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Laura Jane Grace went outside to find herself

Laura Jane Grace appears in our Spring 2024 Issue with cover stars Liam Gallagher/John Squire, Kevin Abstract, the Marías, and Palaye Royale. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy.  It was sometime around the end of quarantine when Laura Jane Grace started freaking out. Given the circumstances, who could blame her? She had […]



Laura Jane Grace appears in our Spring 2024 Issue with cover stars Liam Gallagher/John Squire, Kevin Abstract, the Marías, and Palaye Royale. Head to the AP Shop to grab a copy. 

It was sometime around the end of quarantine when Laura Jane Grace started freaking out. Given the circumstances, who could blame her? She had spent the last year-and-a-half confined to her apartment, trying not to lose her mind when the outside world had become too dangerous to engage with through any other medium but a screen. Sometimes, she’d have the company of her daughter, but during the times when she was living with Grace’s ex-wife, she would be completely alone. At points, the closest thing she had to company was the bugs gnawing on her books and records.

Naturally, to fill this empty void of a time, she turned her attention to writing, surprise-dropping her debut solo album, Stay Alive, in October 2020. When there was nothing else to do, she carried on writing and followed it up less than a year later with the EP At War With The Silverfish (whose title nods to the aforementioned bugs), which arrived in the middle of the week with very little warning. That was when the freakout happened, a byproduct of being kept away from the live environment for too long, dislocated from part of her identity as a touring musician, and as part of the band Against Me!, she’d spent nearly two decades in. All she wanted to do was plug in an amp. 

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As the world opened up again, the wind blew Grace from her native Chicago — where she speaks to AP from today in a room festooned with guitars — to St. Louis to write her second solo album, Hole In My Head. She’d never been there before, but became intrigued when she heard there was a studio sitting empty on the south side of the city. Crucially, it was a studio with history, having once belonged to Jay Farrar from Son Volt, so Grace decided she would split her time between her hometown and this new city. It also represented a dive into the unknown. “I didn’t know anyone in St. Louis, and it was really scary and intimidating,” she admits. “I was out of my element.” 

laura jane grace

Bella Peterson

St. Louis is gritty, dangerous, and notably deprived. For all those reasons, it remains a remarkably cheap place to live. Yet, in this strange new environment, songwriting remained Grace’s anchor. Even then, because she was out in the world, there was a vague familiarity about her process, with the record coming together more similarly to the music she wrote with Against Me! in a time when live music halting for over a year seemed unimaginable. 

Putting herself somewhere unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, is how she believes she’s able to write her best work. “When you make a huge change, you have to refigure out who you are, so that challenges all your preconceived notions about the way life is or the way the world should be,” she says. “You end up figuring out what is really important, like, ‘What do I need to be able to survive this situation?’ When you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, that’s when you do good work as an artist.”

Inspiration, at least, was easier to come by now that there were things to do, people to see, and new places to go. “I write impressionistically,” Grace reasons, “and then you gather those impressions, and afterwards, you figure out what they mean and what the experience meant.” When she wasn’t writing, she drifted toward St. Louis’ plethora of DIY venues — there’s even one called CBGB, which has clung onto its punk ideals stronger than the New York venue of the same name — wanting to watch shows, drink non-alcoholic beer, and “hang out and be a normal fucking person.” By that, she means that she wanted to be an ordinary giggoer, not Laura Jane Grace from Against Me!, another face in the crowd watching and nodding in the back row, who hadn’t sauntered up to the box office to get their name ticked off the guest list. “I haven’t been able to do that for about 20 years,” she says.

From those nights sprung one of Hole In My Head’s standout tracks, the warm, fuzzy “Punk Rock In Basements,” which was intended as a duet with Joan Jett if their schedules had managed to line up. Grace emphasizes the song isn’t as nostalgic as many have suggested it is. “You go out, and you’re kind of intimated by the younger scene coming up, but the ultimate realization is that they’re just doing the same thing that we did before,” she says. “It’s that cycle of rebellion. [You see] all the great things about being young, but also the naivety.” She got an even closer look at that phenomenon herself when her teenage daughter said she wanted to go and see Subhumans live. She insisted on going up to the front, but Grace wasn’t that young, eager punk anymore. “I was like, ‘Fuck no, I’m going in the back!’

“I saw them play in 1997, and they were fucking brilliant, but even then, I remember they were a classic punk band, and for lack of a better term, I’m sorry, but they’re old men!” she continues. “To see them now, I was like, ‘God, they haven’t aged.’ There’s this multigenerational thing that’s beautiful, that just expands your understanding of what punk is and what it should mean and all the possibilities there within. At its best, punk is about acceptance and celebrating differences and questioning authority, questioning everything, but then it can become terrible things, too, and there are bullshit aspects of it. Still, there’s validity to those tenets, and I’ve seen it lived, you know?” 

The spirited punk ’n’ roll of “Birds Talk Too” is similarly impressionistic, a collage of fragmented memories from a trip Grace took to Amsterdam in summer 2022 stitched together to form a song. She’d just finished a tour in the U.K., and while she was in the continent, she took a short flight over for an appointment with Japanese artists who had been tattooing her from toe to head over the last decade. There, in the Dutch capital, they shaved her head and finished the job. 

laura jane grace

Bella Peterson

Grace lights up as she tells the story before she picks up a guitar behind her and holds it to the camera. “You have to see it to believe it!” It’s a beautiful instrument, shiny and black with intricate white lines drawn into it — a parting gift from one of the tattooists, who had painted it up himself. This was the instrument she used to write “Birds Talk Too,” which came tumbling out of her in the hotel room afterward, depicting scenes in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, hearing a burst of “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” in the elevator, an afternoon in Rookies — Grace’s favorite weed cafe — listening to animated conversations, Red Hot Chili Peppers coming on, and someone immediately switching it off. “I was like, ‘Yes. Perfect. Fuck the Red Hot Chili Peppers,’” she recalls. 

It also briefly touches on Grace’s habit of finding solace outdoors. “One of the things I really love about Amsterdam is Vondelpark — it’s an amazing park,” she continues. “One of the things I’ve been taught to do when I’m unsettled and needing to find myself is to ground myself — go outside, sit with your feet in the grass.” The title, meanwhile, comes from her staring up at the birds circling each other in the sky while “high as fuck, because I’m in Amsterdam, right?,” wondering what on Earth they could be squawking away to each other about. 

Another significant cut from Hole In My Head is “Cuffing Season,” a sweet acoustic ballad that finds Grace readying herself to one day be vulnerable and open her heart to love again — “I wanna let myself feel the whole of you/And maybe you’ll let yourself feel it, too/And who knows? Maybe we’ll both live to regret it.” In hindsight, it might feel a little prophetic. When writing it, Grace had no idea that by the time the song saw the light of day, she would be married again, having tied the knot with comedian Paris Campbell at the tail end of 2023. 

“I think it’s less of a buildup as it’s a collapse,” she considers of the way she put her heart on the line again. “It’s less of, ‘I’ve finally got there’ as it is ‘I’m willing to let go.’ It’s the willingness to be vulnerable, because that’s what falling in love is, and it’s terrifying, right? If you’ve ever been hurt before, you don’t want to be vulnerable again, but that’s exactly what the song is about. Maybe it’s reaching a place of insanity, of losing your fucking mind, but I guess I don’t know any other way.” 

Incidentally, Grace describes the way she’s touched on her feelings about what happened when she was last involved with Against Me! in similar terms. Their last album, Shape Shift With Me, landed eight years ago now, and they haven’t played a show together since March 2020. Things splintered in a sudden, as-yet-unresolved way — they got three shows into a tour before the rapid spread of COVID-19 made continuing to play gigs in crowded spaces an unsafe prospect. It’s as if it was put to one side and just hasn’t yet been picked back up again, rather than abandoned altogether. 

“It’s like a broken heart, right?” she suggests about the way she wrote about those unresolved emotions. “That’s what it is, like writing songs to nurse a broken heart, trying to look inside yourself to understand things that are outside yourself, which is probably a fool’s errand, but it’s what you’re doing because you’re spending a lot of time looking at yourself thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?’” One day, the cogs will start spinning in the Against Me! machine again, or at least, that’s what she hopes. “When you come to a stop, it’s really hard to get going again, and I hope we get going again. I have also been trying to impress upon people that it’s not just me. I want to be out there. I’m trying to be out there. I want to play the songs, and I miss doing it with the band. I hope we can do it again, but everyone has to be in the right place.”

laura jane grace

Bella Peterson

For now, Grace’s been wheeling Against Me! hits out while she’s been playing solo, which ended up lending itself better to touring in more fraught times what with COVID-19 circulating. If something goes wrong, or someone in the touring party tested positive, there wasn’t as much damage control required on a solo tour as much as a band tour. Then again, it’s a lonelier experience, coming offstage to find nobody there, returning to a hotel room alone, touring in a van like in the earlier days of band life rather than in a plush bus. 

Grace thinks it’s humbling, but not in a bad way. “You realize the things you’ve taken for granted, like the ability to lean on each other when something’s difficult, or through the difficult parts of being a musician,” she says. “The spirit of camaraderie when you’re traveling is so valuable. It brings you humility when you’re loading your own gear in, as opposed to having a tech loading in for you. Those are healthy things — it puts you in your place. It challenges you.” 

Even if they haven’t been active for close to a decade, Against Me! remain significant. Indeed, the 10th anniversary of their landmark album Transgender Dysphoria Blues — their first full-length since Grace came out as trans in 2012 — has been of notable attention, least of all since it arrives at a time when an emboldened collective of bigots has been rallying against trans rights in the U.S. and throughout the world, and anti-trans sentiment has been picking up not only in volume but ferocity. Frustratingly, sometimes it has felt like a slide backward, particularly in the aftermath of the Trump administration. 

Grace agrees that times were different back when that album was released, but not in a completely straightforward way. “[Dialogue about trans people] wasn’t a conversation that was being had back then,” she reasons. “It was only beginning, really. But I definitely recognize the change and things that have happened. In hindsight, some of it seems so predictable — of course after the pendulum swung this way, it would swing far to the right.” Of course, it’s also an election year, hinting at a rerun of 2020’s clash between Trump and incumbent Joe Biden and the dread of history repeating itself with the prospect of Trump being reelected for a belated second term. 

laura jane grace

Bella Peterson

“It feels like such a hold-your-breath moment,” Grace continues. “The past couple of years in particular have seen such an attack on trans rights on a legislative level, with each state enacting these draconian laws. You don’t know where to focus. You don’t know where to get your information. You don’t know exactly how to help. You feel helpless in a lot of ways.” 

Given how critical of Trump she was as president, how worried is she about him being reelected? “There’s just a sense of mental exhaustion for everybody. I’m just like, ‘Jesus Christ, enough. Enough Trump, enough Biden, fuck off forever. I worry it translates into a general callousness towards valid suffering in the world, especially with other horrific things like the leveling of Gaza and Ukraine. Advocating for trans rights can get swept under the rug in a media context, and then with the rise of hate crimes and [anti-trans] legislation, it’s hard to get change in a positive way. I worry about the future. I have no answers on what to do about how fucked it is.”

Even with her songwriting, Grace’s natural inclination isn’t to answer such huge questions. What she’s here to do is observe. In her pandemic songwriting, she found inspiration in the granular — one song from At War With The Silverfish, “Day Old Coffee,” revolves around her habit of microwaving coffee that had been left around to go cold. The world might be sliding to a darker place, but one thing has improved. Now, she can go outside, find herself, hopefully not worry as much about airborne viruses, take in her surroundings, and create.


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