When Elton John played Madison Square Garden on December 6, the rock legend took a break from his hit-stuffed set to urge everyone in attendance to buy John Grant's Pale Green Ghosts, which he called the best album of 2013. As surprising as it was to hear a classic rock legend giving props to a comparatively obscure singer-songwriter, no one was shocked more than Grant himself, who was in attendance and had no idea Elton was going to call him out by name.
But for anyone who's listened to Pale Green Ghosts, Elton's adoration of John Grant isn't terribly surprising. While the former Czars frontman went folk for his solo debut Queen of Denmark, Grant's second solo album is a startlingly effective combination of the confessional acoustic and the chilly electronic, held together by his versatile voice and incisive songwriting. More than that, Grant is an inspiring human being (despite his admitted self-loathing). The openly gay singer weathered a fiercely homophobic environment growing up, kicked a drug and alcohol addiction in recent years and helped break the stigma over HIV infection by publicly acknowledging he was positive in 2012.
We recently spoke with Grant about everything from Woody Allen movies to collaborating with Sinead O'Connor to that Elton shout-out being "one of the greatest nights of my life." Additionally, Grant told us why he agrees with Lady Gaga that the U.S. is morally bound to boycott the Russian Olympics, but why it's important for artists to keep touring Russia despite the government-sanctioned oppression.
What was it like hearing Elton John praise you in front of everyone in Madison Square Garden?
Well, I didn't know he was going to do that. He's been in touch before. Things have been going on for a year but we hadn't met each other yet, so we were both in New York when he was doing the Madison Square Garden show and I was able to go over and hang out with him a little bit. It was really a great moment for me. His shout-out and having a song dedicated to me in front of 20,000 people was one of the greatest nights of my life, for sure.
Elton called Pale Green Ghosts his favorite album of the year. The electronic textures are very different from what you've done before. Did you recently get into that kind of music or have you always loved it?
It's basically always been the plan to go there. The album I was working on before [Queen of Denmark] wasn't conducive to that sound, but it's the music that I've always loved since the early '80s. It's the music I grew up listening to. I just didn't have the wherewithal to do it before.
What do you mean?
I was too busy doing cocaine and drinking—I didn't have any money for the $3,000 for software. I wasn't doing anything but that. But once you wake up and have all sorts of time and options on your hands, then I was able to go and figure out how to do it.
“I'm not Elton John—nobody in Russia is going to think twice about pumping a few bullets into my head.”
So you're a fluent Russian speaker and you were in the country not long ago. Lady Gaga recently said the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics over Russia's government-sanctioned homophobia. What's your take?
I think the games should be boycotted. It's the same things as having the Olympics in [Nazi] Germany. Putin's way of dealing with the AIDS epidemic in Russia is to make it difficult for people to get treatment, so undesirables will die out. So a "bad "section of society will rot itself out. He's a foul creature. But he's also extremely intelligent and extremely charming and extremely good at what he does. He's a KGB agent. I don't think the world should allow [it], but everybody's like, 'Oh, we couldn't possibly say no to Russia.' They're too powerful and it's all political. I can't pretend to understand all the machinations of the political process, but I do think they should be boycotted.
What about performing there?
I was on a 'f-ck Russia' rant for a while because it really makes me angry, but I do believe people like Lady Gaga and Elton John and my friend Andy [Butler] from Hercules & Love Affair are right to tour there. I do think it's important to not isolate the LGBT community in Russia. They need that support. Elton John was just there and he dedicated his show to one of the gay men [Vladislav Tornovoi] who was murdered there. But to me, the games are a different thing. That's the world saying, 'Yeah, you can do whatever the f-ck you want to the gays, we don't care, because there aren't going to be any repercussions.' Putin loves to say there's no discrimination against homosexuals in Russia. He makes that statement. It's pretty funny.
But it's a difficult call. I don't feel comfortable there. I'm pretty open and I'm not Elton John—nobody is going to think twice about pumping a few bullets in my head. And that's something that really happens there. I was there a year ago. It's obscenely corrupt. You have to be constantly watching your back there and that's not a good feeling. It's a beautiful place, but just like Brazil and Mexico, there's this huge gap between all these millionaires and people who are totally impoverished. When you go out of the big cities, everything is just falling apart, the roads are in disrepair. It's bad. It's ridiculous.
I can't argue with that. It's a disgusting situation. Going back to the album, you make a few references to classic actors in your lyrics. For instance, you say you'd like "Richard Burton's corpse" to play you in a movie. Why him?
I just think he's one of the greatest. His last film, 1984, is one of my favorite movies and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a masterpiece, of course. With that line, I'm making fun of the fact that I'm picking somebody who's dead because I'm so self-absorbed that I can't be bothered to pick anybody who's alive. It's a little bit of the Theatre of the Absurd. But I really do love Burton. Have you seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Yes, it's a harsh film. Do you relate to the brutal way they argue?
Eh, to some extent. My dealings with people on a romantic level have looked a lot different than that. There's not really a lot of screaming but I can identify with that pain. The pain of losing somebody and not being able to deal with it, which I suppose is the premise of that movie.
“"If somebody were to put my album on while I'm in the room, I would tell them to turn it off. Or leave."”
What about the Woody Allen reference? You sing about him stepping out of the shadows at one point.
When I wrote that lyric I was thinking of the scene in Annie Hall when they're waiting in line to go to a movie, and there's a guy talking about Marshall McLuhan behind them. Woody know he's wrong and suddenly McLuhan steps out and tells the guy, "You know nothing of my work." And Woody Allen looks at the camera and says, "I wish we could do that in real life." I love that. When I wrote that line I was imagining him stepping out from behind a rubber plant in my living room while I'm having a horrible breakup and saying, "Your love life is in turmoil—obviously you haven't watched any of my movies." Actually, I've watched too many of his movies because my relationship are more similar to the ones in his movies versus, say, Little Black Book. I'm just talking about the absurdity of certain situations in relationships, where you're expecting Woody Allen to step out from the shadows because you feel like you're in one of his movies.
Sinead O'Connor sings backup for you on a few Pale Green Ghosts tracks. How did that come about?
She and I were just hanging out one evening when we were in London and she asked me to play some of the new tracks from my record. I played her some and she was like, "Oh, you gotta let me sing on your album." And I did not have a problem with that. I was perfectly willing to accommodate that. I adore her and having that voice on my record was a very beautiful thing for me. It was an honor.
What's next for you? Do you have songs you're sitting on?
I'm getting ready to start making demos for the next album. But I'm still on tour for this album so I probably won't start recording until the middle of next year.
Will your next record continue to mine the synth sounds?
There will definitely be a lot of electronics, but I will try to explore other sonic possibilities and see what we can come up with. I like the idea of lots of guitar distortion and a lot of noise. I'm really into the latest Kim Gordon project, Body/Head. I think that's amazing and it is what I've been listening to the most lately. It's so beautiful and I love what she does with her voice.
So will your third album be more experimental, or are you talking about just adding more distortion to your songs?
Probably a little bit of both. I'm not sure—I haven't had a chance to get into an environment where I can put all the pieces together. But I'm fond of saying I want [this album] to be a mixture of the Beach Boys and Einstürzende Neubauten. I think that would be incredible. I don't know if it will sound like that, but that combination is one of the things I have knocking around in my head right now. I'm looking forward to seeing how I can weave that into the fabric of the album.
One of the things I love about your latest is the mix of bravado and self-loathing, the confidence and doubt. In real life, where is your self-esteem on an average day?
My state of mind is usually pretty low. But as an adult who's worked through a lot of things, my motto is, "I'm no better or worse than anybody else."
Are you doubtful of your music as well or just your personal life?
Oh yeah, nothing's ever good enough. But I'm happy with the record I just made and I'm happy with the record I made before this. But I won't be happy once I get on the road with it and the songs take on a life of their own. Then I start to go back and think, "I should have done this or that." But you can also say, "Okay, I'll try that on the next record." I don't have a hard time listening to [Pale Green Ghosts], but I also don't want to listen to it. I'm performing it every night so I would never put it on. And if somebody were to put it on while I'm in the room, I would tell them to turn it off. Or leave.