grandson: “I felt like the only way to be taken seriously as a songwriter was to sacrifice part of your health or sanity”

On grandson’s ace 2020 debut album, he found himself becoming a political mouthpiece in alternative music. On poignant and personal follow-up I Love You, I’m Trying, though, the songwriter reckons this is the record to really get to know him…

grandson: “I felt like the only way to be taken seriously as a songwriter was to sacrifice part of your health or sanity”
Emma Wilkes
Portrait photos:
Jimmy Fontaine
Live photo:
Andy Ford

Remember the shock of the so-called new normal? It might feel worlds away now, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long ago that coming within two metres of someone felt genuinely weird after a year-and-a-bit of social distancing. It was a time where the lines between excitement and trepidation blurred, and doing things that for months had been forbidden certainly took some adjusting.

grandson remembers it well because the shock of change hit him particularly hard. He’d had to watch the reaction to his debut album – the fiery, sharply political Death Of An Optimist – through a screen, rather than on a stage. He tried to stay busy while confined to his house, diving into songwriting for other artists, and even penning a theme song for a film. Then, his turn came to get vaccinated, and as the world opened up again, it was time to hit the road. It happened faster than he was able to comprehend.

Life at home was isolated and predictable. The same could not be said of his experience on a tour bus, opening for the likes of Avril Lavigne and Bring Me The Horizon. It put grandson in front of some of the biggest crowds of his career, but as an opener, he met a sea of faces to whom he was a stranger, who didn’t know at that point who he was or what he stood for. The drastic change in his environment and the intensity of this new life proved a challenge to his mental health, eventually leading to a state of burnout. Each night ended with him drinking on the tour bus.

It was less than an ideal environment to begin work on album two – “near impossible”, as grandson puts it. “I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted to do, so I was working on these alternative rock, pop-rock songs and the focus was, ‘I’m going to write this song and it’s going to do this for me and get me to the places I want to go in my career because I’d like to play these big stages myself someday,’” he remembers. “I was struggling to feel like any of it was authentic. I started to resent alternative pop and rock radio; it was just leaving this inauthentic taste in my mouth. I felt uninspired, and I was running out of time – it had, all of a sudden, been two years since my album came out. I was dealing with this feeling that if I didn’t figure this out, then everyone’s going to move on and forget about it.”

Consequently, he changed tack, regrouping in Los Angeles last summer to knuckle down on what became his second album, I Love You, I’m Trying. He made it as social a process as possible – “the opposite of a pandemic album” – and although it doesn’t feature many collaborations in the traditional sense, he brought in the voices of family and friends, as well as girlfriend Wafia, to give the record an extra, personal dimension. The other major force, however, that knocked the album into shape came in the form of the mushroom-induced epiphany that directly inspired downtrodden lead single Eulogy.

“While I was on these mushrooms, I realised that I had been feeling more pressure to build consequence into my life,” grandson explains. “I felt like the only way to be taken seriously as a songwriter was to sacrifice part of your health or sanity, and live life that teeters on the brink. It was just not a healthy place for me to be in.” He went back to therapy, and permitted himself to let go of the pressure he had piled on himself. Instead, he wrote the album he needed to hear.

The route grandson needed to go down could be found in his headphones. He was drawn to more confessional music, to artists who presented themselves in their songs as transparently as possible. Until this point, he’d travelled down a more political route, but with that came the pressure to write a song potent enough to change the world. “I felt as though my work had been a commentary on the world around me but didn’t always let people in on how I’ve built the values I’ve built, where my relationships are, to [topics like] mental health and addiction,” he says.

Any walls that grandson might have had up before are bulldozed on I Love You, I’m Trying. The title-track witnesses him process the frustration of trying to keep his relationships strong while wrestling with his own mental health, walking the line between temptation and staying grounded, while also trying to look back over his shoulder at where he came from and the fans who brought him to where he is now. Most stirringly personal of them all, perhaps, is Something To Hide, in which he empties out his family’s secrets – his mother’s alcoholism, and his sister’s eating disorder – in the space of two minutes. “Having these kinds of conversations around what happened when we were growing up and how we handled that has been explosive, but it’s totally changed our family dynamic,” he admits. “I think it’s for the better.”

Creeping into the background of the songs is grandson’s relationship with drugs. “I’m pretty fun on them. Honestly, if you ask people who do drugs with me, they’ll say I have no problem with drugs; if anything, drugs have a problem with me because I like them so much,” he says. “If it weren’t for smoking pot and doing psychedelics, I don’t know if I would have had the patience and the curiosity to write the hundreds of songs that it took for me to get where I am. I am actually a big proponent of doing drugs responsibly and safely and with people you trust.”

Despite this, he’s astutely aware of the troubles drugs can pose. “I do think that ultimately it’s probably not the healthiest way to cope with whatever you’ve got going on in your life,” he continues. “Whatever you go in there running away from finds you, particularly, in my experience, with mushrooms. I’ve had a couple of experiences where it’s really fucked with my head because I wasn’t coming into it from a solid place and it’s really dangerous. Since then, I’ve tried to dial it back a bit.”

For now, grandson’s mind is on his own life. In the future, it might circle back to where he started. “I think that I will continue to make politically dynamic music, and those things are still important, but as a songwriter, exploring more personal themes became [more] exciting and inspiring for me,” he says. “I’m hoping fans of my work will leave this album knowing me a bit better.”

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