Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! play the Mystic in Petaluma
Laura Jane Grace isn’t sure how she and her bandmates made it to the roof of The Phoenix Theater after Against Me!’s set back in 2014. She doesn’t remember if someone let them up or if they found their own way to the top of the second-story building, but it’s a vivid flashback of a town she fondly describes as picturesque.
“It was a cool memory of hanging with friends,” Grace said over the phone from her home in Chicago. It’s been four years since Against Me! played in the North Bay to celebrate the release of “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” the first album for Grace (born Thomas James Gabel), as the band’s frontwoman.
A lot has changed for Grace since Against Me!’s inception more than 20 years ago, yet one thing has stayed the same throughout the years- Laura Jane Grace takes risks and inspires others to do the same, even if she doesn’t mean to.
Now they’re back for another show in Petaluma, this time at the Mystic Theatre, with an album titled “Shape Shift With Me,” published on the band’s own record label, Total Treble Music. Against Me! has built enough punk-rock credit to erupt mosh-pits yet still pen and croon lyrics profound enough to bring listeners to tears.
For Grace, writing has been not only a creative outlet, but a way to deal with challenges she faces even when they’ve been difficult to share.
“My band has a definitive ‘before and after’ line drawn in the history of it, ” Grace said. “For half the time I was in this band, I wasn’t open with people about the fact that I was trans.”
Her method of candor led to little snippets of frustration with gender dysphoria (defined as a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which they identify) that bled through lyric booklets and were shared long before she released a bold memoir titled “Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout,” in 2016.
Testaments to self-reflective writing are easy to spot now, looking back on earlier songs like “The Ocean” on 2007’s “New Wave,” where Grace shared the origin of her name.
“If I could have chosen I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura / I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.”
The singer recognized that the best lyrics can be terrifying to share at first, but for her, it’s been important to write for herself, not an audience.
“With some of the lyrics in that song, there is no metaphor. It’s blunt, straight up, this is how I feel,” she said.
“I don’t want to change anything about those songs or those moments because I feel like you’ll ruin the next moment and it won’t come to you if you betray that moment. You gotta stick with it but, you know, that’s art.”
Over the past few years, Grace has become a role model for many, with message boards and webpages full of praises but it’s not a part she necessarily feels comfortable in.
“I always try to voice that,” she said. “I’m just me and if me being honest about who I am and putting myself out there in that way makes connections with people and helps people out, that’s just repaying the favor of music because that’s what music does for me.”
She considers music a universal language, one that can break through language barriers, even when she’s touring different countries.“People don’t have to understand a language to understand the emotion and sentiment behind a song,” she said.
Though Against Me! has been signed to well-known indie labels like Fat Wreck Chords or major labels like Sire Records owned by Warner Music Group, Grace wasn’t afraid to create her own platform when no one would give it to her.
At 14, Grace started a zine titled Misanthrope and later formed Misanthrope Records, named after the very same handmade magazine - and it was so Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.), the cassette tapes held her mother’s address on the back.
But make no mistake, for Grace DIY is also about making art that is inclusive and that people want to be a part of.
“What I learned early on, is that it’s not really fun to do things alone,” she said referring to the early moments when Against Me! was a solo acoustic project (before becoming a four-piece punk band), and she began to recognize that people behind the scenes are just as important as the bands on stage.
Looking forward, Grace is excited about working on a new Against Me! record and said her goal is to make music that is true. “Striving to make music that empowers people as opposed to making them feel like they’re being beaten down every single day is so important,” she said.
It’s too early to tell what direction the album will take, but one thing is for sure, it won’t be the same as the last.
“I hate rehashing s---. You can see that so easily in movies,” she said.
“You have to take risks and you have to remember, going back to what we were talking about a little bit ago, about doing it for yourself, being true to yourself.”
As for the upcoming Against Me! show in Petaluma, Grace said, ”If people want to hear any songs in particular, they can always Tweet at me. I do pay attention.”