Chastity Belt detail their new, third album I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, writing from experiential perspectives, and recording in the same studio as Elliot Smith.
“No one wants to hear a joke more than once,” notes Julia Shapiro, lead singer and guitarist of Seattle-based indie rock outfit Chastity Belt. Although her conviction may read brash, it’s undisputedly true in a context of entertainment; whether it’s through a beat, riff or amusing narrative, protraction is the antithesis of good music. And when Chastity Belt released its third album I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone (via Hardly Art) in June, the members of the punkish four-piece, otherwise consisting of Lydia Lund (lead guitar), Annie Truscott (bass), and Gretchen Grimm (drums), made it clear that its music doesn’t exist to chase the same stories repeatedly – whether those then-appropriate stories were well-received or not.
I Used to Spend is manifestly disparate from the noisy comedy of its predecessors No Regerts and Time to Go Home; in both its poignant highs and lows, the record shows that Chastity Belt has a fresh batch of issues on its communal brain. But more importantly, the shadier full-length affirms the band’s desire to address these matters in an atmosphere of grown-up grit and contemplation – features that fit the indie rockers’ anthology just as seamlessly as its past satire. Earlier this month, Atwood Magazine spoke to Shapiro about Chastity Belt’s new album with a different message, writing on behalf of Generation Y, and thinking a whole lot about Elliot Smith.
A CONVERSATION WITH CHASTITY BELT
Atwood Magazine There’s no arguing that as a band, you’ve all done some growing up since gifting us No Regerts, and on I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, Chastity Belt’s song lyrics have morphed into a lot of fresh and fitting descriptions – somber and matured, being two of them. Former playful takes on gender, sex and parties – themes placed front-and-center on your debut release – earned Chastity Belt a reputation as not only a talented indie rock act, but also clever jokesters. This new album is certainly different enough to change listeners’ perceptions of what ails the four brains behind the band name. With so much acclaim surrounding the kind of comical songwriting on No Regerts – and, to a lesser extent, Time to Go Home — was the thought of putting a relatively straight-faced, pensive record out in the world for the first time unnerving?
Chastity Belt: I guess I felt like maybe some of our fans that liked our jokier stuff (like the songs we wrote in college that are on No Regerts) might not connect with this record as much, but that didn’t really phase me. I got sort of tired of writing joke songs. They’re funny at first, but when you’re singing them over and over again each night they become less and less funny. No one wants to hear a joke more than once. I appreciate our old songs, but I feel like we’ve moved way past them at this point. I know we’ll never be able to write songs like that again.
You’ve said that I Used to Spend could be characterized by its collective songwriting effort, as Lydia and Gretchen also played a role in penning some of its tracks. How do you think this sense of collaboration – one that perhaps encompasses alternative perspectives – has contributed to the narrative of the third album?
Chastity Belt: I think that our perspectives fit together nicely, and I’m happy that Lydia and Gretchen were able to have some songs on this album. Their songs and mine seem to fit together thematically. Musically, I think they have their own unique sounds, which is cool. Their songs still sound like Chastity Belt, but different sides of us.
Chastity Belt is a very millennial band, and the sentiments and experiences most visited in the group’s songs are unique to today’s college-aged and 20-something-year-olds. You guys refer to pointlessly looking at cell phones, giving shitty Friday nights the finger, and feeling crippled by routine anxiety and discontentment; song titles have even been presented as initialisms. In this sense, your guys’ songs are ones that listeners from other generational cohorts may enjoy, but not necessarily connect to. Do you ladies deliberately create music and tell stories for Generation Y, or does it just seem to work out that way?
Chastity Belt: I mean, we’re all 26 and 27, so we’re going to write from that perspective. It definitely wasn’t “deliberate.” I don’t usually try to write from any perspective other than my own, and I happen to be a millennial, so I guess it’s easy for our music to get labeled as “millennial.”
Let’s hone in on the specifics of I Used to Spend. The unconventional structure of the typical Chastity Belt cut is fascinating – there’s not always a chorus, a bridge, a rhyme or pinpointable reason. Do you all typically build lyrics around melodies, or is the melody conceived or refitted to work with the lyrics?
Chastity Belt: The music/melody always comes first. The lyrics are usually the last thing I finish, and part of that is that the lyrics are the hardest part for me. They’re the most personal aspect of the song, so it’s important to me that they convey what I’m trying to have them convey, without making me want to cringe every time I sing them.
“Different Now” is a beautiful example of a wildly successful pop rock single that’s non-traditional, structurally speaking. When the song was all fleshed-out and recorded, did any of you think it had booming potential to be a single before the album was entirely recorded, or was that decision made only after completing the rest of the LP?
Chastity Belt: When we first wrote this song (which was a few years ago) I remember thinking “wow this song feels really good,” but we never think of our songs in terms of singles and non-singles. It wasn’t until it was recorded and we were listening to all the songs together that it seemed to stick out. We also had some of our friends listen and let us know which song stuck out to them the most, and “Different Now” tended to be a popular one.
Directly following “Different Now” is “Caught in a Lie,” which kind of contrasts all the quavering confidence that its forerunner represented. When you sing “Is this what you want/ Is this who you want me to be?” is that a reference to self, like in “Different Now,” or are you trying to reach someone else?
Chastity Belt: The “you” in “Different Now” is different than the “you” in “Caught in a Lie,” if that’s what you’re getting at. “Different Now” is sort of me talking to myself and anyone else who can relate, whereas “Caught in a Lie” sort of switches perspectives. “Caught in a Lie” is about insecurities, and “Different Now” is about facing those insecurities and getting past them.
Another fascinating track is the album’s seventh, “What the Hell.” Its lyrics seem to portray a narrator who’s finally feeling a sense of okay-ness, and yet, it’s that exact emotion that’s weirding them out. What’s the story behind that one?
Chastity Belt: I wrote this song after deciding to stay with someone and sort of “start over” with them after a series of painful events. It came from feeling like, “Oh I guess everything is fine now… is it fine? or am I just tired of it not being fine?” It’s also the only song I’ve ever written in bed. I wrote it all in one sitting (or laying down, I guess), which I think gives it a sort of stream-of-consciousness vibe. It’s also the newest song on the album; we finished it just a couple weeks before recording.
On a visual note, the album artwork for I Used to Spend requires a bit of abstract thinking. Can you explain the meaning and conception of the grainy, dark design?
Chastity Belt: Lyrically and sonically, this record is sort of grainy and dark, so we wanted the cover to match that. Our friend and fellow musician Stephen Steinbrink took the picture on the cover, and our friend Jake Muilenburg (who also did the cover for No Regerts) edited and arranged it. I think it turned out nicely, and it seems to visually express the feeling of a lot of the songs.
What music (specific artists, genres, albums old and new!) were you each listening to – or maybe collectively inspired by – while producing this record?
Chastity Belt: I remember walking around Portland where we recorded it, listening to Jay Som’s new album at the time – Turn Into. We were recording at Jackpot!, the studio that Elliott Smith and a lot of other cool bands recorded at back in the day. It’s in a new location now, but there was still a lot of Elliott Smith memorabilia around, so I was thinking about him a bunch. Of course, the songs were already written at that point, so I’m not sure how much it affected how the album turned out. As to what artists inspired the songwriting, it’s too hard to say because all the songs were written during a span of about 3 years… so a whole bunch of stuff inspired it.
So you guys are touring right now – with an expanding catalog and audience, there’s always pressure for an act to play older, recognizable “classics” rather than new material, especially when the newest material reflects a different sound than the earlier stuff. Now that the band is three albums in, has the process of creating a satisfying setlist for this present tour been challenging, or easier than anticipated?
Chastity Belt: It’s definitely more challenging the more songs we have to choose from. We understand that it’s exciting for fans to hear the old stuff, but we are a bit less excited to play that stuff. We tried to balance out the set lists, leaning more towards what we were excited to play rather than what we thought people wanted to hear, with a couple “classics” mixed in there to keep the crowd happy.
Aside from recently dropping a depressing, but totally kick-ass full-length and hitting up the west coast, what else is in the cards for Chastity Belt?
Chastity Belt: We’re already working on writing a bunch of new songs, and we’re all excited about that – and in September we head to the UK and Europe.
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photo © Conner Lyons