John Grant: “Music and Language and Humor”

John Grant is a tender heart with a new album on the way, called The Art of The Lie, released June 14. We talked to the man himself to find out more, and fell into a sincere conversation that unlocked so much more.

Hi John.

Hi. I like your background.

Yeah, I like it too. It’s from an artist I love.


Nice to meet you. I guess you’re at home right now.

You too. Yeah, I’m at home in Iceland.

How is everything going?

It’s going good, thank you. I’m just working on promoting this record right now. And it’s a really beautiful day here in Iceland. It’s either light all the time right now, or it’s starting to get light very late, so that’s pretty cool.

Sunlight isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Iceland. So it’s cool to see you are enjoying the sunny weather right now.

(laughs) Yeah, definitely not. Are you in Istanbul?

Yeah, I am.


My opening question is an unorthodox one. Do you dream often? To what extent do you think your dreams guide your art?

I guess I’ve been dreaming a lot more lately, but I don’t really think about my dreams that much when I’m writing my songs. At least my dreams aren’t really interesting enough. They’re very realistic dreams, and a lot of times they’re nightmares. (laughs) And karabasan.

Was the last dream you saw a bad one or a good one?

It was a bad one.

Obviously, the main reason we are here is that you have a new album coming soon: The Art of The Lie. As a start, let’s go over the concept of the album and how you approached making it.

The way that I do music is that I let it develop naturally. I mean, I do have a lot of ideas for songs written down, like concepts and things like that. Then I just start writing and see what works and what doesn’t.

There’s definitely a lot going on in the United States right now that I have strong feelings about. It makes me think about my childhood and growing up in the United States, and what it means to be an American, what it means to be a gay man, what it means to be religious. What is capitalism? What kind of a system do we have in the United States? Then I’ll think a lot about my relationships to my parents and to my family. So that’s basically the concept. But I was also thinking about this book of Donald Trump, called The Art of the Deal. And then I got this idea for The Art of the Lie because I think lot of business in the United States is that. Business and advertising is everything in the United States, you know? There’s a lot of lying there. When it comes to religion, there’s a lot of lying there as well. As people, we lie to ourselves about things, too, you know, to make life easier sometimes.

I was thinking about all this lying, and that’s basically where the whole thing comes from.

With albums, there are usually memories attached to the creative process. Can you tell me three specific memories from that process that really stuck in your mind somehow?

Yeah. One of them turned into the song “Father” on the record, which is connected to the memory of walking through my childhood house for one last time. Just walking through the house that I was born in and that I grew up in. So that song sprang from that memory.

One of the songs, called “Laura Lou”, is based on several memories of going to school with a friend of mine in Germany and the incredible times we had together. That was all based in sitting around with her in her room, listening to music, and talking about books and words because we were both very excited about learning German. It’s basically memories of hanging out with Laura in Germany back in the eighties and nineties.

And “It’s a Bitch.” One of the memories from that song is hanging around at video arcades and being in awe of the heavy metal dudes. I use the word hesher in that song. A hesher is a guy that listens to heavy metal music, wears Iron Maiden shirts and has long hair. I remember standing around the video arcades and being in awe of these guys, because they were really good at some of the most difficult games, like Tempest, Defender, Stargate and Asteroids.

Some nostalgic stuff attached to the songs per usual.

Yeah, for sure.

I was actually planning to ask this question later, but I’ll ask it now since you just talked about learning German. You’re eager to learn new languages and are a polyglot. I also happen to have a certain interest in language as a translator.

Oh! Are you a translator?

Yeah, I am. Full-time translator, aside from this editorial music writing stuff.

Amazing. That’s incredible.

There’s a language theory suggesting that we actually switch personality traits when we switch between languages. Do you feel like that happens to you as a person speaking many languages?

Yeah, I do. I think German sort of forces you to become a little bit more formal and officious in some ways because of the structure of the language. In Icelandic, I feel like my personality traits become softer, maybe more feminine, I’m not sure. Russian makes me a little bit louder. (laughs) I think that was more so the case when I was younger. Now I think I’m sort of more myself in each of those languages. But it is very interesting. You do really take on a different personality when you speak those different languages.

Maybe different languages highlight some aspects of your personality better, in a sense.

Yes, I would say that’s true. It’s really a fascinating subject. I could talk about it all day. What do you translate into?

From English to Turkish, mostly.

Turkish is a fascinating language.

Have you studied it in the past?

Yeah, a little bit. It’s an agglutinative language, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is.

I’m fascinated by that because I don’t speak any of those languages. You add things onto words that can become very long.

There is a famous singular Turkish word / sentence: “Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız.” It means “I heard that you were one of those people who we aren’t able to make locals of Afyonkarahisar.” You convey that whole meaning through a single agglutinative word.

That’s fascinating to me.

It makes things tough for us in the field of interpreting. In Turkish, we hear verbs at the end of each sentence, while in an English sentence, they come at the second spot.

You sort of have to guess what’s coming, don’t you?

Yeah. It becomes more of a mind game, in a sense.

It’s the same with German, you know? A lot of times the verbs come at the end of the sentence, because they get pushed there. You sort of get a feeling for what’s coming usually, based on the context. I really love it.

I want to expand upon a detail from your press release. You say, “There is a bit of the Devo spirit in everything I do in some way or another. There’s a lot of amazing humor in their music but they were also serious as a heart attack.”


I would like to add to that sentiment with this observation: Lots of serious-sounding artists have a humorous spirit in their hearts, which, in return, helps us see them as humans with multiple emotions and allows us to take them more seriously. For instance, Leonard Cohen has a lot of amazing usage of humor in his lyricism. Do you feel like that hidden humor allows you to expand as a musical personality?

Absolutely. Leonard Cohen is a great example, and I think Joni Mitchell is a great example, too. She talks about very serious things, but she has incredible humor while she’s doing it. And that’s the type of thing that I aspire to in my music. Humor is very important to me, and it’s a lot of the way that I deal with life. Music and humor have been the two most important things for me as far as survival. And language. Music and language and humor.

I think it’s incredibly important, because it’s a part of everyday life. Everything is mixed together with humor, even death. I’m always looking for realistic snapshots of what goes on in the everyday.

Let’s go on with another quote, this time not from you: “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” which I think is a beautiful sentiment. I interpret it as this: An art piece may be formally finished by its creator, the artist, but it will go on to find new meanings, find new life among listeners, and maybe the artist themselves. Do you agree with that sentiment? How do you feel about that?

I do agree with that, because like you said, art always takes on a life of its own. It has a specific meaning perhaps, that you intend for it at the beginning, but then when you slip it into the world, it becomes interpreted by the individual, and it becomes a billion different things. I’m not sure how art can be abandoned, though. I almost think that it can’t be abandoned. I guess if you abandon it before it gets released…

I thought about the word “abandoned” that way, actually.

Yeah, if so, absolutely. That’s a beautiful quote.

Returning to the album: Can you name one song easiest and one hardest to shape -and maybe abandon- in that creative process?

That’s a good question. The last song, “Zeitgeist,” was very simple. It just sort of flowed out of me and was finished in a day.

The hardest one, I think, was “The Child Catcher,” because for a long time, I really didn’t know how the structure of the song was going to be. Then it took me ten months to get all of the lyrics to that song. The phrasing of the words inside the music was difficult too. And then it took me a long time to write the chorus, and to write the chords for the chorus progression. When it was done, I was so happy with it. I was happy that I allowed it time to develop, you know?

Let me expand on that: Which song among your solo career so far took the most of your time and effort?

One from my previous record Boy From Michigan called “Dandy Star.” I had that song for a long time in my head, but I didn’t know how to go about telling the story. It was just very slow and coming, and I wasn’t really sure how to tackle it. It didn’t seem right for the albums before that. When Boy From Michigan came, it felt like the right time. Once I sat down, it came pretty quickly, but it took many years for me to realize the idea.

Also on this record, “Father” didn’t come easily. I’ve been thinking about that song for almost 20 years.


I think we already talked about this: It came from that moment when I walked through my childhood house, but I wasn’t really sure how to tackle it. I guess I had a bunch more living to do before I could do that song.

Then came the right time.


If you have access to your streaming platform right now, can you name the last three songs that you listened to?

Let me see. I listened to “Exterminating Angel” by Cabaret Voltaire, “Come Wander With Me” by Jeff Alexander, and a Finnish pop song called “Satan in Love” by a woman named Emilia.

I think (humor) is incredibly important, because it’s a part of everyday life. Everything is mixed together with humor, even death. And I’m always looking for realistic snapshots of what goes on in the everyday.

John Grant

Okay, here comes the final question, and it’s a hypothetical one: Let’s imagine we are at a Musicians Theme Park 100 years from now, where lots of artists from our time have their own memorial stone, with each one having certain lyrics by that artist written on top of it. Which one of your lyrics would you have liked to be written on that song?

Might be one lyric from “Zeitgeist.” It goes, “Barbara says I’m going too fast / I’m just afraid that this won’t last / I feel that it is my main task / To make sure that you know that I love you.”

That’s beautiful. I love it.

Thank you. What’s your name?



Nice to meet you, John.

It’s a pleasure to meet you too. What can I say? In Turkish, which one of us says güle güle or allahaısmarladık when we say goodbye?

It can be both of us, actually.

Okay. Did you know that I learned some other Turkish words?

Which ones? Tell me.

I can say these: Ben eve gitmek istiyorum, Merhaba, Bugün çok sıcak, Bugün çok soğuk, karabasan, leblebi…

Have you ever eaten leblebi? Did you like it?

Yes, I liked it a lot. And I know that it’s the only word you can spell on the calculator. (both laugh) I also know içmek, which can either mean to drink or to smoke depending on the context, right?


Also ekmek and Bu akşam çalışıyor musun?

You know a lot. That’s impressive. (both laugh) I expected maybe a few basic words. You said karabasan, as well as some fully correct sentences.

Yeah. Anyway, I love Turkish, so I hope I get to come there again soon. And play for you.

Yeah, I hope so too.

You must come say hi if I do.

You can check out John Grant’s Bandcamp profile here.