John Grant isn’t the first American indie artist to be better beloved beyond his homeland.
Like Scott Walker and Sparks before him, the UK embraced Grant as one of their own. The 50-year-old has enjoyed strong sales, won multiple awards and sells out multiple nights from London to Leeds — and packs the most prestigious concert hall in Iceland, too.
This isn’t true back in the U.S. Grant grew up in Michigan and Colorado, and after time studying languages in Europe he returned to Denver to front The Czars. Despite releasing six albums of rootsier indie rock, the band never enjoyed the level of affection Grant now experiences across the water.
“It seems a tiny bit easier this time coming back here to tour, but it’s an uphill battle and I don’t care,” Grant said.
“I still have my childish fantasies of being accepted in my home country, so my brothers and sisters aren’t in this position of having to say ‘oh he’s really popular, just not here.’ But I also really just want to come here to play for the people who want to hear me.”
The singer has lived in Reykjavik, Iceland, since falling in love with the Nordic nation after performing at the Airwaves Festival in 2011 in support of his breakout solo album Pale Green Ghosts.
“It’s this place full of people who are holed up in their rooms all winter long just making these dope beats and amazing sounds on their systems,” said Grant.
“I was originally going to go back to Texas to record my followup second record with Midlake and I ended up cancelling that plan and staying. Steering the boat in a certain direction was always my plan, this was the right way.”
A natural at learning languages — he speaks fluent German, Russian and Spanish, a smattering of French and Swedish, too — Grant is now able to also speak Icelandic. He co-wrote the country’s 2014 Eurovision Song Contest entry. Titled No Prejudice, the track by Pollapönk, doesn’t match anything on his latest release Love Is Magic, Grant’s fourth solo project.
Love is Magic is another foray into the multiple facets of his complicated personality with a decidedly dance-ready underpinning.
Beginning with 2010s breakout Queen of Denmark — which documented Grant’s battles with alcohol and drug addictions, as well as dealing with his sexuality and being HIV positive — and carrying into 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts and 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, each album has showcased a growing confidence in Grant’s often caustic lyrics and embracing of increasingly more electronic sounds.
“I get asked about why I make more electronic sounding records now after making the more Seventies AOR rock before,” Grant said.
“And the answer is that it’s totally natural for me, because I’ve always been listening to both types of music. Perhaps I would have done this stuff first if I had known how to do it, but opportunity to record with Midlake on Queen of Denmark came up, and they weren’t going to make an electronic album.”
Anyone who admits to loving iconic industrial pioneers like Vancouver’s Skinny Puppy, Fad Gadget and early Ministry would want to get his beats on, and Grant has been: He also put out an album with the outsider electro-trio Wrangler (featuring Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder, Tuung’s Phil Winter and producer Ben “Benge” Edwards).
Titled Mr. Dynamite by Creep Show, the project is pursuing a second recording and are likely to tour. Grant has also collaborated with Elbow, Tracey Thorn, Sinead O’Connor and others.
Whether on his own or collaborating, you can identify Grant when he turns up on a recording. His warm baritone booms out on any song. Plus, the man can get a knife in when he wants. The hyper-sexed, swaggering funk that carries He’s Got His Mother’s Hips doesn’t hide the snarky catcalls in the lyrics (“They say his salsa workshops/Are a harbinger of Doom”).
Touch and Go, the album closer, is a SoCal easy flowing ballad inspired by — of all things — the transgender former American soldier and convicted spy Chelsea Manning. It may be hopeful, but lines like “You can’t stop the process of the truth, try as you might” aren’t exactly loaded with love.