By Quentin Young
When John Grant last played a show in the Denver area, his life was falling apart in pretty much every way. Now he’s returning, and the personal and professional success he’s claimed in the intervening years is almost miraculous.
A Michigan native who grew up from age 12 in Englewood and Parker, Grant was the frontman of The Czars, a moody Denver rock band that enjoyed mild success until it ran aground about 2004.
His off-stage self was almost done in by drugs, alcohol and self-loathing, and his on-stage self didn’t seem to have much of a future. Then, in 2010, he released his first solo album, the bracing Queen of Denmark, which quickly garnered critical acclaim and proved the first of an ascending succession of triumphs.
Now a resident of Iceland, he has long been sober and has achieved fame in Europe. At the 2014 Brit Awards — the British Grammys — Grant was nominated for Best International Male Singer (maybe you’ve heard of the other nominees: Bruno Mars, Drake, Eminem and Justin Timberlake). He’s friends with Elton John, who, during a Madison Square Garden concert, according to a fuse.tv account, “took a break from his hit-stuffed set to urge everyone in the attendance to buy John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts, which he called the best album of 2013.”
Grant’s personal turnaround must have relied on an immense force of will, the source and difficulty of which only he can truly understand. But it’s clear to fans what’s behind his late musical success. His voice is deep and rich as a Hollywood voice-over actor, and his songwriting is scalp-tinglingly honest while being poetic and ear-pleasing. You can find yourself singing along to Grant’s lyrics even as they touch on subjects that in conversation would be uncomfortable. His struggles with depression, his homosexuality, his HIV-positive diagnosis — in interviews and in song, everything is on the table, and with his music, Grant handles it all with wit and imagination.It took the 47-year-old artist some years to be psychologically prepared for a return to Colorado. But now he’s ready, he said. Grant, who just released his latest solo album Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, will perform with his band at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on Oct. 24. He recently spoke with the Daily Camera from his home in Iceland. The interview is edited for space and clarity:
Q: I understand you haven’t been back to Colorado in quite a while. Is that correct?
A: I come at Christmas every year to see my brother and sister and see my friends, so I’ve been back there, but I haven’t played there since The Czars fell apart and I started my solo career. It’s sort of a — well, not sort of, (the Fox show is) a big deal for me personally.
Q: Was that a conscious choice on your part?
A: Yeah, I think in some ways it was … Part of it was just that I was trying to make my way and was busy doing that. But I also didn’t want to return until I felt ready to do so … It’s a big one for me, because that’s the show (in your home state) where you don’t really want to do it unless you’ve succeeded, you know, unless you’ve gone out into the world and succeeded … At least half the people in the audience know you and they know you well, they’ve seen you at your worst, and they’ve gone through a lot with you and they’re the people that really know you. It’s a scary one. And then you’ve got family, you’ve got people from high school, teachers, people like that. Yeah, it was definitely a decision on my part.
Q: It’s so interesting to hear you talk like that, because you’ve worked with some of the top names in the industry and have done some amazing things, and yet coming back to play in Boulder is such a big deal.
A: It’s probably the biggest deal that there is. It’s family and friends and it’s facing a lot of negative stuff that I’ve experienced there in my life. I mean, Boulder is where I basically had my heart broken pretty badly … I lost my mother to lung cancer in Denver, and I had to recovery from alcohol and drugs in Denver, and my band fell apart in Denver, so there’s a lot of pain and failure associated with that place. And it’s not really the place’s fault. It’s the baggage that you have connected to that place … For example, I found out that I had HIV in Sweden … And even though I loved that place and met so many wonderful, wonderful people there, after that happened to me I sort of went away from there … But, you know, Denver has some of the greatest people I know. The people I care about most live there, and so it is probably the most important place for me … I’ve put a lot of the past behind me and dealt with a lot of things, so I wanted to go back and in a very positive way and sort of share with my friends and family the things I’ve been experiencing, because I’ve been experiencing some really incredible things in the past five or six years now.
Q: Listening to your music, it’s obvious you’ve got a kind of poetic bent. Do you think of yourself as a poet? Do you write poetry?
A: No and no. That’s an easy question for me to answer. I remember when I first went to Germany to study German translation … I had a British professor for my German-to-English translation, and I was berated for having really poor English and was told that I needed to up my proficiency in my native tongue. And, you know, that was a real wake-up call for me. I realized I knew that she was right, and so I consciously made an effort to spend more time on English than I did on foreign languages … I never realized to what extent one could have a poor grasp of one’s own language. So I’ve just been really cognizant of that, and it’s taken me a long time to find my voice in English.
Q: What do you think when you look back on the stuff you used to write in your younger days?
A: With the old stuff, with The Czars, for example, there’s many different angles to look at it from. Mentally, inside of me, psychologically, I was avoiding myself for fear of exposing things about myself that I wasn’t ready to deal with myself. But I also may not have known exactly how to express things as well … The thing is, I always thought that when you’re a good songwriter, that means that whenever you sit down to write a song you just poop out a masterpiece in however amount of time you decide to take to write a song, and you don’t have to work at it. You’re just a natural at it. But I learned along the way that you can work at it, and you can choose to work at it, and you can choose to be aware and be conscious of becoming more aware of taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves to you throughout a given day. Because things are happening constantly, things that you don’t recognize as opportunities for songs are constantly happening, and I think it’s just a matter of understanding that anything can come from anywhere at anytime.Q: What was the last thing that happened to you in your everyday life that you recognized as the seed of a song? Has anything happened today so far?
A: I have to say that I’ve been closed today, because I just finished a whole cycle of making an album and recording it and going through the process of putting it out to the world and now rehearsing it with the band and getting ready to go out on tour, and so I’m sort of mentally exhausted, and I’m just gladly skipping over opportunities.
Q: That’s a nice luxury to have as an artist.
A: Yeah. Of course I write things down, I’m constantly writing things down. Today there was something funny. I went to the hospital with some flowers to visit a friend who’s in the hospital, and there was this guy — I was in the elevator with my boyfriend and the door was closing — and this guy, sort of like this older guy who looked like somebody who might be a lawyer or something, dressed casually in designer jeans that were too tight and everything, rushing to the elevator and got in there and made the door open up again so he could squeeze into the door and get into the elevator on that ride with us. But the door had to open and close, and it was a super slow process. But then he got in there and saw that we were just going up one floor, and then he started to complain about the fact that we were going up one floor. And then when we got out of the elevator, I looked back and he was staring at his own ass in the mirror and at his face and his hair. You know, it was just one of those caricatures. And I thought, “How can you be that way out in the world?” But it was a moment where I caught myself judging him harshly, and also it was this anthropological observation about just another example of what is running around there … That might tickle me down the road for a song or something about a total lack of self-awareness.
Q: I’ll listen for that in the future. What are you preparing for the Boulder show?
A: Well, there’s this particular song I probably began to write in my mind when I was working at Carmine’s on Penn, down in Denver, which is where I worked throughout my entire time in The Czars and through all the touring and stuff that I did with the band back then. I think I’m probably only going to do the song in Boulder, because there’s going to be a lot of people in the audience who will understand exactly where that song came from.
Q: What is the song called?
A: (Says the title), but I sort of wouldn’t want you to put the name of the song down, because I sort of want to surprise people with it … It’s something we prepared in rehearsals to play specifically at that show. And we’ll be playing mostly the new record, but then there’s a lot of stuff from the old things I haven’t played for my family or friends ever before, because I haven’t been back, and so depending on the evening, how the vibe is and everything — I imagine it could be very emotional for me. It could be a long show.
Q: Do you see this as kind of a triumphant return?
A: I would have to say it wouldn’t be up to me to say that. I would say not a triumphant return but a very joyous return. Because the people that loved me there, they’ve always loved me whether I was successful with this or not, so as far as that goes, you know, I’ve never been the type of person that thought I needed to get my shit together so that other people would love me, because I knew that most of the people who love you, they’ve always done that whether you were successful or not, simply because they love who you are. And, you know, it’s necessary for me to get my shit together for myself, because I want to figure out how to live and figure out how to enjoy life and figure out how to minimize the damage from down time and depression and just figure out how to make the most of what you’ve got in this life and not live in the past and the future constantly. So I would describe it as a very excited and positive return. But triumphant? I think people at the show will have to decide that.
If you go
What: John Grant
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24
Where: Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder