In early 2020, writing another record was the last thing on Ella Boissonnault’s mind. At the time, the 23-year-old Lady Pills bandleader was fresh off a breakup and feeling the sting of what she now calls the “classic Boston story” among recent Berklee College of Music grads: “You make all your friends, and then everyone moves to New York or LA.” The band had already lost two drummers to other cities, and though she didn’t want to leave Boston herself, it was getting harder to fight off her own doubts about pursuing music.
Then the pandemic arrived, along with more upheaval: Bassist Alison Dooley moved away from Boston for grad school, leaving Boissonnault without her closest collaborator — or any band left to speak of. “I was living alone, and the idea of being able to go on tour or play a show just seemed so impossible at that point. I don’t want to say I gave up, but it just wasn’t a possibility in my mind,” she says.
But with the release of new album “What I Want,” out Friday on indie label Plastic Miracles, Boissonnault sets Lady Pills on a fresh course, calling the shots as a solo artist and trading the project’s reverb-heavy haze for a poppier, more immediate sound. It’s the product of a time she looks back on as “kind of an identity crisis,” spurred by the realization that she’d defined herself through her relationship, band, and job — ”and then all of those things disappeared at the same time.”
Boissonnault had technically started Lady Pills as a solo project during her early days at Berklee, but she’d felt apprehensive about taking it seriously. That changed with the addition of bassist Dooley and drummer Claire Duhring in 2016, leading to the release of the band’s first proper album, “Despite.” The project picked up momentum as a three-piece over the next few years, playing South by Southwest, Boston Calling, and Lollapalooza, where they caught the attention of rock band Warpaint, which later asked them to open their Boston show. By Lady Pills’ last release, 2019′s “Pink Void,” Boissonnault and Dooley had become deeply collaborative songwriters and arrived at a massive sound that hovered somewhere between post-rock and post-punk. After all that, going back to writing alone felt intimidating.
“I didn’t have the intention of ‘here’s the next Lady Pills record,’” Boisonnault says. “It was just like, ‘I just need to do this because I’m losing my mind and I have nothing else going on.’”
She first set out to work on her guitar technique, but practicing brought her back to writing songs again, so she followed the impulse. In May 2020, she called up friend and producer Sean McLoughlin to start experimenting in the studio, and before long, she realized she had a full record on her hands. She took it as an opportunity to flex her skills as a multi-instrumentalist, recording nearly every part on the album herself, including the drums — even though that meant tracking the cymbals separately from the rest of the kit.
“One of my big goals for a long time had been to be able to record drums on a record. Confidence kind of grew from there. Just hearing the songs come together, the whole process of making [the album] was just this actualization process.”
The finished record amps up the punchiness of earlier Lady Pills material and brings in the slightest hint of twang. “I grew up in Virginia, so I grew up listening to a lot of country music, and it’s not the most popular genre in New England, but it’s something I’ve always turned back to,” says Boissonnault. E-bow echoes behind her voice on the title track, a murmur of pedal steel warms “Acting Tough,” and straight-ahead arrangements put renewed emphasis on lyrics throughout.
Elsewhere, shouty noise-pop interjections sound playful but add bite. After all, Boissonnault explains, it’s a breakup record of sorts, but that’s not all it is. Songs like “The Conditions” and “Your Real Life” take on music-industry sexism and its impact on personal relationships; the chorus of “What I Want” drips with sugary sarcasm (“Poor man, is it so hard for you?”) that might be fueled by all of the above. But beyond difficult endings, it’s a portrait of frustration melting into clarity and making way for better things to come.
These days, that means playing live again. On Thursday, Lady Pills makes the long-awaited return to the stage at the Sinclair, opening for fellow Bostonian Squirrel Flower. Next up, Boissonnault is looking forward to her own East Coast tour, which kicks off with an album release show at the Lilypad in Cambridge on Feb. 18.
“It just kind of came back together,” Boissonnault says. “This is what I want to do. It’s just so deeply ingrained, and this album feels like, in a lot of ways, reclaiming that.”
With Boston Cream and Pet Fox. At the Lilypad, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge. Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. $12. www.lilypadinman.com