There’s a satisfying poise to Laura Jane Grace that belies her status as a punk rock legend. Sitting on a video call at 10am Chicago time – she wakes before 7am to go for a daily run – she exudes an effortless elegance and control that feels almost transgressive in the context of over twenty years as the heavily-tattooed, perpetually touring frontwoman of Against Me!.
Perhaps this composure shouldn’t come as a surprise. Grace – who describes herself as “very goal oriented” – quietly worked through months of quarantine to make Stay Alive, a short, fierce solo record that got a surprise release at the start of October. Although written during the two years before life crashed to a halt in March, it crackles with the yearning and frustration pertinent to this strange, difficult year.
Stay Alive began its life as an Against Me! record, with the band spending the end of 2019 in the studio working on a suite of over 30 songs. By the start of this year, they had reached what Grace acknowledges as “a point of frustration – we still weren't in a place where we felt like we had the record, we were just writing and writing and accumulating all this stuff.” When the pandemic hit, they had to face the reality that continuing to record – or even to make plans in such an open-ended situation – was impossible.
“None of us live in the same city, none of us live in the same state,” she explains. “We can't continue working. When it comes down to it, it could be two years before there's any kind of return to live music. In two years, were we really going to want to jump right back into these songs that we had been working on that we felt weren't getting anywhere? It seemed like not at all.”
But throwing away the unfinished material didn’t feel like an option either, and after a couple of months, Grace reapproached it and excavated 14 songs to repurpose as a solo record. The resulting album – resolutely lo-fi, with the reduced attention span that we all seem to share at the moment – was recorded over four days at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago, with the legendary producer taking on no-nonsense production duties.
Even though they were written before the pandemic, the songs have an alchemically resonant quality. Of course, given so much time to reflect, we are habitually reframing all kinds of songs as pertinent to this moment – but the lyrics of tracks such as “Shelter in Place” (My own private paradise / Quarantine is very nice”) have an eerily prescient quality. “It very much had to do with the selection of songs,” Grace says about the album’s lyrical resonance. “Especially the ones where it was most surprising.”
She notes the closing, almost-title track “Old Friend (Stay Alive)”, which delivers its titular plea from a place of mutual struggle (“Old friend, I'm losing my mind / Watching the days burn into years...Please survive / Build a world inside a shell”). “That was actually the very first song written, and when I wrote it, it didn't really speak to me,” she explains. “And then once everything started happening this year, the song made a lot of sense. It's totally taken on a new life.”
“In a way it's like baking,” she explains with a smile. “You get all these ingredients together, and then you put it in the oven. With songwriting, it's not a specific timer – set it for 30 minutes and you're done. But there is a point where [the songs] are done, you can take them out of the oven now. If you leave them in too long, they're gonna dry out. Or if you take them out too early they're all squishy in the centre. It needs a specific timing.”
There's a totally different meaning to them now,” she continues, referring to the songs on the album. “But that's also why I've felt an ultimate need to get them out, because this is the way they resonate with me right now. And this is their correct framing. Whereas if I were to wait another year, or if they were to come out after everything has changed for the better, then they wouldn't hold the same meaning. There is something to be said for time and place.”
Aside from notions of timing, meaning and resonance, there was another, much simpler reasoning behind Grace’s choice of songs from the cache of options she was left with. “Especially right now, the songs that I chose are songs that make me happy to play,” she explains. “I will go into my bathroom – it has the best acoustics in my apartment – and I'll sit on my acoustic guitar and I'll play them. It seems like if there's ever a time to make a record that simply makes you happy, that literally keeps you alive, and then share that with people in hopes that maybe they'll get some enjoyment out of it too, it’s right now.”
The album’s stripped-back sound connects with the simplicity of this purpose. It’s largely just Grace’s acoustic guitar and vocals, which have a conversational quality that is sometimes lost in the busier, louder songs of Against Me!. Even when her voice raises to a shout on the anti-Trump sneer “Hanging Tree” (“You can’t trust a man with hair like that”), it retains its wry and characterful glint.
There are also some unexpected sonic variations – “SuperNatural Possession” and the spitting kiss-off “So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Fuck Off” have a sparse demo sound – all drum machines and fuzzbox guitars. “I love Paul Westerberg and The Replacements,” she explains of this production choice. “Some of Westerberg's best moments are those super lo-fi sounding, almost home demo recordings. The way they were recorded becomes a testament to the song being really good, and it almost adds charm to it.” Following this line of influence added variation to the album, while still being within her reduced means. She was conscious of “not pushing myself too far, not doing something that I have to lean on a computer to do. Make it about simplicity, make it about enjoyment, and make it about what comes naturally to you.”
This was just one aspect of how Grace had to adapt her way of working for Stay Alive. “It's not a traditional record because we no longer live in the old world that we used to live in,” she states. One of the most striking differences to her material both with Against Me! and with her other recent side project, The Devouring Mothers, is the length of the songs. Of the 14 tracks on Stay Alive, only “Mountain Song” passes the three minute mark, with most sticking around two minutes.
"Historically for me, I've always rebelled against expectations or requests..."
This brevity feels very pertinent to this period in time, where everyone is hyper-aware of the present moment. Was that a conscious choice? “I'm not sure if it was conscious so much as subconscious, but I do recognise it for sure,” she says. “It speaks directly to it being about, ‘I'm just here to say this thing in this song, and once I've said it, that's all I came here to say.’ It's not about clever musical tricks; the music is an accompaniment to what's being said lyrically. As a writer, I've always put more emphasis on writing lyrics than I have music.”
Short songs can also be a practical result of having less instruments to fill out the runtime. “Oftentimes I'll write two verses and a chorus, and bring it to the band, then it's like, James [Bowman, guitarist] needs to play a solo somewhere… and so these other parts get added on that are places for the other players to exist in.” Can she imagine bringing the Stay Alive songs back to the band, fleshing them out again with her Against Me! bandmates? “I could, and that was ultimately what made this feel right. It felt like doing it the other way didn't leave as much possibility as it did doing it this way. This is small, and you can build off of that. There's no reason why one of these songs couldn't be on a new [Against Me!] album that's otherwise nine other new songs, you know?”
“There's no rules for anything really,” she states, “and once you get out of the confines of thinking that it has to be a certain way, you have so many possibilities. You can do whatever you want. This was really an exercise in getting past those things.”
Grace also unexpectedly broke a self-imposed barrier by making Stay Alive a conscious throwback to her earlier work. Against Me! have a recognisable sound, but each album sheds something from the past and adds new, unexpected dynamics – and Grace is always experimenting outside of this structure with her side projects. Although Stay Alive continues on this forward trajectory in its lyrics and in Grace’s performance, it also includes sonic nods that stretch right back to Against Me!’s acoustic EP, released almost 20 years ago.
“Historically for me, I've always rebelled against expectations or requests,” Grace smiles, revealing the trademark gleeful spite of a Scorpio. “Some people in the past have been like, ‘I would love to hear you do an acoustic record again’, or ‘I'd love to hear you do a record that was similar to [2008 debut solo EP] Heart Burns’, which was a drum machine-heavy record. If people would be like, 'that was cool, I like that, do it again' I was like – no! I will never do that and you will never hear that from me again!”
“To reference the Star Wars movies, wouldn't it have been great if the new trilogy was only the old cast and they did exactly what the fans wanted? It just would have made everyone happy!” she laughs. “Maybe it wouldn't have been what the studio wanted, but the fans would have been happy. So it's similar to that. As well as just wanting to do what makes me happy, the flipside of that was wanting to do something that will make other people happy, that feels familiar and throws to a request.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that one of the major themes that emerges from Grace’s forcibly reduced worldview on Stay Alive is a yearning for different environments. Similarly to 2018’s The Devouring Mothers album Bought to Rot, songs segue from place to place as Grace works through her thoughts in motion across continents.
Lyrics are punctuated with names of cities, and allusions to hotel rooms and fleeting sights. From the irony of frustration coexisting with natural beauty in “Shelter in Place” (“Sunrise over Gibraltar / Some fucking rock, some fucking hotel”) to “The Calendar Song”’s longing for escape (“Wish I was going to Portugal / I wanna walk the streets of Oporto”), the album is rich with the beats of a life spent on the road.
Like all touring musicians Grace misses performing, but the prominence of travel on the record reveals another aspect of her life that she is missing. “They're almost like separate experiences,” she states. “The daytime half, where you wake up in a city and you've got a couple hours to do whatever you want, or you're just in transit getting to the next city – those experiences feel very separate from the actual show part of it. I enjoy both aspects, but I really enjoy the uniqueness of waking up and having a new experience. Because when it comes down to it, the show aspect of it can become a little monotonous. One backstage tends to look like another backstage – and that being said, I do miss backstage! But that experience of going different places and the feeling of being in motion, it's so noticeably gone.”
Playing these songs that allude to the places she’s spent time in are a way for Grace to access her memories – like a personal mixtape, or a self-made souvenir. I indulgently mention the verse in “The Calendar Song” that mentions Glasgow, the city where I live (“Dirty rivers, smells chemical-sweet / Sun shines down on Glasgow greens”) and where I saw Grace play with The Devouring Mothers what feels like a lifetime ago in August 2019. “When I sing about that I immediately remember a year and a half ago when I was on tour,” she reminisces. “I remember every aspect of it: that morning, waking up and going for a run along the river. I'm so happy to be able to have that recall right now, especially when I can't travel and all I have is this inside of an apartment.”
Although she’s officially lived in Chicago for seven years, she estimates the actual time she’s spent in her apartment as “around two, maybe three years” due to her perpetual touring schedule – this prolonged period at home “feels like not just like digesting or processing a year's worth of touring, or a month's worth of touring. It's like processing 20 years.” Reduced travel has also taken away her dispersed community of friends, who usually align with the route of her tours. “I know a couple people, but I don’t have a life here,” she says of her “technical” home city. “I've been a touring musician for 20 years, and the community that I have, the friends that I have, are spread out all over the world.”
“Coming up the way I did in the DIY punk scene, it was always about trying to keep things very level between you and your audience,” she continues. “At first you wrote letters, and then it graduated to a Hotmail account, and then there were the MySpace years, and now we exist in a Twitter and an Instagram world.” Grace thrives on the back-and-forth between artist and audience, and has always been comfortable engaging “in the connection between people who genuinely appreciate the music.”
“I interact with people on a daily basis,” she says of the connection between social media and real life. “A circle of people that I will see at least once a year when I'm touring around the world. And those connections maintain. I don't want to just say goodbye, like my whole life that I've spent the last 20 years doing is just done. I want to fight to keep that part of me.”
“I don't want to be a live streaming musician. I want to be a musician on a stage playing for an audience in a venue."
Like most conversations over the past nine months, ours lurches from existential highs to chatter about what pop culture we’ve been consuming. Has Grace read anything that has resonated with her recently? “I've been reading a lot of Henry Miller, and a fair bit of poetry,” she says of her expansive interests. “I like reading memoirs, and I like reading things that are fantastical, or don't have any real direct connection to daily experience.”
The memoirs she’s read have been fairly on-the-nose for this moment. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I read a book called Journal of a Solitude by this author May Sarton,” she explains. “I think it was written in the mid-'60s, and they just spent a year in total isolation in a cabin in Maine. It was about the responsibility and the pressures and the experience of being completely isolated. So obviously that resonated. It was wild because I picked it up at random while I was on tour before everything hit.” She also connected to Hard Times by Studs Terkel, an oral history of the Great Depression. “He interviewed all different kinds of people who experienced it, and their thoughts on if America were to face the rising tide of fascism – which was frightening, but very relevant.”
Grace counts reading as one of the “small things” that has kept her going during her time at home: “I'll sit down in the morning and I'll write three pages in my journal. Yesterday, I took two baths. At least one daily bath is very important.” Faced with the strange experience of finally being grounded in a city, but not being able to go anywhere and make local connections, she’s doing as many of us are: taking care of our spaces, and trying to ground ourselves in the meditative, self-caring aspects of nesting.
“Being that I'm usually gone, I'm never able to have plants because I can't keep them alive, but now I’m buying plants” she explains of one change that she’s made. “I'm mildly obsessed with the idea of having as many oxygen-giving plants around me while I sleep, so I'm just bathing in oxygen.” She tells me about doing home improvement while listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac – surely the go-to comfort band of 2020 – which “completely grabbed me and blew me away” during the summer. “It happened after an argument with a friend – someone else they knew told them that given that desert island scenario, they would pick Tusk. And I was like, that's bullshit, why wouldn't you fucking pick Rumours? But then I started listening to it while I was remodelling my office and just like, obsessively listened to it for a month straight.”
Followers of Grace’s social media won’t be surprised to hear that running every day is another major grounding force, and one which has softened the shock of being off tour for the longest time in her life as a musician. “What I really like about [running] specifically is the continuity that carries over from being on tour,” she explains. “I'll wake up in the morning here, and I'll go for a run just as I would on tour. As long as I stay in the practice and habit of doing these things always – on tour and off tour – there's a flow through my life, that doesn't make it seem like two separate worlds. The physical experience of running is the exact same no matter where you are, other than the air you’re breathing or the terrain.”
Just as her own songs act as transportation to a place and time, the running playlists she makes – and shares every week on social media – help her bridge the gap between tour life and home life, by reminding her of where she was when she made them. “I always save them, I never delete them. I have the playlist that I listened to the morning I was last in Glasgow on my phone,” she says, harking back to that mention in “The Calendar Song”. “I could put it on for a morning run, and I can momentarily feel transported back, because I'm doing the exact same thing here, just as I did there.”
As well as the small, routine things, the logistical side of making a record has given Grace a much-needed sense of purpose. “I work well within a structure. The major things have been the anchor points,” she says. “At first it was like, I'm gonna record, I'll book studio time. I booked it purposely a month and a half away so I had something to work towards. Then I finished recording, and it became about finishing the artwork, setting a date, when that has to be done. Then there's a live stream, that's something else to put on the calendar to keep working towards.”
Like most musicians with an album to promote during 2020, Grace marked the release with a live streamed show. How was the experience? “I didn't like it, I’ll be honest with you,” she laughs, echoing the sentiments of most musicians I’ve spoken with this year. “Don't get me wrong, I'm appreciative of it! To be on a stage felt awesome, and it felt great to sit backstage alone for a second. But I didn't like it for a number of reasons.” The show was held in Lincoln Hall, an intimate venue in Chicago, where the only audience members were a dozen masked-up technical crew and venue staff. Surely playing to some actual, physical people in the same room was better than playing to a camera lens at home?
Not necessarily. “Everyone's a little crazed, because everyone has been very isolated,” Grace says of the atmosphere before her set. “I want to fit in. I want to be social. I adapt to the energy in the room, quickly notice types of personality, the way everybody's playing off of each other, the line of humour that's happening. And it was fine, and we're joking. But then the second the camera started rolling, whoosh! Energy vacuum. No one would even smile at me or make eye contact. There's cameras pointing at me, and I'm operating on faith that there's people on the other end of this who are watching, and I just have to know that. But at the same time I'm having a real experience and there are people in the room. I can't help but be playing to them because they're right in front of me, but they're giving me no reaction, so I feel like a comedian that is bombing. It was like a strange dream.”
Of course Grace got more enthusiastic (albeit delayed) feedback afterwards from fans on social media – did that change her feelings? “It made me feel it was worthwhile,” she admits, although she is frustrated with it as a longer-term solution to maintaining connections between artist and audience. “I don't want to be a live streaming musician. I want to be a musician on a stage playing for an audience in a venue, that's what I wanted to do from the beginning. I'm adapting right now because these are the circumstances, but I'm still very sceptical of it, just because there's nothing that lasts from it, you know? It happens, it's over, it's gone. It's done.”
“Wanting to do the record the way I did it, I wanted the opposite of that,” she continues, drawing a connection with the music industry’s wider physical vs digital dichotomy. “I didn't want it to be made on a computer, I wanted to make it on tape, I wanted a physical thing that existed the second it was done being recorded, so I can hold it in my hands. And I do – I have the tapes in my back office. They're there. They're real. They're physical things that exist, as opposed to being a binary code of zeros and ones; digital ash.”
It’s the physicality of live music that she – and most of us – are so desperately missing. A live show is much like a conversation, and it has to have that back-and-forth nourishment that harks back to Grace’s reason for doing any of this at all. “That was what was strange about the live stream,” she says, frustrated. “There are still people in the room watching you, and you're just supposed to ignore them. It's these half muted experiences that made it like a dream. There's people but they're out of reach, and instead you're trying to reach the people who aren't there, who you have no ability to interact with.”
“As a human you need a certain level of interaction, just talking to people,” she states, widening her scope to the existential again. “And for me right now, all those people exist online, that's my lifeline to the world. But there has to be a balance between engaging with everything that is outside and just being in your space and turning your phone off.”
Grace recalls a conversation with an exasperated friend a few days before, who was working themselves up trying to strike this balance. “They were in a pretty good position. They're safe, they're in an area where things aren't that affected by the pandemic,” she explains. “And there was a part of me that thought, you should turn off your phone and you should just live in the moment where you are and enjoy that! As opposed to stressing yourself out with these things that aren't in your reach. Which isn't to say you lack compassion or empathy or concern for the greater outside world, it's just like, maybe it's not realistically in your reach to do anything about it, you know?”
Perhaps striving to recognise and live in accordance with our limits – to know and act on what we can do – is the key to the central question of our times, and to that of Stay Alive. What Grace can do – and does do, on this record, and in her continued levelling of audience and artist – is make valuable connections, and voice her desires and frustrations as a conduit for our own.
What is the balance between the work keeping her alive, and keeping other people alive? “There is the selfish side of making art where you're doing this because you need to do it for yourself, right?” she concludes. “I feel the need to write songs, I get satisfaction out of it. And then there's the other side – part of that satisfaction is feeling like you're connecting and communicating an idea with people. And you need both of those.”