Julia Shapiro On How Tarot, Weed, Elliott Smith, & More Influenced Her New Album Zorked
Under The Influence is a new revival of a very old Stereogum franchise, in which we ask artists to talk about the inspirations behind their albums. From other music, to film, to novels, to stray notes left behind by friends, and who knows what else, this is what’s on people’s minds when they’re writing the songs we eventually come to know and love.
People like to talk about how “timing is everything,” and for Julia Shapiro, that old cliche is especially true these days. In March 2020, the Chastity Belt, Who Is She?, and Childbirth performer made the jump from her home base of Seattle to Los Angeles for a new job working at Danger Collective Records, not knowing, of course, that the city would go into lockdown just days after her arrival. At first, Shapiro camped out with friends in Echo Park before staying in an Airbnb in LA’s Glassell Park neighborhood. As time passed, she spent a lot of time on foot, trying to familiarize herself with her new surroundings. Shapiro tried to make the best of her situation, but the fact remained: This is not how she expected to kick off the new chapter of her life. Grappling with emotional whiplash and intense loneliness, Shapiro began to mold what would become her sophomore solo album, Zorked.
“I didn’t consciously go into writing [these songs] thinking, ‘This is going to be my album about moving to LA during a pandemic,’ but that’s obviously the state I was in when I was writing these songs,” Shapiro tells me over the phone. Following up her 2019 solo debut, Perfect Version, Zorked is Shapiro’s personal favorite word for being stoned, drunk, or just generally out of it. The word absolutely applies to her — and probably everyone’s — state of mind mid-pandemic.
Contrary to its themes around isolation, Zorked became a collaborative effort. Shapiro eventually moved in with Melina Duterte of Jay Som, and together the roommates built a studio in their attic. Duterte co-produced the record and encouraged Shapiro to step away from her jangly Chastity Belt aesthetic in favor of a muddier, more shoegaze-inspired sound. Singles such as the droning, tarot-inspired “Death (XIII)” evoke a sensation of slogging through emotional muck, trying to reach the other side of a horizon that just keeps moving back. That’s some relatable content.
Here, Shapiro outlines the many influences that inspired her latest effort: musical hero Elliott Smith, an essential Zorked ingredient (weed), lucid dreams, and Los Angeles itself, a place she can now confidently call home.
I’ve been interested in tarot pretty much ever since I became good friends with Robin Edwards (aka Lisa Prank) back in 2014. Robin is a bit of a psychic when it comes to reading tarot, and we’d often have late-night tarot sessions back when I first met her, figuring out the meaning of our lives and where it all went wrong. I feel like it’s a really great lens through which to reflect on your life and talk about things that you may not have the courage to bring up otherwise. I’ve definitely had some tarot-induced epiphanies, and some eerily accurate readings (mostly done by Robin).
My song “Death (XIII)” is about the Death tarot card. The Death card is often feared by people who don’t fully understand its meaning, but it can actually be seen as a change needed in order to start fresh and cleanse yourself. In other words, it can be seen as a new beginning (which is partly why it’s the first song on the album). During the depths of the pandemic, I made a habit of picking a tarot card of the day and reflecting on the meaning of the card, and how it could apply to my life in that moment. I would refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s book The Way Of The Tarot, and find new insights and applications for each of the cards I drew.
After years of visiting and playing shows in LA, I’d always hated on the city. I felt like the people who lived there had a certain air about them and an eagerness for fame and success that made me uncomfortable [laughs]. But after recording Chastity Belt’s self-titled album there and then returning to mix it, I started to get a different feel for the place, and I suddenly changed my tune a bit. I was getting pretty sick of Seattle at the time. I’d been there for eight years, and it was the only city I’d ever lived in as a true, post-college adult, so I felt antsy to see what else was out there.
In early 2020, I accepted a job in LA and ended up moving down from Seattle right as Covid hit. I arrived in the city on the day the stay at home order was announced, and so my LA journey began. It felt like a cosmic joke had been played on me — finally, I’d made it out of Seattle, ready to embark on a new chapter of my life where I’d form new connections and have fresh experiences, only to be met with total boredom and isolation.
It could’ve been worse though. I was enjoying the sunshine and the new scenery. I’d spend a lot of time walking around, taking in the washed-out color palate of vacant LA, talking to friends on the phone and listening to demos I’d recorded, trying to pull whatever inspiration I could out of the complete emptiness I was feeling. It had been a while since I’d spent that much time alone, and I spent a lot of that time either reflecting on my life or trying to escape my own thoughts. This is the mindset that shaped Zorked, both musically and lyrically.
“Zorked” is a word I made up a few years back to describe the feeling of being high out of your mind. I’ve been trying to get it to catch on for a while now, but it doesn’t seem to have spread to the youth yet. I’m not trying to brag, but I smoked a lot of weed in 2020. Like, a lot. For me, it just pairs really nicely with watching reality TV, listening to music, and walking around aimlessly: three activities I found myself doing a lot of over the past year.
Weed can either make me feel like a total genius or an absolute idiot, depending on the day. That’s something I love about the drug — I never know what to expect. When things get dull, and I find myself running on autopilot, I can always count on weed to make whatever I’m doing 10 times harder, which in turn makes it more interesting and evokes new insights. It’s as if I’m doing whatever I’m doing for the first time. It’s like being a kid again, with both a childlike sense of a wonder and the complete stupidity that goes along with it. Finding it too easy to socialize? Try weed. Movie plots feeling too predictable? Try weed. I love the challenge it creates, and I love how hard it causes me to laugh. What can I say, I love being zorked.
I’ve always been a fan of shoegaze, though I’ve never really attempted to make that kind of music. I feel too embarrassed to put a label on any of the music I make, but a lot of people have been saying my new songs are “shoegaze,” and maybe they’re right. I’ll take it as a compliment. I’ve always been a big My Bloody Valentine fan, and around the time I wrote most of the songs on Zorked, I was listening to a lot of heavy, slow, melodic music like Jesu, King Woman, and DIIV’s Deceiver. I was experimenting with some of the new distortion and fuzz pedals I’d bought over the past year and ended up getting a tone I really liked. I think slow heavy music just kind of fit my mood at the time. It was the only kind of music I felt like listening to or making for a while there. I wrote “Pure Bliss” right after purchasing my first whammy bar. The whammy bar and my distortion pedals practically wrote that song themselves.
I’ve been listening to Elliott Smith since I was 12 and he’s remained a huge influence of mine ever since then. He’s such a beautiful and creative songwriter, and his song structures really seem to have no bounds. I’ve watched and listened to pretty much every Elliott Smith interview out there. There’s this one interview he did on his approach to songwriting that has always stuck with me, and I revisit it often. The way he talks about songwriting is super abstract. He says, “I don’t have a very methodical approach… I don’t really think about it in terms of language, I think about it more in terms of shapes.” I find that I also approach songwriting in a pretty abstract way. I don’t know much music theory, and what I do know, I don’t really take into consideration when I’m writing songs. To me, songs are like puzzles. I’m always trying to find chord changes that hit hard, transitions that feel smooth and melodies that are surprising. Sometimes I’ll have an idea of what I want to hear, and it takes me a while to find it. Other times, I’ll be passively playing guitar and suddenly I do something that sounds cool without thinking about it, and it turns into a song. I like experimenting on guitar and coming up with my own chords and chord shapes — ones that don’t have names, or if they do, I have no idea what they are. I love when songs are melodic, but not too predictable. I think Elliott Smith’s music definitely has that quality.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, I was living in an Airbnb in Glassell Park by myself. With more free time than ever and no roommates to annoy, I decided it was the perfect time to get back into playing piano, so I bought a 88-key Casio keyboard. I took piano lessons around age nine, but dropped out after a couple years, because I feared the recitals so much.
Since then, I’ve sort of dabbled in it, but I never had access to a keyboard or piano to practice regularly. Once I got the keyboard, I started learning songs by Erik Satie and Philip Glass. I loved how much concentration it took — when I was playing piano, there wasn’t any more room in my brain to think about other things. I was completely transported. That Casio I bought is featured on a couple songs on Zorked: “Do Nothing About It” and “Someone.”
Similar to piano, I find that drumming can really transport me. It’s both a physical and mental release. If you’re feeling really anxious, sometimes it can feel really good to just hit things with sticks along to music, ya know? Once I moved in with Melina Duterte, she let me set up her drum kit in our detached garage.
Having access to a drum kit in my own house felt like a dream! I had fun drumming along to my demos and recording scratch drums with one mic, just to see what beats fit best. I also love drumming along to other people’s songs. Some of my favorite songs to drum along to are by Pinback. It’s a fun challenge for me to see if I can figure out how to play a drumbeat I like, or at least sort of try to replicate it. I’ve never taken drum lessons, and I’m still learning, which makes it even more fun to play. I have breakthroughs on drums almost every time I play them, which is super rewarding. I’ve pretty much plateaued on guitar for a while now, so it’s nice to play an instrument where I can easily see the progress I’m making.
My friend Tiff sent me this essay by Adam Curtis after we’d watched a couple of his documentaries. In it, he talks about how self-expression has become the conformity of our time. Art isn’t special or outsider anymore now that everyone is expressing themselves. It doesn’t have as much of an impact as it used to have, at least politically. Capitalism shifted so that now it has adopted this “express yourself” attitude as well, selling people a wide range of products so that they can each feel like individuals. It’s impossible to make an impact with self-expressive art when the power structure you’re trying to rebel against believes in that same thing.
This concept was sort of the idea behind “Hall of Mirrors.” That song is about getting to a point in music/art/life where nothing you make or do feels original anymore. You’re just copying a combination of work you’ve seen or heard before and recreating it for other people to copy over and over again — an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. Maybe part of this is getting older, feeling jaded, and being exposed to so much that something always reminds you of something else. I also sort of see a hall of mirrors as being a metaphor for social media: people posting selfies into the void, painting an ideal version of their lives and looking at how many likes they’re getting, while putting on a performance of sincerity. It’s hard to tell if anything or anyone is really authentic or original anymore.
I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. In high school, I went through a phase of trying to learn how to lucid dream. I’d look at the back of my hands a few times each day and count my fingers. I guess in dreams numbers don’t exist, and neither does time. The idea is, if you look at your hands enough during the day, chances are you will do it in your dream, and that will serve as a reality check. Once you find that you can’t count your fingers, you’ll realize it’s a dream. There are other reality checks you can do, like looking at clocks and turning the lights on and off.
Since high school, I’ve kept dream journals on and off, mostly because I find that recording my dreams every day helps me remember them. Over the past couple years, instead of writing down my dreams, I’ve recorded voice memos about them as soon as I wake up. I ended up using one of these voice memos on “Reptile! Reptile!” from a dream I had about my friend Bree becoming a turtle.
Zorked is out now on Suicide Squeeze.