Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace on 'Shape Shift With Me' and writing love songs
In one of the most contentious election years in memory, a punk band known for its radical politics is about to release an album of… love songs? “There is an irony to it that I recognize,” says Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. “This is probably the one time people would have really expected me to be super political.”
Instead, Shape Shift With Me, out this Friday, explores every stage of dating and romance, from early infatuation and lust to post-break-up misery. And after coming out as transgender in 2012 and drawing on her transition for 2014’s acclaimed Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace says that might be just as relevant and necessary in 2016. “I don’t want this conversation to just be, ‘Hey, we’d like to use this bathroom,’” she says, referring to HB2, the anti-LGBT law passed in North Carolina earlier this year. “We want to be able to use the bathroom and we’d like to be able to f— who we want to f—, as long as it’s consensual sex between adults.”
The last time we spoke, you were just beginning to work on the album, writing “fun and dance-y songs about hanging out with your friends and traveling the world.” Do you remember when the record started becoming this collection of songs about love and dating?
I guess that was just the course of what happened—traveling around the world, falling in and out of love, dealing with heartbreak, thinking about how you relate to the world now. That was what I lived, so that ended up being the record. But I can look at each song and remember periods of time over the last couple years of touring that were really fun adventures.
We are spread out as a band at this point: Atom [Willard, drums] lives in L.A., I live in Chicago, James [Bowman, guitar] lives in Florida, and Inge [Johansson, bass] lives in Sweden. We’ve been making Michigan, where we recorded the album, our home base. Marc Hudson, who is our front-of-house engineer and tour manager, has a studio there. So in between every tour, we would reconvene there for practice, and I would always have one or two songs written after the tour. We would demo the song, with not much of an intention other than I was writing. At the end of two years of touring, there was a question up in the air of, “Okay, that was a lot of touring, do we take a break and get back together in six months to start talking about a record? Or these songs here, maybe we should just go ahead and record them and keep the momentum going?” That seemed more in line with the spirit of the songs. We didn’t want to lose that immediacy with them.
The record was also really aided by the book in that the book and the record are polar opposites of each other. The book is a memoir, so it was a lot of reflecting on the past. And the record in turn became my escape from the book. I wanted the record to have nothing to do with the past and only to do with what I was immediately feeling right then and there, what was happening in my life. I needed the balance between the two.
Speaking of your memoir—Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout comes out Nov. 15. And you’ve got your new album. And you’re going on tour. That’s a lot on your plate. Are you doing okay, Laura? Are you getting enough sleep?
Yeah, and I’m also a parent! [Laughs] I’m trying to have a social life too. That’s the least successful part of my life. It’s in flames, crashing and burning, my social life. But in addition to the record and the book, I’ve been doing a couple producing projects as well. I produced a couple songs on this full-length for a band called Fea, a Chicana riot grrl band from Texas. I did a record for this band Worriers last year, just trying to stay busy.
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Transgender Dysphoria Blues drew a lot from your transition and your struggles, and it kicked off a year of transgender visibility in the media: a few months later, Laverne Cox was on the cover of TIME. Do you think there’s something equally important and revolutionary about not writing about those topics this time?
I guess in a way I was aware of a little bit of rumbling. They say never read the comments, but sometimes you read the comments. I knew that there was this expectation from people: “Oh what, is every record that Against Me! does now going to be about trans this or trans that?” On the flip side of that, some people were very excited about the idea that every Against Me! record would be about trans this or trans that.
Then there’s me throwing my hands up in the air being like, “F— that!” I just want to write about living. I want to move on from that part, while being willing to still talk about that stuff in the media. I get burned out on that. My whole identity is not gender. My whole identity is not talking about gender. There are so many other things in my life that are fulfilling that I like to think about too. I’ve moved on from this decision I’ve been wrestling with forever. Maybe I could just live, you know? [Laughs] Maybe I could do that! And that would be a great step, as opposed to having [the album] strictly focused on the most popular aspects of transgender representation in the media.
Does writing love songs come easily to you? Or do you struggle with finding fresh insight into one of the oldest topics in popular music?
I was inspired by an interview that I saw with PJ Harvey where she was talking about a record she did, Let England Shake, which is a record about war. She was talking about how war is a cliché topic but still relevant. So many people have written about war, but it took her this period of time to feel like she could have written about war. I was married for seven or eight years, went through a separation, and now being new to dating, this is the first time where I’m myself. I meet someone and don’t have something I’m holding back. There’s no secret that I’m trans. And [I’m] starting to examine the way that’s represented in culture in mainstream society. For instance, I used to really like going to the movie theater and watching dumb romantic comedies as a way to kill a couple hours during the day, to escape the heat. But after I came out I had trouble identifying a lot of the times with the characters just because I didn’t feel they were speaking to me—though they weren’t necessarily before, I was just going along with the guise. I feel like that’s maybe something that needs to be leveraged for trans people.
There’s so much focus in the media when it comes to trans people about the idea of transitioning. “This person was this gender before, and now they’re this gender! That’s crazy! What are the nuts and bolts that go along with that?” And historically, sexuality for trans people [has been] degraded down just to being a fetish. Trans people should be able to fall in love and sing love songs too, and have that be just as valid. You turn on the radio and every other song is some guy singing about some girl who broke his heart, or vice versa. And there’s not a lot of trans representation with that.
The more I thought about it further, with dating and everything like that, there were so many experiences that were dysphoric: I’d be in a situation like, okay, what is the role now? I’m questioning how much of who we are in relationships or dating or sex is just purely driven by testosterone or estrogen. What emotions are exclusive to one or the other? Or are they not exclusive to either? Are certain emotions just there and equally valid for both genders, or genderless? Are some emotions strictly male or strictly female?
It’s really interesting with a song like “Boyfriend,” in which you sing about being treated “like a boyfriend, some dumb f—ing boyfriend.” Those words might mean one thing coming from a cisgender male artist, but there’s a whole other layer of meaning when you sing them. Do you enjoy playing with that?
Completely. And you know, what’s great about that song, which is totally unexpected, was that as we were finishing up mixing with that song, I heard that Tegan and Sara single, “Boyfriend,” which has a similar sentiment in the chorus. I immediately got a hold of Tegan [who collaborated with Against Me! on 2007’s “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart”] and was like, “Oh my God! This is crazy! Our songs are saying the same thing!” And thinking about that further, what’s your interpretation of those lyrics when you hear Tegan and Sara sing them? Because those are coming from what are traditionally considered to be female voices, but the flip with them is that it’s coming from gay female voices. And then having that same sentiment coming from a trans female, how do you hear it? How much does the way you hear something influence the way you perceive something if the same thing is being said? That’s subversive to me.
Listening to this album reminded me a lot of when I was a teenager and every crush, every emotion felt like the most intense thing in the world. A lot of these songs really capture that extreme butterflies-in-the-stomach anxiety.
It’s a really strange experience to have at an older age. But that’s literally what happens. You have a second puberty when you’re on hormones. That’s what I was going through. That’s the estrogen talking. That is my body having this big rush of new hormones and freaking the f— out. All of a sudden I’m a teenager again in a crazy way. It’s strange having those emotions or feeling that way with a little more wisdom than you had when you were a teenager. It’s a little more realistic. With the song “Rebecca,” [I sing] “Let’s not fall in love!” When you’re a teenager, you’re like, “We’re going to get married and have kids and live happily ever after together forever…even though we’ve only been dating for two weeks.” Now, you’re a little more like, “Well…”
You feel like a teenager when you’re dating now?
Yeah, completely! I was married for like seven, eight years. And then coming out of that I was like, “Okay, now what? I guess I would like to date? That’s a reasonable thing. I’m allowed to have that!” But I feel like most trans people are traditionally or historically beaten into feeling like you shouldn’t feel like an object that could have sex. You can’t have sex appeal unless that’s in a fetish way. That is something like asking for equal rights. I don’t want this conversation to just be, “Hey, we’d like to use this bathroom.” We want to be able to use the bathroom and we’d like to be able to f—k who we want to f—k, as long as it’s consensual sex between adults. We would like to have every single other right that everyone else has in mainstream society.