John Grant is having a shitty day. Shortly before our interview, the man of his dreams—the one who inspired at least four songs on Grant's solo debut, Queen of Denmark—told him their troubled relationship was unequivocally finished. "It's been ongoing," he admits. "But yesterday he was like, 'Adios, forever.'"
Talk about rotten timing: British music glossy MOJO just anointed Queen of Denmark its number one album of the year. This fall, Grant, the former frontman for Denver combo the Czars, toured Europe supporting Wilco. He performed on the UK TV show Later with Jools Holland alongside Grinderman. "Nick Cave just came up to me, looking like a million bucks in his suit, and said, 'Hi, I'm Nick.'" Grant was awestruck.
Such joys are still new. Despite its pleasing surfaces, particularly the singer's mellifluous baritone and arrangements reminiscent of 1970s soft rock, Queen of Denmark was forged by a lifetime of shitty days. The 42-year-old spent years growing up gay in a repressively religious home ("Jesus Hates Faggots"), being bullied by classmates ("Sigourney Weaver"), and wallowing in substance abuse.
Lyrical panache distinguishes Grant from other doleful troubadours. "Marz," a gently psychedelic ditty, is peppered with names of sweet-shop confections. The jaunty "Silver Platter Club" recalls Harry Nilsson, as Grant skewers a friend's athletic prowess and good genes. This fan of monster movies, roller coasters, and ABBA tempers his dark tales with whimsy, a trademark he credits to his foreign-language studies, "because you express yourself like a child for the first couple of years when you're learning a new language."
He also cites a less conventional inspiration: operatic new-wave icon Nina Hagen, particularly her 1982 album NunSexMonkRock, which he snuck into his bedroom at great peril. "I would love to be able to scream and growl like Nina Hagen, but that shit doesn't come out of me. What comes out of me is this smooth, Karen Carpenter–type voice. So in order for me to express myself the way NunSexMonkRock made me feel, I do it with the lyrics."
Grant wasn't as adept at expressing his feelings in the Czars. More often, he drowned them. The singer/pianist founded the band in 1994, after six years of living in Germany. During the same period, he also came out of the closet, his mother died, and the taste for beer he'd developed overseas metastasized. "Then I started adding Jägermeister, because just beer was too slow." Cocaine allowed him to party till dawn. Artificial courage bulldozed his natural shyness, and reckless sexual escapades ensued.
"I'd already been told that making a choice for that [gay] lifestyle would only end in hell," he rationalized, so why not go whole hog? By the time he sought medical help to get clean in 2003, he'd erupted in a full-body rash. "I thought it was nerves, anxiety." Guess again: syphilis. "It was at such an advanced stage that they brought in all the student doctors to look at me." That was a shitty day.
Even with support from former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde and his Bella Union label, the Czars disintegrated in 2004. By then, Grant was in New York, staying sober, waiting tables, and studying to be a Russian medical interpreter. He played some shows and released a covers album with an ad hoc lineup of the Czars. Halfhearted solo gigs followed. A regular paycheck translating "irritable bowel syndrome" into Russian was looking mighty good.
While Grant was ready to give up on music, some musicians weren't ready to give up on him, specifically Denton, Texas, band Midlake, with whom he'd toured. They offered to spearhead his solo album, to supply accompaniment and free studio time. "They adored who I was, they loved the weirdness of me," he marvels. Over a pair of four-month stints in 2008 and 2009, Midlake cut their own record, The Courage of Others, in tandem with Grant's Queen of Denmark.
In the middle of making his record, Grant met the man who made him feel happier than he ever imagined: the guy he's still singing about on tour. Although he doesn't relish rehashing those emotions in public right now, his romantic disappointment will probably make for a great show. "That's one of the ways that I really nail it," he concludes. "I'm going to be feeling it, and people really connect with that."