditioning. It’s babies saying: “Stay away from my stuff.” I’ve heard people in the US say about the Indians: “We took it from those fuckers and they should have fought harder.” The ideology is: “Take as much as you can get and destroy as many people as possible because, if you don’t, they’ll do the same thing to you.”

‘I poke fun because you get what you’re given’ ... watch the video for Love Is Magic by Fanny Hoetzeneder.

On the title track, you seem to poke fun at your mental health. Is that a coping strategy?
I dunno. Mental disorders aren’t just bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – conditioning, greed and entitlement are mental disorders. I poke fun because you get what you’re given and you have to take ownership of it. All that keeping up appearances nonsense is funny to me. I’m too flawed for keeping up appearances.

Is that why you announced you were HIV positive on stage?
I think people should talk about the specific things they are dealing with. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to express things without actually expressing them. It’s absurd.

Is Touch and Go about Chelsea Manning?
I read her story – “Chelsea Manning makes suicide attempt” – and thought: “Good lord.” I also saw a Vice documentary, Young and Gay: Jamaica’s Gully Queens, about trans kids and homosexuals in Kingston, Jamaica. They live in the drainage system for safety because it’s considered acceptable to slaughter them, like moles in a back yard. The people who cry for these people’s public hangings wouldn’t last a minute in their shoes. Chelsea Manning might think: “Who are you to write a song about me?” but I felt empathy. You have a right to write what you’re thinking.

Who do you address in the song Smug Cunt?
That’s certainly how I perceive Donald Trump. Originally, that song was supposed to be about Putin, but he’s smarter [than Trump]. It’s a broad term for anyone who has embraced ambition, run amok and bragged. I don’t want to become a smug cunt, either.

Does the line “Colonel Mustard did it in the billiard room” mean you are a Cluedo fan?
That lyric is a private metaphor, but I loved that game. I constantly indulge in nostalgia in my music. The song Tempest talks about the “wastelands of the American mall” and consumerism, but also there’s that melancholy for the simple times of begging your parents for a quarter to play [the arcade game] Tempest.

And you are a rollercoaster nut?
I still like old wooden ones because there’s [laughs] a huge level of risk involved. But I spent my 50th birthday at Lake Erie in Ohio riding the nastiest rollercoasters in the world, for five days. I encourage everyone to do this, if they can deal with 0-120mph in four seconds.

You can speak five languages – what is your favourite word?
Lugubrious [“looking or sounding sad or dismal”], which is way too humiliating and revealing.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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