Seattle quartet Chastity Belt ended their last tour abruptly, a flurry of shows cancelled as lead singer Julia Shapiro decamped for her friend Kate’s house in Asheville, unsure whether she’d continue with music. “Yeah, it was about that. Should I quit music? Why am I doing this? But also, like, what else could I do?”
While Shapiro openly admits that she’s always questioning, always ruminating, this particular stream of thought came from disillusionment with how music had changed for her and her band. “When we first started, it was so different from what we’re doing now; it was a lot more pure. Now it has all these other things attached to it, it’s more business-y than creative, so much emailing! And that takes up more time than actual songwriting and making music, so that’s kind of un-fun. It’s because we’ve gotten bigger and added more people to our team. Essentially it feels like we’re running a small business, which we are. A lot of people think we’re just fucking around and I’m like, ‘you don’t understand’. Some days I’m like, ‘what have I actually done today?’ and then I realise, I was emailing for hours.”
It was only a few months, yet in their nine years together it’s the longest time they’d ever been apart. When they did get back together, they slipped back into groove remarkably quickly, square pegs, square holes. “We wrote four songs very quickly and then yeah, pretty soon we had a full album to record.” One of those songs, ‘Rav 4’, openly told the story of Shapiro’s doubts about continuing with the band. “Lay in Kate’s bed / It’s true what she said / that giving up can take some guts,” she sings. “That song’s about cancelling that tour we were on. The next day we were supposed to play in Asheville, North Carolina. One of my best friend Kate lives there, and we ended up driving there, and I spent a few days at her’s, a little bit lost and just processing, trying to figure out what I was doing with my life and what to do next. She drives a Rav 4 and much of that time was spent driving around in it, just figuring things through. That line [“Driving in a Rav 4″] just came out. I had the melody, and I was just singing random lyrics, and I thought that was pretty funny. I told Kate, and she was like, ‘you have to keep that lyric’.”
Ironically that period of doubt led to Chastity Belt’s finest album, and the record most reflective of their united talents – there’s a reason it’s self-titled. With ‘Chastity Belt,’ the band create a mood, the sonic structures subjecting you to a hypnotic daze, a stretched-out fog to extricate yourself in. Gone are the direct lyrics and the singalong riffs. Indeed, this is about as far away from ‘Cool Slut’ – a raw song proclaiming, “ladies it’s OK to be slutty” – as you can get. “We’re maturing,” Shapiro jokes offhandedly.
While Shapiro has always taken the lead on songwriting, ‘Chastity Belt’ is more reflective of their voices as a whole, each member inputting more than ever before. “Lydia [guitar] and Gretchen [drums] are bringing more songwriting to the table; it’s the most songs they’ve written on a Chastity Belt album.”
It’s also symbolic of their increased understanding of the recording process, this being the only album they’ve ever co-produced. “I feel like we’ve all got more experimental since the album before this and we’ve all got better at listening and mixing, with each record we learn something and then the next one we have more skill. On this one, we all had the tools to describe what we wanted.”
Another first came in the form of contemporary musician and co-producer Melina Duterte (Jay Som), the only female producer they’ve ever had. “Generally it can be easier to communicate with women on creative things, that’s what we found – she’s also a friend, Annie [bass] is dating her. It was nice to have Melina there as an outside observer because it does get hard sometimes deciding on things when it’s your own music. She also had a lot of good ideas about guitar tone.”
Whereas in the past, Chastity Belt have had to come into the studio fully rehearsed, a result of only having a few days to record. This time, they had a full two and a half weeks ahead of them. “The previous three albums have all felt rushed, with this album we had a couple of weeks – maybe two and a half weeks, so we were able to experiment with sounds. We were kinda open to altering the songs, particularly the newer ones, and we could play around with different tempos. It felt way more relaxed.”
That experimentation comes across prominently; on ‘Elena’ their voices joust, overlapping each other as if exchanging shade, while on ‘Apart’ they repeat that word over and over again to frame the chorus. ‘Effort’ shows them at their most experimental, the outro made up of just cello and guitar eerily weaving over one another – who’d have thought the terms Chastity Belt and instrumental would ever meet? “We’re coming into our own, as we play together more, the more intricate we can get with our songs because we understand the way we play music. Things come together so easily because we’re so good at playing music together,” Shapiro remarks. In a similar vein, we won’t mince our words – Chastity Belt are one of the best bands around and if, as they say, this is them ‘coming into their own,’ then they’re set to become frighteningly good. A band for the history books.
Taken from the October issue of Upset. Chastity Belt’s self-titled album is out 20th September.