BY JEAN WEST
The brilliant in so many ways John Grant considered learning Gaelic before his Edinburgh International Festival performance in the Scottish capital.
He had the how to book in his lap, and surely it wouldn’t have been beyond his ken, having a gift for languages; German, Spanish, Icelandic, Russian, and some French, already under his belt.
But then the former member of Denver alt-rock band The Czars and friend of Midlake looked at the way the words twist and gurn …nah, he thought, I’ll just sing.
Or more candidly, as he explains during his gig at Edinburgh Playhouse: “I had a Scottish Gaelic book in my hand; and I thought: ‘who the f*** are you trying to kid?’
Nonetheless, if his performance was anything to go by, standing ovations and all, the language of finely crafted, exquisitely revealing, painfully honest, song writing – a sort of John Grant Esperanto, that spits forth venom and then syrup – conveyed all he had to say, and some.
The Michigan-born, artist walked onto the stage, a Samson of a man, strong and weak and not afraid to reveal his true self, by way of touching ballad, juicy instrumentation, folksey intimacy, harmony, echoes and the bleeps and squeaks of his beloved, expressive synthesizers.
For an hour-and-a- half, he wrenches his guts out in lyrics that have surely been therapy for him, when there was no-one to hold on to. And the audience hold onto him – through these roller coaster highs and lows – and can only roar approval.
Storytelling his way through heartache, disappointment, wonder, love, happiness, bitchiness, anger, confusion, fear, disgust, tenderness, comfort, loss,hope; I could go on, his tumbling expression bleeds into a crowd mesmerised by his towering beauty and warmth.
“I am the biggest Motherfucker in the world,” he croons – he doesn’t seem like this now, holding onto his heart as the audience hyperventilate for more. But a decade and a half ago, addicted to drugs and alcohol and angry, struggling with homosexuality, personal identity and pretty lost, he probably was as belligerent and unkind as your average out-of-it user.
Some years on he was met with the warm embrace of another country that felt like home. Iceland, another planet as far as he was concerned, that brought him space and hope and moved him forward. He speaks flatteringly of Edinburgh: “It looks like whoever built this said : ‘this will be the centre of the universe.’ Reykjavik was to become his own centre of the universe.
There followed more gorgeous and challenging lyrics that continue into his upcoming new album, Love is Magic. Coming on the heels of a broken relationship, it displays emotional maturity and forgiveness, from the never-less-than fascinating artist, who sadly contracted HIV, after quitting the booze and engaging for a while in ill-advised sex.
‘Love Is Magic, It isn’t so tragic, ‘ he sings. ‘When the world opens up for you, Don’t resist, just walk on through. There is nothing left to lose.’ We are swept away by the possibility of this song even though he can’t resist tempering it with the more mundane details of life, like running out of milk.
From being in diapers, John Grant was up against it. Born into a conservative Methodist family in the small town of Buchanan, discussion of his sexual orientation in his early years was off-bounds.
He was bullied as a child and had no outlet so stuffed his pain down.
Today it explodes forth, like a raging tempest, sieved through a music that is rousing, exhilarating, brutal at times and deep. But his once cynical world view is often diluted by the loveliness of the music encasing it. Almost safe-guarding him from himself.
He’s funny too. After a pause he says: “I’m glad we can enjoy silence together. ‘That means we have (entered) the next phase of our relationship.’
Not afraid of pointing out his own shortcomings, he wades through the shit, as though the stage is arena for ritual cleansing.
You Don’t Have To, charts personal humiliation,”Remember how we used to fuck all night long, Neither do I because I always passed out, I needed gallons of booze, To handle the pain.”
And he bucks any tendency towards self-pity with a song about children with cancer – ‘I can’t compete with that.’ For all the depression and gloom about his diagnosis, he’s still here and performing – and experiencing some happiness after all the agony.
Many of his songs refer to other planets and aliens. I’m sure that he still feels like something extraterrestrial. ‘I want to go to Mars,’ perhaps there is safety there ‘beyond the stars, where the ‘golden dust twins ‘ reside.
More and more though he is finding solace on planet earth telling us how he made the latest album. Much of his time it involved making the new album in Cornwall with musician/producer, Benge, and then with Paul Alexander from Midlake in Texas, merging his lyrics, with various hi-tech synthesisers and other ‘toys’.
“It was the most joyous time I have had making a record,” he thrills. “Hopefully that will come through.”
If tonight’s performance which blows through ethereal, effortless moments of song to crashing electronic crescendo, all reined in and anchored with baritone grace is any yardstick – another serving of John Grant, beyond three existing solo albums – would just be the icing the cake.