Like most, Laura Jane Grace thought she had her plans for 2020 figured out. At the beginning of March she was on tour with her band Against Me!, and had spent months prior to that working on songs for their new album. The band had even spent a week in the studio starting to get to grips with those new songs. But then we all know what happened next.
Laura spent that first month sat on her couch wondering what the hell was going on with the world, but after a while, she realised she needed to do something to make herself feel alive. Not wanting to let those songs she'd worked on for the new Against Me! record die, Laura decided to do what she does best. She booked time in the studio and sang her fucking heart out.
"It got to the point where I was like, 'What am I doing?!," laughs Laura. "I realised that if I just adjusted my scope, I could figure out a way to make a record here in Chicago where I live. I already had the songs in the bag - I'd overwritten for the Against Me! record, so when it became clear that that had come to a complete standstill as none of us live in the same city, it was a case of working out which songs made sense as a record in this new context."
So Laura picked up the phone and called Electrical Audio, the recording studio owned by the legendary Steve Albini and conveniently located in Chicago, and booked a (socially distanced) session with Steve to record her solo record 'Stay Alive.'
"From mid-April I decided I was going to wake up every day and practice these songs, go running every day and just live a really low-key, simple daily existence. The focus was completely on practising the songs as I wanted it to be fully analogue, just live recordings with nothing overdubbed, so I knew I had to be as prepared as possible for going into the studio."
Famed for his no-bullshit approach, Steve Albini was the ideal person to bring Laura's vision to life. "Working with Steve was meaningful in so many ways. I'm a huge fan of so many records he's made, whether that's PJ Harvey or 'In Utero', but I also really appreciate him as a personality and his whole philosophy behind recording - I knew that was really in line specifically with what I was looking for.
"I was getting lost in the weeds with people giving me advice that I didn't necessarily want or need, and it seemed like such arbitrary advice that didn't actually matter. I 100% wanted to work with Steve because he is strictly a recording engineer: I wanted someone to set up microphones and press record and to make it sound really good and to give me no fucking opinions on what they thought of the songs. Any of that I felt was going to cloud my judgement and try and steer me away from what I wanted. And that's completely what Steve was about, and it could not have been more perfect in that way."
The stripped-back, no messing about approach to 'Stay Alive' amplifies the sincerity and urgency of Laura's song-writing, placing her powerful voice front and centre. Swapping the driving folk-punk riffs for nothing but an acoustic guitar creates an intimacy and poignancy that only hits harder given the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Even the record title, 'Stay Alive', takes on deeper meaning, but ironically, the phrase was already in Laura's mind before the pandemic hit.
"The last song on the record has the chorus refrain of 'Please stay alive', and that was the first song written before any of the others. That phrase worked its way into my subconscious in a number of ways, one of them relating to my old friend Chris Farren who played in a band called Fake Problems who Against Me! toured with. He put out a solo record called 'Can't Die', and on one of the tours we did the usual last day of tour merch trade-off, and I took a hat that said 'Can't Die'.
"It probably seemed odd because I'm not a baseball hat person, and I was worried he might think I was just taking it for the sake of it and wasting his merch, but that became my running hat. Every day, I'm waking up and putting on this hat that says 'Can't Die'. I'm hitting the streets, I'm getting out there, I'm fucking doing it! My internal response to it became this phrase 'Can't Die, Stay Alive', and once all this happened, it made even more sense."
On the one hand, this record is certainly a personal means for Laura to channel her creativity and produce a piece of work during a difficult time. "At least I'll be able to look back and ask myself, 'What did I do during the pandemic?' Did I just sit around and think about how much it sucks that I can't tour, did I do a bunch of livestreaming that didn't last and was gone the second it was over? If someone is going to say that this is my COVID-19 album, at least that means I have a COVID-19 album as opposed to not having one."
However, despite satisfying her own need to work, there was also a much more selfless reason to put out a record during a pandemic. In working, Laura is fighting back against the creative industry collapsing, helping to put life back into a scene that is being decimated by closures and cancellations.
"We can sit here, and I can explain the songs specifically to you, and I can talk about the lyrics behind them, but really when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what the songs are about. I don't want this to be like, 'Hey my feelings need attention right now, I need everyone to understand how I feel'. I'm just like you, and I'm sitting here reading about venues and record stores closing and worrying about whether these places will be there when this is over.
"I can't work with my band right now, but I can adapt and figure out a way to work considering the circumstances, and hopefully by putting a record out I can help keep a record label operating and everyone else involved in putting out a record in work. I want to keep the culture and community going and keep it relevant, let's create new pieces of art that are lasting and figure out a way to do so within the means we have. I don't think it's realistic that everything will return to normal once this is over, but there will be something to return to, and it will be something more meaningful, stronger and resilient."
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Laura Jane Grace's album 'Stay Alive' is out now.
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