INTERVIEW: John Grant | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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John Grant’s difficult, dramatic rise to acclaim has been documented well enough in recent years – his apprenticeship years as part of the shamefully neglected band The Czars, battling through addictions to drugs and alcohol and coping with depression – but it’s still worth noting just how much John Grant’s life has changed in the last few years. After a period of silence following the demise of The Czars, his Midlake-backed solo debut Queen of Denmark slowly amassed a cult following on its release in 2010, building a sizeable fan-base that went overground with 2013’s electronics-laden Pale Green Ghosts.

As he prepares to put a full stop on Pale Green Ghosts before a third solo album, he’s getting ready for his most ambitious tour to date accompanied by Royal Northern Sinfonia, which stops at the Sage Gateshead on Friday 28th November. Speaking to me ahead of this latest endeavour, Grant proved as charming, as engaged and as honest as his songs might suggest, despite an unfortunate case of ‘flu.

Asked about the catalyst for the tour, Grant proves effusive. “I’ve always wanted to do this sort of thing, I’ve always thought that I would love it. I have a lot of orchestral arrangements on my albums, so to me it was a no-brainer, if you will. I always thought that it would be the perfect thing to do, but that I would never afford it, but here we are, and all of a sudden it’s happening.

“I would give a lot of the credit to my manager Fiona for making sure it happened and Tamsin from the Sage, I’d call her a real supporter of the arts and I always love having contact with her, and she’s been a big part of this happening too. I came across her when I was playing there, and she said ‘you could do this’.”

A recent performance for BBC Radio 6 gave an early hint of what to expect from the tour, and as Grant explains, it confirmed that the concept would work. “When you’re working with these orchestras, they’re professionals – they don’t really do it any other way. I just performed with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and it’s a daunting thing. There’s not a lot of time to rehearse, so it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, but it has put me at ease because it was such a smooth, great experience working with pros like that.”

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That he’s in such a position to pull off such a grand undertaking could be taken as proof of having made ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is exactly meant to be, anyway), but Grant takes a more measured, philosophical approach to his recent popularity. “I’m a big language freak, and I’ve been reading this book called What Mean? Where Russians Go Wrong In English, and a lot of it’s about how our languages really affect how we express ourselves and the fact that a lot of Americans think Russians are very negative and a lot of Russians think that Americans are just absurdly over-positive – you know, as does the rest of the world of course. But then there’s the whole Dale Carnegie thing of How To Win Friends And Influence People – the Russians think that’s just ridiculous, while the Americans think the Russians are just incredibly negative. Well, I’ve always been more like a Russian. You know, prepare for the worst and allow yourself to be surprised when it doesn’t happen.”

Another piece of work Grant’s been undertaking is a compilation of material by his former band The Czars due out in December, with the tracklisting and artwork overseen by Grant himself. Discussing the compilation though, it’s clearly not as simple as calling it nostalgia. “I still don’t really like to think about it a lot, because I dislike the person I was during that time. It’s painful to look back on, but it is what it is – it’s an important part of me getting to where I am now, so I try and look at it from a neutral place. It was easy to pick out the songs though because I’ve always had an easy time picking out what I thought was good or bad. I really enjoyed doing the artwork for it: I really do think it’s beautiful, if I say so myself. It’s all my photos from Denver, and there’s some really special places in there that were a big part of it, places where we hung out, my favourite movie theatres – the cover is of the alleyway next to the place where we had our first gig. I really love those American alleyways, with all the telephone wires and all the trash and bricks, so I have to say I’m very happy with it. During the whole Czars period, I never did an album cover that I was really happy with, and this is the first one for a Czars project that makes sense to me.”

Right now though, Grant is more interested in looking to the future and towards the new material he’s currently working on. “I have a lot of different ideas, and I’m very excited by it. I’ve got all the songs mapped out in my head, but I’m not exactly sure who I’m going to work with yet or how it’s going to sound. I think it’s going to be quite varied – you know, like my personality – and I think it’ll be along the lines of Pale Green Ghosts and maybe go further into other styles that I love. I love all that moody, David Lynch stuff, so I can’t imagine that will change: there’ll still be a lot of darkness.”

John Grant with Royal Northern Sinfonia play the Sage Gateshead on Friday 28th November.

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