HTMLFlowers explores love and chronic illness on his new album

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“I don’t really have a lot of inspirational slogans or fabulous life lessons that come with this kind of pain. I’m just trying to be out here, being like a regular person. Because we don’t have that luxury as people with disabilities. So, this album is that.”

Grant Gronewold spends a lot of his life in and out of hospital, but you wouldn’t know that from spending time out in Melbourne’s vibrant live scene. Grant has felt like a fixture at shows for years now, despite the fact he spends months out of every year hospitalised with cystic fibrosis.

As both a visual artist and a musician, his gregarious and unflinching spirit looms large in the sight lines of Melbourne’s most creative artists.

Born in Illinois – and into the notoriously unforgiving US health care system – Grant spent most of his early years in hospital. He moved to Melbourne as a child, but became compulsively creative as an adult.

He makes music and draws zines and comics while constantly moving in and out of hospitals, regularly negotiating the kind of intense medical challenges that most of us would hope to avoid during a whole lifetime.

He’s currently 29, with a life expectancy of 35.

Under the name HTMLFlowers, Grant has risen with the tide of Melbourne’s new generation of underground electronic artists over the past few years. Collaborating regularly with his closest musical ally Oscar Key Sung, HTMLFlowers has been lovingly embraced by Melbourne’s diverse music community, finding a home amongst the eclectic Wondercore Island family alongside artists like Hiatus Kaiyote, Jaala and CORIN.

His debut album Chrome Halo is raw but playful. He explores themes of isolation and love with self-effacing humour and unflinching honesty. He riffs on the difficulties of forming and maintaining relationships in his situation, and the frustration of having to constantly navigate people’s perceptions of him as a chronically ill artist.

He wants to share his story and does so eloquently and without hesitation. But HTMLFlowers wants us to see him, not just his illness.

Inevitably, our conversation becomes about more than just his album, and his illness, and becomes about time itself; what we each choose to do with that time, knowing that we all have only a finite amount of it.

 

How difficult was it, growing up in the States with a chronic illness?

I think it’s really hard anywhere but especially in America. It’s just kind of a death sentence; you’re constantly working not to die. And you’re supposed to be grateful for that as well.

It destroyed my family’s life. We had to go bankrupt after the first six months of my hospitalisation as a child. My mother had to sell her house and her car and we started staying with friends. It was just a terrible lifestyle.

My mum was constantly driving me interstate trying to get me into hospitals that would be understanding about our lack of health insurance. Sometimes a cool nurse would put you on someone else’s insurance really quickly, get you a couple of the meds you needed and get you out of the hospital.

One bottle of pills would cost more than our monthly rent at the time and that was the 80s.

It was, like, not cool, man. (laughs)

As a kid growing up with cystic fibrosis, can you explain how it affected you - being in and out of hospitals, and in terms of your day-to-day wellbeing?

I spent the first four years of my life in hospital on and off. Sometimes I’d come home for a few days or weeks and I’d be ok, but then have to go right back. There’s a lot of isolation. I don’t know how to explain what that does to a person. It’s kinda like trying to sum up everything you’ve gone through and be like “That’s why I’m like this! That’s why I’m so messed up.”

Because I moved to Australia from America, I had a really different class upbringing. A lot of other people who are sick now, I find it hard to relate to them because even though their body is trying to kill them from the inside – just like me – they have had that health insurance, they’ve had that security. And their lives are going to be longer than mine because they had early health insurance, which is essential for early preventative treatment.

I’m 29 and my lungs are scarred, they’re failing a lot. I’m spending a lot more time in hospital now. My ability to maintain relationships is deteriorating a lot. I just generally feel isolated and misunderstood most of the time. And also unconcerned – I’m dead to that now, it doesn’t bother me.

 

It feels important to mention, though it feels weirdly gratuitous, but you’ve been given different life expectancies that you’ve surpassed, you’ve lived through?

I’ve outlived three now.

I read in your bio that your current life expectancy is 35, which is another six years. That’s just something that very few people have to process. For you to live an adult life knowing that that is coming, that has to have had an effect on your art.

It’s actually cool because I don’t care at all about the end result of any art I make. I just make stuff, crank it out compulsively and feel better. That’s really empowering.

But the sicker I get, the more it takes for me to make these things and the more my time becomes precious.

I have an urge to leave stuff behind. People always bring that up. It’s kind of cheesy but that is essentially true. I don’t want to just disappear. And I know my Mum’s going to enjoy listening to these records when I pass away.

It kind of hurts to be at this point where I’m getting so good at expressing myself, but my timeline for that is definitely going to be shortened. It really does a number on your head.

I should be going for runs and exercising and sleeping well, but instead I’m cranking out heaps of zines and comics and albums all the time. Like, what am I thinking? (laughs)

It’s something I guess anyone with a terminal illness – or, really, anyone who is a human being – has to think about at some point. What are you going to do with your time? What should you spend your time doing?

I was lucky. When I was a kid I always knew exactly what I wanted to do. I feel like that’s a huge blessing.

It might even be because of disability, because when you grow up in hospitals you have to learn how to advocate for yourself really young. I think it gave me a surety about myself. Since I was a child, I just knew I was going to make art and make music.

How did you get into music as a kid, where did it start?

Mum. She was a singer herself and a painter before I was born. She just played me everything. She loved the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Salt n Pepa, TLC, Boyz II Men, Black Flag, Kate Bush, Björk… she just had a beautiful love of music and passed it on to me.

My mum loved artists, and I really wanted to be loved by her.

People always talk about how their parents push them in the opposite direction, to go to business school or be a doctor. My mum went the other way, she was always trying to get me to paint and write songs as a kid. I think she really wanted to live through me in a way with that, so I’ve spent a long time trying to make that real, but happily so.

How did you find your voice as HTMLFlowers?

I started rapping when I was 19. When I was about 25 or 26, I linked up with Oscar Key Sung and we started doing Brothers Hand Mirror. Since then, it’s just been a steady progression.

As friends who’ve known each other for a decade plus, we are really integral to each other in terms of how we understand music. I learned all this technical stuff off Oscar, and we both discovered what we love about sound together.

 

The album, out of all the work you’ve put out, is really you talking about your situation and illness head on in a way you haven’t quite done before. What is the ‘Chrome Halo,’ can you explain that for me?

The hospital… I guess they buy their lights in bulk or something? All their lights are usually the same size and they are surrounded by a sort of bright reflective chrome circle.

In varying states – feverish, or whacked out on Endone, or just so depressed or full of fear – I’d stare at them with nothing in my mind. I’d just look into them.

In that space and in those times, I always felt like I really changed and transformed. I started to imagine myself as always wearing this ‘chrome halo,’ even when I wasn’t in the hospital. Because, like, I am the hospital and it is me. We’re so intertwined that I never really go away from it.

Sometimes I come back from the hospital and feel like I’m still wearing this chrome halo. I feel like there’s just this sickly light that’s shining down on me that makes me look different to other people. My friends, my family can’t see who I am any more.

Do you feel like this album is a way for you to express you are, for maybe people who don’t understand you? For people who see the illness and maybe don’t see you?

I really made it to understand myself. I’m so tired of the way we talk about illness and disability and how that impacts my life. I just wanted to start being a complex, weird sick person.

I don’t really have a lot of inspirational slogans or fabulous life lessons that come with this kind of pain. I’m just trying to be out here, being like a regular person with an illness, because we don’t have that luxury as people with disabilities. So, this album is that.

There are pieces on this album that aren’t about illness, there are pieces on this album that are about illness and love and how those things relate. It’s about poverty too. It’s about how hard it is to live without money in this world.

I just wanted to be my simplest self on this album and wanted people to understand. There’s no headline for the album. I’m just a disabled person who experiences life, just like any other singer-songwriter. You just experience life and write about it. I just want to be complex, you know?

Chrome Halo is out now.

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