For someone with an average voice, who is only just learning how to write songs, John Grant is forced to concede that things are not turning out as disastrously as he anticipated. This month, the 44-year-old from Michigan, then Colorado, and now Reykjavik, releases an epic second solo album, Pale Green Ghosts. It is more synthy and electronic than its much-lauded predecessor, Queen of Denmark, but the core themes of love, loss and Grant’s barely functional life are all in place.
ESQUIRE: Your songs are often both funny and harrowing. Is that just how they come out?
JOHN GRANT: No, it’s taken me 15 years to find my voice writing songs. I’d love to be cool like Portishead — those sounds, the way the voice interacts with the music… You don’t know what the fuck she’s talking about and that’s mysterious. But for me, it’s all personal, and I’m talking about myself and my own life. I’m unable to create an alter ego and it’s probably in my best interests not to, because I’m the type of guy who’ll disappear into that role forever.
ESQ: You’ve been addicted to drink and drugs in the past — is that what you mean?
JG: I’m just such a reluctant cunt when it comes to life, it seems like. You look out there some days and see the people running around in their suits and in their hip clothing and on their bikes or in their cars: some of them are really go-getters, aren’t they? They are going from one thing to the next. All. Day. Long. They’re just like, “Yesss! Life!!” And I’m like, “I can’t believe I have to brush my teeth again. Oh my God, I can’t believe I have to take a shit again.”
ESQ: Where does that worldview come from?
JG: I never thought I had a future. I thought, “You don’t matter, your existence doesn’t matter.” It would just be like trying to polish a turd. You’re going to teach this turd how to cook? Why? It’s always just going to be a turd. You’re going to teach this turd how to make sticky toffee pudding? I don’t think so.
ESQ: It’s strange but there’s also something uplifting about your music…
JG: Yeah, in spite of all these things, I still feel like a relatively optimistic person. Because I do keep showing up, don’t I? Why am I learning to speak Icelandic at 44 years of age? The Icelanders say that to me all the time: “What the fuck are you doing?” There’s only 300,000 people in the world who speak Icelandic and they all speak English.
ESQ: What do you say?
JG: Because it’s fun and it keeps my brain fresh. I’d be hard pressed to convince anybody that I was a nihilist or a total pessimist, don’t you think? It’s just not true.
Pale Green Ghosts (Bella Union) is out now
Interview by Tim Lewis