John Grant is a pretty candid guy, but he can mislead you. When you hear his soft and polite tone over the phone, you could easily imagine the singer/songwriter as a parent bird snuggled in his nest, not as an albatross soaring across seas to play in packed theatres and late night shows. As we vent together over the lopsided dialogues around the Brett Kavanagh trials, I almost forget that the American ex-pat (he’s lived in Michigan and Colorado) is talking from his current nest in Reykjavik. And as we weave in and out through the fine points of relationships, I tend to forget that Grant, a 50-year young bachelor, is only now making peace with his sexuality after years of doubt incurred by hateful (also richer) classmates and a strict Southern Baptist upbringing.
Ever since his wilder days with brooding cult band The Czars, Grant has been clever with his honesty. His last three solo albums exploited some of his darkest secrets for the sake of a laugh – “ There are children who have cancer…I can’t compete with that”, he sang on ‘Green Tickles, Black Pressure’, shortly after he was diagnosed with AIDS. So while other passersby might detect a trace of ironic humour from the front of Grant’s latest album, which bears his feathered likeness and the hackneyed phrase Love Is Magic, our protagonist hides poignant observations within.
Well. I say “hide”, but I had no trouble prying those stories from Grant when we talked for over an hour several weeks ago. It’s funny – I’d gathered up loads of notes, printed out all the lyrics, read three interviews, and listened to a recent podcast. Yet nothing prepared me for what we actually discussed: finding solace in the whirlwind non-sequiturs of the mundane, sneaking bat signals for like-minded folks into your work, falling in love with people by seeing the beauty in what they find beautiful.
Nor was I prepared to hear that the title track, a wry and desolate picture of a dried-out romance, was actually meant to inspire hope. “When people get into the nitty-gritty of love, which is basically dealing with everyday life, [it’s] a total shit show,” Grant told me. “For me to say love is magic, I know that’s actually true, but it doesn’t look that way from a human standpoint all the time. So there’s a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of betrayal, a lot of lack of perspective, and a lack of longevity, too. A lot of people just seem to run around thinking, if they’re not getting socked three times a day in the most perfect way, and having perfect orgasms, then nothing’s working.”
I told you, Grant’s pretty candid. And he wasn’t afraid at all to expound on America’s broken socio-economic systems, namely the evils of capitalism and our hidden class structure. While ‘Preppy Boy’ sounds like just a rousing disco romp about projecting gay desire onto a straight dude, the lyrics point to a real struggle Grant faced in Denver, when he went to high school with peers from much richer families. “I was a total pariah, and people were disgusted by my very presence there,” he told me. “I had someone even come up to me once and take the field cloth of this jacket I was wearing, and make this disgusted sound, and just drop my arm after feeling the cloth of my jacket, and walk off in disgust. And this is me becoming aware of the American class system.”
DiS: You know, hearing you talk about [‘Love is Magic’], I realize now that ‘Diet Gum’ is a literal acting out of this philosophy, of holding people to high ideals. At first, I thought it was just a really hilarious song. But now I see.
John Grant: Yeah. I mean, I think ‘Diet Gum’ is supposed to be hilarious, but it’s also a very nuanced and layered song about somebody who’s trying to love, and they haven’t figured out how to love themselves yet.
I will also say, as a complete tangent, I really appreciate the line about Daffy Duck being erased, which referenced one of my favourite ever episodes of Looney Tunes!
Yeah. Isn’t it great?
Yes! It’s my favourite episode. And it’s so funny how that episode shows you, even as an eight-year-old, what it means to break the fourth wall!
Totally. I mean, that episode is so fucking good. I knew that, by putting that in the song, because I like to put things in songs that are my favourite things. And you know, what did I put in there, Cannibal Apocalypse and...
Yes, which is a joke about the film industry today, because that’s what they do. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find that there is a Lassie 9 out there, somewhere.
Right. Like there’s probably five different versions of Air Bud out there. At least.
But I suppose, by putting things like that in my song, I’m reaching out to people who are like me, who love the things that I love. Because now we’re bonding over that episode of Looney Tunes, which is a classic. And that way, you find your people.
There’s actually another very nerdy instance in the song, ‘Tempest’, which references that Atari video game, and also ends with what I’m assuming is literally the sounds of that game, as that song closes. I wanted to talk about that – especially since you’re talking about wanting to hang out, and going to the mall, when those concepts, both malls and arcades, are old history now. I was trying to work out what great elaborate metaphor that implies, but as I’m talking to you, I can’t say exactly what I took from that song!
Well, I think it’s basically nostalgia. Because I love Atari games, especially Millipede, Tempest, and Centipede. And I love that time, and I yearn for it. But at the same time, it’s sort of hearkening back to this capitalistic conditioning that we’ve all gone through. If you look at the United States, the malls and the churches were our cathedrals. But the malls are our cathedrals more than churches, because when it comes to worship in the United States, it’s all about the dollar, and it’s not about any sort of religious experience.
And so for those out there who are smacking their head like, “How did this happen?", it was always leading up to this. And so, it’s a study of what we get nostalgic about, what we glorify in the past. And sort of what it actually is. I’m getting nostalgic about going to the mall and playing video games. But I was learning more at the mall about what life was really like, or what life is supposed to be like, than what I was learning going to the Southern Baptist church that I went to for 18 years or whatever.
And I hear people who are in love with Trump say that he has improved the economy. And the American economy that has been set up in this world is fucking evil. And people think that it can be salvaged! But it stopped being based on any sort of value decades ago. And so the fact that somebody has figured out how to clamp this thing up, with some balsa wood and some string, so it doesn’t fall apart again – “fixing the economy” is an oxymoron. It’s not a system that can’t be fixed.
So all of that. But as long as everything’s been OK with us, and people have left us alone, we’ve been perfectly happy to just function within the confines of whatever system we’ve been given. But when somebody starts poking you with a stick and going, “no, we don’t want people like you,” well, when people start saying what it is what they really want, it becomes clear that, well, this isn’t what I thought it was, and I don’t feel so nostalgic.
Yeah. It’s funny, because I listened to that Loud And Quiet interview, and when the interviewer brought up ‘Smug Cunt’, he didn’t even think about Trump. And I mean, you gave what I presume was a genuine answer, that it’s a portrait of a corrupt politician – but still, as an American, I couldn’t not think of Trump. Especially with the line “They just let you in cos you won’t shut up” – I heard that and I was like, yep, that was Trump’s campaign in a nutshell!
Yeah, but it’s also a song about unbridled ambition and narcissism. And these days, a lot of people won’t even take you seriously if you’re not consumed by ambition. And everybody’s always talking about self-realization, and: “Oh, you could be a movie star!” Everybody wants to be a rap star these days, but I can tell you many times that I’m glad there was a man out there who decided to go to school to become a plumber, and how I was so happy to see him, and he did well at school, and he showed up at my place, and the toilet wasn’t exploding.
But a lot of people don’t realize that you can – and including myself, I didn’t realize this when I was younger. But it doesn’t matter what you do, you can totally change people’s lives every single day, even if you’re working at a gas station, which doesn’t seem to be very important. Our society is on acid – “Don’t be happy just doing what you’re doing! If they’re not writing a book about you, if they’re trying to opt to write about your life story, then you’ve fucked it up.”
Yeah. That’s how we have all these [online] university scams, about, “Quick! Get in now, and you can get all this teaching in four months!”
And become something. Because God knows you ain’t nothing now. And I mean, this thing that it turns into, success no matter what, no matter who you have to chew up and spit out, and shit all over, it doesn’t matter, as long as you realize yourself and you get what you want. I can’t believe that anyone believes that Trump gives a fuck about them. For me, I don’t give a shit about the whole Republican-Democrat thing. But it’s surprising to me that people will think that you care about them, just because you say, “I care about you.” That’s all you have to do these days. And then the way that people think that Trump is “caring” about them, by only paying attention to financial gains. And “fixing the economy”. Talk about antiquated. The Central Reserve, and all that stuff, it’s set up for a very specific group of people. And everybody spends their entire lives [thinking], “OK, my 401K, ok, my pension fund,” and this specific picture of what’s available. It’s scary, because it clearly doesn’t work for the majority of people.
Speaking of a strange and fractured society, I wanted to go to ‘Metamorphosis’. When I hear it, I imagine someone scrolling through their Twitter feed, and getting all these random messages. And it’s interesting for you, because it’s a different way of writing for you – usually, your songs are some sort of narrative or a dialogue, whereas this one is more a stream of consciousness, a non-sequitur thing. It’s quite extraordinary.
Thanks. Well, it’s one of my favourite songs on the record, because it’s really quite simple. You have a song bookended by the everyday thing. That’s all it is. It’s just a cross-section of the everyday. If you were able to look at someone, and see all of the things that come into contact throughout the day, and all of the things they say, and all the things that were said to them, and the things that have come up in their brains, and the things that come up in their minds when they sleep at the end of the day. All of those things that seem non sequitur are just part of the whole day, in the lives of any human. The variables are infinite. Because the variables change every day, because you get confronted with the same things every day, and then you have the variables which are totally different. The news you get, the types of things you see when you’re at your computer, the bits of conversation you hear when you’re out walking, the things that you hear. There’s so much stuff going in, that you don’t know about, that you don’t realize that is going in.
And then you have this one element of the song, that amidst the chaos of the world, you have a moment where you sit down and you go to sleep, and you’re still wondering whether or not you have grieved the death of your mother or not, in this particular example. It happens to every one of us – you’re watching Looney Toons, or you’re eating a taco at a movie, and all of a sudden you have this thought, about a friend who committed suicide years ago, and you wish that they were here with you now. It could be anything.
But all of these things that happen in everyday life totally resembles the beginning and the end of ‘Metamorphosis’, much more than the middle. I imagine – do you drive a car?
Yes. Quite a lot.
Yeah. And so, I would imagine, you have all this advertising on billboards, coming into your head. You’re concentrating on the road, so you’re not really thinking about them, but they do get in anyway, if you happen to see them.
There's a board I’m thinking of as you say this! There used to be an ad near central Atlanta, going down Moreland, and it had a picture of this baby. And I could never make out if it was spaghetti sauce or blood on this baby! It got to the point where I had to look away from it, because I did start to think it was blood! So that board became part of my psychology as I was going down that road.
That means that billboard, that could come out in a dream at night. Because your brain is doing all this processing, sifting through all this information that has been pumped into it. And in this case of a dream sequence in the middle of the song – you know, when I talk about the space with my mother being just a suggestion. Let’s say, for example, my brain is not only going back to what it remembers from her, and I haven’t seen her in five years, I‘ve seen pictures, but my brain is thinking about not only what she looked like, but what she would look like now, and try to make a composite out of those different perspectives.
And then all of a sudden, you’re thinking about, wow, here I am, going non-stop, I’ve been worrying about my career, and my sexuality, and trying to realize myself, trying to learn how to love, or how I can live a life where I make enough money and do what I want to do, so that I don’t necessarily do things that I don’t want to do, and trying to get sober, and trying to heal trauma from the past, and let go of it over time so you can just move on and create new memories, and create new patterns, and all of that. And then sometimes you sit down, and you think about your parents that passed away, and what was happening at the time, and what happened to you, and what happened to them.
You put anything in the place of all those things in the song. It’s basically just a cross-section of everyday life. But because I have a specific story, and I’ve put variables in that match my story.
You’ve mentioned your sexuality. And I had here at the top of my notes, that I just wanted to congratulate you on what definitely is your gayest album.
Thanks! It’s funny, because of course, I’m thinking of that – but let me finish your question.
That was basically it! I often don’t even write questions anymore when I prepare for these interviews, I just write bullet points. But we can focus on ‘Preppy Boy’, which gets into that. And I could never figure out if the subject in the song is in fact another homosexual, or if he’s a hetero, and you’re just imposing homosexual desire on that person.
Well, it’s mostly desiring someone who’s not gay and sort of hoping. And basically you’re just projecting your desire on them, and you don’t care whether they’re gay or straight. You’re just desiring them, and indulging in wishful thinking. But I don’t know, maybe wishing that you could possess them in that way, or that you could possess anyone in any way, is, of course, a dead end, because it can’t be done. But projecting your lust on somebody, because you desired them, and because they were what you wanted to be at the time. And maybe thinking that that’s what you had to be, in order to be OK. And they got to go on, and be “normal”.
This dovetails nicely toward the end of the album, and ‘Touch and Go’, your tribute to Chelsea Manning, which I thought was very touching. I particularly like the last few seconds, where there’s this weird little flute part, that sounds like another song is about to begin – that made me think of how, when you transition, you also start another life cycle. I was wondering if that was the intention of those last few seconds.
No, but it was just what made sense to me. Because it was sort of a parting-of-the-clouds feeling, when the sun’s coming out. Somebody asked me about that song the other day, and why I chose to put it last. And in that moment, I discovered that – and I just did this consciously – but maybe there’s an album where I’m constantly dealing with myself (you can call that narcissistic, I suppose), and then after dealing with yourself, it’s this process of moving on to other people’s stories. The tracklisting is, in and of itself, a good metaphor for figuring yourself so you can move on to being focused outward.
As I was putting these notes together, I was able to just recall the tracklisting from memory, because it’s such a good sequence. It builds up, it climaxes around the sixth and seventh tracks, then it starts easing down. I thought that was a brilliant sequence.
Obviously, that’s something that I think about. But it’s usually something that you do by feeling. You sit down, and you think about it. And that’s just the flow that makes sense to me. It starts out in chaos, because that’s pretty much what the everyday is, whether you like it or not. I don’t care how organized you are. The illusion that we have of control everyday, because we have a planned schedule, is very funny, when it comes to observing human behaviour. So I believe that first track is a cross-section of truth, because anything goes at any moment.
And I think you go through, there’s a middle section that’s dancier and lighter. And there’s some theatre of the absurd there, a lot of humor packed into it. And then it becomes more focused, and it becomes more focused in the form of the three songs at the end, which is ‘Is He Strange’, ‘The Common Snipe’ – which is one of my favourite ones, because it’s basically about seeing somebody else. In this case, you’re seeing them watch this bird. You’re watching them actually be able to see their surroundings, and take in their surroundings in a real way. And so you’re falling deeper in love with them, because you’re seeing the beauty in the thing that they’re observing, in this case, the common snipe, which makes this really, really mournful, beautiful sound, and it does this in a fascinating, interesting way. It makes this beautiful sound, that sounds like [imitates the snipe]. It sounds like that, and it actually makes that sound by rubbing its tail feathers together. Which is fascinating, because when you hear that sound, you can’t believe that it’s coming from something that’s rubbing its tail feathers together.
I mean, you automatically assume that whenever you hear a bird, that [call] is coming from its beak.
Yeah. But it’s coming from those tiny little vocal chords. And I remember hearing the story with this particular person, who is now my ex, where his father said something quite hurtful about him, in front of him to his mother once, about how: “Oh, he doesn’t notice little things, he doesn’t notice stuff like that.” And he took his father to task for that: “Why did you say that? That was hurtful to me, because I notice a great bit of detail in the world.” And I have this picture of him out in the Icelandic countryside, listening to this bird which is his favourite. And seeing him take in his surroundings, and love that sound – it made me want to write this song, which is basically a love song. It’s a love song to this person, which is saying, I see you seeing the world around you, and taking in the details.
That’s very precious. And that makes me think, that’s when you realize you’re falling in love, when you see the things that someone loves, and you go and seek those things out, and you try to integrate that into the things that you love as well.
And it’s also a true reflection of their beauty, that they’re capable of seeing in a way, that makes you learn things about the world around you. And so it feels almost like a betrayal to tell this story, but everybody’s got these stories about the people that they love. And whether they notice it consciously, people that you love are teaching you to see the world in ways that you couldn’t before. And that’s fucking incredible when you think about it.
It makes me think about – have you ever seen paintings that look like photographs? Like somebody paints light reflecting off a plastic bag as an oil painting, and it’s indistinguishable from a photograph. And I’m really into that type of painting. And I’ve heard a lot of people say, I don’t really get that, because I don’t see the point. Why would you try to make something look like a photograph? And the point is, to me, that if you can see so clearly an object, that you can paint it so that it’s indistinguishable from the photograph, then that’s saying something about the way you’re able to see things. That’s why I find it fascinating. I’m particularly fascinated by photorealism in so far as people painting waves in the ocean and stuff, like people painting photo-realistic paintings of waves, is absolutely shocking. Cos they see all the detail. If you know you’ve seen something in that much detail, that you can represent it on a canvas.
And you know, most of the time, people like me who can’t paint (which is probably why I’m fascinated by it), we try to paint not what we’re seeing. Our mind gets in the way of what we’re supposed to do. Where you’re supposed to just do exactly what you see. And when it comes to getting perspective right in a photo, like something disappearing into the distance, we can’t do that, because we try to paint what we think we’re seeing, not what we’re actually seeing.
So ‘The Common Snipe’ is all about the ability to actually see. And that may sound ridiculous, but a lot of times we aren’t seeing what we’re looking at.
Love Is Magic is out now via Bella Union. For more information about John Grant, including forthcoming US and UK tour dates, please visit his official website.
Photo Credit: Shawn Brackbill