John Grant: 'I had probably the most fun I've ever had doing a record'
- Craig Angus
- 16 August 2018
The darkly brilliant singer-songwriter talks about his changing attitude to love and how it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks
Thank goodness John Grant kept going after the split of the Czars. Following the break-up of that band – critically acclaimed, never quite making it beyond cult status – he worked as a waiter, a translator and even an air steward, unsure he'd ever release music again. Encouraged by label-mates Midlake to get back in the studio, he's now preparing for the release of his fourth album as a solo artist, Love Is Magic. Following a trio of records – 2010's Queen of Denmark, 2013's Pale Green Ghosts, and 2015's Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – that delved deep into a life wrestling homophobia, depression and drug and alcohol addiction, and talking openly about contracting HIV, he's established as one of the most fascinating pop acts in the world of contemporary music.
'I had probably the most fun I've ever had doing a record,' Grant explains over the phone about the making of Love Is Magic. 'I made an album with Creep Show (Grant's project with experimental electro act Wrangler) and I stayed down in Cornwall afterwards with [musician-producer] Benge. I was like a kid in a toyshop', he says, 'using all these synths that I've fantasised about my whole life. And over the next year I created a whole bunch of sound canvasses.' When that was done, Grant decamped to Texas to work with an old friend, Midlake's Paul Alexander. 'He got involved with vocal harmonies, some guitars, and acoustic drums, and did a bunch of basslines – mostly it was a synthesiser affair.'
It's no surprise to hear Grant enjoyed making Love Is Magic, ten tracks which veer between lush instrumentation, throbbing electronica and sensitive balladeering. 'I'm exploring all the different facets of my personality', he says. It's all there in the stunning opening track 'Metamorphosis', in which Grant meditates over loss and the futility of religion ('she just slipped away / it didn't seem to matter how much she had prayed') over a gorgeous soundscape, bookended by two sections of techno over which he thrillingly recites a stream of surrealist lyrics. 'Diet Gum' clocks in at just under seven and a half minutes, an instantly addictive riff backing Grant as he spits: 'Do you even know where that cheese is made? It's from Iowa – you dullard', before growling 'ever heard of it?' He laughs, 'I loved doing that song. It's an absurd version of me, it's exploring the feeling of …' he pauses for thought, before adding: 'when you resent somebody, but you still feel like fucking them is an absolute must – even though you don't respect them.'
While in the past Grant's break-up songs have often been brutally angry, Love Is Magic represents a change in attitude on that front. 'I came to the end of a relationship just about a year ago,' he says, 'and that's definitely reflected in this record – it's a different take. You can let somebody go and continue to love them anyway and just get on with your life. That's something that's taken me a long time to learn. Better late than never, huh?'
The album's title track – and lead single – contrasts exaggerated portrayals of love in popular culture with the often mundane reality of such a partnership in the context of the daily routine ('There's no milk in the refrigerator, and you'll be hearing all about it when you get home tonight'). 'It's me making fun of my own cynicism about love', Grant says. 'When I was writing the song it just sounded like a big 80s power ballad and I was trying to think what absurd title I could come up with. "Love Is Magic" seemed appropriate but it's also true. If you give yourself to it, and give yourself to the process it's still a very magical thing – in spite of all the trouble.'
John Grant, Edinburgh Playhouse, Mon 20 Aug, 8pm, £25–£35. Love is Magic is released on 12 Oct.