I meet John Grant in Milan, a couple of hours before the showcase arranged to introduce his latest record, “Pale Green Ghosts”, to the press, on its official release date. He’s a bit tired, having just completed a long tour through many radio and TV studios in town, proving the increasing attention that’s being drawn on the songwriter’s work. From our very introduction, it’s clear that our is going to be a chat rather than an interview, and this will only help unconvering some hidden sides of the former Czars’ music.
...have you been going to festivals?
I can see from your wrist...
Oh, yeah! They’re the End of the Road’s wristbands.
Aw! Such a good festival!
Yes, it is actually.
It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?
Yes, yes. We won’t be returning this year, and we’ll really regret it. We’ve been there for two years in a row.
I saw, and it’s really good this year too!
Yeah, there’s going to be Sigur Ros, Belle & Sebastian...
I saw that too, and it’s going to be great!
So, today it’s your record’s release day...
I know, I’m so excited! I keep forgetting about it though...
How do you feel about it?
I mean, for me it’s been out for a year now, you know [laughs], so it’s exciting, I’m glad that it’s finally out there.
What do you expect, this time?
I don’t ever expect anything [laughs] I just sort of wait and see, I hope people enjoy it and right now I’m more thinking about getting out on the road and playing the first live shows, I’ve got two very big shows this week, in London and back to Reykjavik.
Oh, yes, because you’re in Iceland now... How is it, over there?
It’s amazing. It’s really beautiful, you know, it’s very relaxed, the landscape it’s beautiful, I’ve met really great people there, I made some good friends.
You recorded “Pale Green Ghosts” there...
Yes, the whole thing.
Did you write part of it there too, or just recorded it?
Part of it was written there too, I mean, I wrote “Glacier” there and I finished a lot of the songs, like “Blackbelt”. I did a lot of writing there, as well.
Did the place have some influence on you, in some way?
Well, absolutely, but I think what most inspires me is going to the studio everyday, which it’s sort of difficult sometimes. Anyway, it’s just so beautiful there. I think it was just a more general inspiration, but, you know, the song “Glacier” came from watching a landscape there and that was very inspiring.
When Queen of Denmark came out, did you expect the reception it had, something like winning a Mojo Award for Record of the Year, for example?
No, I didn’t expect that at all, and it’s still hard to believe...
Yes, even now I haven’t. I didn’t expect that kind of reception so it was very exciting for me.
What amazed me while first hearing “Queen of Denmark” was the sincerity in it, telling it all as it is, I guess, without putting any fiction in it – you know, sometimes I talk to songwriters and they say “I have to put fictions among my stories not to let them all out like that”, but you didn’t...
No, I didn’t. I mean, of course in some ways you can consider it fiction because it’s only my perception of the world, which is maybe not necessarily real for someone else; for me, it’s the truth, or as much as I can be truthful with myself. But, you know, there’s so many different ways of looking at something, right?, and so you’re just getting one side of it from me, my perception. So, I’m sure it can be considered fiction in some ways still because it’s filtered through my mind, and what would it look like, if you were to see all these scenes when they were happening, might’ve been very different to you, and in fact I’m sure they would look very different to you. It’s all been put through the machinery of my mind. But I think what’s important about it’s for me to be as honest as I can be on how I perceive things.
Weren’t you afraid of being judged by people who would listen to it?
No. Not really. I mean, sometimes I think about it, and I don’t want to be judged, but honestly I don’t really care; because I’ve been judged a lot, and I’m gonna get judged more, and I judge people, I think everybody does that.
Well, it’s human.
It’s a human thing to do, and it just doesn’t matter. What matters is for me to try and learn how to live my life, in a way that’s not destructive for me. I think it’s really important to me to try and learn to just enjoy life, and to try and learn to have compassion for the people and learn how to connect to other people, learn how to love, and learn how allow myself to be loved, that seems to be a very hard thing to do for me, and so, I think these are the important things.
Reading around all the interviews and features that appeared online about you so far, it seems to me that many times your story is preceding your music. As a musician, is it ok with you?
Yes, people want to talk about me before they want to talk about the music. That doesn’t bother me at all. Because the music, you can listen to it, and that’s what the music is for, to be listened to, and maybe you don’t want to talk about it as much. But, I mean, talking to me about who I am is talking about the music, because you can’t really separate those two in my case. I don’t really mind that.
You are a really good pianist...
No, that’s a really good pianist, the guy who’s playing right now [Chris Pemberton, who’s rehearsing for the showcase in the other room], I’m just ok...
I’m quite curious to know about your musical education, because I think I never heard you talking about it.
Well I didn’t have that much of an education, I just grew up taking piano lessons, classical piano lessons, but it was private, I never went to school.
What were you listening to while growing up?
From a classical stand point, I liked to play ragtime music, like Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, William Bolcom, but then, during that time –I was taking lessons a lot in the Eighties– I was also very much into pop music and electronic music. I was listening to Eurythmics, Missing Persons were one of my favorite bands, Devo, Cabaret Voltaire, Yello, Chris & Cosey, Fad Gadget, D.A.F., New Order, Depeche Mode, tons of Depeche Mode, you know, Ministry, Skinny Puppy, a lot of that industrial, electronic stuff as well, the “Electronic Body Music Order” that was called, stuff coming out of Belgium, like Play It Again Sam, Click Click and Front 242. I also liked things like Jean Michel Jarre and a lot of the Italian Italo Disco, but I don’t know that much about it. Italy has got a lot of great electronic stuff too.
How does your songwriting work? How does a song come up to you?
It’s always different, a lot of times it’s a chorus, but sometimes it could just be anything. It could be an idea, just an idea or a word that I like. It could be an idea at the piano, it could be a melody, usually it’s a chorus, it seems to be that’s what happens a lot. Sometimes I get the whole song right away [snaps its fingers] in ten - twenty minutes, half an hour, something like that –that’s rare, you know, but it happens sometimes–. So, it happens in different ways, sometimes I can get part of the song and then I can’t get the rest for many months, but I know it will always come if I don’t worry about, if I just let it happen. I think you can work at it, but when you don’t get it you also shouldn’t worry about it because it will come eventually –which is hard to remember when you’re in the process [laughs].
So, the sound of “Pale Green Ghosts” is related to those past listenings, but did the idea of an electronic record come intentionally, or did it just happen on the way?
I’ve always wanted to do it, I wanted to do it since the beginning, but it just wasn’t ever the right time, and now’s finally the right time. It just seems like a very natural thing to me, because it’s a huge part of my past, and a huge part of the present, too. I listen to a lot of electronic music and I just love synthesizers, I love their sounds, you know!
The first time I ever heard you playing live it was in 2011 at the End of the Road Festival, you were onstage with a synth only, and it came as a total surprise, I didn’t expect something like that. Then I heard you at the last End of the Road, in 2012, and you had a piano and a violin, and it sounded totally different.
Yes, that was right. I was just finishing the album at that time, and I didn’t really want to perform because I hadn’t played any of those songs before, and I wasn’t really ready, I was tired and I was sort of more concentrating in finishing the record because I still had two more months to go before it got finished but still I had a really good time.
How will you present the new record live?
With a full band. There’s gonna be a lot of electronics but there’ll also be guitar, bass, and computers and keyboards. We’re gonna play mostly the new stuff, the new album, with something from the old stuff here and there.
Still at the last End of the Road I first heard “GMF”, which is the song I’m most attached to in the new album. I saw a video, which I think is the official clip, with you playing basketball, and I found that that video with that song was quite the key to understand the record. Do you agree?
Yes, I can understand that, that makes sense. I agree that it could be that way, for some people, you know. It’s hard for me to tell, because I understand it and it’s coming from me, but it’s interesting for you to say that.
Just as much as the title of the album, “Pale Green Ghosts”, which you told is referring to some trees on a road you would drive through way back in Colorado, suggests something related with personal ghosts from the past...
So, maybe more than "Queen of Denmark", this record can be taken in some ways as a self-help record?
I don’t know. May be. That’s quite possible. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but it definitely feels like a darker record to me, in some ways.
I can find many, let’s say, “contradictions” in it, because a song like “Blackbelt”, with its lyrics, has a dance base and sound, so at first someone can think about it as something you can dance to in a disco, but then if you carefully listen to the lyrics...
Yeah, I think I like doing that too, I like putting things together that don’t necessarily belong together. But the self-help thing, it feels like “Queen of Denmark” was the same thing to me. It’s interesting to hear that point of view, but I’m not sure, I mean, I suppose what I’m doing is trying to understand my history, and try to understand the world, that seems a difficult thing for me to do and I also tend to want to escape a lot, into different things, like movies... anything to avoid looking at the mirror and dealing with this [pointing at his body] and so it’s my way of sort of facing myself.
Talking about influences, what surprised me it’s you using Rachmaninov as an inspiration, as a source for an electronic sound like the title track’s.
Well I think there have been a lot of people who’ve done things like that in the past, like this japanese artist, Tomita, who’s done a whole album with Debussy just with synthesizers, so maybe it’s an old idea but I think what’s different about this it’s that I’m using Rachmaninov on “Pale Green Ghosts” just for the string section, based on the Prelude in C# minor which is one of my favorite pieces of music.
Yes, it’s great.
Isn’t it beautiful?
Yes, I love Rachmaninov.
Me too, and it just occured to me while I was making “Pale Green Ghosts” that it would fit right on top of that. It was just a way for me to reference one of the things that I love, you know, and also make me feel sort of clever, too. [laugh] But I love that piece of music so much, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.
I can also –but maybe this is more linked to my background rather than yours– hear a lot of jazzy sound in your albums, more in “Queen of Denmark” than in “Pale Green Ghosts” –for example, the piano in “Where Dreams Go To Die”. Is that possible?
Yeah! I mean, that’s interesting, I’ve never heard that before, but it makes sense, because jazz has been an important part of my background too, mostly with Nina Simone. She’s one of my biggest influences, I think she’s one of the greatest singers of all time, I don’t think anybody would ever... she’s the greatest, the GMF. I got to see her live, once, she brought classical music and jazz together a lot, in very amazing ways, you know, like the “Little Boy Blue” with Bach. I think that’s a very interesting comment, I think that it’s probably true, I never really thought about it.
I found that more in the live performances, maybe more than on the record, but that piano interlude in the song it’s so jazzy, and it’s strange because at the same time in “Queen of Denmark” I can hear a lot of the Beatles. The way you can mix those jazz and classical influences with pop is quite amazing – I don’t know if you do that purposely.
Oh, that’s a very nice thing to hear. I do that intentionally, but it’s also a difficult thing, because you want to let it all happen naturally. It is my intention, sure, but it has to work. If it doesn’t work then it doesn’t matter, ‘cause it’s just not going to happen, you know.
One last question, I know you’ve been collaborating with Hercules & Love Affair, how was this experience, what should we expect from that?
Well, I don’t know, I find it very difficult to collaborate with other people, because I feel that I can never do as good with them as I could do on my own, I feel like I do better when I’m just doing my own thing. I don’t know if [Andrew Butler] is gonna use any of the stuff we did together on the new album, I think he might be, and we’re supposed to go into the studio again, but I don’t know when, supposedly maybe at the end of march, when I have a couple of minutes. I love working with Andy, he’s a really smart guy and he’s a friend, and so it’s just a good opportunity to hang out with a friend as well, which is the most important thing to me. But I feel I can do better with him, I feel like I need more time to work with him, so I don’t know what’s is going to come out of this relationship, but I think something cool.
Thank you, John.
My pleasure, thank you.
[Thanks to Marco Aimo/ Cooperative Music who made the interview possible]