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John Grant on Death, Dancefloors, Bitter Truths and New Album ‘The Art of The Lie’

Photo Credit:
Words by: David James Young

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of a graphic homophobic hatecrime.

 

After a quarter-century in the music game and a score of albums to his name, you might forgive singer-songwriter John Grant for  resting on his laurels in his mid-50s. However,  his new album, The Art of the Lie, proves he’s far from complacent. The sharp, dynamic album, full of Grant’s classic witticisms and textured songwriting, begins right in the groove with the sassy opener “All That School For Nothing.” Complete with rattling talk-box and snappy grooves, it’s a loving tribute to P-funk that still maintains Grant’s idiosyncratic style. Between the aforementioned track and the playfully camp single “It’s A Bitch,” it’s clear that Grant has designed at least part of the album to get listeners moving their bodies. So, the million-dollar question is: What gets John Grant out on the dance floor?

“I grew up on new wave,” he replies, speaking to CONE on a late Reykjavik night. “I was really into that, as well as post-punk. Industrial music has always been a big one for me, too – give me some Skinny Puppy, some Front Line Assembly, some Front 242. My ultimate weakness, though, is old-school hip-hop. If I’m out anywhere and they start playing ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash, or ‘Freaks Come Out At Night’ by Whodini— it doesn’t matter what shape I’m in— I will be going directly to the dance floor to shake my booty.”

Produced by Grace Jones collaborator Ivor Guest, The Art of the Lie showcases Grant’s ideas and perspectives within sometimes unfamiliar but always fascinating sonic environments. Across the album’s 11 tracks and hour-long runtime, Grant’s laconic voice is frequently accentuated digitally through a vocoder.While Grant has always been fond of this effect, on this album it feels more central to the overall sonics than on any of his previous albums.

“To me, the sound of a vocoder is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world,” he explains. “I tend to use it on my slowest and most melancholy songs. It’s all over the place on this record. I wanted to make the vocals really creamy, like on a Carpenters record, with lots of layering. There’s such a plaintive sound to it — you simultaneously feel like it’s a harbinger of doom, while also getting this incredible sense of longing. I have this new line when I talk about vocoders that I am yet to tire of: It’s the sound of the future mourning the past.”

The Art of the Lie, as Grant outlines, covers three main topics: “The lies people espouse, the brokenness they breed, and how we are warped and deformed by them.” He lyrically blends harsh reality with his unique storytelling, as in the song “Mother & Son,” which tells the tale of Allen R. Schindler, Jr. , who died in 1992, leaving a legacy that haunts the dark underbelly of homophobia in Grant’s homeland.

“He was a soldier in the American Navy, who served in the early 90s,” reveals Grant of Schindler, diving into the graphic story. “He was murdered by two of his shipmates for being gay. They stomped on his face until it was unrecognizable, completely caving it in with their combat boots. His internal organs were mash. It’s a horrifying story, and I didn’t know about it until a few years ago. His mother has to talk about it every year when these men are up for parole. I wanted to write this song as a gift of sorts to her.”

The track is one of the most touching and pensive moments on the album, not to mention of Grant’s decades-long career. He wrote the song with the approval of  Schindler’s mother, Dorothy Hajdys-Clausen, whom Grant contacted to discuss Allen’s life. At the time of writing, however, she was yet to hear the finished product.

“We ended up talking on the phone for a while,” Grant recalls. “She became an activist after Allen died, and she really turned things around. I told her about the song I was writing, and how I didn’t want it to hurt her. She told me that she can’t be hurt anymore than she already was. I sent her the song, but I haven’t followed up to see if she’s listened yet. I’m hoping that she loves it.”

Elsewhere, on the album centerpiece “The Child Catcher,” Grant combines two separate worlds: harsh reality and cinematic fantasy. The former was inspired by Grant’s reading of  the 1975 book Sugar Blues by William Dufty, which examines the impact of what has been described as one of the nation’s more unexpected but undoubtedly significant killers: sugar, in both its creation and consumption.

“Sugar, particularly in America, is completely soaked in the blood of the slave trade,” Grant states matter-of-factly. “It’s caused millions and millions of deaths, and when it was introduced into our society, it started causing a very fast and horrifying decay. At the beginning of the book, the author recalls a meeting with the actress Gloria Swanson where he offered her a bowl of sugar cubes for her coffee. She says, ‘I won’t have that stuff in my house, let alone my body.’”

The latter, cinematic fantasy, was inspired by one of the most uniquely dark and sinister film characters of all time: the titular Child Catcher, as portrayed by the late Robert Helpmann in the 1968 classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Explaining the premise, Grant says, “He goes through the streets with a cart covered in brightly-colored ribbons and lollipops.“When he coaxes the children in, he pulls a string and they’re suddenly imprisoned in this black metal carriage. And this is supposed to be a kids movie!”

In this sprawling ballad, complete with a masterful guitar solo outro that rivals “Hotel California,” Grant combines the temptation and allure of sugary products with the evil nature of Helpmann’s monstrous character, weaving in a complex yet fascinating metaphor. “It’s a song about letting the devil in,” Grant adds. “Sugar is wielded into children’s minds and makes them addicts when they’re really young, through advertising and good ol’ healthy capitalism. Entire societies are built around selling products, and the movies show us how we invite evil into our lives. It’s insane, but that’s just the line that goes on and on. It’s all part of The Art of the Lie.”

Taking on issues like institutionalized bigotry, addiction, death and society’s deceptive nature is, quite daunting. Even more so when tackling them with a streak of black comedy, as Grant often does. As he’ll happily attest, however, it’s second nature to him now – and reflects how we process heavy topics beyond their immediate, monolithic impact.

“It’s a defense mechanism that’s always been there for me,” says Grant. “When I’m tackling these heavy-duty subjects, I want to tackle them in the context of the everyday. Maybe while you’re thinking about the death of your mother, or your fucked-up relationship to your dad, or any other regrets that you have. You might be standing in line buying milk. There might be something funny going on in front of you. That’s what everyday life is like. You never know what kind of a combo you’re gonna get from moment to moment. I’m trying to give a 3D picture of that experience within these songs.”

Whether it’s a snarky quip or a pensive mourning, The Art of the Lie gives listeners much to process. Grant welcomes all aspects of the listening experience from those that press play and spend an hour in his world. “This is an album that I hope shakes the shit loose,” he says with a smile. “Everybody’s stressed out of their fucking minds right now, all over the world. It was bad enough with COVID, but now everything’s so fucking expensive, and everyone is struggling across the board – except for billionaires, of course. Whatever you’ve got pent up, I want this album to jog it loose. All of it! Shake your booty. Have a good cry. Fall into the most horrible despair imaginable! Have a nice long think about the fact that life is full of death and loss, but also incredible beauty that you can barely process.”

 

Related: Jessica Pratt On The Purpose Of Music, Her Relationship With The Creative Process, And The Culmination Of Efforts That Led To Her Fourth Studio Album, ‘Here In The Pitch’

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