There are plenty of figures in the public eye that preach authenticity — albeit filtered through multiple layers of edits and revisions. John Grant, refreshingly, sets himself a world apart.
In speak to Grant, there’s a mordant candor in the way that he talks about his past, scars and all. After all, this is the same musician who revealed his HIV status at a show in 2012, and continues to speak at great lengths about his battles with addiction and his difficult relationship with his parents, who disapproved of his sexuality. At turns, he’s bleak and hopeful, jokey and serious, and throughout it all, endlessly wise.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Love Is Magic, his fourth solo album, and perhaps his most emotionally direct release. On the album, he doubles down on the new-wavey analog synths that marked his last album, 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, spinning it into heavy, brooding thumps that seem to close in on you.
More than a songwriter, John Grant is world-class observer. In the span of a single song, he can transform a news ticker-style narrative into a deeply affecting contemplation on his mother’s death and then back again (“Metamorphosis”). He’ll come up with a line as wickedly funny as “If you’ve got an opening/ Then I am unemployed” (from “Preppy Boy,” an ode of sorts to the cruel prepsters who tormented him throughout his young adulthood) and, just as easily, turn it into a sociological analysis on high school’s peculiar social stratifications.
At 50, he seems to be at peace with how he views the world. He’s mastered the art of balancing the monotony and humor of everyday life with the big, heart-breaking rubble of the world around us. But it’s required a lot of poking and prodding into his own faults, unpacking the past and tearing apart his inner critic to find kindness and compassion in himself — and in the complicated relationships he’s found himself in.
“It’s one thing to know something in your mind and it’s another thing to deal with the habits and inner dialogues that have been deeply ingrained in you for decades,” he tells Billboard. “Untangling all of that and getting the actual perspective about where you’ve been, where you’re going is a huge task.”
On the heels of Love Is Magic’s release — officially out today (Oct. 12) on Partisan/Bella Union — the singer-songwriter walks Billboard through his album from his home in Reykjavik, Iceland, going through the free newspaper that inspired the morbid opener “Metamorphosis,” the self-deprecating lust that comes with being attracted to your high school bullies, and plumbing the depths of compassion he felt toward Chelsea Manning.
Over the course of Love Is Magic, there’s no clear-cut break between sadness and humor. It’s clear in the first track, “Metamorphosis.” Could you talk to me about the process of making that song?
It’s a very accurate description of what daily life is like for anybody because you never know all the things that are going to come, all the variables that are going to be involved in any given day.
As you go through the day you’re confronted with the narrative that’s going on inside your head and the things that are actually happening around you and memories and people coming into your field of vision. You’re always dealing with all these different timelines simultaneously and there’s a lot of absurdity in that.
Listening to it for the first time, it almost felt like scrolling through a Twitter feed from hell.
Definitely. That’s definitely a great way to look at it. For me, I was sitting on the Tube in London one day when I saw this headline, you know, ’14 year old rapes 80 year old man,’ and you know, that comes into your life and into your brain, you know, in the middle of whatever else is happening. Everyday life is quite jarring, especially these days where you have so much information coming at you all the time, you really have to make a conscious decision to shut out a lot of that noise.
You’ve said in interviews that recording Love Is Magic was the most fun you’ve had recording an album. Can you tell me more about why that was?
Or doing anything for ages, since I was a little boy. I was surrounded by wonderful people and incredible analog and modular synths and all these beautiful ways of making music and then just with really great people and incredible landscapes, whether it was in Texas or in Cornwall.
I was in the studio in Texas, which was outside of Denton, very close to a little city called Argyle, Texas. To get to the studio, which was sort of out in the middle of nowhere, you have to go down this really long road that has this canopy of trees covering it and whether it’s winter or spring or summer or fall, it always looks incredible. It was just a totally joyful experience for me. But I was also dealing with a lot of difficult subject matter, as usual.
[Love Is Magic] is basically just a little mini anthropological study about one human’s reaction to the environment in which it has grown up.
I definitely had it deeply and deeply drilled into me that homosexuals are lesser human beings, that they’re second-class citizens that don’t deserve to be treated the way that other people deserve to be treated.
And you know, you spend the rest of your life working that out, getting away from that because it’s one thing to know something in your mind and it’s another thing to, to deal with the habits and inner dialogues that have been deeply ingrained in you for decades. Untangling all of that and getting the actual perspective about where you’ve been, where you’re going is a huge task.
I was dealing with all of those different layers in doing “Metamorphosis” and thinking about what it was like to watch my mother die a slow, horrible death and, and not be there. I felt really heavy for a few days making that song. But I think it’s great to look at all this stuff. What we need on a daily basis is action. We have to go out and we have to have tools for everyday living so that we can take part in life and enjoy it.
That feeling of self-reflection really resonates with me on “Is He Strange,” which, to my ears, is the most straightforward ballad on this album. Can you tell me about what went into that song for you?
It’s a total love song, but it’s also very much about loving yourself. It’s very painful to know that somebody has chosen to not love you anymore or to get out of a relationship with you because, um, because of certain character traits you have or certain baggage that you have, they can no longer deal with or don’t feel like they can deal with.
You can’t take the whole thing on yourself and keep totally blaming yourself for failure and relationships. It’s about forgiving yourself as much as continuing to love the other person. In this particular case, I learned that, that I was capable of doing that and that you don’t have to punish the other person for not loving you.
There are some songs on Love is Magic — I’m thinking about “Smug C-nt” in particular — that are filled with anger and contempt for really, really flawed people. If the album’s titled Love Is Magic, where’s the love in those songs?
You might say to yourself, I have no right to be so judgmental, but when you think about the fact that you yourself have never knowingly gone out into the world looking to hurt or destroy other people and you think of the fact that, you know, there are these people like [Donald] Trump and a lot of people who support him and there are people that go out looking for people to destroy, and they do that intentionally.
There are people that are looking to go out and kill and destroy and humiliate and that’s something that I just don’t understand. There is no love involved there. When we’re being attacked by somebody, we don’t have time to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing.
It’s hard. You want to be the best version of yourself, but, sometimes that can be really tough.
I think that, you know, in a song like “Smug C-nt,” I think that’s just as much the truth has any of those other songs because it’s just a visceral, nasty reaction to some of the truth about the world. There’s a lot of people out there that aren’t looking to play fair. If you accuse them of this, that’s something that they feel proud of as well. But all you can do is just keep on working on yourself and taking care of your own shit, you know, because we all have a lot of it that we have to take care of.
I want to talk a bit about some of the more absurdly silly things that I’ve heard on the record. Like, “Preppy Boy,” which feels like this sleazy eighties club anthem, but the lyrics are just some of the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. How did that come about?
One of my favorites on the record. When I was young, I moved from a very small town in Michigan out to Colorado and I went to a middle school where everybody was scholastically much further on than I was. I became painfully aware of the class system that exists in America as well because these kids were very, very wealthy and they hated me because I was lower class. They were also starting to question my sexuality and that was something that I hadn’t even really started to allow myself to think about too much.
People were cruel and they were nasty and at the same time I was very attracted to a lot of them because a lot of them were these beautiful lacrosse-playing, flawlessly-skinned preppy boys. It was a very confusing place to be, but it’s also, you know, it’s also about taking the humorous angle and perspective of it and just letting the two coexist.
We talked a lot about introspection and discovering the right toolkit to properly unpack your personal hardships and challenges. To end your album with “Touch and Go,” a song that you’ve said is about Chelsea Manning, then, is interesting. What was the intention behind ending your album with a direct ode to a public figure?
One of the great things about coming to love yourself and know yourself and understand what happened to you and why you are the way you are, is in order to have compassion for other people.
I don’t understand what it’s like to feel hated by the nation that you love, which is why Chelsea did what she did in the first place. So you see this person with this incredibly heavy burden on them, whether you understand it or not. I have the line in it like, “did you play with Barbie dolls when no one else was around?” to talk about the way that we think about things. What she went through — transitioning in prison — I just can’t even imagine what that would be like.
I’m not a politically correct guy. I say lots of things that probably would, you know, that people probably find offensive, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think we actually just need to be moving towards compassion all the time for other people’s stories because it’s a really a much better place to be coming from.