Singer-songwriter John Grant’s latest album, Pale Green Ghosts, has made a big splash in Europe. This is despite its preoccupation with serious topics like homophobia, addiction, and being HIV positive; in 2012, Grant acknowledged that he has been living with the disease. The album is the followup to 2010’s Queen of Denmark, which Mojo Magazine named Album Of The Year, and was recorded in his adopted home of Reykjavik, Iceland. Irish artist Sinead O’Connor provides guest vocals on three tracks. We asked Grant about what inspires him, his approach to lyric writing and more.
Videos by American Songwriter
Who are your songwriting heroes?
PJ Harvey, Andy Partridge, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Neko Case, Sinead O’Connor, Kristin Hersh, Harry Nilsson, Nina Simone, Serge Gainsbourg, Prince, Chris & Cosey, Cabaret Voltaire, and Yello.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Well, it could be anything. A color, a feeling, a person, a smell or fragrance or an animal or a food, literally anything. The biggest problem is always just to get out of your own way and let the process happen.
Tell us a bit about Pale Green Ghosts.
It was recorded in Iceland with Biggi Veira from GusGus, so there is much more of an electronic sound to this one. It is lush, dark and very personal.
How would you compare it to your previous albums?
The songwriting is very similar, although it is even darker than Queen of Denmark and there are lots more synthesizers.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs in my mid-twenties and no, they were not good right off the bat, it took me a very long time to just be myself and stop trying to be someone else.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I have no recollection at all what the first song I wrote was, but the first song I wrote, which actually felt like I had written an actual song is called “Drug.” It’s just a basic song about unrequited love, but it was the first time I was really able to be myself and write in my own voice and actually let my own personality be seen. That was very satisfying for me.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
The last song I have been working on is one called “You and Hitler” and is not quite finished yet.
How do you go about writing songs?
Seems like I write some lyrics and then build music around them. Usually I start off with a chorus and then go from there.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I just try to write about things or people or feelings and try to describe them as clearly and succinctly as I can. Sometimes the lyrics happen in a matter of minutes and sometimes it takes months to finish them. I have often said that it is like a distilling process for me. I have to crack through all the layers of shit that I have built up over the years in order to get to the core of a “thing.” I have to destroy all my inner censors and filters and how I would like to be perceived in order for a song to work.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
I would say about 95% are keepers. I’m not the most prolific writer in the world I’m afraid, but the ones I do write are usually keepers.
What’s a song on Pale Green Ghosts you’re particularly proud of and why?
I really like “It Doesn’t Matter to Him” because I felt like I was able to express what vulnerability felt/feels like for me and it was not really an easy thing to do. I always feel very triumphant when I feel i’ve expressed myself exactly the way I wanted to or needed to.
What’s a lyric or verse from Pale Green Ghosts you’re a fan of?
“I wonder who they’ll get to play me, maybe they could dig up Richard Burton’s corpse.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I would say it stays the same, sometimes it’s extremely easy and sometimes I feel like I’ll never be able to write another song ever again.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Two words I love which spring to mind are “vicissitudes” and “pulchritudinous.”
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Queen of Denmark” is one people seem to bring up a lot.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I’m doing some music for an Icelandic play right now and that is a new experience for me. Other than that, no.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I don’t really like co-writing all that much, but I would love to write something with Dieter Meier and Boris Blank (Yello) or Nina Simone.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
I can’t think of anyone I like who I feel is underrated.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
I really love the song “Animal” by Jenny and Johnny. It’s a very “simple” song, but I just love the lyrics and the melody and the harmonies and it’s the perfect length, too. Just a gorgeous song.