Laura Jane Grace: My life in 10 songs
Of all the legendary names nestled within the pages of Born To Run, the autobiography of one Bruce Springsteen, it is Against Me! upon whom the The Boss lavishes the greatest praise. For anyone who hasn’t heard any of the group’s seven studio albums, or the solo work of its founding member Laura Jane Grace, this is surely as strong a recommendation as any.
This week, Laura released her latest work. Unveiled without prior notice on Wednesday, the seven-track At War With The Silverfish EP sees the songwriter in reflective and intimate form. Elsewhere, in a career that is about to hit its 20th anniversary, we have slamming punk rock, arena-sized choruses, life-affirming passion, personal revelations, thoughtful lyrics and much more besides.
To celebrate the unveiling of Laura’s return to the scene, Kerrang! caught up with the singer from her home in Chicago to reflect on 10 songs from a varied and storied career. Outside in the Windy City, winter beckons. Inside, as ever, the home fires are still burning…
1. Walking Is Still Honest (Reinventing Axl Rose, 2002)
Scratchy but promising mainstay from Against Me!’s debut album.
“The thing with Walking Is Still Honest is that I’ve probably played this song more than any other. I was 17 when I wrote it, and, yeah, if I had a dime for every time I’d played it I’d have enough money to buy a nice used Honda. The song was written immediately after I’d left home, so it was that period of time when you’re so anxious to start your life, and you’re young and really headstrong, and you think you know everything, but the reality of living on your own hits you. You have these moments of going, ‘Oh, so this is what my mom was saying when she told me that this is what life is like.’”
2. Sink Florida, Sink (Against Me! As The Eternal Cowboy, 2003)
Give it a few years and it probably will sink. The second single from Against Me!’s second album.
“I think this song is a lesson in simplicity in that you don’t have to complicate things. As a song, it’s one chord progression repeated over and over, and it is just two verses and two choruses. And the choruses don’t even have any lyrics – they’re just ‘Whoa whoa whoa’. That taught me that people want to sing along, and that if you put ‘Whoa whoa whoa’ in your songs they don’t even have to learn lyrics. Also, there’s a handclap part that people respond to as well. For me that song was a real learning lesson. ‘Oh, these things really work in a live concert.’”
3. Pretty Girls (The Mover) (Searching For A Former Clarity, 2005)
A live staple that has changed shape over the years.
“The title is about the pretty girls I wanted to be friends with. This song was a lesson in knowing that a song doesn’t have to be finished. When I originally wrote this song I kind of changed around some of the words because I felt self-conscious about them, I didn’t want people to know what it was about, and so it felt like it didn’t really connect at first because it wasn’t really true to itself. I had no idea that 10 years later I would have a chance to revisit that song and change the lyrics back to how I originally intended them to be, and to have the song connect years later with an audience. It was a lesson to me in taking down your own borders and restrictions.”
4. The Ocean (New Wave, 2007)
A glorious sign-off from the New Wave album.
“This song to me is a lesson in what actually constitutes a hit. Ocean was on our first major label record, and it was the last song on the record, which oftentimes is the caveat place in a sequence. When a record label is involved, often they want to stack a record with hit songs, or better songs, at the top. They front-load it so that the potential singles are at the front. And if you’re an artist who is battling it out with your A&R person, that last spot on the record is where they go, ‘Fine, we’ll give you that one.’ But Ocean is a song with no conventional choruses; it’s just two verses and an outro bridge type thing. Live it almost lends itself to being a jam song. To me, that song is a lesson in sticking to your guns. Trust your instinct, which as an artist is what you should do.”
5. Harsh Realms (Heart Burns EP, 2008)
A gem from Laura’s debut solo EP.
“This is from a random EP I did in-between New Wave and White Crosses, and this was kind of the song that had a life of its own. It was a random song that was written in a day on the Warped Tour, in Atlanta, and it was a miserable day. It was hot, the show wasn’t that good – I think we played really early – and there was nowhere to go except for the bus, or out into the festival world which can be kind of grating when you’ve been on that tour for two months. So it was written without much thought going into it and it really resonated with people and took on a life of its own. Again, trust your gut. Trust your intuition.”
6. I Was A Teenage Anarchist (White Crosses, 2010)
The calling card from Against Me!’s difficult second, and final, major label LP.
“This is the single off our second major label record [White Crosses] and I guess we were under a lot of pressure. The writing was on the wall. We had a deal where the label had to do two records with us, no matter what, but you knew that if that first record [New Wave] didn’t take off and wasn’t a platinum record hit, you knew that your second album wasn’t going to have money behind it unless it immediately connected in an unrealistic way. So you’re trying your hardest at something that you know is destined to fail on someone else’s terms. Of course as an artist the success is that you wrote the song, you completed the record. But held up to the major label standards it’s suddenly, ‘You have to sell a million records or your career is over.’ But despite it being an impossible task, I worked harder on this song than I have on any other. I was the parent to it, but by the end of it I felt, ‘That’s not mine.’ It was such a strange feeling.”
7. True Trans Soul Rebel (Transgender Dysphoria Blues, 2014)
The return of Against Me! proves that you can’t keep a good band down.
“This is a song off the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which, after going through the experiences on the White Crosses album, had me wondering about who I was and what was the future of the band. So I needed a joyful and positive experience. And that’s not to say that working on this album wasn’t a hard time, not that it didn’t take a lot of hard work and effort, but playing those songs, particularly True Trans Soul Rebel, especially when it became clear that people had connected with the record, was so joyful. It’s always so joyful to play the song. It’s always a feeling of arrival. It’s a feeling of accomplishment rather than a feeling of defeat. And I’m thankful for it.”
8. 333 (Shape Shift With Me, 2016)
Proof positive that travel does indeed broaden the mind.
“I will always associate this song with one of the best days of my life and one of the best tours of my life. It was a tour of Europe in 2015 and the day in particular that inspired the song was in Bilbao, Spain. I woke up early and, with a lot of time to kill, we went to the Guggenheim museum, which was incredible and life-changing. It was just an incredible day, one where I was thankful for what I have, and for the friends I have, and the crew, and being in a magical place in Spain. Even the show was incredible. There was just something about the vibe at the venue.”
9. Supernatural Possession (Stay Alive, 2020)
In which Laura Jane Grace trusts her stuff without overthinking things.
“So this one is off the album Stay Alive which I recorded here in Chicago with [producer] Steve Albini. I used some of the experiences making this record almost like Buddhist teachings. You start off seeing the forest, and then you raise your level a little bit and see through the forest, but when you get to the ultimate level somehow you’re seeing the trees again. It goes full circle. Some of the album was tracks I’d worked on at home, and Supernatural Possession was one of those. I did all the recording myself. Bringing it in to Steve, I expected him to say, ’That’s crap, let’s erase it and start afresh.’ But firing it up, he listened to it and went, ‘Great, cool, moving on.’ Most people would have seen the flaws in it, but him seeing it for what it is was a beautiful moment.”
10. Lolo 13 (At War With The Silverfish EP, 2021)
The first cut taken from Laura’s surprise new solo EP.
“I wrote this song in a dream! An exact description of the dream, I woke up and wrote it down. I’m a big believer in honouring the dream space; if something comes to you in a dream you shouldn’t try to change it afterwards. If something about it feels weird to you, you should just go with it and accept it. The title Lolo 13 is meant to be this familiar title that’s not actually familiar… kind of like Lola by The Kinks, but not that. And that fits in with the dream theme, too. Things are familiar, but not actually familiar at all.”
Laura’s new EP At War With The Silverfish is out now.
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