Julia Shapiro has given over most of her adult life to Chastity Belt. The band, she sings and plays guitar in, started eight years ago when she was just 20. In those years Chastity Belt have forever been on the album-touring treadmill. Halfway through the tour for their third album ‘I Used To Spend So Much Alone’ Shapiro crashed, boarding a plane home and bringing the tour to a premature end.
Having just broken up with her long-time partner, Shapiro returned to an empty one-bed flat in Seattle. Rather than letting the loneliness consume her, Shapiro opted to pick up her guitar and figure through all that’s happened, ironically spending plenty of time alone. What began as a set of demos soon turned into her intricate, profound solo album: Perfect Version.
Under a deep layer of murk, Shapiro wrangles with her perpetual strive for perfection, finally accepting it as a mountain she’s never going to be able to ascend. Largely self-produced, Perfect Version contains a distinctive sound world of layered vocals and shimmering guitars, it’s unique style perhaps a nod to Shapiro’s urge for perfection. Over the course of ten tracks, Shapiro tries on different ways of living, “How can someone be so blindly confident/I wanna know that trick,” she wonders on “Natural.” With ‘Perfect Version’ though Shapiro has found her best self. She might sing ‘There’s been a lot of lows and a couple highs’ on ‘A Couple Highs,’ yet for us ‘Perfect Version’ is an all-time best.
Speaking to us on the phone from her flat in Seattle, Shapiro talks us through ‘Perfect Version’ and much more.
So, what was it like working without a band?
It was different, I guess. It was cool to not have to– making decisions was easier. But it was also more pressure, in that way, because it was all on me to get things done. The songs were all written by me and only me, so…
Was the band supportive of your solo project?
They have been, yeah, like Lydia and Gretchen are also kind of doing some solo stuff, and Annie has been out touring with other bands, so we all kind of took some time to do our own thing. I think it’s healthy. I think it’s good to have other creative outlets so you’re not putting all this pressure on one thing. Yeah. And there’s so many different kinds of songs you can write too, that can’t fully be captured in one band.
How did you know which songs to put on your solo album, and which songs to reserve for Chastity Belt?
Some of the songs on the solo album I had played for Chastity Belt and they hadn’t gone anywhere, and then I mean, some of them I didn’t even picture having drums on them, and so that’s really part of why some of them are on the solo album. The other ones, I was just like ‘I just want to do this song now.’ I think some of them could have been Chastity Belt songs, or turned into them, but I was just really excited them and wanted to record them right away rather than just waiting. Things started to move a bit more slowly once our bassist moved to LA. We weren’t practicing as much so it was kind of nice to just be like I just wrote this song, I’m going to record it right away, and get it out there. Yeah it felt a little more gratifying than having to wait.
What artists releasing music today inspired your album?
I wouldn’t say any in particular, it’s probably influenced by a lot of different musicians.
Is there anyone you’re listening to right now?
Yeah, lots of people, like Girlpool and the new Big Thief album.
I love U.F.O.F. It’s so good.
Yeah, real good.
What are you doing when you’re not writing music?
Hanging out with my friends, listening to music, I bartend (for music, not for fun). What else? I like to walk, to go on hikes. Go swimming, watch movies and watch TV. Normal stuff I guess. (laugh) I also paint.
I’m not like, good at it.
This album clearly shows the health and personal struggles you were dealing with at the time of recording. Can you walk me through some of those difficult feelings?
I felt defined by Chastity Belt my whole adult life. I’m 28 now, I guess we started doing the band when I was 20. I was going through a bit of an identity crisis when I was like I don’t know how much more I can do this for. I felt really burnt out, and I wasn’t in a great place to be touring. And I think everyone was feeling kind of exhausted, and the band was kind of taking over their life. Like the way you have to plan things, like a couple months ago, we had to have planned this tour for November. So it’s really like your whole life is like planned for the next year, which I guess is normal, but it does feel a little bit like there’s no escape.
And I had known that I had to get this surgery for a while, and I was kind of freaking out about it, and I just wanted to get it over with. But I had also started working on this album before all that happened. Around that time, I had broken up with my boyfriend of the time, and we lived in this one bedroom that I still have and I had this place all to myself and so I started recording in there. I liked how the recordings were coming out and they were supposed to be demos but I got pretty attached to them and so I just ended up using like six of the songs on there were just songs I recorded in my apartment, and three of the songs I went into a studio and recorded drums because I couldn’t do that in my apartment.
So speaking to the instrumentals, why did you decide to record all of the instrumentals yourself?
It was kind of a fun learning experience. I’d never really messed around that much with recording and mixing, so it was kind of my chance to have a reason to do that. And originally I was just going to record demos and go into an actual studio and record it there, but I got attached to the demos.
It sounds great.
I was like ‘these sound fine!’
[laughs] Can you speak to the title of the album? What’s the significance of a “Perfect Version” to you?
A whole theme of the album is striving for perfection that’s not possible, and just learning that you’re never going to feel perfect, but maybe that you can accept that you’re always going to be striving for perfection and you’re never going to get it. And that’s okay.
That makes a lot of sense. Perfect Version seems to be a far cry from some of Chastity Belt’s music, at least instrumentally. Did you have a goal in mind when you were making the music?
I didn’t really have a goal in mind, I just had more freedom since I was recording it myself, to just experiment and make mistakes and try weird things I wouldn’t ordinarily try if I didn’t have time to. I think also the same thing is happening in Chastity Belt, where we’re trying to experiment more. And in the album that we just recorded, there’s violin and cello and trumpet and keyboards so it’s just at that time where it’s like ‘let’s try some new sounds!’ and spend more time recording and experimenting.
What do you think the next step is for you, both emotionally and for your music?
Keep trying! (Laughs) Yeah, just keep learning and trying.
And what does that learning look like for you?
With each album, I feel like I learn something new. Like how we could have done things differently, and what I’d like to do in the future. Like with the last Chastity Belt record, we were like, ‘let’s be really intentional about this record’ because the last record it felt like we didn’t have enough time to finish it and we were scrambling, and it didn’t feel like we were in control as much. And that’s kind of the main lesson I’ve learned from being in a band: ‘don’t be afraid to hold onto your artistic control. It’s okay to tell people no if you don’t like their ideas.’ It’s hard for all of us because we’re all nice and we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But I think we’re getting closer and closer, like this last record and with my solo album feels like more of a representation of how I’d like the record to turn out like. It’s very much like we’ve all made decisions ourselves, and everything’s truly coming from ourselves.