“I think records should be like a time capsule,” Natalie Prass says. When people listen to her latest, The Future And The Past, decades from now, hoping for some insight into a turbulent time, they might wonder, “Were people in 2018 really happy, or really sad?”
As we well know, there’s not a simple answer to that question—nothing about 2018 has felt simple. But with her latest batch of R&B-infused, groove-grounded, light-as-a-feather tunes, Natalie Prass isn’t attempting to answer questions of why everything is so absurd right now. She just wants to help you dance through the chaos. That’s why, following her critically-lauded, self-titled 2015 debut, she swapped out a work-in-progress album of breakup songs for The Future And The Past—a political album that markets joy, a protest record you can groove to. After the 2016 election, Prass couldn’t stay silent, and she couldn’t stay still.
“At the time it just felt way more important to talk about the political issues going on in our country and what I was experiencing personally with my community around me,” Prass says from her home in Nashville, Tenn., where she’s taking a short break between tours. “The subject matter I was dealing with [on the] record I was intending to record originally, I was like, ‘That person doesn’t even deserve any of my attention.’ I think it was more important to me to talk about political issues over all. I still feel really proud of my vision and, I’m proud I put my foot down.”
That vision of protest-music-meets-dance-music is delightfully executed throughout The Future And The Past, which has been out since June 1, but that’s not to say the political outweighs the personal. The two paradigms don’t dodge one another; they intersect. Prass wrote some songs, like one called “Ship Go Down,” about specific social issues (in its case, the president). But, after playing it on tour a bunch of times, she decided it was about an ex-boyfriend. Another track, the vulnerable “Lost,” a tune from the scrapped heartbreak record that wiggled its way onto this LP, is a breakup ballad so painful Prass wasn’t even sure if wanted to include it. But, many listeners have connected with the song on a political level, interpreting it through the lens of the #MeToo movement. “I get lost when I’m with you,” Prass sings. “But at what cost?”
“I was fighting to not have that one on the record because it was just so personal, and it was so confessional and I just wasn’t ready to put that out there,” Prass says. “And then I’m really glad I did. It’s crazy the timing of the song and what’s happening culturally. A lot of people really connect to it, and it’s encouraging. That’s what helps me sing it and helps me deal with the fact that it’s on my album: It’s helping people heal.”
So The Future And The Past isn’t just fired-up anthems or just cleansing melodramas—the songs walk—or rather, dance—the line between the two. “Short Court Style,” one of the first singles from the album, is a dizzying love song—literally: “’Round and ’round / Had ups and downs / But I can’t be without / My love that I have found.” But it also pulls weight as a blues-killing bop. It’s nearly impossible not to break a smile, or a dance move, when you hear the song start up with a gaggle of Spice Girls-esque voices (they’re actually all Prass) and spiral into an infectious groove. It’s a study in layering: Chipper keys stack up on top of tight basslines on top of R&B vocals with support from a Brazilian percussion instrument called the cuíca, which is just pure fun. “Short Court Style” sounds like a mashup of great American music styles, and that’s because Prass’s stated influences span everything from ’70s disco to early 2000s hip hop, citing both the Bee Gees and Missy Elliott as inspirations.
“I have such a respect for American music and black American music,” she says. “It’s powerful music and it got me at a young age. This country’s very lucky with how rich our music history is here. We’re very lucky to be surrounded by some of the best music ever.”
Listen to Natalie Prass’s Daytrotter session:
“Short Court Style” recalls something familiar, but it’s distinctly Natalie Prass. She wears her vast influences on her sleeve, but her airy voice is singular. On album standout “The Fire,” Prass offers solace for weathering a storm, singing, in her romantic soprano, “Elation, sadness, we’re mend then destroy / A sparrow within all of the noise.” It’s a classic toe-tapper, replete with baritone-like synths and steady funk beats, but it projects modern day anxieties. “I like making that kind of music because that’s the kind of music I like to listen to, but, I also want to make it modern and me, try and put my own spin on it,” she says.
With The Future And The Past, Prass knew she wanted to talk about social issues, about our country’s frustrating political polarization, about gender inequality and sisterly solidarity. But she also knew she needed to make it jubilant. Slow, somber songs only go so far during dark times.
“There’s a lot of sad music right now,” she says. “People are really attracted to sad music, and I’m a little worried about that. It kind of bothers me, but I’m just trying to do what feels right for me. Personally, as I get older, I want to listen to music that inspires me and makes me feel connected to humanity and connected to the world around me in a positive way.”
So, she wrote the joyful “Short Court Style” and the sludgy, sleek, awestruck “Oh My.” And “Sisters,” a funky, frank anthem women have quickly taken to in the #MeToo age. But Prass’ protest songs, while bellied with pointed messages, are more primed for dancing than marching.
“A lot of my favorite artists that have written political albums that have stood the test of time, it’s music you can dance to or groove to,” she says. “Everybody’s experiencing a lot of pain in whatever way from whatever angle, so I think it’s important when talking about these painful issues to package it in a way that feels like it’s just part of life and part of growing, and you can get through it. You just have to keep moving and keep an open mind and an open heart.”
She brings the same strategy to her live show, a positive-vibes-only, smiley hoopla. Backed by a troupe of dude musicians (including her fiance and Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick), Prass is the lone frontwoman. Her bandmates wear blue jumpsuits, while she dons a yellow skirt set, or maybe a pink one. At her October show at Atlanta’s The Earl, glittered sheets served as a backdrop while soft pink lights illuminated the stage. Prass delivered a party as opposed to a set, treating her tiny but enthused audience to all The Future And The Past’s dance hits as well as standouts from her self-titled first album, like “Bird of Prey” and “Your Fool.” As the show neared its end, elation, or maybe exhaustion, consumed the band as they burst into an improvised song about La Croix, prompted by Slick’s swigging one of the fizzy, fruity drinks. Somehow, it wasn’t kitschy at all. During the show, sparkling water tribute included, Prass kept things chill, spirited and good-natured.
“I knew I wanted the overall vibe of our show to be joyful, and I wanted people leaving feeling inspired and feeling happier and just feeling renewed,” she says. “And also just feeling engaged with their communities. There’s just so much around us now that is so heavy. And I think as humans we can only handle so much heaviness, so I’m trying to put out there that we can all get through this.”
In addition to Prass’s skilled band, Australian artist Stella Donnelly joined her on her most recent North American tour. The singer/songwriter and guitarist delivered a set of funny and, at times, frank songs, including “Boys Will Be Boys,” a masterful case against victim blaming women who’ve been sexually assaulted. It paired spookily well with Prass’ “Sisters,” which she also performed later that night (both songs were featured on our #MeToo anthems list). “Sisters” is a siren call to women everywhere, begging with snazzy instrumentation and sassy clap-backs that we “keep our sisters close” in our battle against entitled men: “Come on nasty women / So all the bad girls here / Let’s make that clear.” On the day Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whom she accused of sexually assaulting her in high school, Prass says she received a number of tags on social media, more than she’d ever gotten before: Women everywhere were listening to “Sisters” to show their support, and their outrage.
“The song was written pretty much right after the election,” Prass says. “And I mentioned the ‘nasty women’ thing in the chorus, and I know it’s pretty on-the-nose, and I try to steer clear of being completely on-the-nose, but at the time I was like, ‘No. I need to be on the nose. Because I don’t know what the hell is happening.’ When that song was written, I was like ‘I wanna be as clear as possible. I wanna talk about wage differences and abusive relationships and inequality and injustices in the workplace and I wanna just have this battle song for all women to come together, inclusivity, because all women deal with these issues.’”
Wrapping up her own European tour later this month, Prass will join another loud female voice in music, Kacey Musgraves, early next year. It’s a progressive ticket, not only because Musgraves, who has been clear in her support for the LGBTQ+ community, is an outspoken liberal voice in country music’s often-conservative base, but also because it’s not too often that an indie-rock singer joins a country-pop artist on the road. That crossover is one reason Prass, who’s based in country mecca Nashville, is so excited for the tour to kick off in January.
“I’m really proud because women like Kacey and Margo Price, these women I’m friends with—we all follow each other on social media—I’m just really proud that they’re in the country world and they’re speaking up about issues,” she says. “I really love that Kacey speaks up and that makes me feel really good about going out with her and supporting her on her tour, because I think she’s making a lot of big changes that need to be made.”
Prass should be proud of herself, too. She made a record that has, so far in its five-month lifespan, snowballed in meaning, giving Prass’s fans a reason to dance and a soundtrack to both their despairs and their delights.
“I feel like with a more groovy kind of approach to the subject matter, it helps me especially,” she says. “I really needed that, and so I was hoping it could help others as well.”
Watch Natalie Prass’s recently released live video for “Far From You” below.