“I’ve been doing this meal service called Purple Carrot, where they mail you ingredients and teach you how to cook,” says Laura Jane Grace. “I’m a terrible cook because I’ve spent 20 years in a band. I’m really good at eating in restaurants…”
Like the rest of us, the veteran punk singer and guitarist has been grappling with the challenges and perils of lockdown. Grace was due to hit the road in May with her band Against Me!, before heading into the studio to record the follow-up to their 2016 album, ‘Shape Shift With Me.’ COVID-19 scuppered those plans, but she’s been keeping busy. Not only can she now cook a mean curry, she has just surprise released her debut solo album, ‘Stay Alive’, which she recorded under strict social distancing with legendary sound engineer Steve Albini – the genius behind Nirvana‘s ‘In Utero’.
We caught up with her over Zoom from her home in Chicago to talk about the new album, JK Rowling, and whether you really ever can separate the art from the artist.
Hello Laura. A few weeks ago, you released your own zine, The Inescapable Karma Of Owning A Cage – a collection of poems and lyrics, which sold out on Etsy. When did you write that material?
“It’s from the last two years. Often I write poetry, but inevitably, it ends up becoming lyrics. I’ve challenged myself over the last couple of years to just write something, finish it, put it away and don’t go back to it to try and adapt it into lyrics. The lyrics that were included are from this album, so when the album came out as a surprise, people had something physically to hold and could read along with the lyrics.”
It sounds like recording this album has got you through lockdown in Chicago…
“I’m really isolated. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration and I don’t mean that as, ‘Give me sympathy’. I just am. I’m a parent and I have my daughter every other month, but for those months in between I don’t have a community here. I don’t really have a friend group here or anything like that so I’m just alone, day after day. That’s a consequence of spending 20 years as a touring musician, where your sole focus is your career and going on tour. My friends are spread out across the world. I’m not saying I don’t have friends, I’m just saying I don’t have friends here because I’ve been touring. I’ve lived here for seven years now. This is the most time I’ve spent in Chicago and obviously it’s the worst time to get out and get to know the city. I can’t go to shows and meet people, I can’t go to the bar and meet people. How do you make friends in a pandemic?”
This album was the first time you worked with Steve Albini. What was that like?
“I knew why I wanted to work with Steve: he’s a recording engineer and not a producer, and I didn’t want opinions. I knew exactly what I wanted to do – I didn’t want anyone making me second guess any of the songs. It was a very pandemic recording experience. Just two people alone in the studio both wearing face masks, making a record. He didn’t take his face mask off once. I took mine off when I was in the live room for singing but otherwise, I had my face mask on the whole time.”
What would you say are the themes of the album?
“All these songs were written before lockdown happened. And a lot of why I chose these specific songs out of all the ones I had written was because of how fitting they felt. There are themes of isolation, of watching the days burn away and being unable to stop that. Watching changes happen. But also of how illusionary those actually are and how just because something has changed, doesn’t mean it’s finished changing or that it’s in its final form.”
What has this pandemic taught you about human nature?
“I’m not surprised in a positive way. It is surprising in a way of how quickly it all falls apart.”
How society falls apart?
“Yes, it’s crumbling before our very eyes. Seeing the constant arguing around me, whether that’s online or in real life, makes me want to withdraw and mind my own business. Seeing everything that’s happening in the [Black Lives Matter] protest movement here in the US makes me want to listen. It makes me want to be quiet and not give an opinion because I feel like there are too many opinions. I want to shut the fuck up. That’s the overwhelming feeling I feel like when I listen to other people: just shut the fuck up, you don’t know what you’re fucking talking about. Concern yourself with your daily existence and the things you can change, because another opinion is not solving anything. Maybe that’s not the boldest stance to take, but certainly you don’t need another musician telling you how to live your life.”
JK Rowling has received a lot of criticism for comments she has made about the transgender community. As a trans woman yourself, how do you feel seeing such a high-profile figure make such ignorant comments?
“I have read every single Harry Potter book to my daughter as her nighttime bed story. It was only a month ago that I finished the final book. By that point it was well into JK continually saying shit, so it felt like I was finishing some form of penance. It also gave me more validity to comment on it. I’ve read every word you’ve written, out loud to my daughter, so I can comment on your shitty views. In turn, have you listened to my music, have you read my book? (Laura released her biography ‘Tranny’ in 2016) Because if you haven’t, shut the fuck up! I have read all your books and when it comes down to it, you’re a children’s book author and you don’t have any grounds to speak on the transgender experience because you don’t know anything about it.”
Where do you stand on being able to separate the art from the artist?
“I do see a way to separate the art from the artist, and I don’t know necessarily how to explain that other than I am able to. I can think JK Rowling is full of shit and her views suck, but at the same time, that didn’t taint reading Harry Potter to my daughter. Harry Potter is different in a lot of other instances of separating the art from the artist, because it’s transformed and taken on a life of its own. Harry Potter isn’t just JK’s art anymore, it’s Daniel Radcliffe’s art, it’s all the other actors’ who have been part of the Harry Potter universe. There’s so many other instances of musicians being shitty people, but the art does become something separate. Take Morrissey, I don’t know, I still love The Smiths but I listen to his political views and I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, shut the fuck up!’
‘Stay Alive’ by Laura Jane Grace is out now on Big Scary Monsters.