Photography by Hörđur Sveinsson
The irony of the request made to John Grant to create his own “It Gets Better” video was not lost on the singer. “I never did it,” he says, “because what I really wanted to say was, ‘No, it doesn’t get better, because adults are worse than children.’ ” Grant’s adult life has been punctured by the physical manifestations of his perennial self-esteem issues: first, nihilistic drug and alcohol habits; then, two years ago, in his seventh year of sobriety, an HIV test for which he tested positive. He has Wagnerian levels of pathos about it all. “Part of what I felt when I got the virus was relief, because I could stop worrying about getting it then,” he says. In one sense it did get better, after all.
At the start of this year I met Grant twice at Strongroom, his favored recording space in East London, and sat rapt in his wise, mordant humor. He is big and broad with kind eyes, an example of that fully bearded plaid type that Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have made the symbol of Pitchfork-rock normalcy. His tough, unforgiving self-perception has earned him plaudits from multiple shrinks. “I’ve been told by therapist after therapist, ‘Wow, you have incredible insight into the mechanics of being you,’ ” he says. A caveat usually follows: “But what are you going to do with that?”
Grant sings it. His work prevaricates on the weaknesses of being a man. His go-to lyrical trick is to touch on a truism about masculinity, then undercut it with a diffident quip. A cruelly elegant couplet on “GMF,” from his new album, Pale Green Ghosts, is typical Grant: “Half of the time I think I’m in some movie/ I play the underdog, of course/ I’m wondering who they’ll get to play me/ Maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.” (WATCH: the video for "Pale Green Ghosts" here.)
Pale Green Ghosts is the first record Grant has released to any kind of expectation outside the small, committed fan base he accrued as the singer of his old band, the Czars. It broadens the scope and grandeur of his 2010 breakthrough, Queen of Denmark, adding some carefully aggregated electronic embellishments to his ear for classic, minor-key melodies. He is very much the black notes on the keyboard, and when he strikes a chord in the face of manhood, it chimes hard. Some of his friends have called him up after watching the comedian Louis C.K. expose the raw tendons of his male failures to say, “That guy is you,” to which Grant replies, “That’s fine with me. That’s who I want to be. He’s beautiful.”
Musically, Grant operates in the lineage of the great, usually straight, brokenhearted piano man. He nods approvingly as I mention the heritage he shares with the Eagles’ “Desperado” (which he calls “amazing”), Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire” (“Another one that kills me”), and Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album (“Now there is an amazing man”). We wind up spending 10 minutes Wikipedia-ing Billy Joel’s Glass Houses. Grant says Joel’s infidelity to the model Christie Brinkley hit him hard as a teenager in the ’80s: “I felt so sorry for her.” He talks about the self-sabotage button that might have led Joel to stray. “This thing with silence and lack of emotion in men, I loathe,” he says, “and I don’t buy it. In fact, I know it’s a lie. This feeling of being willing to give up somebody just to win the game -- even if you really love them -- would make a great horror movie.”
Grant might yet turn out to be the gay version of that thing. He doesn’t mind the idea of becoming “the gay” anything. “I mean, why not?” he asks. He made a deliberate decision to talk about his HIV status, announcing it with nervous flair onstage at a Hercules & Love Affair show in London last year. “I thought, You’re not allowed to do this, you can’t do this, you shouldn’t do this, and then I was like, OK, well, I have to.” He adds that he knew the outcome of the test before he was given it, though there had been occasions before when he felt the same way and tested negative: “This time I knew for a fact. I counted back. I was on tour in the States and I had the flu really bad. It was fucking horrible, and I realized that was me seroconverting, because it was exactly two weeks after the incident.”
Growing up under the specter of “Sex=Death,” he’d schooled himself on seroconversion. “It’s the process of the virus taking hold in the body and making its little home in there,” he explains. “I was on my way to Sweden for the first time, and I was living with a girl I didn’t know very well, and the first thing I had to do was tell her I needed to find a doctor because I had just gotten a text the day before while I was buying shoes and a backpack to move to Sweden. I was so excited, because I was in Berlin and I had a break. I was going to spend two months in Sweden working with Kleerup on some electronic music and it was fucking exciting, right? Then I got this text saying ‘I’ve got bad news for you.’ It was this guy I’d fucked, just once, and I didn’t even know him, so it was obvious what he was going to tell me. I just felt my blood freeze. But here I am and I do have it and I’m getting along just fine.”
He has noticed a change in his sexual behavior, if not his appetite. “I don’t think I’ve had actual sex since, and it’s been two years. Destructive attitudes to sex are really difficult to deal with. Anything to do with sex when it’s going wrong is hard, like an eating disorder.”
Grant talks a lot about shame, in his music and in conversation. But his behavior is more telling. During one of our chats, a student-looking character enters the room to get Wi-Fi access. Grant is in the middle a brutally honest monologue on sex and the modern man, so I ask if he’d like to change the subject. “No, I don’t want to,” Grant answers. “I feel like it’s almost taboo in gay society to talk about the difficulty of what goes on between two men.” In revealing his own complex internal struggle, the piano man continues to resist the trappings of a modern-day, two-dimensional, corporate idea of “pride.” Might we be ready to man up and tell the truth: It gets... different?