Artists often employ unusual methods to find their true voice. But ex-Czars singer John Grant certainly can claim one of the strangest: an eye-opening stint as a freelance Russian medical interpreter for New York University hospital, after he’d sworn off music forever.
It’s a real position, he says, which exists due to the a huge Russian population in New York. He says, “I’d learned the language years earlier, because I was fascinated by the Cyrillic alphabet and I’d grown up playing Rachmaninov on the piano. Plus, I’d just wanted a big challenge.”
But Grant — who plays The City next week — would face tougher linguistic tests. “With diseases and ailments, there’s always a Russian equivalent for those,” he says. The difficulty sometimes lay in explaining a diagnosis to an already-terrified patient.
“Like the time the doctor said ‘That cusp of his heart valve is just flapping in the breeze.’ That’s an idiomatic saying in America, and I just couldn’t think of what that would be in Russian. And they were doing a test on another woman called a lymphoscintigraphy, and I’d never heard of that in English, let alone Russian!”
Grant, 42, returned to music with “Queen of Denmark” — his “Last Exit To Brooklyn”-ish new solo recording — by quietly reflecting on his tortured childhood in Michigan and Colorado.
It was a time when jocks hurled anti-gay slurs at him because he didn’t walk, talk or even eat lunchroom food in a macho way. He recounts the pain in honest dirges such as “Sigourney Weaver,” “TC and Honeybear” and “Jesus Hates Faggots.”
The album also helped him confront the truth — that he was gay, which he’d never dealt with in his writing before.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it yet, because I was afraid of what my family might think if I made music like that, where I talked openly about my sexuality,” recalls Grant, who now lives in Berlin and believes he fits perfectly in with bear culture.
“So this record was about me finally expressing my personality, about me saying, ‘I’m not going to make any apologies for who I am anymore.’ And the most difficult thing was just getting out of my own way. When I caught myself thinking ‘You can’t say that,’ I would definitely go ahead and say it.”
He points to the edgy “Jesus” track: “I grew up in a strict Protestant family, so I started thinking how people project themselves onto what they believe, like ‘I don’t like Rice Krispies, so Jesus doesn’t like Rice Krispies,’ or ‘I hate faggots, so …’ It was a song that I obviously had to write.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $13 to $15
Contact: (415) 861-5016, www.cafedunord.com, www.ticketweb.com