John Grant is what you might call a late bloomer.
He admits to being in his forties before he finally began to make music he wanted to make. He got his start in the mid-'90s playing pretty decent alt-rock in Denver band The Czars. Despite being signed to reputable indie label Bella Union no one really seemed to care much about them. Grant played in that band for nearly 10 years, but at this point in his career he's not out on tour playing solo versions of his old band's hits. Let's be real here: There just weren't any hits.
Grant doesn't look back on that time with reverence or nostalgia. You can't blame the guy. For most of those 10 years, he was in a self-medicating, self-indulgent and self-denying haze of drugs, booze and casual sex with both men and women.
"God, it's even worse than that. I was so fucked up," says Grant, calling from his home in Reykjavik, Iceland. "When I think back on that time, I don't feel good about it, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing."
What he means by that last line is that these days the thought of being that "fucked up" often helps Grant stay sober. Somewhere within these troubled times—repressing his own homosexuality, but still acting on it—he also managed to contract HIV.
"I put myself in some very scary situations that led to me getting HIV," Grant says. "I think it will always somehow be intertwined with my stuff, and I need to ask myself questions like, 'Why were you unable to connect with yourself to such an extent that you didn't feel like you were worth the effort to take care of yourself and ensure that something like this wouldn't happen?'"
It's tempting to call the 47-year-old's recent succession of acclaimed solo albums a career renaissance. However, Grant sees it more as a grand coming-out party. He says he always had a clear sense of the type of music he wanted to make. His heart was in electronic and dance music, having loved bands such as The Eurythmics, Depeche Mode and early '90s industrial bands. When The Czars finally broke up in 2004, Grant continued to perform under the name but quickly dropped the moniker to focus on his solo career inasmuch as he could considering he was still indulging in his vices.
He hit rock bottom just after finishing his solo debut, Queen of Denmark, which was recorded in Texas with soft-rockers and Bella Union labelmates Midlake. The record is filled with lush baroque-pop that's so undeniably catchy that it's even hard not to sing along to songs such as "Where Dreams Go to Die" and "Jesus Hates Faggots." Grant has admitted in the past that, around this time, he was waking up in all sorts of sordid situations and regularly smoking crack. Even so, Queen of Denmark became somewhat of a word-of-mouth success to the extent that those things still happen, and sometime just before the album came out, Grant checked himself into a hospital.
In 2012, a freshly sober Grant retreated to Iceland to record Pale Green Ghosts, a beautiful, electro-tinged exercise in narcissistic pop with Grant proclaiming "I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet" and "I guess I'm one of those guys who gets better looking as they age." Finally, he was making the type of music he wanted to make.
"A lot of people who knew about the Czars and Queen of Denmark were really surprised by that record," Grant says. "But for people who knew me, they were like, 'Ahhhh, well, finally.'"
Grant's third solo album, last year's Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, deals in similar themes, but dials down the self-aggrandizing for a much more introspective and self-assured artist who finally sounds comfortable in his own skin. He sounds defiantly proud of his gayness on the sexed-up, R&B funk of "Snug Slacks" and the moving ballad, "No More Tangles." He also sings songs dealing in issues outside of himself whether it's cheekily combating corporate fascism on "You and Him" (sample lyric: "You and Hitler ought to get together/You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters") or lamenting over climate change in the farcical "Global Warming." Still, even in these moments, he finds a way to make it all about himself.
"I'm almost making fun of myself on that song," Grant says. "It's like me saying I really don't give a shit about global warming, I just don't want to be inconvenienced by global warming. I wanted to make fun of that feeling of helplessness."
John Grant plays May 13 at The Music Box
That's one of the true appeals of John Grant. He manages to take an issue that seems so large and manages to personalize it almost to the point of triviality. Let's face it: A lot more people would care about global warming if, like Grant, they were aware of what the sun was doing to their complexion. Sure, that's narcissism wrapped up in a big blanket of egotism, but at least it's caring. It's as if Grant went through 40 years of hell only to come out the other end realizing just how valuable his own life truly is.
"There's a lot of shame connected with the past. A lot of guilt and I don't think, for myself or for anyone else, that we should ever be afraid to talk about those types of things," says Grant. "I definitely think this album is the best example of my personality so far. I've always been introspective on my records so far, but I feel like on this one, it's a better reflection as a whole of who I am as a human and an artist."
A John Grant primer—six career-spanning tracks that need to be heard now
The Czars-"Roger's Song"
Despite the fact that Grant is dismissive of his first band's catalogue, this haunting ballad from their fourth album hints at the struggles the singer was going through at the time.
This cathartic breakup anthem from Grant's debut, Queen of Denmark, sounds like Elliott Smith on a steady diet of Paul McCartney and '70s folk, and is an undeniably relatable torch song about someone who we all know is bad news.
"Pale Green Ghosts"
Produced by Biggi Veira of the electro-pop group Gus Gus, the first track from Grant's second album is a dark and danceable tribute to his hometown and a menacing reminder of Grant's love of early industrial music.
One of Pale Green Ghosts' most starkly vulnerable moments comes on this operatic plea where Grant finally comes to terms with his own homosexuality and addresses those in his audience who might be going through similar struggles.
"You and Him"
featuring Amanda Palmer
Grant rails against corporate fascism and authoritarianism with help from the macabre former singer of the Dresden Dolls (sample lyric: "You and Hitler ought to get together/You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters").
"No More Tangles"
"No more tangles/No more tears/No more reindeer games with narcissistic queers," bellows Grant on the chorus of this emotionally scourging track from last year's Grey Tickles, Black Pressure.