More than 40 years into her career, Joan Jett still doesn’t give a damn.
That much is clear in Bad Reputation, a documentary (out Sept. 28) chronicling her life in The Runaways and The Blackhearts. Her spirit is alive and well in pal and sometime collaborator Laura Jane Grace, the Against Me! singer who appears in the doc and on Nov. 9 will release Bought to Rot, her first album with new group Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers. The two discuss their creative processes, knocking down the walls of rock’s boys club and keeping egos at bay.
You met on the 2006 Vans Warped Tour and later became collaborators. How did you know you were kindred spirits?
Jett: What really stood out was the songs. I knew by the end of the tour that I wanted to try to write with Laura. It’s a recognition that’s hard to even put into words -- you recognize the energy.
Grace: Hearing you say that, it really dawns on me: When we met, I wasn’t out as trans, but that feeling expressed in [your] documentary of being an outsider among outcasts is the feeling I grew up with. I turned to punk because I didn’t fit in anywhere else. And even if I didn’t realize it when we met, it really resonates.
Jett: Outsider among outsiders -- you know there’s a song there, Laura! We got to write that.
Joan, what was it like going through old footage and looking back at your life?
Jett: I wasn’t that involved because I wanted it to be a documentary, not me picking and choosing what people were seeing. There’s a variety of things I would have done differently [in my life], but sometimes you got to learn firsthand.
Grace: Watching the documentary, it struck me that the Los Angeles scene [in the early 1970s] seemed more wild and free than when I got into punk rock in the early ’90s.
Jett: I remember thinking rock ’n’ roll halls wouldn’t have any issues with girls playing guitar because rock ’n’ roll people would be more open, which I quickly found was a fabrication of my own mind. It turns out they’re just being subtle about who can and can’t come into the club.
Grace: You also talk about how you used to be really shy in the Runaways, and then all of a sudden you’re the frontwoman [after Cherie Currie left the group in 1977]. Was there a moment when you were like, “Okay, I gotta step up now?”
Jett: I'm not sure if there was one moment. We were either going to completely break up as a band, or I had to step up. But there were a lot of things I knew. I knew I wasn't Cherie. I knew I wasn't a blonde bombshell. I knew I wasn't the one people wanted to look at. And that’s a weird feeling. [Jett chokes up] I’m getting emotional, I don’t know why. What else could I do? Either end it or plow ahead and not worry.
Grace: That’s meant so much to people. I deal with that feeling of detachment from myself — I don’t like to think about the way I look on stage. When I’m up there, I’m there to rock.
Jett: You don’t like the way you look?
Grace: No! I have gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia. I don’t like to see pictures of myself. My least favorite thing about being in a band is photo shoots and video shoots. I like writing songs.
Jett: I know what you mean. I take a look at myself once to get ready, but keep the mirror away from me! I mean, our issues are obviously different. At the root, I’m not sure what it’s about. Self-love, acceptance — all of it. But we do what we love for the people.
Joan, the documentary covers a lot of the harassment and misogyny you experienced early on. What’s it like seeing the national conversation around harassment unfolding today?
Jett: The timing was just organic. We’ve been filming this for, I don’t know, seven years? Had the terminology and the lexicon [of the #MeToo movement] happened while we were filming, it would have been in there. It was before all this stuff broke at the end of last year. We had finished the movie and started editing. But it speaks to what’s happening now and what’s been happening. The light is starting to shine on all this harassment, but it’s certainly not done.
Grace: The bottom line is that fucked-up abusive behavior has been wrong all along, and that's something that's pointed out in the documentary. Just because other people are now catching on doesn't mean it wasn't wrong all along.
When do you know it’s time to write new music?
Jett: We’re writing now, but when we’ll get into the studio, I can’t be sure. I think early next year we’ll be in the studio. I’m not really sure whether the songs will be a full album or an EP situation. I just wrote something right before we started this phone call. It’s always happening, and at the most inconvenient times, like when you’re about to fall asleep. You say, “Am I going to get up and write shit down, or can I remember it?” You never can.
Grace: I sleep with a notebook next to me, and most nights I sleep with my guitar next to me. [The documentary made me] realize there are going to be so many twists and turns [in your career], there has to be a work ethic that’s really self-motivated. It can't be about praise or criticism, you have to get your own thing out of it. And for me, it's the joy of songwriting. I don’t have songs like Joan has, but I want to get there someday.
Your fans consider you icons. Does that ever get heavy?
Grace: I don’t carry it. I believe you’re only as good as the last song you wrote or the last show you played.
Jett: People come up and tell me stories [about] how important that concert or that record was for them, and it’s important to honor that. I don’t know what’s going on in their life or what I represent to them, but it’s something really important. Your music has so much more power than you realize when you’re writing the song. But you don’t walk around going, “I’m an icon!”
Grace: You don’t go around like, “Hey, I’m Joan Jett!” You’re just carrying yourself in the world, and people respect that.
Jett: I will shoot the shit with people [backstage]: “How are you doing? What’s your name? Do you want a picture?” People have said to me, “Joan, you’re the first artist in 25 years doing this.” [Crews have] been trained to look down because so many artists say, “Don’t look me in the eye.” It infuriates me, so I make a point of eye contact. I’ll get on the floor so they’re looking down at me!
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.