It’s been an extraordinary journey for John Grant, from a point where he thought he would never make music again or escape a life of substance abuse to winning awards and accolades, collaborating with Sinead O’Connor, Rumer and Hercules & Love Affair and having his music featured in the award-winning film Weekend.
It’s a journey that’s taken him from Buchanan, Michigan to Parker, Colorado, studying languages in Germany and, after his band The Czars split up, basing himself in New York, London, Berlin and, most recently, Iceland, where the bulk of Pale Green Ghosts was recorded. It’s also been a journey from The Czars’ folk/country noir to the lush ‘70s FM alchemy of Queen Of Denmark to the astonishing fusion of sounds that lifts Pale Green Ghosts.
As if to acknowledge his journey, Grant has named the album after the opening title track, which documents the drives that he’d regularly take through the ‘80s, from Parker to the nearby metropolis of Denver, to the new wave dance clubs that have inspired the electronic elements of Pale Green Ghosts, and later on to visit the boyfriend – the ‘TC’ of Queen Of Denmark’s ‘TC & Honeybear’ – that inspired many of that album’s heartbreaking scenarios.
“I’d take the I-25, between Denver and Boulder, which was lined with all these Russian olive trees, which are the pale green ghosts of the title: they have this tiny leaves with silver on the back, which glow in the moonlight,” Grant explains. “The song is about wanting to get out of a small town, to go out into the world and become someone and made my mark.”
That Grant has made his mark is blatantly clear from how Queen Of Denmark was rapturously received. “Like a couple of similarly intense classics before it – Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now and Bon Iver’s For Emma… Queen Of Denmark sounds like a record its creator has been waiting his whole life to make,” MOJO concluded. Another measure of achievement, and the journey, is that one classic that Grant first heard in those new wave clubs was Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Mandinka’. Two decades later, O’Connor has not only covered the title track of ‘Queen Of Denmark’ on her latest album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, but supplies goose-bumping backing vocals on Pale Green Ghosts.
Sinead’s presence is a surprise, but not compared to the album’s portion of synthesisers and beats – unless you already know Grant’s enduring love of vintage synth-pop and industrial dance, and more current electronic acts such as Trentemøller and Mock & Toof. “Electronica is a huge part of my personality and my influences, though I don’t think many people see that fitting in to the John Grant image, whatever that is,” he says. There were occasional electronic undertows to Czars songs and two tracks (‘That’s the Good News’ and ‘Supernatural Defibrillator”’) on the deluxe edition of Queen Of Denmark were dance tracks.
One of those prime influences has even produced Pale Green Ghosts with Grant: Birgir Þórarinsson, a.k.a. Biggi Veira, of Iceland’s electronic pioneers Gus Gus. Queen of Denmark had been recorded in Texas with fellow Bella Union mates Midlake as his backing band, and Grant intended to return there to record again with the band’s rhythm section of McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander. But a trip beforehand to see more of Iceland, after he’d first played the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011, led to meeting Biggi, who invited Grant to his studio in Reykjavik. The two tracks the pair recorded – ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and ‘Black Belt’ – convinced Grant he had to make the entire record there.
If Queen Of Denmark is Grant’s ‘70s album, channeling the spirits of Karen Carpenter and Bread, then Pale Green Ghosts is his’80s album. Of the electronic tracks, the title track is a panoramic, brooding classic, while ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ and ‘Black Belt’ are the tracks that you might dance to in new wave clubs. ‘You Don’t Have To’ is a classic example of Grant’s influences blending together, in a reworked arrangement of a track unveiled during concert tours in 2011. It also features the distinct spacey Moog sounds that are familiar to lovers of Queen Of Denmark, while McKenzie and Alexander play on ‘Vietnam’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’. Grant’s touring partner, keyboardist Chris Pemberton, plays the gorgeous piano coda on the album’s tumultuous finale ‘Glacier’.
Besides Biggi, the album features a range of Icelandic musicians, including saxophonist Óskar Gudjónsson on ‘Ernest Borgine’, named after the legendary American film/TV actor. On an album of typically caustic revelations and scabrous humour, including sex, sexuality and the pitfalls of growing up in an era, and a particularly religious environment, that ostracised gay men, ‘Ernest Borgnine’ combines all these strands with the admission that Grant is HIV positive.
Grant’s frankness also led to being arguably the first person to announce such news in front of a live audience, as he did when appearing with Hercules And Love Affair at London’s Meltdown festival in June 2012. HALA mainman Andy Butler had asked Grant to collaborate on a track (‘I Tried To Talk To You’). “It’s what I wrote the song about so I thought I should talk about it there and then,” Grant explains his public declaration. “I thought I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, as there are lots of people in my situation, who feel like outcasts in society, people who had addiction problems, who feel ashamed and unlovable because of it. I want these people to know they have someone on a stage who is dealing with this too.”
Grant has also never shied away from discussing depression, and Pale Green Ghosts is a show of strength and survival, of moving on with life, on what will continue to be an incredible journey. “Moving to Reykjavik, at the age of 43, was incredibly risky and scary,” says Grant. “I didn’t know anyone here, but I’ve built up a life here, and recorded an album I’m really proud of, that distils what I’m about down to its most essential components, better than ever before. And this was during the middle of health issues. It means I’m trying to take the bull by the horns, and to live.”