Staying Alive With Laura Jane Grace
Fresh out of a decade where personal liberation was often paired with chaos, Laura Jane Grace’s first solo record finds a home for two years of very complicated emotions.
In the wake of one of 2020’s most succinct and powerful bodies of work, Clash spoke with the punk icon to discuss ‘Stay Alive’.
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A seemingly unstoppable presence on the treadmill of modern music, Laura Jane Grace entered 2020 with the feeling that there was more work to do. A run of 18 shows across home territory in the US had her reckoning with the idea of making a follow up to her band Against Me!’s raucous ‘Shape Shift With Me’, their first in almost half a decade.
“Right now I’m trying to grasp and struggle with the idea of, ‘All right, how do you record and release an album in 2020 and not have it be completely eclipsed by the election?', she told Rolling Stone magazine at the time.
That tour halted prematurely for obvious reasons, leaving Grace with no choice but to return to her home in Chicago to sit in a month-shaped hole of pandemic anxiety layered upon election anxiety. Soon realising that making music again might be one of the only things to help her ride this out, she began to assess her options.
“Things change, perspectives change!”, she declares, a lamentation and a celebration. “It took me a month to get my bearings at home, realising that if I don’t do something on my own and act, everything is lost.”
“All of these songs are going to sit there, no one is going to do anything with them - they will go stale. It was apparent to me that these songs were lining up, the emotions resonated with what I was feeling in the pandemic even though they were written prior to it. They were making sense. It felt like this was their moment”, she says.
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The end product sways between tales of Grace’s touring travels and crippling stillness of isolation that pairs with being given a chance to sit still and reflect. She gives “thirty-odd” band focused works in progress a renewed purpose. The core ethos ‘Stay Alive’ - doing what you can to keep going - lifts listeners through the parts that are harder to swallow.
“When it came to what I actually wanted to do with them it made sense. Maybe these songs don’t need to be anything more than what they are, on an acoustic guitar,” she says. “A lot of adjusting my scope once the pandemic hit was like - simplify. Make it easy! Don’t make it difficult for yourself right now because things are already stressful enough.”
After endless COVID-19 related delays from artists elsewhere in the business, fans were given something entirely unexpected, with zero warning. Artwork adorned in dark blues and an ashtray filled with sticky spliff roaches asking them to work through this with her. It is clear Grace is still grateful for the change in scope.
“It felt so good. There’s this buildup where you announce the record, maybe put out a song, a tour is announced. Then it drags out and drags out. To just put it out there, and then have the vinyl and physical CD’s follow, it felt so appropriate for right now. With the intention being - this is making me feel good, I hope it makes other people feel good. I just want to share music because that’s what I do.”
The YouTube stream that accompanied the premiere brought fans into Grace’s home, featuring a fuzzy black and white video of her reading in the bath from start to finish. From the looks of her often entertaining Twitter, Grace key coping mechanisms for this time lie in baths and running. She had even been due to run the Chicago Marathon last month, just before turning 40. The alternative has been a pledge to run every day in the month building up to the election. With its present status, it’s a wonder that she might still be running.
“It feels like there’s this little countdown happening every moment - here we go! What’s going to happen! I would much rather focus on waking up every morning and running until my heart feels like it’s going to explode out of my chest, instead of sitting around ruminating.”
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Managing these anxieties meant a simple, streamlined recording process was a priority. In a serendipitous move, she happened to have one of music’s most famously straightforward audio engineers on her doorstep in the form of Steve Albini. Together, they recorded and mixed the record in four days at his own Electrical Audio Studios.
At the helm of some of the best work from the likes of Pixies and Nirvana, Grace credits him as working like a “documentarian”.She explains the process like going to someone and having your portrait taken - it’s undeniable what the results are. We joke about how fans can seldom detect if an artist messes up anyway, especially if we weren’t to know what the end product was supposed to sound like.
“(Going analogue) created a balance of pressure. The way I sound is the way I sound. Every day for 30 days, I woke up, I practiced in my bathroom. I have to know what I want (...) the point of doing it analogue meant there were limited editing options. You can bring a computer into it - I can edit it to death! What is the easiest, most fun, least stressful way to do this?”
Grace is a testament to how important art can be to people in the bleakest and brightest of years, her output extending beyond music into literature and documentary-making. Clash brings her up to scratch on the manner in which arts and culture is being sorely regarded in the UK at a time of crisis, fresh out of the now infamous Fatima advert. In the closing moments of our conversation, her kind face looks solemn.
“Music and art are essential. Just as essential as food. I don’t think you can point to an example of a functioning society that existed without expression. It’s a facet of existence that needs to be satisfied!” she says.
“It’s so short sighted to think that it’s not important it just speaks to greed, pure fucking greed.”
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'Stay Alive' is out now.
Words: Shannon McDonagh
Photo Credit: Alexa Viscius
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