Laura Jane Grace: The loneliness of a long distance strummer

Around the same time Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! was experiencing serious episodes of gender dysphoria, Social Distortion played Calgary’s MacEwan Ballroom. A guy in a suit was getting picked on in the crowd when frontman Mike Ness stopped the show and pointed out that it’s a hell of a lot more punk to show up in a suit — as yourself — than in the standard issue spikes and studs. 

Less than three years later, Grace came out as Transgender, proving Ness right; it’s a hell of a lot more punk to be your true self. 

In the 10 years since Grace came out, she’s remained an outgoing activist, author and touring musician, and as she wrapped up her European tour last month, she decided to embrace a very punk rock look — a shaved, tattooed head.

“The sensation is insane. In some ways it’s so relieving, that you don’t realize you’re feeling this pressure in your head. It’s kinda like, ‘Ahhhh.’ You can almost feel your skull relaxing. But then it totally makes you re-examine your understanding of your head. I felt like they were cutting open my scalp and eating my brain. It was a completely wild experience. 

“I think the most startling experience of the whole thing was shaving my head. I hadn’t shaved my head since I was like, 20, so it was a very jarring experience. I found myself looking in the mirror a bunch and being like, ‘I don’t know who I am.’ Just completely disassociating experiences.”

Back from Amsterdam, and still adjusting to her cleanly shorn and tattooed head, she returned to her home in Chicago for a short reprieve before her North American solo tour begins.

On her recent Patreon blog post, Grace wrote about the depression she often experiences when a tour ends. Was she experiencing this now? 

“It’s not a new phenomenon and it’s not even anything that’s particular to me, I think it’s something that all touring musicians experience just because, you know, you go out on the road and you have this incredible adventure, and every day is something new and you know, you’re doing what you love, you’re up on stage and you have this goal for the day: play a show. And even if it’s a bad show, you still played the show, right? And then the tour’s over and you go back to what I wanna say is your normal life, but at the same time, you’re a musician and if you’ve been doing it long enough, what’s the difference? What is the real normal?”

Conversely, Grace says the short break she gets between her European tour ending and her North American tour soon beginning is even harder. The opportunity to fully rest and relax never truly presents itself. She’s always practicing to ensure she’s in top form for the next round.

Drawn to solitary pursuits, Grace appears to be one of the few touring musicians who settled quite nicely into lockdown-mode.

“I did (enjoy it). Apart from the sheer terror of thinking this is the apocalypse and all the horror of what a global pandemic is, you enjoy it as much as you can. But I definitely did take notice or realize that it’s like, ‘Damn, you’ve been going and going and going for like, two decades’.

“It was nice to take a rest and kind of regroup, but at the same time, I really did learn to value momentum in so many ways, and that’s part of why I need to start touring again. It’s hard to get going, it’s hard to get that momentum again.”

During lockdown, Grace took up running, until sidelined by a broken foot. “That was maybe the lowest moment of the whole thing.”

Grace then dove into reading — often posting photos of the books she had picked up at local book shops. She started her own Patreon blog, sharing new songs, random thoughts, and curated playlists for subscribers.

She also signed up for Cameo — a service that, for a fee, allows fans to purchase a personalized video message from their favourite celebrities.

“Actually, I got a lot of real enjoyment out of doing Cameo. It was a strange way to work on certain things that apply to being on stage, in a way that you have to like, shoot from the hip when you speak.”

Grace likened the experience to speaking to an audience from the stage; it’s not a real conversation because she never receives a reply.

“In a strange way, with Cameo, you’re sitting there alone in a room, talking on the phone, and you’re exercising that same skill of talking to an audience.”

Being consistently dedicated to all aspects of her craft, Grace had over 30 songs that were scrapped from the pre-pandemic recording sessions with Against Me! Not knowing when the band could record together next, but believing these 30 songs did work for her, she booked a one-on-one recording session with recording engineer Steve Albini, best known for his work on albums by acts such as Nirvana, Pixies and PJ Harvey, as well as his own bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac.

Albini owned a recording studio down the street from Grace’s Chicago home so for three days they worked a room apart, creating the final result: Stay Alive, a 14-track debut solo album. 

Grace says in the month leading up to the recording session, she would be “super practiced” because “I knew Albini doesn’t really suffer multiple takes or unpreparedness.

“He’d hit record and I’d play. And that’s what I really love about Steve’s style; he’s all analog. And that record in particular, it’s a document. I didn’t go back and overdub things, it wasn’t pieced together with Pro Tools. That’s actual captured performances in each pressed recording.”

The return to her anarchist acoustic punk roots are apparent on the album and one might find themselves nostalgic for a ragged beach fire built from discarded furniture and wooden pallets. It’s spare, sparse, but powerful with hints of Billy Bragg and The Mountain Goats.

“It’s strange, for me, the influences, they become apparent afterwards, where it’s not a concerted thing where I’m going into it like, ‘I wanna write a song that sounds like this.’ It’s more like after the song is recorded, I listen to it, and I can see where it subconsciously has an influence to it.

“The opening song, The Swimming Pool Song, for me, I feel like it draws a little bit from New Order in a weird way. Or there are some moments where I had been listening to a lot of Psychic TV and I felt like that shined through. And then even the one single off the record, SuperNatural Possession, after I’d recorded it and I was sitting there listening to it, I was like, ‘It kinda has a Take Me Home Tonight vibe going on.” 

The songs on Stay Alive and her subsequent EP, At War with the Silverfish, are still full of Grace’s trademark nihilist wit and social commentary, but glorious little rays of light — love, hope, humour — also manage to shine through the cracks.

“I feel like oftentimes that hope and optimism are something that you have to actively choose. It may go against the way you feel inside, but you kind of have to be like, ‘Alright, I’m going to actively choose to be hopeful today — and I’m going to ignore the way I actually feel,” she says laughing. 

“It’s kind of crazy, my relationship to activism has changed over the years. Against Me! was very much a band that was born from the radical activist scene, and we came up playing at Food Not Bombs gatherings or May Day gatherings. Part of the original approach of being an acoustic punk band was so that we wouldn’t have to rely on electricity and we could play shows like that in a forest or by a campfire. We would also be out there at the protests, whether that be holding signs or locking arms together or what have you.

“And then it kind of becomes weird when you’re like a celebrity per se, in whatever your local scene is. So you don’t want to feel like you’re grandstanding. After a certain point, I felt the way we could be more involved with activism as a band was just through raising funds and bringing attention to causes.

“But then, after coming out, it changed in a way where, especially around 2012, 2014, being Transgender and being publicly visible was kind of a form of activism in its own way. It was easy in that if I did an interview and just spoke from the heart, the honest truth, then that was like educating people. Because a lot of people hadn’t thought a lot about things from that perspective, or heard a Transgender person speak of their experiences.”

“But there’s been a change, in the last couple years there’s been a lot more vitriole redirected at Trans people and a real rise in transphobia. And it’s unfortunate because with that, it’s felt oftentimes that talking won’t work. Where you feel that there’s some people where you realize that there’s nothing you can say that’s going to reach them or change their mind.

“In some ways I’ve almost wanted to take a step back and just kind of listen, and observe, and see what’s happening, you know?

“Caring about people, caring about the world in general, wanting things to be better, those are kind of vague platitudes but I still believe in those things. If I see a way to lend myself to that or to create some positive change in the world, I’m always going to step up.”

Does Grace feel uncomfortable with the label “hero?”

“In some ways, absolutely. In other ways I get it because it’s a mutual feeling — when I see another Transgender person out in public, just out there existing, in the back of my head I think, ‘What a fuckin’ badass.’

“Even if I never speak with them, I don’t know their name, I don’t know their story. I just know that you took a chance, and you’re out there in the world, and you’re a hero to me because I know what your experience is like. I know it in a big way. I know it’s hard, and you’re out there and you’re living. 

“Whenever I see a Transgender person thriving, then that’s the feeling I get from them.”

How does a hero keep herself grounded then, when it does become too overwhelming? 

Her pre-pandemic move to a new apartment left plenty of time for unpacking, settling, and organizing. And that included sorting through “bookshelves in my apartment that are just littered with random things that you just get given on the road.”

A local radio personality had gifted Grace with a little wizard statue years ago at a media event here in Calgary. What ever happened to the wizard? Enquiring minds needed to know. 

Grace bursts out laughing. 

“The wizard statue. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Uh huh. I have the wizard statue. Uh huh.

“It has to be weird enough to hold onto. Oftentimes, things like that, I keep them almost like talismans or like, oracles or something like that. 

“Right now I have this tiny, bronze Jesus Christ that looks like it was at one point affixed to a crucifix. I was playing this one show in Montreal, and it was like, mid-show, and I looked down, and someone had thrown it on the stage. And I was just like, ‘Huh. I found Jesus on stage.’ 

“So yeah, I keep everything.”

Laura Jane Grace Tuesday, Sept. 20 at Commonwealth Bar in Calgary with Mobina Galore and Lande Hekt. Tickets available through Commonwealth Bar.