You won’t find musician John Grant’s 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 “I’m always inspired by Devo even if it doesn’t 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 friend’s 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. I’m always told there have to be radio edits because they’re way too long, but I won’t have anything to do with them because that’s not what I wrote. I think it’s grotesque and like asking a painter which part of his painting you can cut out. Those sections with the sort of ambient vibe, they’re really important to me and set up and finish the songs really well; they’re indispensable as far as I’m 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! We’re 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, who’s 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 there’s no room for art.
The synthy start and end to the title track, which opens the album, reminded me a bit of Daniel Lopatin’s 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 Daniel’s stuff, so it doesn’t surprise me that it fits in there. Also, the 1986 album from Jarre, “Zoolook.” It’s 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] there’s not a place for you in that American dream. Just the ugliness of a lot that we’ve 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, it’s hard to say I can’t stand it but I feel that way. I have a visceral reaction. There’s 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! I’ll 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 don’t know how realistic that is.
You broke up with your Icelandic boyfriend since the last album, 2018’s “Love Is Magic.” Is there a breakup song on “Boy”?
Not really. I had such a great experience during my last relationship I wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’s 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.
Let’s talk about a song from the album that’s actually set in Oklahoma, “Mike and Julie.” Do either of the real-life people this is based on know this song exists? It’s quite moving.
Julie knows about it. We hadn’t talked in 30 years, and she knows. I don’t expect Mike to care or have any reaction at all. It’s understandable why I reacted to him the way I did, because I couldn’t deal with my sexuality at the time, but it doesn’t really matter to the person why you’re acting that way at the time, it just hurts.
I feel bad the way I treated and pushed him away, and I don’t 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. I’m 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?
He’s a dear friend that I’ve known for a long time and one of the first straight men I could talk to about being gay who didn’t treat me differently, didn’t judge me, or change our friendship in any way. He’s just quite dangerous for me because he’s 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 I’d end up in the emergency room with a heart attack from one night of that!
I got sober and he didn’t, and a lot of times when you get sober you have to part ways, even though you don’t want to, because your interests don’t 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?
It’s about a bar in Denver. It’s one of the most beautiful bars in the world, I think, and not a gay bar, just a regular bar, so there’s no cruising involved. It’s 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 it’s 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 mother’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t worry about it, I knew you loved me…’
When I’m gone people won’t have to beat themselves up or think I didn’t know, because they’ll 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 it’s quite morbid, but death happens to all of us, so it’s not that weird, is it?
That said, would you like to exclude anyone who did you wrong? Name them now publicly so they can’t absolve themselves or find solace in the song.
It’s funny you should say that, but I’ll let those people know personally with a letter: “This does not apply to you, I didn’t know you loved me because you were a cunt.”
Would you like Mia Farrow to know she helped inspire “Dandy Star”?
I’ve 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 Mia’s or Angelina Jolie’s? That you’re 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. It’s so strange the way people follow people around and force them into these reactions and point and say they’re crazy. The people saying they’re crazy are completely out of their minds as far as I’m 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, “You’re barking up the wrong tree here, lady!”
“Boy From Michigan” is out now. See tour dates here.