John Grant sets the closing track to his latest album Pale Green Ghosts to images of the LGBTQ movement's fight for equal civil rights.
ts been an extraordinary journey for John Grant, from a point where he thought he would never make music again or escape a life of substance abuse to winning awards and accolades, collaborating with Sinead OConnor, Rumer and Hercules & Love Affair and having his music featured in the award-winning film Weekend.
Its a journey thats taken him from Buchanan, Michigan to Parker, Colorado, studying languages in Germany and, after his band The Czars split up, basing himself in New York, London, Berlin and, most recently, Iceland, where the bulk of Pale Green Ghosts was recorded. Its also been a journey from The Czars folk/country noir to the lush '70s FM alchemy of Queen Of Denmark to the astonishing fusion of sounds that lifts Pale Green Ghosts.
As if to acknowledge his journey, Grant has named the album after the opening title track, which documents the drives that hed regularly take through the '80s, from Parker to the nearby metropolis of Denver, to the new wave dance clubs that have inspired the electronic elements of Pale Green Ghosts, and later on to visit the boyfriend the 'TC of Queen Of Denmarks 'TC & Honeybear that inspired many of that albums heartbreaking scenarios.
Id take the I-25, between Denver and Boulder, which was lined with all these Russian olive trees, which are the pale green ghosts of the title: they have this tiny leaves with silver on the back, which glow in the moonlight, Grant explains. The song is about wanting to get out of a small town, to go out into the world and become someone and made my mark.
That Grant has made his mark is blatantly clear from how Queen Of Denmark was rapturously received. Like a couple of similarly intense classics before it Antony & The Johnsons I Am A Bird Now and Bon Ivers For Emma Queen Of Denmark sounds like a record its creator has been waiting his whole life to make, MOJO concluded. Another measure of achievement, and the journey, is that one classic that Grant first heard in those new wave clubs was Sinead OConnors 'Mandinka. Two decades later, OConnor has not only covered the title track of 'Queen Of Denmark on her latest album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, but supplies goose-bumping backing vocals on Pale Green Ghosts.
Sineads presence is a surprise, but not compared to the albums portion of synthesisers and beats unless you already know Grants enduring love of vintage synth-pop and industrial dance, and more current electronic acts such as Trentemller and Mock & Toof. Electronica is a huge part of my personality and my influences, though I dont think many people see that fitting in to the John Grant image, whatever that is, he says. There were occasional electronic undertows to Czars songs and two tracks ('Thats the Good News and 'Supernatural Defibrillator) on the deluxe edition of Queen Of Denmark were dance tracks.
One of those prime influences has even produced Pale Green Ghosts with Grant: Birgir rarinsson, a.k.a. Biggi Veira, of Icelands electronic pioneers Gus Gus. Queen of Denmark had been recorded in Texas with fellow Bella Union mates Midlake as his backing band, and Grant intended to return there to record again with the bands rhythm section of McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander. But a trip beforehand to see more of Iceland, after hed first played the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, led to meeting Biggi, who invited Grant to his studio in Reykjavik. The two tracks the pair recorded 'Pale Green Ghosts and 'Black Belt convinced Grant he had to make the entire record there.
If Queen Of Denmark is Grants '70s album, channeling the spirits of Karen Carpenter and Bread, then Pale Green Ghosts is his80s album. Of the electronic tracks, the title track is a panoramic, brooding classic, while 'Sensitive New Age Guy and 'Black Belt are the tracks that you might dance to in new wave clubs. 'You Dont Have To is a classic example of Grants influences blending together, in a reworked arrangement of a track unveiled during concert tours in 2011. It also features the distinct spacey Moog sounds that are familiar to lovers of Queen Of Denmark, while McKenzie and Alexander play on 'Vietnam and 'It Doesnt Matter To Him. Grants touring partner, keyboardist Chris Pemberton, plays the gorgeous piano coda on the albums tumultuous finale 'Glacier.
Besides Biggi, the album features a range of Icelandic musicians, including saxophonist skar Gudjnsson on 'Ernest Borgine, named after the legendary American film/TV actor. On an album of typically caustic revelations and scabrous humour, including sex, sexuality and the pitfalls of growing up in an era, and a particularly religious environment, that ostracised gay men, 'Ernest Borgnine combines all these strands with the admission that Grant is HIV positive.
Grants frankness also led to being arguably the first person to announce such news in front of a live audience, as he did when appearing with Hercules And Love Affair at Londons Meltdown festival in June 2012. HALA mainman Andy Butler had asked Grant to collaborate on a track ('I Tried To Talk To You). Its what I wrote the song about so I thought I should talk about it there and then, Grant explains his public declaration. I thought I shouldnt be afraid to talk about it, as there are lots of people in my situation, who feel like outcasts in society, people who had addiction problems, who feel ashamed and unlovable because of it. I want these people to know they have someone on a stage who is dealing with this too.
Grant has also never shied away from discussing depression, and Pale Green Ghosts is a show of strength and survival, of moving on with life, on what will continue to be an incredible journey. Moving to Reykjavik, at the age of 43, was incredibly risky and scary, says Grant. I didnt know anyone here, but Ive built up a life here, and recorded an album Im really proud of, that distils what Im about down to its most essential components, better than ever before. And this was during the middle of health issues. It means Im trying to take the bull by the horns, and to live.