True artistry shines through no matter the medium, or, say, language, which is certainly true for modern Renaissance man JOHN GRANT. Fluent in German, Russian, Spanish and French, the Michigan-born former Czars frontman has broadened his considerably masterful repertoire by adding a compelling electronic edge and writing and singing in Icelandic on latest album Grey Tickle, Black Pressure. That this, his third solo album, is as much of a departure from previous LP Pale Green Ghosts as it was from its predecessor Queen Of Denmark, is remarkable in itself; that it stands up in stature alongside these two great works is even more impressive.
Confronting his own struggles with drug and drink addiction in a frank and compelling way, Grant’s vintage balladry is framed in such a way as to make listening to his music a challenging yet immensely rewarding experience. Perhaps it is this ability to open himself up that has made Grant a firm favourite with Liverpool audiences, who have always given him a warm reception. In a bid to get further under the skin of Grant’s new record, Christopher Torpey picks up the phone to speak to him and finds a man at peace in the calming Reykjavik air.
Is Reykjavik home now, John?
Well, I’m gonna be leaving next week to go on tour, but I’m still enjoying a bit of down time in snowy, cold Reykjavik. Yeh, I feel quite good here, I feel like I’ve put some roots down now – I’ve been here for just over four years now. It’s really not easy to put down roots in a place and establish yourself, feel at home. But I do imagine going back to the States too. I sort of fantasise about having a house in upstate New York in the middle of some beautiful woods.
This latest album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, seems to come from a calmer place than Queen Of Denmark or Pale Green Ghosts. Would that be fair to say?
Yeh, I suppose. Maybe more of a stable place, ha!
Looking back, would you say that this album was any easier or harder to make than previous ones?
No not really. I mean, I never find it easy. There are so many options, and the words are so important to me that I obsess about getting them right. There was a lot of fun had making this record as well – but I also didn’t stress out about it a lot and fret over it. So I’d say it balances out. I suppose I’d say I felt more confident than I have in the past… but then I also felt more pressure to get it right. It’s kind of a mixed bag.
I’ve always been struck by a Bowie-esque shift in gear between your previous albums, which is the same here. I’ve got to ask you, then, about the passing of David Bowie recently…
Yeh it’s a tough one… I mean, I didn’t really connect with him when I was younger. I was an 80s kid and back then it was Let’s Dance that really blew me away. I thought then that it couldn’t possibly get much cooler than that – and I still feel that way today. Ah… I love that song so much, every time I hear it it’s an amazing thing. I wish I had a much cooler story! He wasn’t present in our house in the 70s, he just wasn’t around. I remember seeing him on the television and being a little bit afraid of what I was seeing, because I’d never seen a creature like him before. So I was intrigued by him but I didn’t really discover his music until the 80s came along. In the last few years I’ve finally been able to access him for myself, and I was – am – shocked at the consistency of quality in his music. You know, I seem to be very impressed, when it comes to music, with strong females. But Bowie is probably the male where I thought ‘I would like to be that person’. Looking at it as an artist, when it came to performance and showmanship, you just couldn’t get any better than David Bowie. It’s just that empty feeling of not having this person in the world anymore. It just never occurred to me that it was possible for this person to die.
Do you ever get any feedback from fans on the way they respond to your music, or how your music may have helped them deal with certain issues?
Yes I do and it’s always very welcome, and always very uplifting actually. Anytime somebody takes the time to tell you what your music means to them, I always feel very humbled by that. I know how it feels to approach someone that you really admire, because music is such a powerful thing. It has been for me since day one, and so I try and always be very cognisant of that. I always feel humbled by it, and I like to hear what people have to say.
‘Black pressure’ is the translation of a Turkish saying for nightmares, isn’t it? By putting this semi-cryptically in the title of this album were you referencing themes or even worries that were prevalent to you when you were making it?
I’m sort of making fun of the mid-life crisis, you know! At least making fun of it when it comes to me, because I feel as though I’ve always sort of been in a mid-life crisis since I was born, ha ha! In some ways I am just making a joke about it. But I am getting to the age where you can feel [those worries], and I wanted to make fun of it. And also not – I’m only half-joking. Thinking about mortality and how you’ve spent your life up to this point… I mean, it’s definitely a very real thing, people do think like that. I guess the whole album – or at least the lead song [title track Grey Tickles, Black Pressure] – is about getting perspective. You can’t discount your own problems: you can’t say ‘Well, there are children with cancer so my problems don’t matter’. It certainly gives you some good perspective to think about those things.
I also understand that ‘grey tickles’ is a reference to an Icelandic saying for getting older. Was there something you felt about Icelandic as a language that you wanted to bring into this album?
I suppose ‘grey tickles’ was quite deliberate, but it does seep in there whether you realise it or not. I’m very into the whole linguistics thing and learning new languages, and I think you’ll probably see more of it in the future as I become more confident about bringing the languages themselves into the music. I’m very careful about it though because I wanna do it right – and I suppose that’s perfectionism as well, which leads to maybe not taking the risk as quickly as you’d like to. But using Icelandic was definitely important to me, and I think you’ll be hearing more of it in the future. I think if you really want to know a place you have to get inside the language.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure is out now on Bella Union.