John Grant is approaching his life honestly. In the lyrics of his latest solo album Pale Green Ghosts, the former frontman of The Czars sings about being an openly gay man who is also HIV positive. Grant was in town last week for a show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, and though our conversation veered into territory most musicians would balk at, he faced difficult issues with a thoughtful grace.
In a lot of ways your new record feels like a concept album, both sonically and content wise. Was that the intent?
I don’t look at it as a concept album. In terms of sonically, well, my last record Queen of Denmark was about the ’70s, so this one is a natural move toward the’ 80s. I’ve always listened to bands like Skinny Puppy and Eurythmics and my heart has always needed to get that into a record. If my first record was about childhood, this one is about the difficultly of young adulthood. I had moved to Colorado from Michigan. It was a difficult move, was a difficult process with a lot of chaos and confusion. This is about going back and taking stock of that.
You talk about the ’80s being a difficult, tumultuous time. Why was that?
Being gay was not okay in the environment I grew up in. I was told being gay meant you were going to hell. You grow up believing that when that’s what you’re being told, yet I saw myself becoming what I was not supposed to become. It was not okay in my family. Some people could say fuck you to their parents. I wasn’t able to do that at the time.
To what extent have you reconciled with your family?
My mother died right after I came out, so she and I never got to work things out. As far as being reconciled with my siblings, they are fine with who I am. My sister actually came out as a lesbian. I came out in the 90s. 91 or 92 was when I told my parents. I never even planned to tell my father I have HIV. One of my brothers did. It’s not something that’s relevant to his life.
You bring up the fact that you’re HIV positive and I read somewhere you were informed by text message. That must have been an overwhelming experience.
I was buying shoes in Berlin, I was living in Berlin at the time. And a guy sent me a text that said he had bad news. I had been with this guy… As soon as I landed in Sweden, I didn’t know anyone in Sweden, I found a doctor and took a test. Of course it came back positive. It was January, it was dark all the time. It was a dark month. You know in your mind it’s not the death sentence it once was, but it’s still a very emotionally intense experience.
So were you aware at the time of the progress that has been made in treatment?
I knew that things had progressed quite dramatically since the 80s or the 90s. But I didn’t know what kind of virus I got, there’s all sorts of new mutations that you can get. I know a lot of people don’t have to start taking medication for ten years sometimes. But I got some extra special virus, where I needed to start taking medication after one year.
This album has been very well received. Does it feel good to get that external validation?
I guess the validation is feeling that I’ve expressed myself honestly in an artistic way. I spent a lot of my life feeling like I had to be a certain way. I can’t afford to do that anymore. Of course I want to be accepted. I want to have good reviews, want to have people like my record. My last record was album of the year in Mojo, one of the biggest music publications of all time. But they don’t like this record. I can’t get my validation from outside sources. Then I’m screwed. One of the difficult things about making a record is hearing all the outside voices when you lie in bed at night. I completely ignore those voices. That’s none of my fucking business, what people will think of it. I can only express myself as honestly as clearly as I can. I’m just human.
I can’t make an honest record if I’m worried about how I think I’m supposed to be perceived. There’s times I wish I was like lead singer of The Strokes or David Bowie. But that simply is not my life, it’s not me. I have to ignore all of that shit.
Well in a way that idea ties into what you were saying earlier about acceptance of oneself. You sing about that on the song “Ernest Borgnine”.
Stuff like “Ernest Borgnine,” where I talk about forgiving myself for getting HIV, that’s a difficult issue to talk about. [In the song] I’m thinking about escaping into an absurd situation, what would one of my favorite actors do in my situation. But my favorite actor Ernest Borgnine is now dead. He doesn’t care about my HIV diagnosis.
But putting something like that out there isn’t just for me– there are a lot of people struggling with HIV. I’m looking for contact with those people too, so that I have people to talk to as well.