Matty Grace Is the New Face of Old-School Punk

"I'm not making music for bros. It's great if you appreciate it, and you're like, 'That riff is sick!' That's fine, but I'm trying to say something. There's more to it than that."

Photo: Ruben Francis

BY Matt BobkinPublished Nov 2, 2022

Since the term was invented, people have fought over the definition of "punk." Is it a subculture? A scene? A look? A class? A sound?

No matter which side you're on, you can probably agree on one thing: Matty Grace is truly punk.

Most of the Halifax scenester's songs run less than three minutes, and are bound to contain impassioned vocals, catchy riffs, and lyrics that rail against gentrification, alienation, transphobia and capitalism. Off-stage, her life is a push and pull between trying to be in as many projects as possible (because her bandmates can't keep up with her inexhaustible output) and paying the bills.

This, of course, can be hard. Winter Trash, her latest release, has been basically done since last spring, but didn't drop until October 12 because she couldn't afford to get it mastered. She tells Exclaim!, "I have been living at a very poverty level for the last four months, so I haven't been able to allocate $200. I know it's not a lot of money. It sounds really pathetic, but it was like, 'I can buy groceries or I can pay for this,' and, as much as I want to not pay for groceries, I probably should." She describes her new day job at an audio-visual company as "a product of necessity of being a cog in a capitalist machine" and "me trying to keep this garbage body afloat at the same time as also wanting to make and pursue and put out the thing."

At a time when a lot of today's "punk" artists are defined more by attitude than sound, Grace embodies a fairly no-frills take on the genre, drawing almost exclusively from bands like Against Me!, Wipers, the Lawrence Arms and RVIVR. The sounds may be familiar, but the novelty is in her lyrics and work ethic. She's so prolific that, by the time I started digging into our two-hour interview from May, she had an entirely new slate of EPs ready for release, so we spoke for another hour in late September and I wrote this as quickly as I could before she could pull anything else together.

"I've been using the phrase 'can't stop, won't stop' a lot," she told me in May. "I can be an impatient person and be like, 'Here's all the new songs, put the drums on them, we need to demo these and get this ready and get this out and blah, blah, blah.'"

Grace is 36 years old now, so she's been nothing but patient as she's steadily explored and refined her songwriting process and self-concept to get to this point. Even still, she's continuing to push the limits of her comfort zone — like her recent move to Ottawa and upcoming plans to record a debut full-length for Cluttered, the pop-punk project that's arguably most responsible for her recent rise in profile, having earned the attention of one of her longtime favourite artists, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! (No relation.)

Matty is, as ever, humble and self-effacing about this moment — but she's working on it. "I feel like I've slowed down in the last couple of months," she says. "Something in me feels like I'm not being as productive or I'm not producing as much. And then, I was taking stock of things before we talked, and I was like, 'I've done a bunch of stuff in the last four months,'" such as the Demo for hardcore duo G.R.O.S.S., the debut EP from garage punk band Crisis Party, Cluttered's Transgender Dystopia Blues EP, and that aforementioned Winter Trash post-punk EP, while also playing bass in bands like Century Egg and Worst Part.

"So I think I'm just my own worst critic, and I'm being hard on myself." 

Matty Grace was born on October 6, 1986 in Miramichi, NB. Like any good punk, she does not have the kindest words to say about her hometown, telling me, "It's not the most accepting place in the world. If you're not into, like, pickup trucks and being a racist, you're kind of a black sheep." 

From childhood, she found solace in punk music, starting with Green Day. "A neighbourhood kid had a copy of Dookie on cassette and I heard it at eight years old and it completely changed my life," she remembers. "It was one of those things where I was just like, 'I want more of this, I need more of this.'"

In the early days of widespread internet access, Grace became a voracious consumer of everything punk, spending time on the Pop Punk Message Bored, discovering artists like the Offspring, Blink-182, Nirvana and Jawbreaker, and labels like Lookout! and Fat Wreck. She developed a taste that can still be heard in her latest works, a love of poppy hooks and vulnerable lyrics, citing Dookie's "Coming Clean" as an early inspiration. ("That song is super queer. It's a very gay song," says Grace.)

She picked up the guitar as a teenager, and later moved to Halifax with her sights set on the city's punk scene, where she eventually became a self-proclaimed "polyamorous band slut," playing with anyone and everyone, recalling, "The joke at the time was, 'What do you get when you start a punk band in Halifax? Matty Grace.'"

Now, she says, "I've culled that down, but I've always been spinning a lot of plates all at the same time, or running different projects, or trying to get things off the ground." She credits her role as the bassist of Fat Stupids, the house band at long-running weekly "full-band open mic" Rockin' 4 Dollar$, as where her songwriting started to take off, and for connecting her with a cross-country network of garage punk bands.

In the early 2010s, a series of events prompted Grace to think more definitively about her own queerness, including the the 2011 formation of Halifax queercore band Eekum Seekum: "In Halifax, there wasn't a ton of queer representation," she reflects. "I would make a point of going to see that band all the time because I knew there was something up [with me], I just didn't have the words for it." Another key event was when Laura Jane Grace came out as a trans woman in Rolling Stone in 2012 — a watershed moment for basically any queer punk fan.

"I got in trouble at the job I was working at because I was refreshing the comment feed on the Rolling Stone article repeatedly all day," recalls Matty now. "I was a huge Against Me! fan. I have seen them play numerous times; I love those records. It resonated really strongly with me. And when she came out, I used my friends' reactions to that to know who was a safe person to come out to. I was plotting that for a while."

Five years later, Grace herself came out as a trans woman. "I was finally coming to terms with the thing I had known since I was a little kid, which was like, 'Yes, I'm trans.' I just didn't have the language for it, I didn't think it was ever going to be something that was accessible to me or something that I could approach. I was just like, 'Okay, I need to do something about this. I need to take care of it.'" She remembers, "My experience with coming out as a public person in Halifax — because I was in so many bands and people knew me — was really hard, because I would get deadnamed a lot and there'd be a lot of misgendering. For the first six months after I came out publicly, I would just have daily panic attacks."

She continues, "I would cry at a bus stop on the way home [from work], or get home and then be like, 'I can't leave the house.' 'Well, you have band practice.' And I was like, 'I don't know if I can go to band practice. I don't know if I can do the things that were giving me life.' And so then, you develop a closer community, and you get tighter with folks and you find the safe people and the people that you can really feel okay around. And then that's your community."

That community helped Grace regain comfort in the music scene, where she started to play solo shows and write more honestly. Fat Stupids had amicably broken up, and Future Girls became Grace's new primary songwriting home. "Future Girls was kind of my first project where I was going to be really emotionally vulnerable. I was going to be saying the things that were on my brain. I did that a little bit in Fat Stupids, but for every song that was like 'This is a thinly veiled metaphor about my parents' divorce,' or, 'This is a song about blowing up your life and dealing with gender identity,' it was all very veiled and wrapped in metaphor and fun. No one was paying attention to the lyrics. I made a point with Future Girls where it was like, 'I'm gonna like work really hard on these lyrics and I'm gonna try my best to get my point across.'"

Grace became known as a power player in Atlantic Canada but it didn't translate much into outside recognition, as the region's proximity kept its scene fairly isolated from the rest of the country. She says, "I love Halifax. Being there helped me cultivate the musician that I am, but the East Coast is so isolated that it's really hard. The bands that are there are sick, and I can list numerous bands that are awesome, but to go to other spots in Atlantic Canada is a minimum three-hour drive, and then to do like Montreal, it's like a 13-hour drive," to say nothing of the rest of the country.

But that all started to change when she formed Cluttered, a pop-punk supergroup, in late 2020. It was never meant to be that way; it was originally just a way for Grace and her friends to participate in DEMO FEST, a Montreal-based initiative that encouraged musicians to form new bands and release their debut EPs together, timed as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to claim its first Christmas.

"Cluttered was never originally going to be a real band. It was just meant to be this one-off demo thing. And the first EP came out," says Grace, "and then it just blew up from there. [Drummer] Dylan [Mombourquette] tweeted at Laura Jane Grace, and Laura Jane Grace shared it, and then that blew up, and she played us on her DJ show a couple times."

The attention and subsequent pressure created a diamond in the form of a permanent lineup for Cluttered, which also includes Becca Dalley and AJ Boutilier of both Designosaur and Book Buddies. In less than two years, they've released follow-up EP Accidents, a tribute EP to Cali punks Enemy You titled Enemy Us, and the new Transgender Dystopia Blues EP, which includes some re-recorded Matty Grace solo material and a Propagandhi cover, released on Grace's birthday earlier this fall — and that's just the beginning.

"Every band and every experience and everything that I've gone through has just pulled it all to a point where it's a little more concise now. It's more of a complete package. We know what we're doing a little bit more," says Grace. "All of us — AJ and Becca and Dylan and myself — have all been in bands for a long time, and continue to all have multiple projects. And it's very incestuous. The East Coast is super bad for that." 

Which is part of the reason why, earlier this year, Grace moved away from the East Coast for the first time in her life, to Ottawa, where she has played many times over the years. "Toronto seems a little bit like too much of a jump and Montreal seems a little too chaotic," she explains. "Ottawa's got a cool scene that's kind of like under the surface of this government town, and [I thought] it would be cool to be around that a little bit more." The closer proximity to bigger cities for touring certainly helps, she notes.

The change in environment has also found her teaming up with new collaborators. Of course, she's already started a new band, Crisis Party — "I was like, 'I'm going to be in Ottawa, I need to have an Ottawa band,' which is where Crisis Party came out of" —  and she's also putting the gears in motion for a new Ottawa-based hardcore project.

But no amount of new projects and side quests can distract her from her main goal: make a full-length Cluttered album. It's been written, she says, and the band are planning to record it in Halifax in December — their first release to be recorded in-person. "Knowing the way that we work, either we'll record the whole record in like three days or it'll take a month," says Grace. "I could absolutely see us being in the same space and having learned the songs, and then just being like, 'Okay, let's just record and burn through it, do the thing,' and I kind of prefer that. It's nice to have that luxury [of] taking time to do things, but at the same time, we've been talking about this full-length that we have written for a while, and we just have to get it out. You just have to finish it and do the thing and then move on to the next thing."

As you could've guessed, there are a lot of next things in the works. Grace has already written a second Cluttered full-length, plus a new solo EP, a Crisis Party LP and a new G.R.O.S.S. release, she tells me. By the time this piece is published, there may very well be more items in the list, or tweaks to the existing ones. But each of them are sure to glimmer with the shining sense of authentic expression that pervades everything she writes. 

"I'm not making music for bros," she says. "It's great if you appreciate it, and you're like, 'That riff is sick!' That's fine, but I'm trying to say something. There's more to it than that."

Much like her many punk forebears, Grace is driven by a sense of furious duty — she simply has to bring these releases to life. All the punks she's inspiring depend on it.

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