Elton John and John Grant: ‘We help each other. We are both complicated people’

The pop legend and the US indie star have long been friends and fans of each other’s music. With Grant staying chez Elton and about to release a new album, the pair sat down to discuss politics, homophobia – and why Elton should never write lyrics

It’s a boiling hot day in rural Berkshire, and a man in navy satin Gucci shorts has just walked into his library. It’s all ornate chairs, wooden globes and Buddhist statues, its oiled shelves lined with books about history, the arts – and tons about music. The scene is one of airy tranquillity, the perfect place for two culture-loving good friends to hole up for a chat.

One of them isn’t here yet – he’s popped to the bathroom after having his photo taken – but Elton John can’t stop raving about John Grant. “We have so many things in common – photography, art, music – it’s as if we’ve known each other for ever. And he’s fun!” Grant wanders in shyly in a pink baseball cap, weathered Talk Talk T-shirt, and glossy white DMs. “Much more fun than his records are anyway, haha.”

Elton John is the 300-million-selling megastar on home turf. John Grant is the uncompromising darling of 21st-century indie. As adept with the brutally honest ballad as the pulsing disco banger, Grant’s known for his gorgeous, fuzzy croon and explicit, confessional, often blackly comic lyrics. His star continues to rise: his last three albums have gone Top 20 and, before the pandemic, he sold out 5,000-capacity venues such as London’s Brixton Academy and the Hammersmith Apollo.

Nevertheless, Grant is still relatively unknown in the pop mainstream, and Elton John won’t be having that – so he’s hosting Grant on his first trip away in 18 months from his green-listed adopted home country of Iceland as he promotes his ambitious new album, Boy From Michigan. Part of it is a cinematic bildungsroman set to expansive electronic music, about Grant’s early life, full of maple trees, ferris wheels and five-and-dimes. Other parts tackle the American dream’s darkness, Grant’s love of languages and rhetoric, and – hilariously – the toxic masculinity of financial portfolios. Elton has invited the Observer to his UK HQ (after the requisite PCR tests) to host a chat between himself and Grant.

John Grant performing in Denmark, 2019.
John Grant performing in Denmark, 2019. Photograph: Gonzales Photo/Alamy

Elton first got in touch with Grant after “really falling in love” with his first solo LP, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark: “I was drawn to the brilliance of John’s melodies, his very to-the-point lyrics, and the way he used synthesizers – he struck me as an original type of songwriter.” He also reminds him of Nick Cave. “They both write so beautifully, honestly and graphically – their blood is on the page.” “That’s very humbling,” Grant replies, shyly.

Slowly but surely the pair became friends. I ask Grant – a massive Elton John fan since childhood – if that still feels weird. “Yes! Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a huge record in our house when I was little, that very formative period, so it became inextricable from my musical DNA.” There’s no question that the way he writes his music – initially on the piano – is influenced by his hero, he adds. “So getting to know him as a person…” – Elton raises an eyebrow – “I was nervous and intimidated, of course, but I needn’t have been, because he’s actually the one that’s super-easy!”

Today, we chat music, creativity, Covid, Brexit, family, home, why women are better than men, LGBTQ+ activism, and why we’re very lucky that Elton has never written a song about someone he fancies…

Tell me more about your friendship.
Elton John
: It’s not just because of the music. We are both alcoholics but we’ve both long been sober, so we talk about that. Then when John came out as HIV positive [on stage in London at the 2012 Meltdown festival], I thought it was incredibly brave of him. It was a millstone around his neck that was removed – I fell in love with him then as a person, you know. We are both complicated people. All artists are complicated people! We all have our ups and downs, and we both help each other like that. And we are both gay, of course…

John Grant [teasing]: Oh? I’m not.

EJ: Oh no. [rolls eyes and leans forward] You’re turbo-gay!

You’ve said Boy From Michigan is your favourite John Grant record yet, Elton. Why?
EJ:
It’s outstanding. I think this is the most personal record you have ever made without question, isn’t it?

JG: Yeah.

EJ: It’s a story of a little boy coming to terms with how he was treated as a child: of fear and anger, the hurt and the shame and the humbling he was put through. I mean, I grew up not knowing I was gay until I was in my late teens or early 20s. I knew nothing about sex. I didn’t know the word homosexual until relatively very late on in life. I didn’t hear homophobia at school. I was only interested in music! So when I listen to songs that John writes, about the hatred he experienced and what he went through, it is quite shocking.

And you respond to that now as a gay man yourself?
EJ:
Yes. I have a lot of anger inside me about the way homosexuals are treated, even today, as John has. We’ve talked about that a lot: about how you have to come to terms with the world we live in. But John has the guts to confront that in music. He has this ability to exactly put down what he is feeling. He doesn’t pull any punches.

Boy From Michigan’s sound is also ambitious, full of lush, intricate soundscapes, produced by your long-term friend, John, Cate Le Bon
JG: Yes – I’ve known her about as long as [I’ve known] Elton. We met at Glastonbury 2013 and hit it off.

EJ: I think she kicked your bum a bit, right?

JG: Absolutely! She helped me focus the sound because I was all over the place with all my toys – my synthesizers – like a little boy. And she arrived in Iceland with an engineer on 1 March 2020, and then suddenly everything was kicking off, and we had to decide what to do. They stayed because we were making great progress – they ended up being there for two months. The songs were just flowing out of me.

Was working with a female producer interesting?
JG:
It’s funny, the singer Neko Case – who I have been wanting to do something with for a long time – thanked me for choosing to work with a female producer. And I said to her, I am truly not trying to be Mr Wankster here, Neko, but it didn’t occur to me that it was a strange thing to do. I just have somebody who is obviously qualified for the job, and her taste is exquisite, and she created a great space for the album to happen in. As an artist, you want to do all these things at the same time, but you need someone to help these individual elements breathe and come through and she did that. [laughs] She got a fine wine breathing!

EJ: His songs sound like paintings. It’s like she helped you make a beautiful painting!

What did you do creatively, Elton, in the pandemic?
EJ
: So he made this incredible album with Cate Le Bon, and I just toddled around doing not much and realising there is more to life than just going out on the road. I wasn’t interested in writing any Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs, although I have a lot of great lyrics from Bernie and I’m dying to do another album, but I didn’t see this as the time to do it. So I played on other people’s records, Gorillaz [on The Pink Phantom, from the album Song Machine] and [Lady] Gaga [on Sine From Above, from Chromatica], and did a Miley Cyrus and Metallica thing [a cover of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters], and went back a bit into being a session musician. But most of the time was spent here with my family and doing my weekly radio shows [on Apple Music] and keeping in touch with friends by Zoom. I’m Zoomed out now, though. I can’t fucking stand it.

Elton John performing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, October 1975.
Elton John performing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, October 1975. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Iconic Images

JG: Oh God, me too.

EJ: Meeting by Zoom, God almighty! It’s a nightmare. I’ve got to do some on Wednesday and Friday and I cannot wait for the time when people can actually get back together and interact socially. I mean, John’s been here for five days and to interact with someone in person when you’ve got things in common with them – we all need that. It’s just the best.

Has the pandemic changed your idea of what home is?
EJ:
Usually, I’m never in one place for more than three weeks because I’m such a fidget, so it was just one of the most wonderful experiences of my life to have to stay here with the boys [sons Elijah, 10, and Zachary, 8] and David. It was just the four of us. Without their friends, the boys relied on us, so we did more with them than we’ve ever done before. I treasured the time we spent together. I’ve owned this house since 1975, and this the first time in my life that I’ve seen spring, summer, autumn and winter here. It’s where I brought up my kids. This is the hub.

I know I’m fortunate also to have houses in France and America and London – I’ve always been a big spender, I’m not ashamed of it – but it’s basically because I collect things, and I’ve loved decorating and putting things in rooms since I was a kid. You see, my parents argued a lot, so I was always coming down the stairs and wondering what the atmosphere might be in the living room, and I found refuge in the sanctuary of my bedroom, where my comics, my toys, my records, my books, all were pristine. I found incredible solace in inanimate objects, and I know it sounds crazy but I wasn’t fearful of them. I felt safe with them. I felt completely happy in my bedroom with my things, and that stayed with me for the whole of my life. [To Grant] You know, I envy people who can be minimalist. I go to someone’s minimalist house and I think this is incredible, but I just can’t do it!

JG: I’m a collector, too. When it comes to movies and books and framing photos and putting them on my wall, and vinyl, of course, I can’t get enough.

Where is home for you, John? Your new album takes us back to Michigan, but you also lived in Colorado twice and moved to Germany in your 20s. And you’ve been in Reykjavik since 2011…
JG:
Home is a difficult concept for me. I went to Iceland because I wanted to tackle the language…

Boy from Michigan: John Grant at 17.
Boy from Michigan: John Grant at 17. Photograph: Courtesy of John Grant

EJ: This guy! He speaks fluent Russian, fluent German [and Spanish and French]. There’s a lot of Germanic music in your work, you know, John. The John Grant lieder album set to electronic music – now that would be amazing.

JG: Now there’s an idea.

EJ: I think living in so many different places, absorbing the culture and the language, has helped you write the songs you do, without question.

JG: In Iceland, I also wanted to tackle the boys up there, because they are pretty incredible [laughs]! I only spent 12 years in Michigan, but it is the place I keep coming back to because you romanticise your early years, don’t you? So I don’t know about home, but I know when you move somewhere else, you can’t escape yourself.

EJ: That’s true.

JG: I have to say, though, that Iceland is the first place where I felt there was absolutely zero difference in the way straight men treated me from the way they treated other straight men. I mean I can go to the gym and shower next to them and there’s no discomfort or turning away. Somebody once said – I’m not sure who it was – but we gay men don’t come out one time, we come out every time we meet somebody new, because it’s a different reaction every time. But not in Iceland. It’s great.

EJ: Do you think other European countries are like that as well? Did you find it more judgmental in Germany than in Iceland?

JG: Well, that was the late 80s, early 90s. I just learned the word for faggot in German very quickly.

EJ: It’s an underlying feeling in Britain, too. The homophobia in some of the media is unbelievable. And the racism – particularly surrounding the issue of taking the knee.

You had to curtail your farewell tour because of Covid, Elton. And John, you perform live often and have had to postpone lots of gigs. Touring is a tough thing to do right now because of the pandemic, but also Brexit….
EJ:
I’m so angry. I’m livid about what the government did when Brexit happened. They made no provision for the entertainment business, and not just for musicians, actors and film directors, but for the crews, the dancers, the people who earn a living by going to Europe. People like me can afford to go to Europe because we can get people to fill in the forms and get visas done, but what makes me crazy is that the entertainment business brings in £111bn a year to this country and we were just tossed away. The fishing industry – which they still fucked up – brings in £1.4bn. And I’m all for the fishermen, but we’re talking about over a hundred billion pounds of difference here, and we weren’t even thought about. Oh well, the arts: they don’t matter.

To young people just starting a career, it’s crucifying. We’ve been talking to Lord Strasburger about it in the Lords, and we’ve been talking to [chief negotiator for Taskforce Europe] Lord Frost, but we didn’t really get anywhere with him. So I made a statement the other day. It’s a nightmare.

Why is there such resistance by the government?
EJ:
They are philistines. The government are philistines. We’ve got used to governments – especially the British government – just telling us lies every day, and I don’t feel OK with that. Look what they did with the NHS. After all that those people did during Covid, they give them a 1% increase. I find that extraordinary. I just can’t live with that. It makes me so angry. I’m 74 years of age and I just don’t get this unfairness and this ridiculous ability to lie through your teeth every fucking minute of the day.

How will the impact of Covid on live music affect you, John?
JG:
I couldn’t go two years without touring. The number one thing about live music is that it’s how musicians make money these days. That’s how we survive. The experience of performing live is also about building relationships with audiences. It’s a relationship depending on what city you are in, because music is a living, breathing thing. I used to be a studio guy and was afraid of playing live, and now it’s the other way round for me. The studio I find more difficult because I overthink things. On stage, you get to develop the songs and sing them the way they are supposed to be sung.

Elton John with his his partner David Furnish with their sons Elijah and Zachary.
Elton John with his his partner David Furnish with their sons Elijah and Zachary. Photograph: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

EJ: And then the songs change every night…

JG: Yes! I didn’t know that when you write the songs and you record them, you haven’t learned to sing them yet. You learn to sing them on the road!

EJ: I agree. And I know I’m lucky that the issues with touring now don’t affect me one iota because I can afford it, but that doesn’t matter – it affects 99% of everyone else. It drives me crazy, so I’m on a mission and I don’t care who I offend. I really don’t! That doesn’t matter to me now.

Talking of politics: Elton, you said in a 2019 Guardian interview that if you could be any woman in the world today, you’d be Jacinda Ardern. You met her just before the pandemic in February 2020. Why do you admire her so much?
EJ:
I was so thrilled to meet her! She came to a concert in New Zealand where I got sick [with pneumonia] and had to curtail the show. I’m going to go back there to redo the show, and I’m so glad that she got re-elected cause I think she’s pretty amazing. She’s just so normal talking to you! No nonsense. Just fabulous. Women are much more decisive. I like lots of female politicians.

JG: Me too.

John, your prime minister in Iceland is Katrín Jakobsdóttir. What do women in power have that men don’t?
JG:
They come minus the toxic masculinity. Many have this incredible intelligence and that decisiveness that Elton’s talking about, but they also have to deal with men who have these huge issues, like that they have to prove something. You see this in politics all the time: little boys trying to prove that they’re men, like they’re still in the playground. Women don’t do that. And obviously, gay men have always loved strong women…

EJ: When I came out of treatment [for alcoholism and drug addiction] in 1990, I changed my therapist from a guy who was useless and talked down to me – who said I was only there for the ride, which I wasn’t – to a woman who was brilliant and cut to the quick. Women have better instincts and empathy. Men overcomplicate things!

Elton, you’ve become a great mentor to other artists as well as John since overcoming your addictions. What artists are you excited about now?
EJ:
Most of the good new stuff is coming from women, I find, funnily enough. I love The Weather Station, Phoebe Bridgers, The Anchoress, and there’s a girl in Australia now just starting out, called Alison Thorsteinsen, who’s great. Finding stuff at the beginning keeps me going. I was there at the beginning with Billie Eilish, who was 15, and Lorde, who was 16 – and musicians who are great that young, I think, how the fuck do you do it? I don’t understand how they do it. What’s going on here, of course, is that I’m desperately jealous, but it’s also just lovely to help new artists out. And you should do that. When I was a new artist starting out in America, I had so many people who ratified what I was doing by being so sweet to me, like the Band, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Neil Diamond. You can’t ask for more, so I feel an obligation to do the same. I mean, I also love the old [looks at John] – we both love the old, don’t we? But the new is exciting. It’s fascinating. It’s what keeps me alive.

Olly Alexander and Elton John performing at the Brit awards in May.
Olly Alexander and Elton John performing the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin’ at the Brit awards in May. Photograph: John Marshall/Reuters

Your music and your activism have made you both LGBTQ+ icons. Elton: your performance at the Brits with Olly Alexander, of

the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s
a Sin,
after the brilliant Channel 4 drama of the same name, was rightly lauded. How important do you think pop culture is in offering role models to the LGBTQ+ community?
JG:
It’s incredibly important. Elton and I were talking about film the other day, and how I would go to these little art cinemas in Denver to see films like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev with Bronski Beat on the soundtrack. They’re still my favourite places on earth, those little art cinemas.

EJ: I don’t see myself as a gay artist, you see, as such because I don’t write lyrics. I can’t write lyrics. But I love what pop culture did for gay music, starting with Jimmy Somerville and Boy George. If I wrote something, it would be like: “I’d like to suck your knob behind the bike shed,” and there’s just not a market for that!

I know I’m “elaborate”, but that’s not being a gay artist – that comes from British vaudeville, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan, David Bowie. The list goes on and on. My activism [through the Elton John Aids Foundation] is the only thing I can do to compensate for that and I’ve tried to be active since the 1990s. I missed the boat in the 1980s which I’m ashamed of, because I was too down in the pit of drugs and drink.

When I got sober, my activism started small, but then it started to mushroom. And I was so lucky, as I said, and I never really had much trouble in the business, because everyone knew I was living with my manager, for God’s sake! I was going into every gay club in the world and it was never a big deal for me. I was so happy to be gay!

Watch the video for Boy From Michigan by John Grant.

JG: That’s amazing. I’m so glad.

EJ: But I know I’m an oddball to have never felt any shame about who I am, to have never felt any fear, when a lot of people have such a hard fucking time of it because of their parents, or the church, or the culture they come from. I can’t imagine what people go through in some parts of Africa and India and the Middle East. So my activism is something that I can contribute, and it’s really important that music about gay subjects is heard, too. Pride month is really important for that, because people go out and celebrate their sexuality.

What advice would you give to a young LGBTQ+ person trying to make their way in the world?
EJ:
John and I come from very privileged positions when we talk about this, being in artistic jobs, because there are so many gay people around – it’s so much harder if you work in an office or the military or whatever. I appreciate some can’t because they are stuck in a rural place, but if you can, move to a gay-friendly area if you can afford to, a big city, where there are other gay people and there is gay culture. Never be ashamed of who you are. There are lots of helplines and organisations where you can go. And try to meet as many gay people as you can too, and make friends, because when you’ve got friends you will feel a lot safer. Saying that feels terrible: that idea that some gay people sometimes feel they have to be in a conclave of gay people to feel safe, but they still do.

But it’s also got a lot better. Listen, I never thought I would have a civil partnership, let alone be able to marry. We have made great advances. But there is still homophobia out there like there is still racism out there. Don’t let people tell you that there isn’t.

JG: I read about a lot of kids wanting to commit suicide, or feeling like the things that they want out of life don’t exist. To them, I would start by saying that what you feel inside, and what you know you are inside, and what you know you could be: if you can get past your fear, if you continue to show up, your place is there.

EJ: And I used to be the shyest person in the world and I never, ever thought I would become who I became. I embraced life and seized the adventure and began to open up like a flower. You have to put in hard work to do it. But you can do it.

• John Grant’s Boy from Michigan is out now on Bella Union. Tickets for the 2022 leg of Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road: the Final Tour go on sale on 30 June at 10am at eltonjohn.com

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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