Laura Jane Grace isn’t superstitious about much, but the Against Me! frontwoman is a little superstitious when it comes to New Year’s Eve. She likes to play shows on that night, to spend the end of the one year exactly how she’d like to spend the next year — playing music. She booked a series of solo acoustic shows across the country for the final days of 2014, but none of those shows ended up falling on New Year’s Eve, so as Grace joked backstage at Slim’s in San Francisco, she planned to spend the night doing something extremely punk rock — hanging out with her five-year-old daughter and going to bed early.
The rest would be well-deserved: Grace is coming up on the one-year anniversary of Against Me!’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which TIME named as one of its top 10 albums of the year. The record explored her struggles with gender identity before she came out as a transgender woman in 2012, an event she also revisited this year with her AOL documentary series, True Trans. But with a new studio album, a live album and a book in the works, Grace isn’t planning on slowing down. TIME caught up with Grace in late December to talk about her monumental 2014 and what’s in store for 2015.
TIME: What are your plans for the new year?
Laura Jane Grace: I’m really big on the idea of perpetual motion. For this record, that was my idea — I’m going to build a studio in Florida so you can go on tour, come back, go into the studio, work a little more, go back on tour, go back into the studio. Then a tree fell through the roof of the studio and destroyed the studio, which set me back. We’re back in the place where we have that setup. The past few months we recorded all the shows for a live record, so right before I came out here I finished picking what songs are going to be on it. That’ll be coming out next year early. We’ve already started working on a new record.
You could always do what Robyn did with Body Talk — put out your new album in installments so you can tour, record and release new music all at the same time.
Woah, that’s a good idea. It seems like everyone is pushing for this idea of, “It shouldn’t be about an album.” It should be about putting out a solid song and doing a tour — the singles approach, almost, the way it used to be. But I’ve yet to see anyone do it effectively, except maybe Jack White. He seems like he really gets it right. He does the album, but he still has a steady stream of seven-inches coming out. I’d love to work like that. The period of time between when you’re done with a record and when you start touring is the worst period of a time in a musician’s life. You’re stuck in this limbo.
Has your audience changed in the past year?
It’s really hard to tell, and I stopped trying to examine that. That was a thing for me before, where I would be looking out at the audience and couldn’t tell who the people were — if they were the type of people who would have beat me up in high school, or if they were people I would have been friends with. I had a moment when we were in Texas, and these dudes were in the audience. They had Texas A&M hats, looked like the biggest f-cking jocks ever, like they could kick my ass. They jump up on stage and starts pounding their chests and lift up their shirts, and they f-cking had the scars from their top surgery! It was a really empowering and a eye-opening moment. Maybe you don’t know who a person is just based on the way they dress. I know that’s a really simple thing you’re supposed to be taught really young, but sometimes you can forget.
What’s the idea behind doing these solo acoustic shows instead of a proper Against Me! show?
I’ve been working on a book for the last few years, and most books these days are usually around 100,000 words. My book that I’ve been working on is a collection of tour journals. I’ve been keeping tour journals since I was 17 years old. I transcribed them all, and it’s a million words. I have a lot of cutting down to do, and after I got through transcribing them, I kind of got to a point where I was like, “I need to get the f-ck away from a computer, I don’t know how to narrow this down.” These songs really tell the story I’m trying to tell. The setlists I’ve been doing on these shows are all chronologically ordered. I do a lot more talking. Normal Against Me! Shows are really the Ramones-style, no break in between songs, put the focus on the music. I’m trying to flip that with these shows and figure out how I want to do the book.
Some of the songs on Transgender Dysphoria Blues were already known to fans because you road-tested them before the album, right?
Yeah, and a lot of bands are really precious with that and YouTube. They’re like, “Let’s not play a song before it’s out because we don’t anyone to hear them.” I’ve always taken the approach of playing it — if it’s good, it’ll be just as good in a year. We’ve had those records where we didn’t road test stuff, and you go out on the road and realize, “Oh sh-t, this song sucks.”
Do you fix songs now?
Totally. And that’s one of the things I’ve been doing with a couple of the songs since coming out. “Pretty Girls” is a good example. That song’s about dating when you’re dealing with gender dysphoria. When I wrote that, I was 25, and I was really not open with that or anything. The original lyrics I changed so nobody really knew what I was talking about. Now, I’ve been changing it back to the original lyrics that, for me, make the song make more sense and more fun to play. Before, it wasn’t what I wanted to convey, and it wasn’t connecting because it was f-cking compromised.
Will your next record continue to explore the same themes on Blues, or have you moved on?
It’s hard to say. It’s something that tripped me up in the past couple of months. Some people are like, “I want to hear more about that subject matter!” And some people are like, “It’s not going to be all trans this and trans that for every record from here on out?” Which, like, f-ck you, to begin with. I was aware of those two opposing expectations. Lately I just want to write things that are fun to dance to, so that’s what we’ve been doing. Fun and dance-y songs about hanging out with your friends and traveling the world and playing music.
Where there songs on this album that you didn’t want to be universal, songs where you really wanted to say, hey, just listen to my experience as a trans woman?
The song “F-CKMYLIFE666.” The feeling I wanted to convey with it was really hard to feel like I got right: what it’s like to transition when you’re married to someone who is the embodiment of femininity. “Silicone chest and collagen lips” — not to pat myself on the back, but that’s a really tricky couplet to fit into a lyric! I was aware of how many people would be able to relate to that feeling: knowing that you’re going to go through physical surgeries that will alter the way you look to other people relate to you. It became a question in the studio like, “Would this make someone uncomfortable?” If the answer was yes, then I knew it was pretty good and I needed to keep pushing a little further in that way.
The album kicked off what became a pretty major year for transgender visibility. Did that surprise you, or did you see that coming?
F-cing Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME magazine! That’s huge! There were awesome things that happened to me, but then there’s the mindf-ck of thinking about it in the context of, “I am who I am now.” It’s not just, “Holy sh-t, when I was 13 years old, I never would have imagined I would be on a stage with Joan Jett.” It was, “Holy, sh-t, when I was 13 years old, I never would have imagined I would be on a stage with Joan Jett and that I would have been out and openly trans!” That’s the real head trip.
At the beginning of the year, all this sh-t happened leading into before we started touring. Between the record being done and the record coming out, I didn’t know if the band was going to be able to stay together. I was getting to the point of, “I’m just thankful if we play this one show — everything is a bonus from here on out, because six months ago I had a suicidal nervous breakdown.” After that, you’re able to live in the moment. Who cares what happens tomorrow? Today is happening. I know those are clichés, but I realized a lot of the truth in those clichés.
Was that the suicidal nervous breakdown referenced in the lyrics?
I had a total f-cking nervous breakdown after the record was finished. I had some real health complications with my HRT — hormone replacement therapy. I was living in Florida and had one choice of a doctor for an endocrinologist and one choice for a psychotherapist. I was having some bad reaction to one of the medications I was on, and I couldn’t get any help from the doctor. I had an appointment in June when it happened. I was like, “I need to talk to someone.” They were like, “Well, the next time you can talk to someone is in August.”
Something was really wrong. I was waking up in the middle of the night and couldn’t unclench my hands from my chest. I’d be burning up sweating. I had to come off HRT cold turkey for about three months which f-cks you up. You’re on hormones, and when you take those away, your brain no longer works right. You’re not getting dopamine. It’s not f-cking connecting. You’re really depressed. I moved to Chicago and got a new doctor. Long story short, I ended up having a parasitic infection that was causing my progesterone to be converted into prednisone or something like that. I was on crazy antibiotics and really sick around October.
It all worked out in the end. But everything has gotten progressively better as the year has gone on. It was a really special year of doings things as a band that you used to do when you first started touring but lost sight of, like going out to dinner every night before the show and having a real family atmosphere. Having multiple nights along the way where the venue staff would make comments like, “Your crowd was really nice and well behaved, it was a great vibe.” Just really genuinely good feelings all year.
Just before the record came out, you told NPR, “I know [transitioning] is something that is going to potentially destroy everything in my life in a lot of ways.” Has it?
I think destroy gives the wrong impression for what actually happens. Coming out and deciding to transition had effects on my other relationships where they transitioned into other things too. They weren’t necessarily negative things, but they shook my foundation and sense of security in life. Going into transitioning, I was married, I had a kid, I had a house, two cars and a studio. Now, a tree fell through the roof of my studio, half of my band is new, all the people I tour with are new, I’m no longer with my partner — I’m still a parent — I don’t have a house, I live in an apartment in Chicago. I just bought a new car, but it’s used. Everything changed. That’s not to say things were destroyed or things were negative, but there were multiple moments in the past year and a half where I would have these realizations like, “I’m 19 years old again right now.” This is how I felt when I was 19. It’s terrifying and thrilling. The world is new and unknown.
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