John Grant may be responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last decade, but when I spoke with him two days before Thanksgiving, he informed me that he'd be spending the entire next day in the back seat of a packed car with his brother, sister-in-law, and their children. "So I'm taking some time for myself today," he said with a laugh.
He's certainly earned it. In the year and a half following the release of his debut solo album, Queen of Denmark, Grant's whole world changed. After struggling to make it as a musician for almost two decades, he suddenly found himself topping critics' lists.
One of only a few albums to ever be awarded Mojo's "Instant Classic" label (they would later go on to rank Queen of Denmark as the number-one album of 2010), Queen of Denmark chronicles Grant's struggles with his sexual orientation, religion, and addiction. In the words of The Independent, it is "a near-perfect marriage of his warm baritone with ... lush woodwind and keyboard textures, bring[ing] to tender life Grant's tales of growing up gay in the Midwest."
Grant will be performing at a special event we're hosting at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard this week with bestselling author Jodi Picoult (more on that at the bottom of this interview), so to prepare I called him up to ask him a few questions. Grant spoke at length about his perspective on growing up gay in a conservative Christian environment, his struggle to feel comfortable in the LGBTQ community, how he feels about opening up in his music, his thoughts on the role of religion in politics and interfaith dialogue, and why community is important to him. Check out his thoughts below.
Your album, Queen of Denmark, received immense critical acclaim -- from a really stellar batch of reviews to Mojo calling it an "Instant Classic" and naming it the best album of 2010. It strikes me as such a deeply personal album. How did it feel to have it receive that kind of recognition?
You know, I thought it was a risk -- that I might cut myself off from a large group of people because it was so personal, and because I talk openly about things that some people might not want to hear about. But it seems to me that the opposite was the case: people seemed to love it because of those things, so it made me feel really good. When I went into the studio [to record Queen of Denmark], I had been feeling really down about the music industry. I had been doing the dance for 10 years and felt like a failure because I hadn't made it, whatever that meant. So I basically put all of the blame on myself -- that the reason I hadn't made it was because I was one of those guys who really wants to be in the music industry but didn't have what it takes. There were all these other guys, like Rufus Wainwright, and I thought that the reason they made it is because they were the ones that are good enough. That's obviously a bunch of bullshit; everyone has a different journey, and I just needed to keep going and not quit. So I was really happy when Queen of Denmark got the attention it did. I couldn't believe it. It took me a year to wrap my head around it.
Listening to the record, it's pretty obvious that you're gay. You use male pronouns in songs about love and heartbreak, and you address homophobia in songs like "JC Hates Faggots." What does it mean to you to be a gay singer, singing openly about these things? Does it feel political? Personal? Both?
It feels really good. There are some people in my family who probably don't want to hear about that side of my life, but I can't afford to let that be an issue for me. I spent many years trying to fit in and do things the way I thought I was supposed to -- trying to be perceived the way I thought people wanted to see me. I grew up in a very religious household and wasn't taught to feel comfortable or good about my sexuality, so it feels great to be able to say things the way I want to say them.
It definitely feels personal, but everyone's dealing with the issues I write about in one way or another: romantic issues, issues of depression, addiction, low self-esteem, and so on. It also does feel political, but I think the world has forced gay people to get political. It's not like we wanted to talk about the fact that we're gay all the time, but the world has forced it to be an issue. I had never considered myself a political guy, but there are certain things I can't shut up about. When I hear people say things like, "If 'we' allow gays to marry, then people will want to marry animals and children," I can't just stand there. I'm not an expert on American history, but I get upset when I hear people say America was founded on these Christian principles, when it's just not true. If you read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, then you know those claims are ridiculous, and it makes you feel like you have to say something.
But the political thing is difficult; I really don't want to be political, but when I read articles about bullies being suspended for three days after beating the living shit out of someone because they're gay, I have to say something. I wish people would stop using the term "bully" -- bullying happened in the '50s in grade school, but what happens today is criminal behavior. It should be called assault and battery. And when these criminals get away with it, it does make me want to get political. It makes me feel angry and violent and aggressive, but I don't want to turn into that. There's a lot of anger in Queen of Denmark, and that's me getting political.
"JC Hates Faggots" is not a song about religion, really. What I want to say to right-wing fundamentalists who want to refuse gay people the right to get married is that it shouldn't be a religious issue. I have a problem with people who want to legislate their morality, when doing so actually goes against everything they say they believe in. "JC Hates Faggots" is about the fact that people take whatever they believe or hate and then superimpose that on everyone else. Gay marriage is not a religious issue; it's a human rights issue, period. You can believe whatever you want about homosexuality -- you can think it's wrong, go right ahead -- but that doesn't have anything to do with me, or with law, either. I feel like this is so crystal clear. The message of Queen of Denmark is that I want to be able to talk openly about my experiences. I don't want to change the pronouns; it shouldn't be a weird thing that I sing about men.
At the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, one of the biggest things we do is work to maintain a community for nonreligious folks. What does community mean to you?
Right now, I find community in the world of musicians -- people that do what I do, people I work with. It's been a long process of finding and surrounding myself with people who add to my life because of who they are as people; now, the people who work with and for me are people that I want to have in my life. They're my friends as well as my colleagues.
This question touches on a lot of things for me; I'm a recovering alcoholic and recovering cocaine addict, and that's where I found community for many years. I hated going to church as a kid, but had some good friends in church. There was such a sense of community, and I missed when I got out into the world, so I replaced it with all the people I was partying with.
How connected do you feel to the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community?
This comes through a lot on Queen of Denmark. I've definitely struggled with the gay community at times, because it can feel so homogenized. This is really personal, but I love bears -- men with beards, big burly men. A while back, I was hanging out at a bear bar in Colorado, and I realized I didn't feel comfortable. I couldn't do all the lingo; I felt like I was expected to say and do certain things in order to fit into that community.
I definitely have some prejudices about the LGBTQ community, and I'm dealing with those in different songs on Queen of Denmark. In fact, I'm working on sequel to "JC Hates Faggots" right now called "And So Do I." It's about prejudice within the LGBTQ community, which I think is important to address. I have some of those prejudices inside myself, and I have to work to deal with them. So I'm trying to address both the ways I've judged the gay community and the intolerance I see within the gay community. If I can make this song work, I think it'd be an important one to do.
I have good gay friends scattered about the world, but we don't meet in a specific club, and I like that. I like all different types of people. So, like I said, I've mostly found a sense of community in the music world, like with Midlake [who worked on Queen of Denmark]. One of the reasons I decided to leave New York City and go to Texas was because of the relationship I had with Midlake. They treated me like a human, so I've found a sense of community with them. They treated me as an equal, and I think that's the most important thing about community -- having people who see you for who you are and treat you as an equal.
We also do a lot around interfaith cooperation at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. In facilitating dialogue between people of different religious backgrounds (including the nonreligious), we place a big emphasis on the power of storytelling. One thing that really strikes me about your music is how rooted in narrative is. Can you say more about the role that telling stories plays in your music?
First, I love the idea of interfaith dialogue. I don't think it's good for us to be separated and have all these weird ideas about how the "other side" is. I was just in Turkey for first time and was concerned about being accepted as a homosexual while there. I didn't know a lot about the country, and found that I had these prejudices against Muslim men, and ideas about what they'd think of me. So it was really good for me to be in Turkey and talk about that issue with my guide; it was a really great experience, even though I was surrounded by all these hot Muslim men. [Laughs.] I just think we need more tolerance in the world.
Regarding stories, I've always wanted to be a good storyteller. I think the turning point was when I realized that I had stories to tell. I'm writing the next album right now, and it's a difficult process. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to tell my story and about how honest I am, which is the only way to be, whether it's difficult or not. For me, writing music is often a distilling process -- a process of fighting all the filters and censors I put up in my own mind to try to fit in. I'm constantly asking myself: are you trying to be perceived a certain way? For a long time I wanted to be cool, but now I'm here to talk about the way things are and how I feel. So when I catch myself trying to censor myself, I know I've touched upon something that needs to be stripped down even further to be raw and bare and exposed.
You grew up in a conservative religious environment. How did that impact the way you see the world?
I don't have a problem with a lot of the Christian principles I grew up learning about; the problem was that I was told that it wasn't OK for me to be who I am. A lot of the Christian tenets are great things -- loving people, not judging people -- but it obviously became a big problem when my sexual identity got brought into it. My upbringing definitely affects the way I see the world. Only someone else who grows up that way can really know what I'm talking about.
I wanted to stay a part of that community, but it was important for me to say that I couldn't be involved if they were going to tell me that it's not OK for me to be gay. It took me a long time to get to that point; it was really difficult, because I felt like I was betraying my family in some ways. It's funny: splitting with the church because I was gay didn't make me think it wasn't possible for God to exist, but I just couldn't be a part of that world. I didn't become an atheist right away; I thought mostly what was wrong with religion was people. Now I look at all the religions and ask myself, how can you possibly know? Maybe you can, maybe you can't. So I'm mostly agnostic. The question of religion is an extremely personal one, and everyone should have lots of tolerance and patience for people and let people do what they need to do. That's how it needs to be. Religion cannot be legislated -- that's called totalitarianism.
Once, while trying to be open-minded, I went to an atheist Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New York City, because I wanted that perspective. I left feeling really upset about the fact that people didn't talk about their experiences -- they just talked about why a God can't possibly exist. To me, it went completely against the purpose of the meeting. I don't want people to try to convince me about what I should believe; I'm interested in people's experiences. I don't need you to convert me -- I'm here to be in community with you. I don't want anyone telling me what I have to do or believe, whether they're religious or atheist.
Why should people come to your event with Jodi Picoult?
I'm really excited for this event. I think it's important and feel like I'm going to learn something and have the chance to communicate and interact with people I wouldn't have found otherwise. I love opportunities to introduce my music to people and sing for people. So I'd say: hey, if you want to hear some very sincere music that you might really like and meet people you wouldn't otherwise meet, you should come! Plus, I'm going to sing my heart out.
We've talked a lot about what you write about, and why you write it. So, my last question -- and this might be a bit clichéd, so forgive me in advance -- but who or what inspires you?
I actually think that's a really important question -- it's one I'm constantly asking myself. What am I trying to do? Even though my work talks a lot about hatred, bitterness, failed relationships, and other difficult things about life, what it's actually about is me trying to learn to love, how to allow other people to love me and how to accept love.
Want to hear more from John? Don't miss Sing You Home: A Humanistic Holiday Celebration of Love, Equality, LGBTQ Identity, and Justice, with bestselling author Jodi Picoult and John Grant, at 8 p.m. on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) at Harvard's Memorial Church. Tickets are available at the door and online through the Harvard Box Office.