In a maroon-and-gold recording studio crowded with punk legends, Laura Jane Grace prepares to roar. There’s Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox with her swooping, arctic bangs; Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, sharing a mic with Dustin Reid, executive director of the nonprofit label Red Hot; Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, looking very dapper; and, way down at the end of the row, Grace and her fiancée, comedian Paris Campbell. Producer Elia Einhorn counts down, and everyone leans in at once to belt the chorus of a 2004 song by trans icon Jayne County: “Surrender your gender!”
This one-night-only supergroup has gathered here in Brooklyn in early December to record a cover song that Grace is contributing to a top-secret Red Hot project. It’s a surreal scene, with most of the musicians meeting for the first time, yet merging almost instantly into a skeleton-rattling band. Ranaldo chats with Campbell about his surprising love of Taylor Swift’s music, while nearby, Grace scarfs down plain Lay’s potato chips for her voice, a trick she learned from Billy Corgan.
She and Campbell haven’t known each other very long, either — they met in person less than a month before this session — but they are clearly enamored with each other. While she’s in town, Grace is busy recording the Jayne County cover; preparing for the Feb. 16 release of her new solo album, Hole in My Head; and performing as a surprise guest at a Dinosaur Jr. show. But the Against Me! frontwoman says she really arranged the trip to New York around seeing the love of her life a few weeks before their wedding. Just days before the Brooklyn session, she texts me: “I’m literally living out my holiday rom-com fantasies.”
Grace began following Campbell on Instagram a few months back, drawn in by the brash redhead’s jokes about the foibles of Internet dating and her late-in-life autism diagnosis (“Of course the first autistic cartoon character is a fucking train“). Campbell wasn’t all that familiar with Grace or her band, but she quickly developed a crush on the singer. “It took me like a week of really building up my confidence to talk to her,” Campbell tells me, full lips smiling as she watches Grace in the vocal booth. She initially tested the waters by sharing thirst traps to her Stories and tracking how quickly Grace watched them. “But, then eventually, I just DMed her. I wanted to make it very clear that I was asking her out. So I was like, ‘Hey, can I take you to dinner if you’re ever in New York?’”
Grace, for her part, didn’t want to wait until March 2024, which was the next time she was scheduled to be on the East Coast, so in late November last year, she flew to New Orleans, where Campbell was performing at a comedy festival. By the end of that trip, the two had matching tattoos in each other’s handwriting, reading, quite fittingly: “Grand Gesture.”
“I get that it’s, like, total whirlwind shit,” Grace tells me a few days later at a deserted Bushwick coffee shop piping in relentless covers of early-Aughts pop. Campbell’s hand rests on the singer’s leg throughout the whole conversation. “I understand that from outside appearances, most people are probably like, ‘That’s impulsive decision-making.’ But I have gotten to this point where the idea of belaboring some decisions is really unattractive to me.”
The way they see it, the pair have a lot in common. Grace, 43, grew up on Army bases before forming Against Me! as a Florida teen, becoming a punk mainstay, then grappling with the backlash any successful musician gets when they become bigger than a scene. In 2012, she came out as trans in a Rolling Stone feature; and two years later, she won even more acclaim with the ferociously honest 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Campbell, 31, is the daughter of the soap actress Dolly Fox and the blues musician John Campbell, who died in 1993 when Paris was a baby. Dr. John officiated both her parents’ wedding and her dad’s memorial.
“We both have a lot of life experience,” Campbell says, leaning into Grace’s shoulder as the musician gazes down at her, an uncharacteristically toothy grin on her face. “We’ve both been married before, we both have kids, a similar kind of career path. It just made so much sense. There was no hesitation for me.” So it’s no surprise that when Grace got down on one knee against the sunrise backdrop of Chicago’s lakefront not long after that New Orleans trip, cheeks and nose rosy from the cold, Campbell said yes.
A YEAR EARLIER, in November 2022, Grace woke up on a mattress on the floor of her St. Louis studio, alone. It was her 42nd birthday, so she celebrated by driving over the river to Illinois, where she picked up some Jack Herer weed at a dispensary next to Pop’s, a venue she’d been playing since she was 24, its gaudy neon guitar sign dull in the daylight. She got stoned by herself as she drove back over the Mississippi, then hit up a local tattoo parlor, where she got a black line tattooed through the inked “Béatrice” on her chest — an old tribute to her ex-girlfriend, musician Béatrice Mireille Martin (who performs as Coeur de Pirate).
It wasn’t the most joyful of celebrations, she says, but at least it was better than her 41st birthday, when she was laid up on a couch with a broken foot she’d sustained after jumping on a broken branch.
The last few years haven’t been all that hot for Grace, to be honest. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, Against Me! had just signed with Linda Perry as their new manager; though they’d been growing apart for a while, there was talk of making their first new album since 2016. But then lockdown happened, and everything crumbled further. Bandmates were clashing, getting a PPP loan proved difficult, and, she says, management was pressuring the band to do Zoom livestreams, which Grace loathed. All that, combined with the viper pit that is social media, led to her blocking everyone (including her bandmates) and retreating into her loneliness. It didn’t help that she only got her tween child every other month — splitting time with the kid’s mother, Heather Gabel. Three-hour baths became the norm for Grace, as well as week-long acid trips and punishing daily runs. “We didn’t have a fight, but we all stopped talking,” she says of her bandmates. “It’s been this big fucking open wound where all the people in my life disappeared.”
Grace released a solo album in 2020 of songs that she’d started writing with the band, called Stay Alive, which basically summed up her mindstate. “It doesn’t matter what the songs are about, you know? Like, it doesn’t fucking matter,” she told me at the time. “It’s just about the act of staying alive. I know I’m alive if I’m playing songs.”
A prolific journaler whose writings birthed her 2016 autobiography, Tranny, Grace began compiling a new suite of solo songs that read like diary entries around 2021. She brought those songs to life with the help of Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton. The title of the new record, Hole in My Head, was inspired by a real-life incident, something her daughter said after Grace underwent facial feminization surgery in 2018.
“I have a scar across the back of my head because they literally cut your head open and then they peel your face off,” Grace says, describing the procedure in harrowing terms. “I was talking about it with my daughter and they were like, ‘So you want a hole in your head?’ And I was like, ‘I guess I do.’ That phrase stuck with me because it was fucking haunting. It kind of broke my heart.” The title song has a frenetic, pogoing beat as Grace reminds herself: “You could learn to feel less/That would be a real bore.”
She says the new album began germinating even earlier, back in 2019, around the time when Against Me! started fading into the background. At that point she’d written “Mercenary,” initially intended for her long-running band. Menacing and quiet, the song sneers at the music business that she’d grown so tired of. “I think maybe part of the reason why it didn’t work [for Against Me!] is because, honestly, it is kind of descriptive of a vibe I was getting at the time,” she says. “The people that were surrounding us — I felt like I was surrounded by fucking mercenaries, like people who are only in it for the money and that that’s where the loyalty is. And that can be a pretty shitty feeling as an artist.”
There’s a bone-weary feeling to the record that befits a punk in their forties stepping back to take a look at the life they’ve built thus far. On “Hard Feelings,” Grace reflects on her hardscrabble youth (“I fried my brain in certain ways, but, at this point, I just accept that that’s the way I’m now”). On “Give Up the Ghost,” she wrestles with herself over whether or not it’s time to pack it in. “It sounds like I’m talking about the band or music, but in some ways, it was actually kind of about smoking weed,” she says, noting that she’s quit several times. “I was trying to go for the ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane’ thing, imagining the ghost as smoke, but I get that it also kind of sounds like it’s in reference to Against Me! and my musical past… And maybe there’s some truth to that.”
Other songs are simply captured moments, moods frozen in amber. Grace wrote “Tacos and Toast” on that quiet 42nd birthday, a bouncy-sad folk song that outlines how she celebrated (or declined to). “Keeping Your Wheels Straight” follows in that same tradition, a song penned on a lonely Christmas that Grace spent in her studio after getting Covid at a gig. Studded with Buddy Holly handclaps and sing-song acoustic guitar, the song recounts how Grace boarded up the windows of her studio to better soundproof the space, hibernating until the bad times passed her by.
Grace’s journal continues to unfurl on the straight-ahead rocker “Birds Talk, Too,” which she wrote in 2022 after getting tattooed by long-time Japanese tattoo artist Gakkin in Amsterdam. Gakkin and another artist, Kenji Alucky, have tattooed Grace for years, starting at her toes, and on that summer day, the musician shaved her head and let Gakkin finish the job, inking a bird of prey into her scalp. “At the end of the session, he gave me this beautiful handpainted guitar, and it felt like a real moment of closure of him acknowledging, ‘OK, the tattoo journey is done. I finished tattooing you,’” Grace says. She went back to her hotel straightaway to pen the song, which is scattered with references to her favorite Amsterdam landmarks, like the weed cafe Rookie’s.
And then there’s “Dysphoria Hoodie,” a track that’s already a fan favorite, about the go-to accessory for a trans person feeling out of sorts. Grace has been playing this ode to her Adidas outerwear live for years now; the OG hoodie is long-retired, Grace says, ripped and stained after dozens of shows. As for gigs, “Punk Rock in Basements” — initially written as a duet with Joan Jett that fell through — glories in the post-Covid joy of getting back to sweaty crowds, while “I’m Not a Cop” is a straightforward declaration. “That’s something that I’ve come to realize about myself very much: I am not an authoritarian,” Grace says. “I just do not have that bone in me, and I’m OK with that. I’m not a cop. That is not me.”
“Cuffing Season” is probably the most vulnerable track on the record — a sad-sweet rumination on the possibility of future love. “The title was kind of an afterthought, right?” she says, laughing. “I’m really bad with naming songs, but it’s definitely written during that time of year. It’s a stream of consciousness, coming to terms with yourself and realizing what your wants are and where your head is at. It’s about wanting something that you’ve never had before and not wanting to settle for less.”
Grace wrote that song long before meeting Campbell — in its lyrics, she’s a sad yet hopeful woman promising to keep her heart tender despite how many times it’s been bruised. Even with an inked-out name already written across it, Grace’s heart has remained open, and on a humid Vegas day right before Christmas, she gave it away once more in front of a scattering of friends, family, and Elvis.
Dressed in a satiny floral suit, Grace joined hands with Campbell, who wore a gauzy black dress befitting a punk rocker’s bride. And after saying “I do,” they celebrated at NOFX founder Fat Mike’s punk rock museum. Warren Oakes, who was Against Me!’s drummer from 2001 to 2009, was the only former bandmate who was able to make the last-minute wedding after a long-overdue reconciliation. But Grace says that since getting married, she’s been able to mend fences with Against Me!, and she plans on hooking up with guitarist James Bowman to make music when she finally relocates to Brooklyn to live with Campbell. (Bowman lives in nearby New Jersey.)
“I like to joke that I’m the opposite of Yoko, bringing the band back together,” Campbell says back at that Brooklyn coffee shop.
When she caught up with Bowman, Grace says, “We both had some perspective. It was like, ‘Hey, this is stupid. You’re my best friend. I love you. Let’s play music together again.’”