John Grant Escapes From the Present By Exploring His Past on New Album Boy From Michigan

Interviews
07/23/2021
Janice Headley
all photos by Hörður Sveinsson

The last time KEXP spoke with John Grant, the introspective Iceland-based singer/songwriter shared a list of his Five Fave Scary Movie Soundtracks. And now, with his latest album Boy From Michigan (released June 25 via Bella Union), Grant has created his own horror movie score.

While most of the songs take place during Grant’s adolescence and young adulthood as a closeted gay boy in conservative rural Michigan and, later, outside of Denver, Colorado, it was the terrifying, anxiety-inducing state of the nation that inspired the new release. 

Songs like “County Fair” and the album’s title track find Grant retreating to the innocence of childhood, while other songs like “Your Portfolio” (a song Grant has called "a poem in honor of money") and “The Only Baby” (a scathing takedown of Trump) confront the monster right in its face. The album opens with a Goblin/Suspiria-esque noise piece, while “Dandy Star” has the eerie atmosphere of a John Carpenter track. Thankfully, Grant had Welsh artist Cate Le Bon by his side as producer and friend, providing a safe space for these memories and thoughts to unfurl. 

Years ago, I fell in love with my own “boy from Michigan,” relocating me from my cherished Seattle to a rural city only 15 minutes away from Grant’s hometown of Buchanan. Since its release, this album has provided me with the perfect soundtrack for driving down dusty roads, speeding past farm stands framed by lush, green trees and wide expanses of apple orchards. It was from my office in my partner’s 100-year-old farmhouse (whose window frames reminded Grant of his Grandmother's home) that I called Grant, who was surrounded by records and posters in his Reykjavik home (visible here). 


THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH AND CLARITY

Did you go into this knowing “I want to write an album about my adolescence” or did it start to come together – like a song came out, another song came out, and then you realized, “Oh, wait, I have this cohesive thing going on.”

You know, it just came out that way, I knew, watching what was going on in the States, that something really broke. I guess it's always been broken, but something came out from behind a curtain during that last “presidency”... that last whatever-the-fuck that was. Where some fucking Las Vegas snake oil salesman was able to get America's Christians to stamp swastikas on their Bibles and think that was totally normal.

Did that trigger for you memories of growing up in the Midwest?

Yeah, it just reminded me of it. It made me think that those people who I grew up with are still there and even stronger than ever, and now sort of winning. 
 
I mean, there was a lot of beauty growing up. I know you hear that on the record; there was a lot of beauty growing up in Michigan. But I just... [sighs] It made me physically sick to see what was happening. It really made a lot of stuff come out. I don't think that we've come to terms with our past enough in the States at all. And I don't know what to do except make my music. It doesn't feel like enough.
 
I feel like in your songs, in your albums, that vulnerability you share gives that relatable-ness where people can connect and — this is a big thing for KEXP — know you're not alone. So, I think it's great that you can do that with your music.
 
I think being vulnerable is being strong because, in this world, we're taught that we have to be hard. I think the American way is just: stay busy. Stay busy and distract yourself and then you don't have to worry about who you are, what you're becoming, what you were, or anything. 

You know, it's funny because I don't expect anybody to give a shit about my story, and I feel like that's irrelevant whether anybody does or not. It's about you being able to. It's about figuring out who you are. I mean, for me, anyway. It feels more like a survival mechanism, making songs. Like a reaction to the world.

I think being vulnerable is being strong...

I know that in your adulthood you eventually moved to Germany and now you're living in Reykjavik. Did you feel like you couldn't be vulnerable in America and you had to go elsewhere to actually allow yourself to stop being busy all the time?
 
That's a good question. I think maybe that is possible because it seems like surviving in the States for me was connected to alcohol and drug abuse. In 2004, when I quit using, I started to come to terms with all the brokenness in me. Because, basically, I took everything out on myself. Some people go outwards and take it out on people around them. What I learned was that even if you're doing it to yourself, it eventually spills out into your surroundings as well. I was thinking, well, I can do what I want because it's just me that I'm hurting, but it's not because it affects all of your relationships. It affects your ability to have a relationship, affects your familial relationships, it affects everything. 

Do you feel like it's not like that in Iceland?
 
When you're talking to people about the state of the US, they're like, "You think other places are better?" Um, no, not really, I don't think other places are better. I think every place is fucked up. But the United States has played a special role in the fucked-up-ness of the entire world by introducing our form of mind control. 

I mean, the US is an incredible, beautiful place. There's a lot of great places in the world. I can imagine being happy in lots of different places. I can imagine living in the States again. Everywhere is fucked up, but the US sort of has this… advertising. I think about this aggressive form of American advertising, which is really no different than propaganda, is it?
 
I'm curious, do you meditate?
 
I try occasionally, but I'm not very good at it. I mean, every time somebody tells me to meditate, I want to strangle them, even though I feel like it's probably a good idea and I have had some good moments with it. I think it's good to get perspective. I mean, I definitely have a problem with being on my phone and being on my computer too much.
 
Oh, yeah. The new addiction.
 
That's the new addiction, and it's a pretty insidious, stubborn addiction. [Sighs] I've been so affected by the US by growing up there and I really absorbed everything, like a good little American. When I went out into the world, I was so ignorant about everything, just about what was going on in the rest of the world. I didn't know anything about politics. I still feel like I know very little about it, except that I don't like it.
 
I feel like the US has always been the only place that was screaming at the top of its lungs, "This is the way." You know, "this is the best, we're the best," "our system is the only thing worth doing," and when you look at our country and all the brokenness with the infrastructure and all the homelessness and the crazy-ass drug problems… How can we think that we got it right? 

I thought it was interesting how the album goes through a lot of your childhood, your adolescence, and then it has this break with "Your Portfolio" and "The Only Baby." At first, I was like, oh, that kind of breaks thematically, but then I realized, actually no, that's completely on theme.
 
Yeah.
 
And then the album concludes with “Billy” and it has that refrain of “the members of the cult of masculinity.”

It's funny because I love masculinity. It's a very sexy thing to me. It's what I'm attracted to. And yet, I feel like competitiveness is seen as an American staple as well. I feel like it's used to keep divisions. 
 
Did you feel a lot of division growing up?
 
Well, I mean, racially, there was a divide there. Where I grew up in Michigan, we were taught, we don't mix with “those people.” And that was weird. That didn't make sense, you know?

I remember a story where my grandmother and grandfather, who are both gone now, who lived there in Buchanan, Michigan, they'd been going to the same Methodist church for like 70 years when they died. At one point they got a new Black preacher. And my grandfather said, "We're not going there anymore." But my grandmother said, "Not only are we going to continue to go there, you're going to love that man." She's like, "You must be out of your mind, buddy. That's not how we do things here. That's not what this is about, what we're doing."
 
That's kind of radical for a woman of that age, in that era.
 
Yeah, so I mean, there's people thinking and changing on both sides everywhere all the time. There's definitely things to be positive about, for sure. I don't mean to be a wet blanket here. And there's definite moments of beauty on the album. The verses from "Boy from Michigan" are some of the most beautiful things that I've ever written personally, for me. Just talking about the seasons changing in Michigan, looking for a patch of green when the winter is coming to a close, and going to the store for candy and pop. I love saying “pop.”
 
“Pop.” I've been learning these things!
 
Snobs from the East would always tell you, "It's soda, asshole." And now I really feel like it's “pop” for me. I don't like class system stuff either. 

One of the qualities I love in Boy from Michigan is you've got these characters, like Cindy and Scotty. Are these real people or are they characters built from a combination of people?
 
They're all real people.

Do you think Mike and Julie or Billy have heard their songs?

I think Cindy might have heard the song. I know Billy's heard “Billy,” and he likes it. [note: the real Billy appears in the music video above.] And I still love Billy. That song is about a gay dude and a straight dude and how both of them struggled under the weight of the expectations from their fathers and what they ended up not being able to live up to.
 
I read the interview you did with Elton John, with The Guardian. Both you and Elton agreed that this is your most personal album to date, but I feel like all your albums are really personal. So I was kind of curious, what is it about this one that you think makes it even more so?

It's probably more cohesive, whereas some [albums] are a little bit more all over the place and me just finding my bearings. It's like, what do I want to do? Or, where do we go from here? All of the stuff that was going on in the States with the political — well, it doesn't seem like it's very political at all, but with what was being called political — just really got me focused.
 
On that upbringing and on your experience?
 
Yeah, and it didn't hurt having Cate there to help me. You know, to guide me and help me get it right.
 
I love her.
 
There was a lot going on. Cate and Samur [Khouja], the engineer, came to Iceland on the first of March, basically when everything was kicking off last year, and all that stuff that was going on in the States. It was a pretty crazy ride, but I'm lucky it was relatively uneventful here in Iceland. It was a good place to be for that. There's just not a lot of people here, so it was easier for them to get control of things. There wasn't a lot of human loss here.
 
The reason I wanted to work with Cate was because she and I are friends. I just love her taste and I love her music. I love what she does and I love who she is. We were just looking for an excuse to hang out more. But it wasn't easy. It was a difficult time to be doing it, and the three of us definitely went through a journey together. It was quite bonding and it was quite difficult at times because we didn't know what the fuck was going on in the world. And making an album is difficult, you know. I mean, the songs just sort of came right out of me, but it definitely took me to some places that didn't feel very comfortable. I guess, in general, the whole world did not feel like a comfortable place at the time. But we just went to get our coffee every day and it was quite nice for us here.
 
It must have felt like a safe place.
 
Yeah, it did. It was definitely quite a journey, but really worth it.

Kristin Hersh — who I believe we're both fans of — she writes books about her past, and she's said that what she'll do is get up really early in the morning when it's super quiet and get into this meditative state in order to conjure up the past. I was wondering, did you have a similar process for calling up these memories and these feelings, or were you able to access them really easily? How did you get there?
 
I am surrounded by all these things that I love, on the walls of my studio. I have a picture of Divine next to a picture of Madeleine Kahn, next to a picture of Elizabeth Montgomery and Alice Ghostly from Bewitched, plus the dude from Phantasm on the wall. Paintings and pictures and posters. Albums that I love are framed, like Nina Hagen and DEVO and Eurythmics. I have this beautiful Plasmatics poster on the wall that I absolutely adore. Chris & Cosey... It's funny you should talk about Kristin Hersh, because I think about her a lot because of her music and of Throwing Muses. I'm such a big fan. I'm very, very inspired by her.
 
I guess I'm somebody that's sort of standing next to himself, observing himself. And I yearn for the simplicity of childhood. I remember little things from growing up. I don't remember a lot, but as the mind clears itself — as I've been 17 years sober now — all these things just keep coming up and you're getting more perspective about the people you grew up around, and who you were, and things that happened that have affected you your entire life.  

So, I would just go into my studio and I would sit there, and the music sort of drags the words out for me. Especially with “Boy from Michigan” and when I was doing “Dandy Star.” That piano riff that reminds you of Halloween, it just totally lends itself to those lyrics that came pouring out. It didn't feel like there was any effort there. The only thing I really had to do is just focus and stick with it and let it happen. I think that a lot of times one of the biggest things that you have to do is just stick with it and let it happen. 

I think that a lot of times one of the biggest things that you have to do is just stick with it and let it happen... 

Is that scary?
 
Yeah, because a lot of times you're thinking, what if it doesn't happen? But this wasn't really a problem this time around. It just happened as long as I stayed with it in the studio, as long as I showed up and stayed there. 

I basically wrote the songs while they were here. I had a ton of different ideas. And then every day, we'd figure out what I was going to work on. Then I would finish writing the song. [Cate and Sumar] go off and then maybe come back in the evening sometimes, but usually come back the next morning. And that just happened until we had all the songs. And then we started messing around with the structure of everything and starting to think about overdubs. By that time, they stayed for two months.
 
Was it cathartic or therapeutic at the end of those two months where you're just intensively writing and recording? Did you feel a release off your shoulders? 
 
I did. I felt accomplished. And I felt like I did exactly what I wanted to do, even though you have no fucking idea whether anything is going to come out. 
 
I read that in 2018, you signed a book deal to write your biography. Is that still in the works? Or do you feel like you did it in your songs?
 
I'm going to do it, I just don't know when. I just need to start it, I guess. Some of it will be rehashing what's in the songs, but yeah, I am going to do that. I sort of need to get on it. Thank you for reminding me! 

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