American indie rocker John Grant has made a career of exorcising his demons through music. He revisited his unhappy childhood growing up gay in a Southern Baptist family and detailed the agony of substance abuse and sex addiction on his first two critically acclaimed solo albums, 2010's Queen of Denmark and 2013's Pale Green Ghosts.
Though the music sometimes sounds melancholy, Grant, who was nominated last year alongside Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Eminem, and Drake for Best International Male Solo Artist at the Brit Awards, writes irrepressibly witty lyrics that buoy his songs, which aim to explore and shed the past.
"For me, every single thing I do seems to be about the process of letting go because that's what I so desperately need to do with so many things, with fear, with what people think of me and all these things I've worried about my whole life," Grant says by telephone from his home in Iceland.
The singer has been an expat for several years, having moved to Reykjavik to record Pale Green Ghosts. There he met his partner of two years, a graphic designer whose name he won't reveal.
Humor, for the 48-year-old Grant, who's been sober now for several years, has long been a way of coping with the anguish of his life. He tells a potential lover he's the "greatest motherfucker that you're ever going to meet" on 2010's "GMF."
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But he proves he's bad at breakups on Queen of Denmark's title track, which finds him telling a departing lover, "I pissed in your coffee."
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Grant wrote about his 2011 HIV diagnosis in the fabulist "Ernest Borgnine," which finds the singer wondering what the late character actor would do in his shoes.
His third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, due October 2, boasts a song about cheering up a depressed lover via voodoo doll ("I made a voodoo doll of you / then I gave it some chicken soup"), and another that celebrates true love while toasting several of Grant's favorite Saturday Night Live funny ladies. Meanwhile, the album's title track again finds him examining life with HIV.
I can't believe I missed New York during the '70s
I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease
I'm sure that I would have contracted every single solitary thing
Though he wanted the album to be angry, Grant says he ended up having a lot of fun making it, partly because his guest vocalists included frequent collaborator Sinead O'Connor as well as the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer, and Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorn.
Hear Grant and Thorn on the album's first single "Disappointing," released this week.
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"I think mostly the kind of experience I want other people to get from this record is to do a lot of laughing and a lot of shaking their butt," Grant says. "People have always painted me like a pessimist, like somebody who sees the glass half-empty. But I think the fact that I keep showing up and saying, 'No, there must be a way for me to live in this world,' that shows I'm an eternal optimist."
"I feel like you can hear that on this record," he continues. "Yes, it is a dark and bleak record, but, also, thank God for Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn and roller coasters and the moon and trees and the absolute stunning beauty of this planet."
Grant credits Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Gary Larson of The Far Side comic strip, and The Simpsons with informing his decidedly offbeat sense of humor. That penchant for the odd is evident in the new album's NSFW trailer, which finds a blood-splattered Grant holding a mallet and smiling maniacally.
Still, in his music and in his life, as fans know, Grant struggles with the aftermath of a tough childhood. He grew up in a "deeply religious" family who moved from small-town Michigan to Colorado when he was a boy. His parents, sensing something "different" about their son, sent him to a shrink at a young age.
"Being gay simply wasn't an option," he says, explaining that he constantly tried to act masculine, obsessively monitoring how he walked and talked -- even how he smiled. He famously wrote about his father's homophobia in the 2010 song "Jesus Hates Faggots." Neighborhood bullies also were a source of anxiety. He recalls being attacked by one when he was in his early teens, an episode that so frightened him, he peed his pants. "I remember feeling completely humiliated because when I went inside my house, I knew that I could never tell my parents that I had been attacked right out front of our house," Grant recalls, adding at that time it did not even occur to him to stand up for himself.
"I wasn't worth defending," he explains.
Though he now lives abroad, the singer was happy to hear of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage and he believes the U.S.'s growing acceptance of LGBT people will prevent future generations from experiencing the kind of pain he did as a young person struggling with his sexuality during the Reagan-Bush administrations. "Gay people are so used to being told, 'What you do can't work. Your relationship is not valid,' and 'Your relationship cannot work because it's wrong, and it goes against nature, and so you will never be successful in loving anyone or trying to let somebody love you,'" Grant says.
Those messages haunted him as he grew older, he says, and they cast a shadow over his own love life. It was only in the past few years, he explains, that he's been able to allow another man to touch his body without being drunk.
"When you deal with the ramifications of having this said to you throughout your life, it leads to the neuroses and the addictions and the constant search for approval and the constant search for sex, which means 'I am desired, I am a desired person' and 'It's possible for someone to find me desirable.'"
Grant's sex addiction continued even after he stopped using drugs and alcohol, and he believes all of it springs from the same core issue -- a lifelong struggle with feelings of rejection. His "self-destructive urges," he says, allowed him to get clean only to "rush out and still have unprotected sex and get HIV."
Growing up in a culture of intolerance is one reason Grant is now adamant about writing openly about his life in his music and using male pronouns in his love songs. It's also important for his sobriety, he says. "I can only live in the world of truth, inasmuch as I'm able to be truthful with myself at any given point, on any given day. I think that the reason that I was driven to addictions, and the reason that destroyed my life and destroyed my self-esteem, was because I couldn't live in the real world because there was this constant conflict," Grant says.
Years of therapy have helped him reach the point where he can feel good about himself, he says. Still, Grant acknowledges he's learning as he goes, which his partner understands. "After a lifetime of self-hatred and escapism as a daily defense mechanism, I will say that I feel lucky to have somebody who is so patient with me, which is one of the things I love so much about him," he says. "I have to learn how to do a lot of the things for the first time."
Now, with several years' sobriety under his belt, the committed relationship he's always coveted, and a new album that should land him again on the critics' annual best of lists, Grant says life is more enjoyable.
"I'm definitely in a better place than I have ever been," he says. "I'm just glad to be awake for it, you know?"