“Any artist will say the same thing – the period of time between when you finish a project and when you release it is this limbo zone where life has no meaning, you’re just waiting to see what happens.”
It’s a Thursday morning in September and Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace is on the phone with American Songwriter. NPR has just premiered its First Listen of Shapeshift With Me and Grace is thrilled that people are finally getting to hear it. There’s “kid on Christmas morning” excitement in her voice. Shapeshift With Me marks a turning point for Grace, her first foray into love songs. It’s a big thematic change after nearly two decades of creating punk rock’s most poignant personal and political polemics.
But that’s not the only thing in the “limbo zone” at the moment – Grace is also anticipating the release of her memoir Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout in November. A massive undertaking that culled almost a million and a half words of journal entries – a lifetime of journal entries – down to a much more manageable 320 pages of in-the-moment observations, Tranny is Grace’s first foray into the book world. Honest and unflinching, Tranny is the culmination of more than four years of work that began when Grace came out as a transgender woman in 2012.
“From the get-go of the trust-fall working with [co-writer] Dan [Ozzi] and my friend Mike, of just being like, ‘Here, you can read all of my journals,’ I couldn’t be like, ‘You can read that page, don’t read that page, you can read those pages,’” Grace says. “They’re friends [yet] they’re essentially strangers, and at the same time, it’s like, ‘Read it, read it all.’ From the start I kind of had to be detached from everything, have everything on the table, like, have everything on the table. And nothings out of bounds.”
While Grace’s work has always peddled in raw emotion, her career is built on cathartic sing-alongs of complex observations about human behavior. Her piercing eye for detail and unapologetically intellectual approach to lyricism have brought the Florida native from the basements and living rooms of the DIY punk circuit to the big rooms and festival stages of the rock world. But Against Me!’s 2014 Transgender Dysphoria Blues upped the ante, tackling a taboo – and very personal – topic and transforming it into a concept album of rare and startling honesty.
In any other era, with any other band, a punk rock concept album about gender dysphoria could have been disaster, a career destroyer. But Blues became a fan and critical favorite, an essential part of the Against Me! catalog and a record that felt important and historic from its very first spin. Rather than ostracize Grace, the music world embraced her. She had lost bandmates, a record label, and her marriage was falling apart. The arc of the universe was not bending in her direction and when she was in the Pre-Blues limbo zone there was every reason to think that her big risk may not pay off. But it did, and would lead to new creative directions in the process.
“Going on tour in January 2014, we were in a place where I wasn’t even sure if we were going to get to there, to be a band on tour again, the future was pretty bleak for a while there,” Grace explains. “That tour was such a good time and had such a good vibe, and being around everyone in the band and all the crew we had with us just brought me up, you know? And that momentum kept going.
“Just having total fun and it continued for two years. And the status quo, my way of existence over those two years was going out, doing a tour and over that tour I would usually write a song or two … We would start out tours practicing and I would be like, ‘I’ve got a song I worked on last tour.’ And we’d practice it and demo it and when we got back from those two years we were like, ‘We’ve got a new record.’”
The result, Shapeshift With Me, bristles with a vitality and energy that few bands can muster. The songs may be about romantic love but they are as tense and fraught with complications as anything that has come before. Shapeshift marks a new direction from the band but encapsulates everything that was ever great about the band. Tracks like “333,” “Delicate, Petite And Other Things I’ll Never Be” and “Haunting Haunted Haunts” burn with melody and ferocity, pointing to a bright future for the band and its leader.
“We as a band have really experienced everything and I’m thankful for that … I’ve played Wembley, I’ve played Giant Stadium, I’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” explains Grace. “And I’ve played in basements and on street corners. I’ve been in bus accidents, been in van accidents, had friends die along the way, band members come and go. If you’re going to have a long career it’s going to happen.”