Signal Path Podcast: John Grant
Listen to the latest SIGNAL PATH podcast with JOHN GRANT, a singer-songwriter who found solo success by distilling personal adversity into unsparing, witty and poignant music.
Hear the stories behind the music with the Signal Path podcast. Tapping a global network of musicians, producers, engineers and other sonic innovators, Shure brings you exclusive interviews with the people shaping the world of audio.
Episode 022: John Grant
For this episode of Signal Path, we caught up with the American singer-songwriter John Grant in London fresh off a UK tour for his latest album Love Is Magic. In the podcast, John discusses why he nearly crashed out of music, how he found his creative bearings again and how learning several foreign languages has affected his songwriting.
Signal Path: You just finished a UK tour – essentially everywhere except for London?
John Grant: Yes, just yesterday I got back, and it was quite a lot of fun, I have to say. We did London on the last leg and we did a bunch of places that we hadn't done yet, except Manchester – the only place we did twice.
It’s just weeks before Britain is set to crash out of the EU. Do you get the vibe of where you are when you're touring, or are you so focused on the performance that you don't really feel what's going on outside of the concert venues?
I would say the latter. I'm so focused on the performance and just getting through the day – you know, getting enough sleep and making sure that my voice is fit to do the show and I'm taking care of myself and getting something to eat and doing whatever interviews I have to do. It's usually packed pretty full until sound check and then you know it's just like clockwork from there. But I also find [Brexit] to be quite overshadowed by the whole Trump thing because everything just pales in comparison to that horror, you know. So I don't want to be thinking too much about that because it's too grotesque.
Well, the saying goes that bad times make great art. And you are known for mining personal challenges and difficult times to make great music. So can you extrapolate that to a national level?
I definitely think it's going to cause some art to happen, for sure. And it has caused some things to happen for me, creativity-wise, because a lot of anger comes up as a result of some of the things that are going on. So yeah, I do believe it affects what the Germans call the zeitgeist. That's definitely something that I think you're hearing a lot of right now affecting a lot of people.
You're American, but you're based in Iceland. Maybe we could go into your backstory a little more for people who don't know you. You were born in Michigan and raised in Colorado in a conservative religious family.
Yeah, until I was twelve, we were Methodist and then when we went to Colorado and my parents chose to become Southern Baptists. So that was a stricter, more confined Bible-based ideology. Then, when I was a senior in high school I got into German, and that was something that I sort of latched on to because things were sort of going [badly] for me at that point. I was really looking for something to do and I found that I had a talent for language. So that sort of saved me my senior year and then I decided to go and study in Germany and ended up doing that for six years.
I heard you were a Nina Hagen fan and that's why you were interested in German.
That's right, yeah. Love of language seems to have always come from music, somehow.
How has your love of foreign languages impacted your songwriting in English?
I'm sure it does, because in other languages people have completely different colloquialisms that we simply don't have in English. When you translate those into English, of course that forces you to search your own language for cognates or for equivalence. That is the art of translating and interpreting: that often you can't do that. You have to say what is meant, even if there's no word for word translation. So it definitely forces you to think more in your language and to come up with things.
Just an example that I often give is in Icelandic there's a colloquial phrase “to have an Arctic Tern pause.” And, basically, that means to go get 40 winks, or get your act together, to get a little nap in. It's based on the behavior of this bird the Arctic Tern, which before it dives in the water to get a fish, hovers just for a moment in the air and pauses. So there are all these beautiful metaphors from nature.
But I remember when I first started learning German at the university that I had a British teacher for the translation into English from German and she was telling me how crap my English was and that I really needed to get it together, and I knew that she was right. I saw these English kids around me, British kids, and they always had the right word. And I had a very limited vocabulary in English, so I was much better in German towards the end of my studies. But I had to bring my English up to that level. And so learning foreign languages is what forced me to realize that my English was so poor.
It forced you to focus on your own vernacular in English, so that obviously made you much stronger songwriter.
Absolutely! You realize how difficult it is to master your own language, when you start to learn a foreign language. And to really master it, and get in deep, we do need to brush up if we're gonna write. I guess we do need to brush up on the grammar. These days, it's a little bit easier I suppose. They're trying to shove that Grammarly app on you. You see that on every single video on YouTube.
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