For many, the standout show at the 2011 Smithwick’s Kilkenny Roots Festival was john Grant’s performance at The Watergate Theatre. John returns to the festival and The Watergate for this year’s event on Sunday May 5th. His new album, PALE GREEN GHOSTS, has just entered the British charts at No 16.
It’s been an extraordinary journey for John Grant, from a point where he thought he would
never make music again or escape a life of substance abuse to winning awards and accolades,
collaborating with Sinead O’Connor, Rumer and Hercules & Love Affair and having his music featured
in the award-winning film Weekend.
It’s a journey that’s taken him from Buchanan, Michigan to Parker, Colorado, studying languages in
Germany and, after his band The Czars split up, basing himself in New York, London, Berlin and, most
recently, Iceland, where the bulk of Pale Green Ghosts was recorded. It’s also been a journey from
The Czars’ folk/country noir to the lush ‘70s FM alchemy of Queen Of Denmark to the astonishing
fusion of sounds that lifts Pale Green Ghosts.
As if to acknowledge his journey, Grant has named the album after the opening title track,
which documents the drives that he’d regularly take through the ‘80s, from Parker to the nearby
metropolis of Denver, to the new wave dance clubs that have inspired the electronic elements
of Pale Green Ghosts, and later on to visit the boyfriend – the ‘TC’ of Queen Of Denmark’s ‘TC &
Honeybear’ – that inspired many of that album’s heartbreaking scenarios.
That Grant has made his mark is blatantly clear from how Queen Of Denmark was rapturously
received. “Like a couple of similarly intense classics before it – Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird
Now and Bon Iver’s For Emma… Queen Of Denmark sounds like a record its creator has been waiting
his whole life to make,” MOJO concluded. Another measure of achievement, and the journey, is that
one classic that Grant first heard in those new wave clubs was Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Mandinka’. Two
decades later, O’Connor has not only covered the title track of ‘Queen Of Denmark’ on her latest
album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, but supplies goose-bumping backing vocals on Pale
Sinead’s presence is a surprise, but not compared to the album’s portion of synthesisers and beats –
unless you already know Grant’s enduring love of vintage synth-pop and industrial dance, and more
current electronic acts such as Trentemøller and Mock & Toof. “Electronica is a huge part of my
personality and my influences, though I don’t think many people see that fitting in to the John Grant
image, whatever that is,” he says. There were occasional electronic undertows to Czars songs and
two tracks (‘That’s the Good News’ and ‘Supernatural Defibrillator”’) on the deluxe edition of Queen
Of Denmark were dance tracks.
One of those prime influences has even produced Pale Green Ghosts with Grant: Birgir Þórarinsson,
a.k.a. Biggi Veira, of Iceland’s electronic pioneers Gus Gus. Queen of Denmark had been recorded
in Texas with fellow Bella Union mates Midlake as his backing band, and Grant intended to return
there to record again with the band’s rhythm section of McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander. But a
trip beforehand to see more of Iceland, after he’d first played the Iceland Airwaves festival in 2011,
led to meeting Biggi, who invited Grant to his studio in Reykjavik. The two tracks the pair recorded –
‘Pale Green Ghosts’ and ‘Black Belt’ – convinced Grant he had to make the entire record there.
If Queen Of Denmark is Grant’s ‘70s album, channeling the spirits of Karen Carpenter and Bread,
then Pale Green Ghosts is his’80s album. Of the electronic tracks, the title track is a panoramic,
brooding classic, while ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’ and ‘Black Belt’ are the tracks that you might
dance to in new wave clubs. ‘You Don’t Have To’ is a classic example of Grant’s influences blending
together, in a reworked arrangement of a track unveiled during concert tours in 2011. It also
features the distinct spacey Moog sounds that are familiar to lovers of Queen Of Denmark,
while McKenzie and Alexander play on ‘Vietnam’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him’. Grant’s touring
partner, keyboardist Chris Pemberton, plays the gorgeous piano coda on the album’s tumultuous
Grant has also never shied away from discussing depression, and Pale Green Ghosts is a show of
strength and survival, of moving on with life, on what will continue to be an incredible journey.
“Moving to Reykjavik, at the age of 43, was incredibly risky and scary,” says Grant. “I didn’t know
anyone here, but I’ve built up a life here, and recorded an album I’m really proud of, that distils what
I’m about down to its most essential components, better than ever before. And this was during the
middle of health issues. It means I’m trying to take the bull by the horns, and to live.”
Tickets for his Kilkenny show are now on sale from The Watergate (Tel 056 7761674) and
Rollercoaster Records (Tel 056 7763669).