Baker's Dozen

Artists discuss the 13 records that shaped their lives

Survival Songs: John Grant’s Baker’s Dozen

John Grant takes tQ through the 13 albums that have defined his life and guided him through tough times, from the beauty of Fad Gadget to the joy of Bernard Fevre, via Ennio Morricone, Kate Bush and more

John Grant is an open book – in case that wasn’t obvious from his five supreme solo albums. The latest of these, Boy From Michigan, offers, even for him, a particularly forensic and candid examination of his tumultuous childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, with the long process of confronting and accepting his sexuality to the fore.

So in this interview, which is ostensibly about his 13 favourite albums, it’s not long before we are talking about the formative, traumatic experiences that befell him in his teenage years, the same time many of these records entered his life. This includes the abrasive reaction of his Methodist family and friends, and the bullying by peers, in response to his homosexuality. These are demons, you might say, that his whole career in music is dedicated to exorcising.

All this, of course, will not be news to John Grant fans. These things are very well documented in media coverage of Grant – but these are also issues that naturally arise during an exercise, such as a Baker’s Dozen, that precipitates a deep reflection on one’s past, and on the nature of previous selves. Many of the albums selected here provide the soundtrack to these hardships, and were released in the early-to-mid-1980s when Grant was at high school in Colorado. But a love of pop was at the centre of his life before then.

“I remember the first stuff I bought was 45s – ‘September’ by Earth, Wind & Fire, which of course I still love,” he says on the line from Reykjavik. “And then the movie Caddyshack was out with this song by Kenny Loggins, ‘I’m Alright’, and I went beserk over that. Also, Olivia Newton-John was big in our house, but she turned into a whore, according to my parents. She was making these beautiful, almost country records – one was called Olivia. My parents had those. But then Grease came out and she became a mega global sensation, and went full-on corporate Hollywood sex queen.

“And then of course ABBA. Every time a new ABBA record would come out, my dad would go to the mall and get it for me. I’d be sitting in the front room looking out the window waiting for him to get home with this brown paper bag with the new ABBA vinyl in it. The one I remember the most is of course Arrival.”

None of these artists have made Grant’s final list, which he describes as “a nightmare of an exercise – I could do 12 of these.” Every serious listener, when asked to make such lists, says things like that. Yet for Grant, the apparent difficulty he had settling on 13 albums feels almost like an existential struggle. By the time we speak, he has changed about a quarter of the list from the one I was originally given (“this is the mood I’m in today, so I changed it”), and he spends almost as much time gushing over the albums he omitted as the ones that eventually made the cut. “I get tired of saying the same things over and over. People say, ‘Yeah, we already know this about you.’ I get asked for lists all the time, and I don’t see any point in doing the same thing every time, because it doesn’t make sense.”

Chief among the absentees is Duran Duran’s Rio: “We beat the shit out of that cassette; every song on that album is fantastic.” Other honourable mentions go to Upstairs at Eric’s by Yazoo (“one of the greatest things to happen in the history of the world”); Warm and Cool by Tom Verlaine; Brain War by Toshinori Konda & IMA; and John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s soundtrack to Halloween III. His enthusiasm for all these records is extreme. And it matters that you know about them too: on several occasions, I’m instructed to pause the conversation and bring up a certain song online to fully understand his love for it, or to inspect this or that album cover. There are even recommendations for exactly when and where to listen to certain tracks, in what circumstances and using which equipment.

This is all part of the John Grant experience. His sweetness of nature and generosity of spirit as an interviewee is enchanting – in a devilish sort of way. But like his music, the softness to his persona is punctuated by withering, caustic wit that makes wry and creative use of ‘profane’ language. Of this he says, “I have all sorts of relatives who say, ‘It’s great what you’re doing, but the language, my goodness, that’s just horrible, we can’t believe it.’” He also explains, as he guides me through his selections, that many of these albums horrified his immediate family during his youth. “But this is the music that made me giddy with delight, that made me lose my shit. This list is a lot of the things that made me.”

The interview also featured the peculiar experience, during discussion of Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, of my explaining to Grant who Rolf Harris is – someone whose work and crimes he had never heard of (Harris played didgeridoo on the Bush album). That was something of a conversation stopper. Fortunately though, Grant’s Baker’s Dozen is replete with vibrant and sincere outpourings about life-changing records.

John Grant’s new album Boy From Michigan is out now via Bella Union. He tours the UK and Ireland throughout September and October, you can find full dates and tickets here. Click the picture of him below to begin reading his Baker’s Dozen

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