TravelGuides – Elton John and John Grant: ‘We help each other. We are both complicated people’ | Elton John
It’s a boiling sizzling day in rural Berkshire, and a person in navy satin Gucci shorts has simply walked into his library. It’s all ornate chairs, picket globes and Buddhist statues, its oiled cabinets lined with books about historical past, the humanities – and tons about music. The scene is one in all ethereal tranquillity, the right place for 2 tradition-loving good buddies to gap up for a chat.
One of them isn’t right here but – he’s popped to the lavatory after having his picture taken – however Elton John can’t cease raving about John Grant. “We have so many things in common – photography, art, music – it’s as if we’ve known each other for ever. And he’s fun!” Grant wanders in shyly in a pink baseball cap, weathered Talk Talk T-shirt, and shiny white DMs. “Much more fun than his records are anyway, haha.”
Elton John is the 300-million-promoting megastar on dwelling turf. John Grant is the uncompromising darling of twenty first-century indie. As adept with the brutally sincere ballad because the pulsing disco banger, Grant’s identified for his beautiful, fuzzy croon and express, confessional, usually blackly comedian lyrics. His star continues to rise: his final three albums have gone Top 20 and, earlier than the pandemic, he bought out 5,000-capability venues comparable to London’s Brixton Academy and the Hammersmith Apollo.
Nevertheless, Grant continues to be comparatively unknown within the pop mainstream, and Elton John gained’t be having that – so he’s internet hosting Grant on his first journey away in 18 months from his inexperienced-listed adopted dwelling nation of Iceland as he promotes his formidable new album, Boy From Michigan. Part of it’s a cinematic bildungsroman set to expansive digital music, about Grant’s youth, stuffed with maple timber, ferris wheels and 5-and-dimes. Other elements deal with the American dream’s darkness, Grant’s love of languages and rhetoric, and – hilariously – the poisonous masculinity of economic portfolios. Elton has invited the Observer to his UK HQ (after the requisite PCR checks) to host a chat between himself and Grant.
Elton first bought in contact with Grant after “really falling in love” along with his first solo LP, 2010’s Queen Of Denmark: “I was drawn to the brilliance of John’s melodies, his very to-the-point lyrics, and the way he used synthesizers – he struck me as an original type of songwriter.” He additionally reminds him of Nick Cave. “They both write so beautifully, honestly and graphically – their blood is on the page.” “That’s very humbling,” Grant replies, shyly.
Slowly however absolutely the pair turned buddies. I ask Grant – an enormous Elton John fan since childhood – if that also feels bizarre. “Yes! Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a huge record in our house when I was little, that very formative period, so it became inextricable from my musical DNA.” There’s no query that the best way he writes his music – initially on the piano – is influenced by his hero, he provides. “So getting to know him as a person…” – Elton raises an eyebrow – “I was nervous and intimidated, of course, but I needn’t have been, because he’s actually the one that’s super-easy!”
Today, we chat music, creativity, Covid, Brexit, household, dwelling, why ladies are higher than males, LGBTQ+ activism, and why we’re very fortunate that Elton has by no means written a music about somebody he fancies…
Tell me extra about your friendship.
Elton John: It’s not simply due to the music. We are both alcoholics however we’ve both lengthy been sober, so we discuss that. Then when John got here out as HIV optimistic [on stage in London at the 2012 Meltdown festival], I believed it was extremely courageous of him. It was a millstone round his neck that was eliminated – I fell in love with him then as an individual, you recognize. We are both complicated individuals. All artists are complicated individuals! We all have our ups and downs, and we both help each different like that. And we are both homosexual, in fact…
John Grant [teasing]: Oh? I’m not.
EJ: Oh no. [rolls eyes and leans forward] You’re turbo-homosexual!
You’ve mentioned Boy From Michigan is your favorite John Grant report but, Elton. Why?
EJ: It’s excellent. I feel that is essentially the most private report you could have ever made with out query, isn’t it?
EJ: It’s a narrative of a bit boy coming to phrases with how he was handled as a toddler: of worry and anger, the harm and the disgrace and the humbling he was put by means of. I imply, I grew up not figuring out I used to be homosexual till I used to be in my late teenagers or early 20s. I knew nothing about intercourse. I didn’t know the phrase gay till comparatively very late on in life. I didn’t hear homophobia in school. I used to be solely fascinated with music! So after I hearken to songs that John writes, concerning the hatred he skilled and what he went by means of, it’s fairly stunning.
And you reply to that now as a homosexual man your self?
EJ: Yes. I’ve loads of anger inside me about the best way homosexuals are handled, even as we speak, as John has. We’ve talked about that so much: about how it’s important to come to phrases with the world we stay in. But John has the heart to confront that in music. He has this capability to precisely put down what he’s feeling. He doesn’t pull any punches.
Boy From Michigan’s sound can also be formidable, stuffed with lush, intricate soundscapes, produced by your lengthy-time period good friend, John, Cate Le Bon…
JG: Yes – I’ve identified her about so long as [I’ve known] Elton. We met at Glastonbury 2013 and hit it off.
EJ: I feel she kicked your bum a bit, proper?
JG: Absolutely! She helped me focus the sound as a result of I used to be in every single place with all my toys – my synthesizers – like a bit boy. And she arrived in Iceland with an engineer on 1 March 2020, and then all of the sudden every little thing was kicking off, and we needed to resolve what to do. They stayed as a result of we had been making nice progress – they ended up being there for 2 months. The songs had been simply flowing out of me.
Was working with a feminine producer fascinating?
JG: It’s humorous, the singer Neko Case – who I’ve been desirous to do one thing with for a very long time – thanked me for selecting to work with a feminine producer. And I mentioned to her, I’m really not making an attempt to be Mr Wankster right here, Neko, however it didn’t happen to me that it was a wierd factor to do. I simply have any individual who is clearly certified for the job, and her style is beautiful, and she created an amazing area for the album to occur in. As an artist, you wish to do all these items on the similar time, however you want somebody to help these particular person parts breathe and come by means of and she did that. [laughs] She bought a advantageous wine respiration!
EJ: His songs sound like work. It’s like she helped you make a gorgeous portray!
What did you do creatively, Elton, within the pandemic?
EJ: So he made this unbelievable album with Cate Le Bon, and I simply toddled round doing not a lot and realising there’s extra to life than simply going out on the street. I wasn’t fascinated with writing any Elton John/Bernie Taupin songs, though I’ve loads of nice lyrics from Bernie and I’m dying to do one other album, however I didn’t see this because the time to do it. So I performed on different people’s information, Gorillaz [on The Pink Phantom, from the album Song Machine] and [Lady] Gaga [on Sine From Above, from Chromatica], and did a Miley Cyrus and Metallica factor [a cover of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters], and went again a bit into being a session musician. But more often than not was spent right here with my household and doing my weekly radio reveals [on Apple Music] and preserving in contact with buddies by Zoom. I’m Zoomed out now, although. I can’t fucking stand it.
JG: Oh God, me too.
EJ: Meeting by Zoom, God almighty! It’s a nightmare. I’ve bought to do some on Wednesday and Friday and I can’t watch for the time when individuals can truly get again collectively and work together socially. I imply, John’s been right here for 5 days and to work together with somebody in individual while you’ve bought issues in frequent with them – all of us want that. It’s simply the perfect.
Has the pandemic modified your concept of what house is?
EJ: Usually, I’m by no means in a single place for greater than three weeks as a result of I’m such a fidget, so it was simply one of the great experiences of my life to have to remain right here with the boys [sons Elijah, 10, and Zachary, 8] and David. It was simply the 4 of us. Without their buddies, the boys relied on us, so we did extra with them than we’ve ever performed earlier than. I treasured the time we spent collectively. I’ve owned this home since 1975, and this the primary time in my life that I’ve seen spring, summer time, autumn and winter right here. It’s the place I introduced up my youngsters. This is the hub.
I do know I’m lucky additionally to have homes in France and America and London – I’ve all the time been a giant spender, I’m not ashamed of it – however it’s principally as a result of I gather issues, and I’ve liked adorning and placing issues in rooms since I used to be a child. You see, my mother and father argued so much, so I used to be all the time coming down the steps and questioning what the ambiance may be in the lounge, and I discovered refuge within the sanctuary of my bed room, the place my comics, my toys, my information, my books, all had been pristine. I discovered unbelievable solace in inanimate objects, and I do know it sounds loopy however I wasn’t scared of them. I felt protected with them. I felt fully completely satisfied in my bed room with my issues, and that stayed with me for the entire of my life. [To Grant] You know, I envy individuals who could be minimalist. I am going to somebody’s minimalist home and I feel that is unbelievable, however I simply can’t do it!
JG: I’m a collector, too. When it involves motion pictures and books and framing photographs and placing them on my wall, and vinyl, in fact, I can’t get sufficient.
Where is dwelling for you, John? Your new album takes us again to Michigan, however you additionally lived in Colorado twice and moved to Germany in your 20s. And you’ve been in Reykjavik since 2011…
JG: Home is a tough idea for me. I went to Iceland as a result of I needed to deal with the language…
EJ: This man! He speaks fluent Russian, fluent German [and Spanish and French]. There’s loads of Germanic music in your work, you recognize, John. The John Grant lieder album set to digital music – now that may be wonderful.
JG: Now there’s an concept.
EJ: I feel dwelling in so many various locations, absorbing the tradition and the language, has helped you write the songs you do, with out query.
JG: In Iceland, I additionally needed to deal with the boys up there, as a result of they are fairly unbelievable [laughs]! I solely spent 12 years in Michigan, however it’s the place I hold coming again to since you romanticise your early years, don’t you? So I don’t learn about dwelling, however I do know while you transfer elsewhere, you possibly can’t escape your self.
EJ: That’s true.
JG: I’ve to say, although, that Iceland is the primary place the place I felt there was completely zero distinction in the best way straight males handled me from the best way they handled different straight males. I imply I can go to the health club and bathe subsequent to them and there’s no discomfort or turning away. Somebody as soon as mentioned – I’m unsure who it was – however we homosexual males don’t come out one time, we come out each time we meet any individual new, as a result of it’s a distinct response each time. But not in Iceland. It’s nice.
EJ: Do you assume different European nations are like that as effectively? Did you discover it extra judgmental in Germany than in Iceland?
JG: Well, that was the late 80s, early 90s. I simply discovered the phrase for faggot in German in a short time.
EJ: It’s an underlying feeling in Britain, too. The homophobia in a few of the media is unbelievable. And the racism – notably surrounding the difficulty of taking the knee.
You needed to curtail your farewell tour due to Covid, Elton. And John, you carry out stay usually and have needed to postpone numerous gigs. Touring is a tricky factor to do proper now due to the pandemic, but in addition Brexit….
EJ: I’m so indignant. I’m furious about what the federal government did when Brexit occurred. They made no provision for the leisure enterprise, and not only for musicians, actors and movie administrators, however for the crews, the dancers, the individuals who earn a dwelling by going to Europe. People like me can afford to go to Europe as a result of we are able to get individuals to fill within the kinds and get visas performed, however what makes me loopy is that the leisure enterprise brings in £111bn a 12 months to this nation and we had been simply tossed away. The fishing trade – which they nonetheless fucked up – brings in £1.4bn. And I’m all for the fishermen, however we’re speaking about over 100 billion kilos of distinction right here, and we weren’t even considered. Oh effectively, the humanities: they don’t matter.
To younger individuals simply beginning a profession, it’s crucifying. We’ve been speaking to Lord Strasburger about it within the Lords, and we’ve been speaking to [chief negotiator for Taskforce Europe] Lord Frost, however we didn’t actually get wherever with him. So I made a statement the other day. It’s a nightmare.
Why is there such resistance by the federal government?
EJ: They are philistines. The authorities are philistines. We’ve bought used to governments – particularly the British authorities – simply telling us lies every single day, and I don’t really feel OK with that. Look what they did with the NHS. After all that these individuals did throughout Covid, they provide them a 1% improve. I discover that extraordinary. I simply can’t stay with that. It makes me so indignant. I’m 74 years of age and I simply don’t get this unfairness and this ridiculous capability to lie by means of your tooth each fucking minute of the day.
How will the impression of Covid on stay music have an effect on you, John?
JG: I couldn’t go two years with out touring. The primary factor about stay music is that it’s how musicians earn a living nowadays. That’s how we survive. The expertise of performing stay can also be about constructing relationships with audiences. It’s a relationship relying on what metropolis you are in, as a result of music is a dwelling, respiration factor. I was a studio man and was afraid of enjoying stay, and now it’s the opposite method spherical for me. The studio I discover tougher as a result of I overthink issues. On stage, you get to develop the songs and sing them the best way they are alleged to be sung.
EJ: And then the songs change each night time…
JG: Yes! I didn’t know that while you write the songs and you report them, you haven’t discovered to sing them but. You study to sing them on the street!
EJ: I agree. And I do know I’m fortunate that the problems with touring now don’t have an effect on me one iota as a result of I can afford it, however that doesn’t matter – it impacts 99% of everybody else. It drives me loopy, so I’m on a mission and I don’t care who I offend. I actually don’t! That doesn’t matter to me now.
Talking of politics: Elton, you mentioned in a 2019 Guardian interview that in the event you could possibly be any lady on the planet as we speak, you’d be Jacinda Ardern. You met her simply earlier than the pandemic in February 2020. Why do you admire her a lot?
EJ: I used to be so thrilled to fulfill her! She got here to a live performance in New Zealand the place I bought sick [with pneumonia] and needed to curtail the present. I’m going to return there to redo the present, and I’m so glad that she bought re-elected trigger I feel she’s fairly wonderful. She’s simply so regular speaking to you! No nonsense. Just fabulous. Women are way more decisive. I like numerous feminine politicians.
JG: Me too.
John, your prime minister in Iceland is Katrín Jakobsdóttir. What do ladies in energy have that males don’t?
JG: They come minus the poisonous masculinity. Many have this unbelievable intelligence and that decisiveness that Elton’s speaking about, however additionally they must take care of males who’ve these big points, like that they must show one thing. You see this in politics on a regular basis: little boys making an attempt to show that they’re males, like they’re nonetheless within the playground. Women don’t try this. And clearly, homosexual males have all the time liked robust ladies…
EJ: When I got here out of therapy [for alcoholism and drug addiction] in 1990, I modified my therapist from a man who was ineffective and talked right down to me – who mentioned I used to be solely there for the experience, which I wasn’t – to a girl who was sensible and minimize to the short. Women have higher instincts and empathy. Men overcomplicate issues!
Elton, you’ve develop into an amazing mentor to different artists in addition to John since overcoming your addictions. What artists are you enthusiastic about now?
EJ: Most of the great new stuff is coming from ladies, I discover, funnily sufficient. I like The Weather Station, Phoebe Bridgers, The Anchoress, and there’s a woman in Australia now simply beginning out, known as Alison Thorsteinsen, who’s nice. Finding stuff at first retains me going. I used to be there at first with Billie Eilish, who was 15, and Lorde, who was 16 – and musicians who are nice that younger, I feel, how the fuck do you do it? I don’t perceive how they do it. What’s occurring right here, in fact, is that I’m desperately jealous, however it’s additionally simply pretty to help new artists out. And you ought to try this. When I used to be a brand new artist beginning out in America, I had so many individuals who ratified what I used to be doing by being so candy to me, just like the Band, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Leon Russell, Neil Diamond. You can’t ask for extra, so I really feel an obligation to do the identical. I imply, I additionally love the previous [looks at John] – we both love the previous, don’t we? But the brand new is thrilling. It’s fascinating. It’s what retains me alive.
Your music and your activism have made you both LGBTQ+ icons. Elton: your efficiency on the Brits with Olly Alexander, of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin, after the sensible Channel 4 drama of the identical title, was rightly lauded. How necessary do you assume popular culture is in providing function fashions to the LGBTQ+ neighborhood?
JG: It’s extremely necessary. Elton and I had been speaking about movie the opposite day, and how I’d go to those little artwork cinemas in Denver to see movies like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev with Bronski Beat on the soundtrack. They’re nonetheless my favorite locations on earth, these little artwork cinemas.
EJ: I don’t see myself as a homosexual artist, you see, as such as a result of I don’t write lyrics. I can’t write lyrics. But I like what popular culture did for homosexual music, beginning with Jimmy Somerville and Boy George. If I wrote one thing, it will be like: “I’d like to suck your knob behind the bike shed,” and there’s simply not a marketplace for that!
I do know I’m “elaborate”, however that’s not being a homosexual artist – that comes from British vaudeville, Mick Jagger, Marc Bolan, David Bowie. The record goes on and on. My activism [through the Elton John Aids Foundation] is the one factor I can do to compensate for that and I’ve tried to be lively because the Nineteen Nineties. I missed the boat within the Nineteen Eighties which I’m ashamed of, as a result of I used to be too down within the pit of medication and drink.
When I bought sober, my activism began small, however then it began to mushroom. And I used to be so fortunate, as I mentioned, and I by no means actually had a lot bother within the enterprise, as a result of everybody knew I used to be dwelling with my supervisor, for God’s sake! I used to be going into each homosexual membership on the planet and it was by no means a giant deal for me. I used to be so completely satisfied to be homosexual!
JG: That’s wonderful. I’m so glad.
EJ: But I do know I’m an oddball to have by no means felt any disgrace about who I’m, to have by no means felt any worry, when lots of people have such a tough fucking time of it due to their mother and father, or the church, or the tradition they arrive from. I can’t think about what individuals undergo in some elements of Africa and India and the Middle East. So my activism is one thing that I can contribute, and it’s actually necessary that music about homosexual topics is heard, too. Pride month is de facto necessary for that, as a result of individuals exit and have fun their sexuality.
What recommendation would you give to a younger LGBTQ+ individual making an attempt to make their method on the planet?
EJ: John and I come from very privileged positions after we discuss this, being in creative jobs, as a result of there are so many homosexual individuals round – it’s a lot tougher in the event you work in an workplace or the navy or no matter. I admire some can’t as a result of they are caught in a rural place, however in the event you can, transfer to a homosexual-pleasant space in the event you can afford to, a giant metropolis, the place there are different homosexual individuals and there’s homosexual tradition. Never be ashamed of who you are. There are numerous helplines and organisations the place you possibly can go. And attempt to meet as many homosexual individuals as you possibly can too, and make buddies, as a result of while you’ve bought buddies you’ll really feel so much safer. Saying that feels horrible: that concept that some homosexual individuals typically really feel they must be in a conclave of homosexual individuals to really feel protected, however they nonetheless do.
But it’s additionally bought so much higher. Listen, I by no means thought I’d have a civil partnership, not to mention be capable of marry. We have made nice advances. But there’s nonetheless homophobia on the market like there’s nonetheless racism on the market. Don’t let individuals inform you that there isn’t.
JG: I examine loads of youngsters desirous to commit suicide, or feeling just like the issues that they need out of life don’t exist. To them, I’d begin by saying that what you’re feeling inside, and what you recognize you are inside, and what you recognize you could possibly be: if you may get previous your worry, in the event you proceed to indicate up, your home is there.
EJ: And I was the shyest individual on the planet and I by no means, ever thought I’d develop into who I turned. I embraced life and seized the journey and started to open up like a flower. You must put in onerous work to do it. But you are able to do it.
TravelGuides – Elton John and John Grant: ‘We help each other. We are both complicated people’ | Elton John