Last April, shortly after a show at The Pilot Light in Knoxville, Tennessee, beloved indie rock band Chastity Belt cancelled the remainder of their US tour, citing “health concerns.” Lead singer Julia Shapiro was in the midst of a crisis. She’d recently had half of her thyroid removed — doctors suspected that it might be cancerous. She’d also broken up with her long-term partner, who’d moved out of her apartment in Seattle before the tour started. Shapiro held things together, on stage at least, for the first month of the tour. But halfway through the south, Shapiro’s bandmates realized how hard she was struggling. Collectively, they called it off.
One of Shapiro’s closest friends lived in Asheville, where the band were due to play the next night, so they drove the two hours east. Shapiro spent some time with her friend, and she started to pick apart the past eight years of her life. She doubted everything. “I had a lot of questions going through my mind: ‘Should I be doing something else with my life? What else could I do?’” she says now over the phone from her home in Seattle. “I felt really confused about what I even liked about music to begin with. I think touring had lost its luster.”
Maybe, she thought, she should quit the band and go to grad school. She’d always been interested in graphic design. Maybe she could learn how to code. Architecture sounded cool. She wasn’t sure she could ever work a nine-to-five, but maybe she could “make money in a way that’s not horrible.”
A year on, now 28 years old, Shapiro is announcing Perfect Version, her debut solo album, out via Hardly Art on June 14. It embraces more of the lugubrious melodies and nebulous vulnerability that made Chastity Belt’s 2017 LP I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone so compelling, but it’s more frighteningly introspective than any of her band’s three albums to date. The garage rock overtones are gone; songs like “Pussy Weed Beer” are a distant memory.
Perfect Version the sound of a songwriter questioning her every move, fretting about the past and present, and wondering how to navigate the future. On “Natural,” the record’s opening song (premiering below), she interrogates things that most lead singers and performers wouldn’t dare to entertain. “How can somebody be so blindly confident? / I wanna know that trick / How can you love yourself so damn much? / It isn’t natural,” she sings before openly considering a change of course: “I’d like to learn a skill, something useful / Then I’ll support myself and I will buy a house / I’ll live alone in it, somewhere out in the woods / And I’ll feel new again, I’ll be my own best friend.”
Shapiro says that Chastity Belt have a new album on the way. They spent January recording the record in Los Angeles, and they were down there again earlier this month to mix it. They’ll tour again soon as well, and she’s ready for it. “I'm in a much better place than I was a year ago,” she says.
When exactly did you decide that you wanted to make a solo record?
It didn't really like feel like a decision. I started recording stuff in my apartment just for fun. I wanted to learn how to use Ableton, and at the time, Chasity Belt wasn't doing that much. Our bassist moved to Los Angeles. I liked some of what I had done, and so I sent it over to Jason [Baxter] at Hardly Art, and he suggested that I put out a solo album. I ended up going into my friend's studio and recording the four songs that I'd already demoed. And then I was planning on just doing that for the rest of the album, but I started demoing more songs, and then I became attached to the demos. And I felt like, "What, these sounds good enough to me. Why don't I just hold onto these and just put these on the album?" I feel like it could have turned out a little more professional if I'd done it with someone else, but to me, it was like there's something special about writing the songs while you're recording them. I wouldn't really be able to do that if I did it in a studio because that would just be paying for way too much studio time.It allowed me to be more creative.
You were going through a difficult phase at the beginning of last year. How do you think this differs lyrically from the work you've done with Chastity Belt?
I feel like Chastity Belt's lyrics are all pretty sad too. The type of music that we make fits that vibe, but it was a particularly hard year, especially towards the second half of the songs that I wrote. Recently I was actually talking about this with Gretchen [Grimm] from Chasity Belt. We got really high and we watched a bunch of our old music videos, because we hadn't really watched them since they came out. It was crazy. It reminded us of like what state of mind we were in when those songs came out, and when we were making these videos.
It did feel like with our last album we got caught in this weird thing where we weren't really making decisions anymore. We were doing things because we felt like we had to, and it became really un-fun. We realized this on a tour last year. I was having some health problems at the time, too. I had to get a surgery to get half of my thyroid removed because they thought I had thyroid cancer. I didn't have thyroid cancer, but they couldn't figure that out until they took out my thyroid.
Does songwriting really help you to process emotions like these?
I'm not sure. It’s probably helpful in a way because if people relate to the song, then I feel like how I'm feeling is relatable, which is nice. But it's more whatever I'm feeling at the time is just going to come out in whatever music that I'm making because that's just what I'm thinking about, and that's the way that I write lyrics.
Do you find yourself having to self-edit the things that you feel maybe a little bit shy like putting out into the world or was that not a consideration?
Yeah, I've never wanted to get too personal or obvious about things. I've never had the urge to name-drop or anything. I think it's cool when other people do that and they're really specific, but it makes me feel a little uncomfortable and a little too vulnerable to do that. And I also like to keep things kind of vague for myself, too. I feel like the way that I experience emotions too is pretty vague, and when I'm writing songs it comes out like that because I'm just trying to figure out what I am feeling exactly.
Are there plans to tour again now?
There are, yeah.
How do you feel about that?
I'm in a much better place now. It's going to be a little weird, because it's been so long. But I'm hoping that, because it's been so long, it'll be exciting to go back out and tour. We're going to keep checking in with each other. I don't think any of us wanted to tour — or [tour] as much as we were for a bit there. I think we're just like, whatever we can do to sustain the band. We're in a really good place right now as a band. I'm in a much better place than I was a year ago.
When did it start to feel like things were on sort of surer ground for you?
It's been a very gradual process. It wasn't like one thing that made me feel better, necessarily. It's been every step of the way, step by step. It was helpful to do a solo record and feel excited about music in that way again. Working on the Chastity Belt record, too — we've all just been so intentional in this record. This is the most time that we've spent on a Chastity Belt record, and it just feels way better.
With this, my solo record, it was really nice to feel like I had total control over it, because that's something that I felt like I was lacking in Chastity Belt at the time — and just in my life in general. It was more like something that I needed for that particular time of my life, because everything else felt so out of control.