Laura Jane Grace Cuts Through the Noise with Joy and Sarcasm

Music Features Laura Jane Grace
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Laura Jane Grace Cuts Through the Noise with Joy and Sarcasm

When I call Laura Jane Grace for our interview, it’s the first day of snowfall in Chicago, but more importantly, it’s the release date of her debut solo album, Bought to Rot. Against Me! frontwoman Grace has called Chicago home for the past five or six years and she’s fresh from a record release show in the city on her 38th birthday. She’s running a little low on sleep but she’s energized by her surprisingly joyful and unsurprisingly snarky new album.

Bought to Rot is her first release under the name Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, and it features fellow Against Me! members Atom Willard on drums and long-term producer Marc Jacob Hudson on bass. There are a few reasons that Chicago is relevant to this record. For one thing, the album was released by Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records. Also, there’s a track on it called “I Hate Chicago,” a facetious folk-punk takedown of the Windy City with all of its sports teams, ludicrous deep dish pizza (“Learn to make a pizza you fucking jack-offs”), unfathomable traffic and its less-than-ideal geography (“You’ll only ever be in Illinois / And that’ll always be way too fucking close to Missouri”). Grace recalls the rush she felt from playing the song live in Chicago for the first time at Wicker Park Fest with Against Me! this summer. “I was like, ‘Just screw it. I’ll just go up and play ‘I Hate Chicago’ because there are a lot of people here, and I’m not sure when’s going to be a more perfect setting to first play this song.’ It’s really rare where you can play a song and it feels dangerous what you’re about to do and maybe the crowd will turn on you and rush the stage or throw things or try to beat you up afterwards. A couple lines in, people realized it was tongue-in-cheek.”

She says the song was written in the middle of maddening traffic, laughing while remembering the moment, “Like goddamn it! Fucking drive!”

It’s this kind of lighthearted sarcasm and jocular spirit that makes Bought to Rot just as unruly as a topical protest record. She refuses to surrender to toxic external forces and instead chooses purposeful exuberance and connection over a woeful look at the current state of affairs. From the peppy power-pop of “Reality Bites” to the folky, uplifting “Apocalypse Now (& Later)” and the intimate campfire-like album closer, “The Apology Song,” Bought to Rot, though not immune to occasional flashes of tension and angst, is blunt and focused in its elation.

“Sometimes it just gets you down, the daily barrage of everything,” says Grace. “Sometimes you have to live in the present and be thankful for the moment. The song ‘Apocalypse Now (& Later)’ was written on tour when we played in Perth, Australia, which is like the far end of the Earth. We had just finished up a tour. We got a bunch of friends together, woke up in the morning, hung out, went to Bon Scott from AC/DC’s grave, hung out there, and then we all went an rode go-karts and had a blast. Then, we went to this restaurant on the coast and ate this amazing meal and rode this Ferris wheel before jumping on an airplane and flying back to Chicago. Coming back from such an amazing day like that and crashing back into the U.S. when it’s like, ‘Donald Trump, Donald Trump, the world is ending, the world is ending’—you feel guilty but at the same time, you’re like, ‘I just want to live what I have to live.’ ’Cause fuck them. You shouldn’t take any moments you get for granted. Don’t let them steal that from you.”

In 2012, Grace famously came out as a transgender woman in Rolling Stone, and since then she’s released two albums with her main project, Against Me!—2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues and 2016’s Shape Shift with Me. In 2016, she also released her memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout and went on a book tour. Fast forward to 2018 where Grace wanted a sense of liberation from the pressure and expectation of Against Me! while still being able to do what she does best—write songs with fierce grit, shred with tenacity and stimulate heady punk euphoria.

Even though her new record doesn’t openly reference her gender transition, Grace can’t sit idly by while the trans community is under attack, especially given the Trump administration’s recent efforts to define transgender people out of existence. “As a trans person, I don’t feel welcome in most public spaces,” Grace says. “Especially now with Trump, I don’t feel faith or recognize that we’re protected by the government or administration. I fear cops and have never felt the protection of them. That never ceases. It’s terrifying now with Trump.”

She doesn’t feel like being transgender drew her closer to punk because she doesn’t view those two parts of herself as separate. “I started identifying as punk when I was 13 years old, and a lot of those feelings of alienation made me turn to punk. [Punk] isn’t always what it talks about, but at least the bands I was always with, and was really into, were about those ideals that I thought were inclusive. No racism. No classism. No homophobia. And no transphobia.”

Grace’s devotion to punk is as strong as it ever was and she still feels like an outcast. “If you’re punk, you’re punk for life,” she says. “I remember being really young—being 13 or 14—when I first was really excited about punk rock as an idea, and I was like, ‘Don’t ever not be punk. Don’t ever not be punk.’ Telling that to myself, I guess it was like self-defense against the scary world around me. Those initial feelings that really called to me have never gone away. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in mainstream society.”

Bought to Rot turns her feelings of fear and alienation into a record that’s distinctly uplifting and that laughs at the idea of just giving up when engulfed by the current political shitstorm. One of the reasons it sounds so rejuvenating is that Grace largely went back to basics and turned to some of her favorite music for inspiration. Tom Petty was an important influence on the record, and though there aren’t too many obvious musical nods, she certainly embodies his accessible troubadour spirit that so many people latch onto. Petty’s Full Moon Fever was the first CD she ever owned and her Petty connections don’t stop there.

“When I was like 12 or 13, I got my very first electric guitar,” says Grace. “I had an acoustic before that but my very first electric was a Travelling Wilburys electric guitar. When I was 18, I moved to Gainesville so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were kind of inescapable. I bought this guitar off of Stan Lynch who played drums in the Heartbreakers. It’s this beautiful 1964 Fender Jaguar guitar, and it’s obviously never been played. It just sat in a case. I had been doing the same thing with it since I bought it. I realized it was a real waste. And that was what I was thinking about in terms of the album title, Bought to Rot, and the state of America and the world in general. Just American rot and wasted potential.”

While she adores every facet of Petty’s music, she also felt a bond with him over their shared location. “[The Heartbreakers] walked those same small streets as you. They bought instruments in the same record stores you bought in. They sought to leave those places for the same reasons you sought to leave those places.”

Another spark of inspiration for this record came from the Mountain Goats as she started learning and playing along to their back catalogue two years ago. “You learn a lot about songwriting doing that, and that can’t help but influence your own songwriting,” Grace says. “If you want to do something well, you should study and not be afraid to try and keep getting better at it.”

The recording process for this new record is also what makes it sound so immediate and blithe. “We had to do it quick, and I didn’t want to spend time doing overdubs,” she explains. “I just wanted it to be a band in a room. We were well practiced and really knew the songs before going into the studio and then we chose the take that had the best all-around energy.”

It’s also easy to instantly tap into its free-flowing rapture because of its forthright humor and sarcasm, which Grace is more than happy to embrace. “Amsterdam Hotel Room” is wild and descriptive, “I Hate Chicago” is full of witty, laugh-out-loud lines and “Born in Black” has an unforgettably bleak but comical opening phrase (“Dancing toward the abyss”). “I’m a sarcastic person,” she says “It’s a defense mechanism for people. I’m so guilty of that. Obviously ‘I Hate Chicago’ has a lot of snarky lines.”

Grace’s dynamic vocals are also used to highlight the bold, sassy comedy as she gives certain words a discernible oomph with attitude and a speak-sing vocal style. “These songs have really fun lyrics to sing, and you can really be emotive and expressive with them. With tracking vocals, it makes a huge difference. You’re having fun recording it, even developing characters in your head. I think a lot of that too is referential to the way this new band started. I was doing the spoken-word tour, working on book stuff. Those shows were a mix of reading from stuff that would become my book and telling stories and then playing songs. It was fun to experiment flowing from talking to a chorus in the song.”

Though Grace doesn’t ditch emotional catharsis on this record, she doesn’t gush over every last detail of her day-to-day life or go through an emotional checklist just so people detect a sense of intimacy. She’s frustrated by the all-too-common occurrence of automatically equating emotionally transparent music (even sometimes painfully so) with great songwriting. “It’s so frustrating!,” she exclaims. “A lot of music reviews are like, ‘their most emotional album’ or ‘their most personal songs to date’ and it’s just like, ‘Where’s the end of that?’ How personal are we talking? Are these songs waking up next you in bed? Can you smell my breath off of them? There’s a limit on that. That’s not to slam being personal. There’s a time and place for that too, but it’s not always about that.”

Bought to Rot wraps with an understated finish and perhaps the best bar closer or adjourning tune since Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” “I wanted a song to end the record that had ‘the end of the show’ feel to it,” explains Grace. “Like, ‘Thank you for coming everyone. It’s been a pleasure.’ That was the idea musically, but then even as a final thought, being sorry and apologizing. Giving thanks and giving an apology are both important in recognizing that you have your flaws and not everything you’re saying is right. It’s right in the emotion you’re feeling, but not everything in the world is black and white. The bottom line is that you’re always more than enough no matter what you have.”

Grace is just as excited by the prospect of writing, recording and playing live as she’s ever been. She’s constantly finding new sources of inspiration whether literature (she’s recently read Stephen Hawking, Kurt Vonngeut and Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave) or music (one of her favorite 2018 releases is Slothrust’s The Pact), and her new album fumes with the same zeal as her rebellious teenage punk beginnings. Grace emits more simultaneous liberation, affection and grit than most, and Bought to Rot is an invigorating new chapter in her already esteemed discography.

Bought to Rot is available now via Bloodshot Records. View her upcoming tour dates and purchase the album here.

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