Julia Shapiro on Home Recording and Huge Life Changes

Interviews, Local Music
Martin Douglas
photo by Eleanor Petry

It's human nature to think about the ideal iteration of ourselves when we're going through hard times.

There have been those moments in all of our lives where we lay awake at night and fantasize about a world where we're not confronted by our perceived failures, our various bouts with adversity, the dissolution of our relationships with others. We think about having the career we've always wanted, the home we've dreamed of living in, the significant other who complements us like that cliched missing puzzle piece. Maybe it helps us sleep better, maybe crying to sleep about it helps us sleep better. Our lives are never completely ideal, but some seasons in our lives are better than others. Thinking about where we want to be is a coping mechanism through the droughts and the heatwaves or the rainstorms or the heavy snowfall. 

Julia Shapiro was a decent way through recording what would become her solo debut when what you could call a perfect storm of extremely challenging life events entered her life: A cancer scare, a breakup, and an existential crisis revolving around her identity as the front person of a successful indie-rock band.

Chastity Belt were just starting to wriggle free of their slightly unwarranted reputation as a humorous party band upon the release of their pensive third album I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone when the remaining dates of their 2018 tour were suddenly canceled and the band went on hiatus. Throughout this period in her life, Shapiro learned to record and mix her own music and penned a collection of songs detailing her headspace. She titled it Perfect Version, which comes out June 14 via Hardly Art Records.

Album opener "Natural" feels like the season premiere to I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone's season finale of "5am," a breezy sunrise augmented by Shapiro's brightly melancholic vocals and ruminations on the blind confidence of others; she later daydreams of a life of solitude ("I'll be my own best friend") and reward from learning a practical trade. The sun-baked sadness and lightly droning guitar of "Tired" finds her nodding through a conversation with someone who talks about themselves too much ("Yeah, I know you think you've figured it all out, but/I got tired of listening").

"I Lied" offers a number of possible solutions for self-improvement: purging herself of social media, going to bed at a decent hour of the evening, being less withdrawn in everyday interactions. While much of Perfect Version doesn't stray too far musically from the styles Chastity Belt have mastered (as the saying goes, if it ain't broke...) "A Couple Highs" evokes an autumnal approach to something more Slanted and Enchanted while "Harder to Do" sounds like if Mazzy Star swam down Mercer Street during a biblical flood.

Somewhere in the very mild labyrinth of the KEXP offices, with notable emotional therapy cat Daryl in tow (he's a good listener), I spoke to Shapiro about the recording process of Perfect Version and everything she had to go through in order to get to the release of her solo debut. 

KEXP: October 2018, I feel as though there were there was a lot going on in your life. Do you want to talk about any of that?

Julia Shapiro: Yeah it was a busy time. Now I'm like, "When was that?" Oh yeah. That's like around the time when I started writing songs for this album. Chastity Belt was in the middle of an album cycle – towards the end I guess – but we'd just been doing tons of touring. And I just started recording stuff on my own because I kind of wanted to learn how to mix and record. Our bassist, Annie [Truscott] moved to L.A., so with her living in L.A, we weren't practicing as regularly. And I still was writing all these songs and wanted to do something with them.

But I didn't exactly go into writing this album with the intention of putting out a solo album. I was just like, "I don't know what I'm doing."

There was a lot of stuff going on in your personal life though, right?

Yeah, well, that was kind of a little later. I recorded like four songs for the album in the studio with my friend Ian [LeSage]. And then went on tour in Australia with Chastity Belt, came back, went on another tour, and canceled the tour and midway through. I was kind of just not in a great place to tour at that point. I feel like we're all kind of exhausted by how much energy the band was taking.

And I was kind of having an existential crisis because I'm 28 now and the band started when I was 20, and it's kind of a defined my entire adult life. And I just felt like at that time, "I don't know how much longer I can do this and I don't know who I am without the band." And it just felt kind of necessary to take a break and figure out what else I could do or I wanted to do.

So you had no idea the band was going to still exist.

No. I mean we never talked about breaking up. I feel like we'll never break up. [laughs] We'll maybe take a really long break but I feel like we're really in it. It was just more like, "Maybe we should take some time off from touring because it has been really intense." And it kind of fucks with your whole life. I was just feeling like a little bit stuck in that lifestyle.

And I knew at the time that I had to get surgery because there was a possibility that I had thyroid cancer. So I was kind of like anxious about that. And I just felt like, "Why don't we take a break. I'll get the surgery and heal and we'll take some time away from the band and kind of re-evaluate what we like about being in a band and how we want to go forward," and kind of just be more intentional about how we were doing things. And I think it was good for all of us. I mean I was the main one who kind of proposed it, but in the time we had off [guitarist] Lydia [Lund] and drummer Gretchen [Grimm] both were kind of working on their own things and Annie went on some tours with other bands. We probably only took like six months off. And then we got back together.

Actually, I started working on this album in October 2017. I'm just getting years confused. So in October 2018, or maybe November, Chastity Belt got back together and started practicing songs that we had from before that we were wanted to record and writing new songs and then we recorded another album in January [2019]. So it's sort of like the time I had off was April 2018 to November 2018.

During that time I started writing more stuff for my solo album and I started recording. They were just meant as demos. I started recording demos and then I got really attached to those demos and they turned into just the actual songs [on the album].

My original intention was to just record the demos and go back into the studio with Ian and re-record them. But I just got really tied to the demo and I think there's something special about the first recording of a song; it kind of captures enthusiasm for it. I didn't want to lose that and I also was having so much fun learning how to mix and record myself. And I had my friend David [Hrivnak] teach me how to use Ableton. And I kind of like grabbed onto that pretty quickly and just got really into it.

Around that time, I broke up with my boyfriend at the time and we were sharing a one bedroom. So, I was just living in the one bedroom alone. And it felt like I could just make it into a recording studio. Which was really nice. I just had that whole space to myself. And it was the first time I've lived alone since, like – I guess in college, I lived alone for one year. I still live alone. It's amazing.

So it was more or less the first time you lived alone in your life.

Basically. I don't think living in a dorm alone counts.

So you learned how to record and mix while you were recording this album. It's mostly in solitude, right? So were there any instruments or recording processes that you found to be a little more challenging than others?

Yeah. Well for the songs that I recorded myself with drums on them, I had to go back and add the drums afterward in a studio because that was one thing I couldn't record myself at my apartment. That was pretty difficult. It's like kind of a backward way of doing things, to have everything else there and then to add the drums. I'd say also I kind of had the most trouble with mixing the drums. It was just hard for me to get the toms to sound how I wanted them to. I think guitar and bass came pretty easy.

I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just like, "I'm just gonna put a mic up to the speaker." And then I just basically did most things by ear. And even when I was EQ'ing stuff, I'd just listen and be like, "Yeah that sounds like a good bass tone to me." And then I show it to my friend Dave and he'd be like, "Yeah. That's good." Or, "Maybe this is what I would do. I would change this a little bit." That gave me confidence and just my ability to use my ears rather than looking up how you're supposed to report things and how you're supposed to mix things. Before I started doing it felt really daunting to me, the whole mixing process and everything. I was like, "Well I don't know how to do that. I'd have to read up on it." But I kind of just dove in and I was like, you don't have to read. If you know what sounds good to you, you can just use your ears and it doesn't have to be this process that's just by the book.

That's the beauty of home recording.

Yeah, totally. I really like hi-fi records, but I also really like home recordings; there's something more personal about listening to them. And a little more interesting too. So, I was like, "It's fine if these recordings don't sound perfect or super advanced."

I think a lot of the time, I'll like a demo version of someone's song better than the actual recorded song. Because it captures that magic. So, I was trying to think about that and recording my own record even though I'm kind of a perfectionist. These songs could probably sound better technically if I did them with someone else but they would lose some of their magic, I think.

It's cool to be able to feel like the flavor of the space that you're recording in. I've always liked that about demos and home recordings and stuff. You know, [you can hear] the train outside or roommates making dinner. [laughter] It's a cool little additive to the process and makes it feel less like, "Oh yeah, I'm crafting some grandiose statement" and more like, "I'm just doing this, I've got something to get out."

It's less sterile and more just like, "This is a song I made at the time. This is what it sounded like." Rather than like, "I had to get every part perfect," and you have an end goal for this song. Like with this, it was kind of like, "I don't know how it's going to turn out. I'm just kind of like see where it goes."

Was the process of recording most of the album by yourself as therapeutic as writing the songs for it?

Definitely. Yeah, it felt really good to have some kind of purpose in this time where I was unsure about a lot of things. And it felt good to realize how much what I did like about music, and how much enjoyment I can get out of it. Aside from just like the touring part which felt really exhausting at the time. It was kind of like, "Oh yeah. This is why I'm into music in the first place; for the actual songwriting and recording."

So you definitely like it more than playing live.

Definitely, yeah. That's more what I'm interested in. And then playing live and touring is just kind of like what goes along with it. I think at first playing live was really, really fun. It still can be fun, but it's like... I think the novelty of it sort of wore off a little bit. And just playing the same song every night and kind of being in this in a venue every night on tour can get a little monotonous. When it's like what I'd rather be doing is just like jamming with my bandmates on new stuff. Instead, we have to like play these old songs over and over again.

For like a year, two years.

The process of when you write that song, then when you record it, then when the record comes out, it's like those songs are actually really old when you're touring them. And it's kind of like a weird mindfuck to be like singing about stuff that you were feeling two or three years ago, every night, over and over again. The songs lose their meaning and you're just like... yeah, it's weird.

What's your personal favorite song from Perfect Version and what does it mean to you?

I think my favorite is "Shape," which is the next single that's coming out. I made a music video for it too. I was just in the Outback in Australia playing shows with one of my friends and so I got a bunch of footage of the desert and made that into the music video.

That song to me... There's like a few different layers to it, but it's kind of about like being here with being alone. And feeling pressure from people to be looking for some kind of romance or partnership and just being like, "Okay, I'm fine alone right now." Which is how I really felt at the time. I wasn't ready for anything. And I guess I was kind of fighting the societal pressure of coupling up. Even if it was in my head or whatever, it might have been. Just like, "I can't believe how much revolves around the idea of being with another person."

It's like when you're single, you just really realize it. I mean, I'm still single, but at the time I was like, "I'm really into being single." [laughs] I was pretty into like living on my own and then spending all the time alone for the first time in a while because I hadn't really had that. I was constantly on tour. I didn't really have like a space of my own. So, I was just kind of savoring that [feeling].

At the time, I mean, we went to Hawaii with some of my friends for my 28th birthday and we went night swimming the last night, playing in the ocean. And there was a new moon, so it was completely dark, and the ocean was like the same color as the sky and it just felt like this void. And I kind of also sing about that in the song. And it's just like that to kind of go together. It's just like this empty space and silence and being alone.

It's kind of like an abstract song. It's not really about just one thing. And if you're not here you can.

Okay, last question. Did you ever end up deleting your Instagram? [laughter]

No, I still have it. I feel like I need to have it for being in a band, which is frustrating, but I probably would have it anyway because I just want to know what's going on too bad. I'd just be curious about what my friends are posting. But I do wish that I looked at it less.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I would not have social media if I weren't a writer. I wouldn't have it at all. But yeah, you gotta get your work out there somehow and I suppose, as a journalist, I have to keep abreast of what's going on. Like you can't really read websites or read the newspaper to get news. It's like all like Twitter. Because if you read it on like Pitchfork or whatever, then it's like, "Oh yeah you're like two days late on that one, buddy."

Yeah, Twitter's just like what's happening right now.

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