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Julia Shapiro: "Writing music isn't something you can easily define. It's this abstract thing that happens between just you and the guitar"

Julia Shapiro
(Image credit: Francesco Prandoni/Getty Images)

Julia Shapiro, multi-faceted musician and frontwoman, plays in a number of popular bands. She's part of the funny, acerbic Childbirth, the droning, often-heavy Chastity Belt and the vigorous Who Is She?, all while spearheading her own solo project. As such, she has many outlets for her vast talent. 

Shapiro is set to release her newest offering, her forthcoming solo record, Zorked, which is out October 15. The 10-song album, which was written during the pandemic, is themed on the idea that confusion abounds these days in a time when there is so much public and private upheaval. 

We caught up with Shapiro to ask about the origin of her new zoned-out record, how she used the guitar to create its heavy, layered soundscapes and what her relationship to the instrument has been like throughout her creative life.

When did the idea of playing guitar first strike you?

"Well, I started playing guitar in sixth grade. Around that time I was listening to Blink-182 and Third Eye Blind. Those were some of the first songs I learned on guitar. Before that, I’d taken piano lessons but it was all classical and it was something my parents had chosen for me. 

"So, for me, playing guitar was my own choice and my own interest. One of my friends at the time also took up guitar and we were taking lessons together. I really just stuck with it."

How did you get better at guitar after that? Were there any players you looked up to?

"I think at the beginning I would just try to learn songs that I liked, that were easy enough. I had a guitar teacher in middle school and another one in high school, so I’d ask them to help me learn certain songs. I learned how to read tabs, so I was just figuring that out. And I think it was a lot of practicing over and over again. 

"I honestly don’t know if I would have that kind of discipline now. But, as a kid, I just spent so much time alone in my room. For me, until I joined Chastity Belt, guitar was just a solo endeavor. It was how I liked to pass my time alone in my room. But yeah, I would look up YouTube videos, if whatever tab I was looking at didn’t quite make sense. I did that a lot.

"I liked Elliott Smith a lot – I still do. He has really advanced guitar methods that are pretty unusual. So, just looking at tabs for his songs wasn’t quite enough. Instead, I would look up people covering his songs. I remember watching an interview on YouTube about his songwriting style, which I still think about a lot. It was just him talking about how he writes songs. But it’s just, like, the least descriptive thing. 

"He’s like, 'Yeah, I just like to change my fingerings around and just mess around with different chord shapes and then, I don’t know, it just comes together!' [Laughs

"To me, that was inspiring because I think he has an abstract way of writing music and thinking about music, and I feel like I do, too. It’s not something you can easily define or describe; it’s this abstract thing that happens between just you and the guitar."

Julia Shapiro

(Image credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns via Getty)

Did Elliott Smith particularly influence your new album in any way?

"For sure. There are a few songs on this record in particular that I think were especially influenced by him and also his recording style. One of them is Wrong Time, which has this intro guitar picking – I started doing this effect that was just an acoustic guitar and I just picked the top two strings really fast, and then added a bunch of delay and reverb to it.

"It just adds this cool effect through that song. I think that was something he did maybe on Roman Candle. I don’t know if that’s how he did it, but that’s what I was trying to go for. 

"I think another song that, to me, was Elliott Smith-inspired was Do Nothing About It. That one has the piano in the chorus that’s like, to me, a little bit inspired by Elliott’s piano." 

You’re in a number of bands, including Chastity Belt, Childbirth, Who Is She? and you also write solo work. How do you think about the guitar differently in each of these projects?

"Well, I don’t play guitar at all in Who Is She? That’s the one band that I drum in. But yeah, I feel like between my solo stuff and Chastity Belt, it’s pretty similar guitar-wise. 

"Although, with my solo stuff, I’m doing both lead and rhythm guitar and bass. Whereas, in Chastity Belt, I’ll do rhythm guitar on one song and lead on another when bandmate Lydia [Lund] is playing rhythm guitar.

"For Childbirth, a lot of it is more power chords and dissonant chord progressions and the more straightforward lead lines. For me, writing a Childbirth song, I could write one in, like, two seconds, probably, which is why it’s probably a joy to have that as a fun outlet."

I love that band!

"Oh, thank you! We actually just recently got the band back together and played a show, and we were re-learning the songs and realizing how dumb the lyrics are. We were just making ourselves laugh! There’s some genius songs on there. I’m like, 'What were we thinking?' I feel like we’re underrated as a band. But yeah, we just recently wrote a song called, Can You Get Pregnant From Being A Bitch?"

That’s awesome.

"We wrote it in, like, two seconds. Maybe we’ll come out with new stuff – who knows?"

There’s a long history of songs written in five to 10 minutes. It seems like a good practice that removes self-editing to a large degree.

There’s something to be said about just keeping it simple. Sometimes if you try too hard, it just doesn’t work out

"I think there’s something to be said about just keeping it simple, you know? Sometimes if you try too hard, it just doesn’t work out. You can tell that it’s been overdone. Especially for that band, it works to just keep it simple – short songs that are basically just about whatever the title of the song is. Very straightforward. 

"But in Chastity Belt and my solo stuff, things usually take a little longer to write. But there’s always exceptions. I wrote Hellscape in a few hours and that one’s pretty simple. Some of my favorite songs I write when I’m just doing something else, like reading something on my computer, but I have my guitar in my hand. 

"I just start playing something, like, 'Oh that sounds cool!' It’s a subconscious way of writing. That’s how I’ve written a few songs before."

What about the guitars you play and the gear you use – what stuff can’t you really live without?

"I’ve always been a Fender gal. Right now I use a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. And for all my live shows for, like, the past six or seven years, I’ve been using a Fender Jaguar Blacktop HH. I just love the sound of it. I use 11s, so slightly thicker strings. It just has a really full sound to it. I’ve tried other guitars and they just sound thin to me. 

"I also have a [Fender] Jazzmaster that I really like, and I used that on this record for a couple songs. Pedal-wise, I’m really bad with remembering names of particular brands. But I really just love chorus and distortion. On this record, I was just going through a lot of shoegaze-type tones. I had this fuzz pedal and chorus. 

"I have this BigSky reverb by Strymon that I use on, like, everything. There’s a bunch of different reverb settings. I just love the sound of chorus and distortion together." 

How did you think about the relationship between the guitar and your voice on your new LP, which is sonically pretty heavy?

"On this album, more than on my Chastity Belt songs, a lot of times I would write the guitar part before writing the vocals. I might have a melody in my head but that also changed a little bit because I was demoing stuff out. I would write the instrumental first and sometimes I would add vocals last.

I don’t like it when the vocal melody matches up with the guitar perfectly. I like there to be variation and for them to complement each other

"I don’t particularly like it when the vocal melody matches up with the guitar perfectly. I like there to be variation and for them to complement each other. More recently, once I started recording myself, I got really into doing vocal harmonies and exploring that. 

"I like just fucking around with every possible harmony. I kind of love unnecessary harmonies. I think it just adds a lot of depth to the vocals." 

You recently moved to LA right before the pandemic hit. How did that existential quandary influence this new album?

"Yeah, I moved to LA in March 2020 and actually arrived on the day that the stay-at-home order was announced. So, my whole LA experience was just pandemic LA. I still haven’t really gotten to experience LA for what it fully is. But yeah, I don’t know, I think everyone experienced a loss of identity. A lot of my friends were having existential crises during that time because you’re not doing what you normally do. 

"You’re stuck in this weird limbo where you’re questioning everything. I think a lot of how you define yourself is what you do from day-to-day. So, if what you’re doing from day-to-day is just sitting in your room and working remotely, you might just be like, 'What, why am I here? What’s the purpose of everything?' I mean, right now, being back in Seattle and being in a community that I feel such a big part of has really helped me regain my identity. 

"It was hard moving to LA during that time because it was such a freaky time and I don’t have the same support that I do in Seattle. But in a way it was nice to have that space to figure out who I was outside of music and outside of my Seattle friends and my Seattle life. Yeah, I think a lot of the songs on this album are about grappling with that. 

"I also really appreciated having the album to work on at that time because it focused me on something. It was nice to have a project to work on, but it was also a pretty uninspiring time; it was definitely more challenging to write lyrics and know what to sing about aside from just, like, 'We’re all fucked!' So it does feel like it’s a pandemic album, in some ways."

Julia Shapiro

(Image credit: Francesco Prandoni/Getty Images)

It’s also a tarot card album, in some ways. How did tarot cards influence the writing of this album and the guitar sounds you chose, particularly for the new single, Death (XIII)?

"That song actually came about because my friend Bree [McKenna from Childbirth and Tacocat] was putting together a Tarot-themed compilation album. So, she was assigning different Major Arcana cards to her friends and having them write a song. 

"As with a lot of Bree’s ideas, [Laughs] it was a great idea but I was like, 'I don’t know if this is ever going to happen and, like, get made!' So, I ended up just writing the song.

"I think I needed inspiration at that point. So, I was like, 'Great, I’ll write a song about the Death Card because Bree wants me to do that card.' And I immediately knew I wanted it to sound real heavy and slow. 

"At the time, I’d been listening to a lot of slow, heavy music like the latest Dive record. So, I had an idea in mind of what I wanted and I just started fucking around with different tones and the song wrote itself. All the lyrics are based off of different interpretations of that card."

What about the future – what are you thinking about coming down the road?

"Initially, at the start of the pandemic, I was pretty into not touring. We had just come off three long tours and I was like, 'I’m fine not touring for a while!' Then more recently I’ve been like, 'I’m ready to go back on tour!' I didn’t think that would happen because I did feel really burnt out. 

"I have plans to record with my band, Who Is She?, next month and then Chastity Belt is planning to record – we’re just slowly writing and recording a few songs at a time. It’s hard because we don’t live in the same city now, so we’re trying to figure out ways to still write. 

"I’m excited about continuing to make music. Hopefully, going back to LA, once things open up, I’ll meet some other fellow musicians and just jam. I’m always down to jam! I’m excited to play music with other people [Laughs]." 

What do you love most about the guitar and the music you make with it?

I love that guitar is such a versatile instrument. Everyone has their own weird way of playing guitar

"Everything! I guess I love at this point that it feels like an extension of me. I love that guitar is such a versatile instrument and that everyone plays it differently. Everyone gets different sounds out of it, different styles, different songs.

"Everyone has their own weird way of playing guitar. I feel like I have a really specific way of playing guitar. If I was learning someone else’s song, it would probably be really hard for me and vice-versa, you know?"

  • Zorked will be released October 15 via Suicide Squeeze.