Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – John Grant

In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them

1
On which of her albums did Sinéad O’Connor cover your 2010 track ‘Queen of Denmark’?

“’How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?’”

CORRECT. Her 2012 album.

“Oh man!  I still don’t believe that happened. It’s like when I recently gave Cocteau Twins their Visionary Award at the Ivor Novellos; these are moments I only dreamt about. Sinéad covering ‘Queen of Denmark’ was how we met. I then reached out to her and played her some demos from my [2013] ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ record and she said: ‘I’ll sing on everything!’ And she almost did! She did her stuff in Ireland and I was doing the record in Iceland. Growing up, I’d loved her voice from the first time I heard her 1987 song ‘Mandinka’, so I almost couldn’t reconcile her singing backing vocals on three tracks on ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ with my reality.”

2
You co-wrote ‘No Prejudice’ by Pollapönk, which was Iceland’s 2014 Eurovision Song Contest entry. How many points did it win in the final?

“This is super-hard! Let’s see: how about 42?”

WRONG. The song earned 58 points, finishing in 15th place. Were you a Eurovision fan beforehand?

“No, and I’m still not! I knew about ABBA and that’s where my interest ended. Pollapönk approached me and all I did was translate their song from Icelandic into English, but I liked the message of the song and their style. It was a pop-punk track with a message to kids to be yourself and not let anybody tell you the way you need to be, which I could get on board with. I thought it would be great if they’d won, but I didn’t think they had a chance because it wasn’t saccharine or cloying.”

3
You sang Elton John’s ‘Sweet Painted Lady’ on the 2014 40th anniversary edition of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. For a half-point each, who covered ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ on that record?

“I can’t remember either of them!”

WRONG. Miguel turned his hand to ‘Bennie and the Jets’ while Fall Out Boy tackled ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’.

“That was another moment of thinking: can this actually be my life?! Appearing on that album was something I thought would impress my brothers – and it worked. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ was a huge album for me growing up, so it was an honour. Being friends with Elton now, some of the most incredible moments are just sitting with him at his breakfast table at his place in Windsor, drinking coffee. I remember being backstage at one of his shows, sitting on the couch opposite him in his dressing room. It was just the two of us, and the couch seemed really far away. I said: ‘Should I come over there and sit by you?’. And he just said bluntly:  ‘No’ [Laughs]”

Elton famously gives all his pals drag names, such as Britney Shears for Scissor Sister Jake Shears and Carol Dakota for John Lennon. Have you been awarded one yet?

“Yeah, he calls me Gogi Grant – named after a singer that Elton liked. I haven’t looked her up yet. I need to check her out!”

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4
What unusual form of identification did you use to obtain an emergency passport from London’s American Embassy in 2011?

“I used a newspaper that featured an article of me in it. Was it The Independent?”

CORRECT-ISH. HALF A POINT. It was actually The Times.

“It was to get into the Embassy to get a new passport ‘cause I didn’t have any identification. The officials had a smile on their face like, ‘I’ll be damned – it is him!’ I don’t think it would work in today’s climate where nothing is real. They’d just assume it could be fake.”

5
Which two of your tracks appear in the 2011 film Weekend?

“’Marz’ and ‘TC and Honeybear’?”

CORRECT.

Whooo-hooo! I met the director Andrew Haigh beforehand to figure out whether I wanted to let him use my music and make sure the movie was going to be good. Just from talking to him, I knew he wasn’t going to make shit.”

Those songs were written when you were staring down the barrel of turning 40 years old, you’d departed your previous band The Czars and were working as a waiter in New York.  Did it feel like a last throw of the dice?

“Absolutely. And then after the album [‘Queen of Denmark’] was done and I was still waiting tables, I didn’t know how it would be received or whether it would be received at all. It felt like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It was a whirlwind for me, albeit a very slow whirlwind! [Laughs] I felt like a Tasmanian Devil on Quaaludes!”

6
In 2016, you interviewed Robbie Williams for Attitude. What is he wearing on the cover of the magazine?

“Hmm … Was he wearing a pink jacket?”

WRONG. Nothing – he’s naked.

[Laughs] “Well, I truly have no memory of anything, do I? Writing with Robbie on his [2016] song ‘I Don’t Want To Hurt You’ was super-easy. He’s one of the nicest guys in the world. More than anything, I admire his warmth. He’s somebody I can relate to because he also struggles with depression and self-doubt and is very compassionate as result.”

7
You were nominated for Best International Male Solo Artist at the 2014 BRIT Awards. Who beat you?

Bruno Mars.”

CORRECT.

“That’s easy! I first met Boy George at that BRITS, who’s always been a real sweetheart to me, patting me on the back, and he’s become like a mentor to me. Getting to sing with Culture Club that year was another huge moment, because they’re a band I grew up listening to and their music still sticks with me. Nothing else sounds like them.”

Kylie Minogue presented the BRIT to Bruno Mars – who you later ended up duetting with on her song ‘Confide in Me’ and your track ‘Glacier’…

“Kylie’s off-the-hook and ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is a fucking-A banger. In the US, she was put in competition with Madonna and people felt she was outshined by songs like ‘Vogue’ and ‘Like a Prayer’, but Kylie’s become the much more consistent artist.”

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8
What is the sauna called in the video to your ‘Disappointing’ single featuring Tracey Thron?

“Oh my God, I’ve no idea!”

WRONG. It’s The Iron Club.

“I would never have got that! That video was fun, but there were a lot of hot dudes there and I just felt inferior! But the fact I was able to put those thoughts aside and enjoy myself is a triumph! What I’ve always wanted to do for one of my live gigs is randomly have somebody super-hot go onstage instead of me and just lip-synch while I sing behind them [Laughs].  Going back into the world after COVID I feel a spate of ridiculousness coming on.”

 

9
You’re playing the Grace Jones-curated Meltdown festival in June. Name the Bond Girl she portrayed in the 1985 film A View to a Kill?

“Oh shit! Sorry, I have no idea!”

WRONG. She plays May Day. How does it feel to have been handpicked by her?

“She’s one of the greatest performers of all-time, and I’ve been influenced by her, so maybe she senses that in my music… or maybe somebody blackmailed her to include me in the line-up! [Laughs] But I don’t care, ‘cause I’m going to be there, and I hope I get to meet her.”

Does Meltdown hold any significance to you because it was while performing there in 2012 with New York dance act Hercules and Love Affair that you told the crowd you were HIV positive – which must have felt empowering?

“I suppose it does… I rarely think about that moment. People tell me they think I was brave to do that, but I’m sure there are just as many people that think it was sensational or TMI. But in that moment I just wanted to connect with the audience by telling them what the song [‘I Try to Talk to You’] was about. My first reaction was to be ashamed and not say anything, then I thought: fuck that! I am going say it because it’s the truth and I shouldn’t feel embarrassed or weird about it.

“There’s an added stigma in that there’s a huge population of the world that thinks this [HIV] is my punishment for being a f****t. That prompted me to write the line in my song [‘The Only Baby’]: ‘We’ll shun the ones who do not get the Christian diseases’. Because a Christian disease is one that comes from the Devil and this one comes from God. All the Christians that have cancer, they’re not being punished; they’re being tested by the devil. But I’m being directly punished by the good guy because I’m such a piece of shit. That certainly gives you something to fight against!”

Your religious upbringing meant you were sent to a Christian camp as a child to “cure” you of being gay. What’s that experience like? In the UK, the government has come under fire not including trans people in its LGBT conversion therapy ban…

“Well, excluding trans people from the ban is fucking silly! It’s like the aversion therapy scene in A Clockwork Orange. The sentence is death, so you’re taught to hate the thing that you are. You internalise that which is a source of shame. What blows my mind is that I’m in my 50s now, still struggling with its effects, and people reject you because they say: ‘I can’t believe you’re still holding onto that shit’. That’s like a second wave of rejection.”

10
Complete the following lyrics: ‘You and Hitler should get together…‘?

You ought to learn to knit and wear matching sweaters.’ I love that line so much!”

CORRECT. From the track ‘You and Him’. Has anybody ever mentioned in your lyrics ever got in touch with you?

“No, although yesterday one of the panes of glass on my kitchen shattered into a thousand pieces but nothing had hit it. So that might have been feedback from Hitler – maybe he was getting in touch with me!” [Laughs]

The verdict: 4.5/10

“Has anyone done worse? [Laughs] I feel very proud of that score!”

John Grant plays Grace Jones’ Meltdown which is set to take place between June 10-19 at London’s Southbank Centre. Visit here for tickets and more information.

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