It isn’t often I get to meet real poets. I have met poets, of course. If you study at Sussex it’s likely you’ll have found yourself watching an individual in a [insert preference] beret/ cape/ wedding dress, preaching to an audience about [insert preference] beatniks/ Brexit / c*nts. However, when I’ve been in these rooms, struggling to find the meaning, I tend to ask myself a question: am I listening to a poet, or another wannabe? 

I ask myself this question because it’s rare that I’m taken by the words. To find oneself hanging on the last line, wanting to hear the next, finding images flicker in your head… it means you’re listening to a poet. Self-identification is not quite enough. 

This is why I was excited to meet John Grant, because he doesn’t call himself a poet, and would question my use of the term. His albums Queen of Denmark and Pale Green Ghosts are art pieces, and display the kind of self-deprecating wit now taken by artists such as Father John Misty and Kurt Vile. Add his constant struggle with depression and estrangement from his parents, his work is truly that of substance, dealing with issues such as his sexuality, religion and relationships, he writes from an accessible perspective that speaks to the estranged. 

We meet on campus, conveniently. John is playing a small gig in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, a preamble to a tour scheduled for later this year. I meet his assistant, who takes me through the chambers and corridors backstage. She pours me a coffee from the cafetière and leads me through to John. 

He stands up to greet me, seemingly wearied. In a blue cheque shirt and jeans, bearded, there is something of the lumberjack about him, or hygge – he lives in Iceland. We shake hands and he asks me to sit down. He takes to the sofa and lies on his back, legs crossed and hanging over the arm. I sit with my recorder. 

“You can be my therapist.” He says, half joking. I’d expected nothing less. 

I ask him why he seems tired. 

“I overdid it last night.” He says. There was a woman in the audience, “my favourite singer in the whole world.” John was trying to impress her. In the corner of the room is a face mask with a respirator attached. It’s a steamer, he tells me. 

“I like to push myself.” He says. The significance of this will not reach me till the evening. He hits some high note and sustains them for an inhuman length. As I listen, all I can think of is the respirator. 

  John had a tumultuous upbringing. His sexuality contradicted the beliefs of his parents, orthodox Methodists, and so for his studies he travelled to Germany to study Russian in the German language. Considering his upbringing, I suggest how freeing this must have been for John.

“No.” He says. “It was exactly the opposite… I thought I was gonna get away from all the things that were bothering me in The States. I thought I was gonna get away from myself, I thought it was gonna be easy for me in terms of, of being gay, that it would be more welcoming, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t ready for German society.” 

This surprises me. I’d assumed that Germany held some subculture or society that John could have found. I’d assumed, in researching his education, that this was what he had found. But Germany offered John only a language he loved, some friends, and little else. This resembles certain stories I’ve known of students taking years abroad. Many of us know students who decide to take a year out somewhere else, perhaps to escape, and find themselves disappointed. This said, John seems to have gained the cultural knowledge you’d expect of a year abroad. He speaks five languages now. He’s astute in the differences between nations. 

“American children are brought up to be polite, German children are brought up to be right… It’s weird ‘cause British children are also polite, but they’re taught to think. And you’re unflappable.” He says. 

He meanders through discussions of various states. He has been to Russia and speaks the language, I ask him about Russia, if it’s scary to be there as a gay man. 

“Russians are wonderful people… but the things you see in documentaries [showing the persecution of homosexuals] that does exist. It is true, just like it’s true that in America you can be killed at any moment for doing anything… someone can just pull out a gun and shoot you in the head… and we think that’s normal. That’s the definition of insanity.” 

It’s obvious that John struggles to feel safe anywhere. The abuse he faced at the hands of others in youth appears to permeate his life now. His home, in Iceland, seems to be a safe space. I suggest Brighton could be too. I ask him whether gay pride is a movement he’s involved in, knowing that he has struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. 

“Not really… you know it’s funny because I didn’t really want to talk about my sexuality. It was something that was constantly forced on me.”

“From when you were young?” I say, worried I’m prying. 

“Yes. I just wanted to interact like another human… When I was young, and I couldn’t conceive of sex yet… Everybody knew what I was, and it was bad, and I was being punished for it and taken to task for it. It was everywhere I went. I couldn’t hide. Even when I went to Germany.”

Homophobia is everywhere.

“It was the same thing. If you had decades of people reacting to you in that way… of all different classes or cultures or countries; you finally go, ‘I must be something horrible’.” 

His lyrics reflect this. The alienation in John’s work manifests itself in confusion. He certainly seems like one with much love for others. His lyrics attempt to help others while pointing out the world’s hypocrisies. Don’t you pay them f**kers as they say no never mind/ they don’t give two sh*ts about you/ it’s the blind leading the blind. His struggle with Being persists, too, and his understanding of his dissociation is distinctly American. I don’t know that much about guns/ but I feel like I’ve been shot by one/ I am ashamed cause I don’t know myself right now/ and I am 43. 

His attitude, however, is not one of defeat. Rather, it is one of resilience. He speaks of learning to love himself. 

“I don’t give a f*ck what you are. You deserve to love yourself and… feel compassion for other people… and live a life where you feel comfortable in your own skin.” He pauses. “Within bounds. I don’t feel you should be comfortable if you’re out there murdering people.”

That’s fair enough. We go on talking about this. John mentions that there’s a certain apathy among people now, in regards to people with ill morals. People who are apathetic to Trump, or not in support of certain movements such as Black Lives Matter. He had a person comment on an Instagram post recently, an anti-fascist post, telling him to chill out. He despairs. He says something like, how stupid are people… then he trails off. Of course they’re stupid. 

He shows me his phone. He’s a fan of Instagram and uses it to post what he finds beautiful. The columns are full of colour, books covers, illustrations and scenes. It’s at once a travelogue and a manifesto, though he uses very few words. His account is also absent of his face. He does not seem self-absorbed, though perhaps his Instagram is like that of many other fifty year olds. I ask him whether social media would have offered anything as a young man.  

“It’s not accurate to say that I think it’s negative… I do feel like we need more reading, more interaction and going out into the world. As someone with a history of addiction and low-self esteem and trauma and all that crap… I think there are a lot of good things [in social media]. There are great connections that are made. But there’s also a grotesque self-absorption… the me me me me me thing.” 

As an artist, I realise that there’s another dimension to social media. John’s albums have been met with five star reviews, but social media permits the interaction of artistic and personal opinion. Prejudice seeps through to one’s reception of an album and I wonder whether John gets attacked. Does he even reads people’s response to his works?

“People write, ‘I can’t believe I had to wait three years for this sh*t.”

I ask whether he prefers critics or the Youtube commenters. 

“I don’t search for reviews, but sometimes you can’t get away from it. As a rule, I think you should ignore both good and bad. It’s subjective. People have different tastes. We all hear a song on the radio and say ‘what the f*ck is that crap?’”

For a moment we fret over various songs we hate, various reasons for the decline of civilisation. We produce a small theory explaining why the music industry is failing, then I realise, John could very well be making music people hate. We could be inside in an echo chamber. I ask him if he ever makes music that no one (emphatically, I say, no one) likes? 

He starts. 

“Usually,” he laughs, “when I think it’s good. Someone’s gonna thing it’s good too.” 

I believe this. 

We’ve been speaking for an hour and a half. I’ve lost track, but at some point John declared the therapy session over, and sat up to talk to me. Overhead a piano sounds. It plays something unbelievably complex. I wonder whether there’s a small concerto going on. 

Eventually John’s assistant enters and calls him for soundcheck. She asks what he wants for dinner, and he says spicy chicken. We rise up through the chambers all together. The piano fades and we enter an empty auditorium where a few stray people mull about. The pianist is sat at the stool texting. I see the silhouette of the lighting guy. Over behind some curtains, a guy flicks some switches. 

The lights on the stage change. A floodlight switches to a spotlight so that John and I stand in relative shade. I marvel at the piano, a finely tuned Steinway Grand. Adjacent to it is a little box, something far too technical. It’s a synth, I think. Later in the show it makes alien noises. It’s hard to see how it compliments the piano, but it does. When the show starts, the theatre changes into a lonely little planet populated by John Grant alone. His songs are its language.

Categories: Music

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