John Grant is not your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter. He’s a superstar overseas, but he’s relatively unknown in the U.S., where he was born. He lives in Iceland and speaks four languages. He’s openly gay. And he’s HIV positive, as well as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.
Grant’s journey from obscurity in Buchanan, Mich. to playing sold-out gigs at London’s Royal Albert Hall started in the 1990s with his band The Czars, which released eight albums over 12 years. This was a big deal for Grant, who had come from a home where his parents were convinced he needed to be “fixed” because of his sexual orientation.
“When I was young, people were so disgusted by me,” Grant says. “Before I even knew that I was gay … everybody else had it figured out and, you know, they were letting you know.”
Even as The Czars gained critical acclaim, Grant submerged self-hatred, dysfunctional relationships and anxiety in an oblivion of alcohol and drugs. “I spent a lot of time caring, and it drove me to really just try and annihilate my brain,” he says. “I just felt that I was going to fall apart if I didn’t learn to be myself.”
The Czars split. Grant stopped drinking, and he stopped making music for a couple of years of recovery. He says he began to find the courage to bring out his whole self through his first two solo records. He sang about being HIV positive, and railed against a bad boyfriend.
Ultimately, Grant realized he was dealing with severe depression. “Sometimes I still can’t believe how much it can beat me down,” he says.
BBC 6 Music Presenter Mary Anne Hobbs says Grant’s songs can be painfully self-aware. “Most songwriting, even if it’s based on a true story … is embellished in some way,” she says. “But John’s lyrics — they’re so true they might as well be written in blood.”
Grant says people close to him have questioned whether it’s good to expose so much of himself, but he says he enjoys performing intensely personal music.
“Sometimes, you might be feeling like you’re dredging things up, but that isn’t usually what’s happening,” he says. “Usually, you sort of dealt with it and went through it when you wrote the song. And then when you perform it, there’s just the joy of connecting with people.”
Pioneering singer and broadcaster Tom Robinson was one of the first rockers to come out as gay and mix music with LGBTQ liberation. He says Grant’s 2015 record, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, exudes a powerful confidence.
“If I had heard a song like ‘Snug Slacks’ when I was a gay teenager in the ’60s, I think he could have saved me 10 or 15 years of heartache and pain,” Robinson says. “It’s so great to hear somebody making music this unashamed and yet this irresistible.”
Grant says he wants listeners to hear the fun in his music, because that’s a part of him, too. “I want it to be a mixture of pain and laughter,” he says, “which is a good representation of what life is like.”
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