Musician John Grant Talks About HIV, Being Gay, and Glaciers

HIV Plus spoke to singer-songwriter John Grant, who came out as HIV-positive at a concert last year, about surviving shame, the importance of Ernest Borgnine, and his latest album, Pale Green Ghosts.

BY Daniel Reynolds

August 12 2013 5:00 AM ET

There is a road that cuts the state of Colorado in half. Beginning in New Mexico, a person can drive north on this highway through the cities of Trinidad and Colorado Springs, past Denver and Columbine, through Boulder and the Rocky Mountain National Park, and end his travels in Laramie, Wyoming.

Along this road, in a town called Parker, is where musician John Grant spent most of his young life. Looking back, he vividly recalls his nighttime drives down this stretch of pavement and the smell of the Russian olive trees that lined the road.

“They give off the most incredible fragrance,” said Grant, 44, who named his latest album, Pale Green Ghosts, after the yellow-flowered trees that glow silver in the moonlight. “It’s sort of an oasis in the midst of a chaotic time, my adolescence. It’s a memory that’s really beautiful for me — a moment. It’s a capturing of a small moment.”

The trees are not the only ghosts in the album, which explores many small moments from the life of John Grant. From alcoholism, to drugs, to HIV, Grant has battled his more than his fair share of demons. Remarkably, Pale Green Ghosts, a haunting record born from Grant’s collaboration with Biggi Veira of the Icelandic electronica group GusGus, shares not only the pain of this journey, but also the beauty that blooms unexpectedly like flowers along a highway.

In the song “Glacier,” which is rooted in the artist’s struggles of coming out as a gay man, Grant sings about the ache of being a social outcast: “They say you are sick / That you should hang your head in shame / They are pointing fingers / And want you to take the blame.”

Grant uses the image of the glacier, a large mass of ice that carves mountains and rivers in its crawl across a continent, to convey the emotional transformation that occurs during suffering. And transformation doesn’t always mean destruction. As the chorus states, the “glacier moving through you” becomes a means of “nourishing the ground” and “creating spectacular landscapes.” It’s a hopeful song that Grant wished he had heard when he was young.

“I wished I had heard somebody talking about the fact, you know, being gay didn’t make me less of a human than other people,” Grant said. “It takes a very, very long time to undo a lot of the damage [from this abuse].”

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