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‘It was liberating, but there was a lot of pressure’: Julia Shapiro on producing her debut solo album Perfect Version

Julia Shapiro recently released her self-produced debut solo album Perfect Version. Daniel Gumble spoke to her about her first foray into production and the pressures of working alone…

In a departure from her full-time duties fronting Seattle indie rock outfit Chastity Belt, Julia Shapiro recently released her self-produced debut solo album Perfect Version. Daniel Gumble spoke to her about her first foray into production and the pressures of working alone…

“It wasn’t really intentional, I just started recording stuff in my apartment for fun because I wanted to learn how to use Ableton,” Julia Shapiro tells PSNEurope as we connect with her in Seattle via Skype to discuss Perfect Version, her first, self-produced solo album.

Released on June 14, it arrives two years after Chastity Belt – Shapiro’s full-time band – dropped their third album I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone, a record that saw the Seattle four-piece expand once again on their low-key brand of guitar-driven melodic melancholy. It’s a sound that the band have been coaxing rather than forcing into new territories, with each album building subtly upon the last with additional layers of instrumentation and richer sonic textures. And while her latest outing is every inch a solo excursion, it is this sound that Shapiro continues to explore with Perfect Version. As the lead vocalist and principle songwriter in Chastity Belt that will hardly come as a shock, but, as she explains, the decision to embark on a solo project was more the result of a happy accident than an attempt to break from the shackles of her band.

“I ended up with about four demos and I was liking the way they sounded, so I sent them to Jason Baxter at Hardly Art (Chastity Belt’s record label) just wanting some feedback,” she continues. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, put these out’. But he said maybe I could do a solo album and that they’d release it. So I went into my friend’s studio with those four songs and re-did them. That was going to be my plan for the rest of the album, but I started demoing more songs and just grew really attached to the demos. They sounded pretty good already and there is a magic to a song that’s been written while being recorded. Writing the parts as I was recording made it pretty fun. It was a great learning process.”

Despite being well versed in the art of making a record with a band in the studio, Shapiro had never before taken the helm as a producer.

“I’d done stuff on GarageBand but nothing I’d ever mixed,” she explains. “I needed this push from Hardly Art to make me actually finish something, and I really enjoyed the process. There was a lot of pressure on me compared to being in a band where you’re making decisions together, but I kind of liked being in control of everything. It’s nice not having that with Chastity Belt because it would change our whole band dynamic and it just wouldn’t be very cool, but it was really nice to have this one thing going on in my life where I felt totally in control. Sometimes, if you let go of your creative control just a little bit, like handing over songs to engineers, things might not go the way you planned. With this, if something didn’t turn out how I wanted it to it was completely my fault, which made me feel better. It felt really cool to produce some songs that were completely my work. It was mostly me just listening and experimenting and seeing what sounded good as I went along. It was fun to experiment with some really fucked up sounds in a way that I wouldn’t with the band.”

For the purposes of Perfect Version, Shapiro’s approach to production was largely shaped on the fly, experimenting as she went along and recording ideas as they were taking their initial shape. However, through her experiences with Chastity Belt, she has developed her own definition of what she expects from an outside producer when entering the studio.

“We as a band already have so many ideas and we go into the studio with all our songs pretty much ready to go,” she elaborates. “Maybe we’ll have a couple of parts we need advice on. We generally need one extra voice to look at the big picture of things and let us know how things are sounding, because you can get lost when you’re playing a song over and over again. We all have our own ideas, and a lot of them, so we like a pretty hands-off producer but one who still has opinions and can make decisions when we’re having trouble.”

So how did it feel to embark on a project without having her bandmates on-hand to provide those additional ideas?

“It was liberating, but it was hard at times,” Shapiro says. “It was difficult for me to not have someone else to bounce things off of, or have someone tell me it’s good. Especially with mixing; I would mix for a really long time and get to a point where I’d stop, come back to it the next day and it’d sound really fucked up. In that sense, I did have some people I’d send the songs to just for some reaction, because I needed someone to say, ‘Yes, that sounds like a song’!”

With a new Chastity Belt album also in the works and due for release later this year, Shapiro believes that the lessons she learned during the making of Perfect Version have made a positive contribution to its overall sound.

“We actually just finished mixing the next Chastity Belt album it was really helpful for me to be able to describe different tones that I wanted,” she states. “And I thought more about panning and had more of a sense of the things the engineer could do to help us reach the sound I was looking for. And just in general I was listening more. The more experience I have making records the more I hear the next time.

“The new album sounds very different to our last record,” she continues. “It’s the most time we’ve spent recording. It’s a bit jammy, there are a lot of overdubs, there are more instruments, there’s violin, cello, trumpet, keyboards and lots more harmonies. It’s more intricate, more dynamic. It’s for sure the one we’re most proud of. I felt that way with every record but with this one in particular we really sat down and talked about exactly what we wanted and made sure that everything was very intentional and treated with care. It was different to our past experiences, where I don’t we really thought much about the process. We thought about the songs but the recording process always felt rushed.”

Before we part ways, talk turns to the records that have most heavily influenced Shapiro’s producerly sensibilities, as well as those she is currently excited by.

“I really like how all the Elliott Smith records sound, and the same goes for Wilco,” she concludes. “Both of those to me have really cool, dynamic sounds. Especially Wilco, they have some weird sounds. Their records are really fun to listen to; they have such beautiful soundscapes. I started listening to music differently as soon as I started making music. I kind of wish I could go back to listening to music the way I did before, just for reference. In high school I would just listen to something and think, this just feels good. I wouldn’t know why but I like this song. I think that’s how most people experience music, or at least people who don’t make their own music.

“As for artists I’m enjoying at the moment, I really like this band Loose Tooth, I really like Lala Lala, they are also on Hardly Art. I love Girl Pool and Hatchie. Hardly Art has signed a bunch of great bands recently and it feels like everyone on the label is a good fit right now. That’s one of the reasons we stayed with Hardly Art for this next record. It feels like a community.”