Laura Jane Grace and Lauren Denitzio both fell in love with music in their teens, and both turned it into a career. By the time they met in the studio this past winter, their lives had taken very different paths.
Grace quit school at 16 to found Against Me!, the hyper-political Florida punk act who graduated from street busking to touring arenas around the world. In the wake of a very public coming-out as transgender in 2012, she's also blossomed into an advice-dispensing, Emmy-nominated media personality. Denitzio has operated on a smaller scale, playing in regional and DIY music communities while working, and earning two degrees, in visual art. And yet, when Grace agreed to produce Imaginary Life, the new LP out today by Denitzio's band Worriers, the two found they had lots to talk about.
On this week's +1 mini-podcast, Robin Hilton welcomes NPR Music's Daoud Tyler-Ameen — who has crossed paths with Denitzio in his life as a musician — to share a conversation he led between the two artists. Along the way they discuss sexism in the rock world, making a living in music and why doing creative work means constantly having to self-define. Listen here or subscribe to the All Songs Considered podcast to hear the discussion, and read an edited version below.
Daoud Tyler-Ameen: I want to get into some of the songs on Imaginary Life, but before we do that — Lauren, you and I have met a couple of times. We have a couple of friends in common. I hired you to design a postcard once.
Laura Jane Grace: [Laughing] How much does it pay to get hired to design a postcard?
Lauren Denitzio: It paid a bill!
Tyler-Ameen: But before any of that, I was familiar with an essay you published a couple of years ago called "You Know What Makes Me Feel Unsafe?", which made the rounds in punk communities online. What was going on in your life at the time that made you want to write that?
Denitzio: Actually, I was approached by the blog that published it — it was called I Live Sweat. They were interested in posting someone's experience with sexism within the punk scene. At a certain point it became clear to me that I wanted to write more about my frustrations with people who try to say that sexism or homophobia or racism doesn't exist in the punk scene — and how people need to acknowledge that, and be able to be called out on those things, if those elements are ever going to go away.
Tyler-Ameen: Can you give me an example of the kind of thing you were trying to draw attention to?
Denitzio: I think it's just the feeling that, "We're all on the same page. No one here is sexist. No one here wants to treat women or queer folks any differently." I wanted to draw attention to the fact that that's just not true — and even if you identify as feminist, or you like certain bands or have certain political beliefs, that doesn't mean that you can't screw up sometimes and say things that are disrespectful or making people feel uncomfortable. I wanted to point out those things that definitely do exist, that I think a lot of men, specifically, aren't always thinking about.
Grace: You know, sexism in the punk scene — or just in rock and roll in general — is so easily demonstrated by the amount of women or queer people that you see on stage versus the amount of cis males that you see on stage. And if you have a female drummer or guitar player or whatever, and they get onstage and they shred, the response you'll see them get is, "Oh wow, you can play pretty good for a girl." Or even the classic cliché of the dude handing off his leather jacket to his girlfriend so he can go kick ass in the mosh pit. And those are small compared to the larger things that happen; it's pretty all over the place, unfortunately.
Tyler-Ameen: The first song that I heard from this Worriers record, Imaginary Life, was the song "They / Them / Theirs." Laura Jane, what did you think when you heard this song?
Grace: I love that song. And I love the message behind it.
Denitzio: The song really came out of the fact that I prefer gender-neutral pronouns when meeting people. And even though people are much more open-minded about things lately, and so the conversation goes towards gender expression a lot more, I feel like there's often a pressure to define yourself in a very specific way — specifically as a queer person, going beyond that and naming exactly what your gender identity is and exactly where you are on the spectrum. And I don't really have one. Or, there's not an easy answer to that for me.
Tyler-Ameen: If I could say, I hear in this song the fatigue of having explained something over and over again.
Grace: That's definitely something I really identified with in the lyrics. Sometimes there is that exhaustion of not even being able to correct or react — of just, "Sure, I'm just going to let you keep saying what you're saying, because I'm beat, and I don't even have the energy to get into the conversation with you about it." In a perfect world, in my opinion, "they," "them," and "theirs" would be the pronouns that everyone would use. I think what makes it so hard for people is just that the binary has been so ingrained in people since day one.
Tyler-Ameen: Laura Jane, I saw a photo of you wearing what looked like a custom basketball jersey?
Grace: The "Gender Is Over" one?
Tyler-Ameen: Yeah! First of all, where'd you get that?
Grace: I got it from a friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, who is doing a project called Gender Is Over. And I think the idea behind it is finding out what that statement makes people feel.
Tyler-Ameen: So this is a jersey that says in big letters, "Gender Is Over," and then in really tiny letters — I had to zoom in on the photo — it says, "(If You Want It)."
Grace: Right, which is a play off of the John and Yoko "War Is Over" thing. And, you know, I've posted a couple of photos where I'm wearing that jersey on my Instagram or whatever, and people will make just the most defensive comments — like, "No it's not! Not for me! No way! I'm really happy being male!" That kind of defensiveness is really surprising and, I think, says something.
Tyler-Ameen: I know you didn't make the shirt, but does that "If You Want It" qualifier resonate with you at all? When people say, "It's really important to me to be male," what do you think?
Grace: I wonder why, you know? I wonder why there's that defensiveness, and I wonder why they would feel challenged. But again, I think that's kind of the point of the project. It's not a defined thing, it's about what the statement means to you, and the reaction it gets.
Tyler-Ameen: How much talking do you do on stage when you play live? How much do you say about the song you're about to play?
Grace: I don't know about you, Lauren, but I don't really like talking on stage!
Denitzio: I don't either! I feel like I should. I feel like I'm supposed to rant, and I have been a little bit more lately. But yeah, I kind of hate it.
Grace: It's not fair! It's like, I want to be a musician. I want to write songs, and I would like to play and sing them. I'm not a politician; I'm not a comedian. I hate coming up with bits to do between songs. And I used to have such an issue touring with bands, when we started doing bigger tours, where it was like, "Oh wait a second — this guy is saying the same thing every single night!" But the truth is that if you're explaining a song, then that's the explanation for the song. So you end up saying the same things.
Denitzio: I'm also just terrible at banter. I can't come up with it off the top of my head; I have to think about it beforehand. And it's also like, I wrote a song about it. I wanted to talk about it, so I wrote a song about it. So let me just play that song.
Grace: Yeah, It's hard! It's not fair to put that expectation on somebody that you have to write good songs, you have to play those songs well and you have to be really engaging in between songs. That's why we try to power through a set. Do it Ramones-style.
Tyler-Ameen: The reason why I'm curious is because both of you write from experience — but in so doing, you're sometimes writing about difference, about otherness. And I wonder if there's ever a side of it that's burdensome. I wonder if you ever feel like it'd be nice to just write about your life and not have it imply association with a movement, or not have people make that association. But I suppose you can't control what people think.
Grace: No, not at all. And there should be the ability for someone to take a song and adapt it to their own personal life and feelings and come up with their own interpretation of it, even if that's way far off from your original meaning. But oftentimes, too, songs can change their meaning for even you as a songwriter, the more you play them and the older they get and the more you grow. That's songs, you know? They're living things.
Tyler-Ameen: So, Lauren, I hate to do this because we just talked about explaining songs — but the Worriers song "Life During Peacetime" sounds to me almost like a '50s ballad, like "Tears On My Pillow." Did it start out that way?
Denitzio: It definitely started with that kind of strumming pattern, with that in mind.
Tyler-Ameen: It made me think of the Against Me! song "Baby, I'm An Anarchist!" Not because of the words, but just because ...
Grace: ... because I ripped off the chord pattern for "Baby, I'm An Anarchist!" from a '50s song, that's why! Because "Baby, I'm An Anarchist!" is just "Earth Angel." That's all.
Denitzio: They might both be the same chords. There's only so many.
Grace: The thing I like about "Life During Peacetime," though, is that it has that sugary, '50s thing — but then there's this weird, almost sinister thing behind it. It's unsettling — not in a bad way, but it just takes you out of that bubblegum thing, where you can tell it's not painting a perfect picture and that there's something really wrong.
Denitzio: And it is about that period of time, the '50s and '60s. The lyrics are in that sort of vein — that it wasn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Tyler-Ameen: Both of you have been the constant in bands that have otherwise gone through lots and lots of lineups. Is that a lonely thing at all? What do you get out of that?
Denitzio: I wouldn't call it lonely, because I think that it's been a way that bands can function today, when not everyone can drop everything and go on tour all the time. Not everyone can devote as much time; not everyone wants to. So, being able to find people who can creatively line up at different times is a benefit. And Mikey [Yannich], who plays drums in Worriers and also played drums in The Measure ...
Tyler-Ameen: Your previous band.
Denitzio: Uh-huh. We've been playing music together for over a decade. There are people like that that I always go back to and have really strong friendships with, that are irreplaceable. So, I don't see that being a negative thing at all.
Grace: Yeah, I agree. I think it's just more of a realistic idea of what it means to be in a band. I always say that the idea of, "These four people got into a room and picked up their instruments, and magic happened. That's the sound, that's the chemistry, if anyone goes away, it's broken" — you know, that's just not realistic. Musicians are kind of like pirates, you know? You have to be free to follow whatever your muse is, or wherever life is pulling you — especially if you aren't in, like, U2, and making millions and millions of dollars. There has to be that flexibility of being willing to play with other people. That makes you change and grow and brings different things to your band, and it helps you to survive.
Tyler-Ameen: Lauren, you wrote something on Twitter recently that I enjoyed, which was that when you get home from a tour, people often ask you if you're "ready to go back to the real world."
Denitzio: Oh, yeah.
Tyler-Ameen: Does that bug you?
Denitzio: Well, depending on who says it. People are like, "Are ready to go back to the real world?" It's like, "This is my real life!" This is just what I do.
Grace: I get that. It seems like the statement is saying, "Welcome back to the real world, because that other thing is never really going to work out for you. That's this little fantasy thing you're doing, and the reality is you're never going to make it as an artist." Which is just crappy.
Denitzio: I mean, I'm lucky in that I'm not going home to a desk job that I hate. I've tried really hard to organize my life in a way where I can play music, I can make art, I can work with artists and none of that feels like labor that I don't want to be doing. None of that feels like the thing that I need more than anything else. Maybe I'm privileged to be in that situation, but when I'm playing music, it's just as much my real life and my real responsibility and my real work as anything else is.
Grace: It's the real world of a working artist. Everyone's world is different, and everyone does what they've gotta do to get by.
Tyler-Ameen: Speaking of "imaginary life" — Laura Jane, you quit school.
Grace: I dropped out of school when I was 16, yeah.
Tyler-Ameen: Lauren, you've got a master's degree.
Denitzio: [Laughs] I mean, I have a master's degree in fine art. I'm not, like, a scientist or something.
Tyler-Ameen: Right. But you have a master's degree from an accredited, degree-granting institution.
Denitzio: I do, I do. I'm a nerd in that way, yeah.
Tyler-Ameen: Do you ever think about what might have happened had you, at 16, just decided that, "I'm getting in the van and never looking back. This is my entire life forever"?
Denitzio: Oh, I think about that all the time. I don't regret not doing that. Part of my trajectory of absolutely going to college right after high school was that I needed health insurance — so I wasn't going to get a degree to be something specific, I was just trying to get skills and focus on something that I really enjoyed. But while I was in college, we started The Measure. And I'm sure that didn't help my college education, going from Rhode Island to New Jersey for band practice all the time and playing shows and going on tour. But I look back on being in school, and trying to balance everything, fondly. And I'm happy with how things have turned out.
Tyler-Ameen: Laura Jane, you ever wonder about college?
Grace: I don't, no. I mean, I think to a certain extent it's pointless to wonder about that stuff, just because there are so many other factors to it. Maybe things would have been different had I just not lived in South Florida. Maybe I would have stayed in high school had it been a different high school. Maybe if I had other friends who were going on to college, I would have been interested in going to college — or if my family had more money, and I thought that it was realistic for me to be able to afford college. So many X-factors like that. I always knew what I wanted to do, and I always was kind of singular in that vision.
Denitzio: And I think that, from a creative point of view, your life informs the work that you make. The "what-ifs" of that can't matter.
Tyler-Ameen: I realize I've been saying "punk" all this time. What do you guys call your music? Or do you? Do you self-classify?
Grace: In the past I've been like, "I don't like to put a label on it," or whatever. But when it comes down to it, there are those situations when you're going through a tollbooth, or when you're all sitting down in a restaurant, and the waiter or waitress or tollbooth collector is like, "Oh, are y'all in a band? What kind of band?" And I will always say, "We're in a punk band." And then they'll say, "What kind of punk band?" And I'll say, "You know, like The Clash."
Denitzio: I wish I could say that! Sound-wise, anyway. Maybe someday I will.
Tyler-Ameen: Are there times when you have to do that? Like, business reasons? Or now just that so much listening is done online, and you have to put something in the genre field?
Grace: I wish you got tax breaks, huh? A different tax bracket for punk bands!
Denitzio: Yeah, the IRS doesn't identify punk separately, unfortunately. That's the kind of thing where, yes, I'd select "punk." But that means so many different things to different people.
Brent Baughman and Elena Saavedra Buckley provided production support for this story.