• Photo courtesy of Partisan Records

John Grant’s ‘Boy From Michigan’ LP Is His Most Personal Album Yet. And One Of Its Biggest Fans Is Elton John.

By |2021-07-14T09:49:06-04:00July 14th, 2021|Entertainment, Features, Music, Uncategorized|

You wont find musician John Grants new autobiography on the bookstore shelves or via ebook platforms. It’s not that kind of autobiography. Instead, Grant’s memoir, “Boy From Michigan,” is a purely audio experience.

A melodic, synth-soaked affair with heavy influence from ’80s New Wave, post-punk and electropop (he considers Devo a major touchstone, admitting Im always inspired by Devo even if it doesnt sound like it”), the fifth solo album from the openly gay former frontman of ’90s alt-rock band The Czars features pieces of his life with chapters that draw upon his childhood in Buchanan, Michigan, his youth in Denver, Colorado, and other deeply personal periods and places.

Among those experiences-turned-songs: that time Grant, still conflicted about his sexuality, repelled a male friends attraction by purposely creating a cock-block situation with a female friend (Mike and Julie”); a childhood nightmare sparked by the 1971 Mia Farrow horror movie “See No Evil” (Dandy Star”); an ode to an accepting straight friend from his chemical addiction days (Billy”); and, fast-forward to 2020, a dark piano-driven ballad about the perverse, economy-obsessed America that Trump exemplified (The Only Baby”).

Living in Reykjavik, Iceland for almost a decade, Grant, who possesses an epic, enviable vinyl collection as seen during our Zoom interview, elaborated on the stories, people and motivations behind some of the songs on “Boy,” whether any superfans have crossed the line, and the most generous gift you can leave behind for someone who loved you.

One aspect I really loved about this album is you allowed these songs to take their time and unfold, with lush, atmospheric intros and outros. There are six- and seven-minute-long tracks, and one that approaches 10 minutes. Can you talk about that?

Somebody asked me earlier today if people would ignore [these songs] on Spotify, because they start off like that. Im always told there have to be radio edits because theyre way too long, but I wont have anything to do with them because thats not what I wrote. I think its grotesque and like asking a painter which part of his painting you can cut out. Those sections with the sort of ambient vibe, theyre really important to me and set up and finish the songs really well; theyre indispensable as far as Im concerned and happened really naturally.

I suppose I love the cinematic, so sometimes the songs just turn out to be that long. The almost 10-minute one, The Only Baby,” it was hard to cram everything that needed to be in there, and I sort of felt I was quite economical! Were getting ready to do the live shows and I was looking for the MIDI part of the main melody, but there never was a MIDI file because it was all improvised. I was talking to Elton John, whos loving this record and playing some of the songs on his radio show Rocket Hour, and he told me he loves to play the whole track and not the edited versions, which I really appreciate. In the corporate world theres no room for art.

The synthy start and end to the title track, which opens the album, reminded me a bit of Daniel Lopatins spacey score for “Uncut Gems.” Was that something you were listening to or inspired by?

No. I would say that vibe comes more from [Greek musician] Vangelis and [French composer] Jean-Michel Jarre, but I bought that record after I saw the movie because I love Daniels stuff, so it doesnt surprise me that it fits in there. Also, the 1986 album from Jarre, “Zoolook.” Its amazing.

Did you sit down with the intention of creating a memoir album, or were these songs written over time and squirreled away for such an opportunity?

It was on my mind. With the election and that last presidency, I was thinking a lot about the American dream and American way and patriotism. Feeling like an outsider from the beginning, and [how] theres not a place for you in that American dream. Just the ugliness of a lot that weve seen made me think about my childhood, about the way I romanticize certain sections.

Michigan for me is romance and beauty. And Colorado, which is an extremely beautiful place, its hard to say I cant stand it but I feel that way. I have a visceral reaction. Theres a lot of death and addiction and difficult times. Colorado was not a good experience for me.

Can you elaborate a bit on how Michigan is romantic for you?

Because of the apple orchards and maple syrup farms. I remember collecting sap from a tree on a field trip when I was young. Everything is covered in snow and you go drink apple cider. It was idyllic.

Are you planning to perform in Michigan during your next tour?

I hope so! Ill definitely tour in the states for this record, and I look forward to it. And I make it back to Michigan more often than I thought I would. I have fantasies about buying an old farmhouse in Michigan, but I dont know how realistic that is.

You broke up with your Icelandic boyfriend since the last album, 2018s “Love Is Magic.” Is there a breakup song on “Boy”?

Not really. I had such a great experience during my last relationship I wouldnt have anything negative to say about him in a breakup song. It was the first time I had a sign I was making a lot of progress in my own life that even though things didnt work out we continue to be loving and truly respectful of each other all the time, and I really like that. So no breakup songs. But hes definitely included in songs like Best in Me,” which is about the names of all these caterpillars, because I wanted a metaphor for the transforming power of deep friendship and how that helps you turn into a beautiful butterfly.

Lets talk about a song from the album thats actually set in Oklahoma, Mike and Julie.” Do either of the real-life people this is based on know this song exists? Its quite moving.

Julie knows about it. We hadnt talked in 30 years, and she knows. I dont expect Mike to care or have any reaction at all. Its understandable why I reacted to him the way I did, because I couldnt deal with my sexuality at the time, but it doesnt really matter to the person why youre acting that way at the time, it just hurts.

I feel bad the way I treated and pushed him away, and I dont have any idea where he is today. I did see him again years later when I was working at the concession stand of one of my favorite arthouse theaters in Denver, the Mayan. Im not sure if he recognized me, but he ordered what he wanted and walked off. That was the last time I saw him, in 1995, almost 26 years ago.

The closing track is also named after someone, Billy.” What can you tell us about him?

Hes a dear friend that Ive known for a long time and one of the first straight men I could talk to about being gay who didnt treat me differently, didnt judge me, or change our friendship in any way. Hes just quite dangerous for me because hes bigger than life  and one of those people I would follow to my grave because he can do blow for two weeks, 24 hours a day, and be fine. And Id end up in the emergency room with a heart attack from one night of that!

I got sober and he didnt, and a lot of times when you get sober you have to part ways, even though you dont want to, because your interests dont align anymore. But I was thinking about the way Billy is straight and how his father affected him and mine affected me in completely different ways by these ideas of what a man should be, and we both spent years trying to destroy who we are to live up to what was expected of us. [The song is] a study of how damaging that is, to tell somebody who they are.

Despite its title, The Cruise Room” has nothing to do with backrooms or hookups?

Its about a bar in Denver. Its one of the most beautiful bars in the world, I think, and not a gay bar, just a regular bar, so theres no cruising involved. Its just called The Cruise Room. I think it opened in the 1920s or ’30s and is part of the oldest hotel there, the Oxford, and the most exquisite original art deco bar. They had a beautiful jukebox and I loved to play Patsy Cline. I wanted that place to be immortalized in song because its so beautiful.

One song, “Just So You Know,” confronts mortality and exists to comfort loved ones after you die. What was the creative spark for that one?

I was maybe thinking about my mothers death [in 1995 from lung cancer] and how after someone goes away we spend a lot of time beating ourselves up wondering if we expressed enough to them [about] how much we loved them while alive. I was quite young when she died and going through a rough time. She was very religious and didnt want me to be gay, so there was a rift there. If I had a letter from my mother that said, “I know our relationship was complicated, but dont worry about it, I knew you loved me…

When Im gone people wont have to beat themselves up or think I didnt know, because theyll have this song that says I always felt your love and knew you cared for me. I do get that a lot of people think its quite morbid, but death happens to all of us, so its not that weird, is it?

That said, would you like to exclude anyone who did you wrong? Name them now publicly so they cant absolve themselves or find solace in the song.

Its funny you should say that, but Ill let those people know personally with a letter: “This does not apply to you, I didnt know you loved me because you were a cunt.”

Would you like Mia Farrow to know she helped inspire Dandy Star”?

Ive thought about that! I think so, it would be cool. But, I mean, her life is so huge.

Are you glad that your life is lower profile than Mias or Angelina Jolies? That youre not hounded by paparazzi?

I do really like that. When you see the way people like Britney Spears were hounded, I felt quite compassionate toward her. Its so strange the way people follow people around and force them into these reactions and point and say theyre crazy. The people saying theyre crazy are completely out of their minds as far as Im concerned. America is a no-boundaries place.

Do you have superfans who crossed a boundary at least once, though?

There was somebody for some time trying to prove I was the father of her son. My manager and I were like, “Youre barking up the wrong tree here, lady!”

“Boy From Michigan” is out now. See tour dates here.

About the Author:

Lawrence Ferber
NY-raised entertainment and travel journalist Lawrence Ferber has contributed to publications including Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Advocate, NewNowNext, The NY Post and TripSavvy. He also co-wrote/co-created the 2010 gay romcom "BearCity" and authored its 2013 novelization.