Natalie Prass released her stunning self-titled debut album this past January on Richmond’s Spacebomb Records, recorded at the label’s Richmond-based studio, and collaborated with a talented cadre of Richmond musicians. Yet Prass cut her teeth while living in Nashville for nine years, and the soul of the city lingers throughout an album filled with bluesy keys, elaborate horn arrangements, decadent layers of strings and the enveloping voice of a groovy belle on the rise.
The 29-year old Prass has since became a critical success, touring Europe for most of last month. The tireless singer/songwriter wasted no time upon arriving on the continent before “doing some writing” and playing one of her early European shows at Madrid’s modern art haven, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. We caught up with Prass as she rode in her tour van from Glasgow to London, in an artistic comfort zone, seemingly unaware of the passage of time but still cheerful and bubbly (“Is this the 23rd today or the 22nd? I don’t even know! You know how it is. But let’s talk!”), for a glimpse into her creative process and leaving her role in Jenny Lewis’s backing band to focus on her own promising career.
: You lived in Nashville for almost a decade, and when I think of Nashville, I think of country. Do you see yourself as country at all? Did that ever play into your mind when you were out there?
Natalie Prass: The thing is, I never listened to country before I moved to Nashville. I knew nothing about it. Of course I had heard “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and songs like that. I mean, everybody’s heard those songs. But I never had any interest in listening to country until I lived there. Even then, I don’t listen to it that much besides like Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline…
: There’s definitely moments on the album, like “Never Over You” specifically, that stands out as being one of the more Nashville-inspired songs on the album.
Prass: For sure. I lived there for so long that it rubbed off on me. As much as I don’t listen to country, it was just around me all the time.
: I read that you wrote “Never Over You” on the piano. The piano really does stand out on it and then even more so on “Why Don’t You Believe Me.” When you’re in the studio, are you on the piano or the guitar, or…?
Prass: It just depends…on this album, I didn’t play anything. I just sang ‘cause I had the mentality that “Well they [studio musicians] can play it way better than I can…Why not just let them play it?” Since time was kinda of the essence. If it’s just me or me and somebody else recording in the studio, we can keep hearing it and spend a lot of time on getting it right. That wasn’t the vibe on this record because there were so many people on such a tight schedule. It’d be like “We have an hour to record guitar on this song.” And that rolled on this record. I mean, if there were problems or anything, I could knock that out pretty quickly, but I just play guitar by ear. I never took any lessons or anything. I just write…I don’t know what I’m doing! [laughs] I can hear it and figure it out. But I don’t just look at a guitar and see patterns. I should be able to cause I’ve been playing guitar since I was 18. But I use it mostly as a writing tool so it can help me put my thoughts together.
: On working with your producer Matthew E. White and the musicians he assembled at Spacebomb, something that really stands out and sets this record apart are the horn and string arrangements. Did you envision it coming to life so damn cohesively that way or was it like a lightning in a bottle type of thing?
Prass: Not really. I had an idea, but like…I was 25 when we were making this record and while I had ideas, Matt and I talked about influences and direction. I would show him songs that I knew and he would show me stuff that about where he was coming from. We did our pre-production with four of us to bring the songs together and the shape of the songs started coming to life slowly. But then it was just amazing when Trey [Pollard] came over and showed us the strings and midi-arrangements, you could tell. It was like…“Oh god, this is gonna be incredible” and then Matt showing the horn arrangements. And once we got in the studio, it was this whole big thing, when the players were actually there. It was very cool.
: Yeah…that all these people were there to enact your music?
Prass: There’s a lot of people involved to make this whole shape. I couldn’t have ever envisioned that because of all the people it took to make the record.
: From where I’m standing, “Bird of Prey” is one of the most beautifully written and produced songs of the year. Talk a little bit about the lyrics and the motif of a bird in flight.
Prass: How I tend to work is I start by writing the natural melody….the melody and chords come really quickly and naturally to me and then the lyrics and the story; it takes me a while to piece everything together. On that one, I had everything together except for the lyrics, and I finished it with a guy named Kyle Lauria. I had the idea for “Bird of Prey” of somebody being in a toxic relationship, where somebody was just holding on way too tight and it felt like they had you cornered and watching you. It came from that.
: How do you manage to come across so light-hearted when writing about kind of a difficult situation?
Prass: Well, when I originally wrote the song, it was not light-hearted sounding at all. It was very creepy, it was very drowning and you could hear the tension and hear how I felt. It made me feel suffocated when I originally wrote it. It was very “chhh—boom…chhh—boom” sounding, very creepy and slow and then I remember Matt was jamming in Richmond and he sent me a voice memo of him jamming on it and I was like “Ohh…interesting.” It kinda took me a second to get into it because I had it in my head for a while and we were playing it a certain way. But then once I heard it a little bit, I was like “Oh, badass! I really like this” with the music being light-hearted.
: At your show in L.A. in April, Ryan Adams came out to play a couple songs with you. It really fed the crowd’s energy. You’ve done some touring with him in Europe. How did you guys meet and what’s your relationship like?
Prass: Well, I was playing in Jenny Lewis’s band and we were opening for Ryan. I vibed with his band ‘cause I know the keyboard player, Daniel Clark, really well. He’s a Richmond guy, and he played on my record. He’s been my buddy since the record, and we had found out that he actually came out to my 13th birthday party, because he used to hang out with my sister in college [laughs]. So I’d always be hanging with Daniel, and then Ryan knew I had a record coming out and I showed it to him and he loved it. Then Ryan asked me to go on the Europe tour with him.
: So are you totally done playing with Jenny’s band now?
Prass: No, I don’t have time. I wasn’t sure at first, because you don’t know how things are gonna happen when your record comes out. It’s a big gamble. It came out in January and I was still playing with Jenny non-stop up until Christmas, and then I went to Richmond with a suitcase and my gear and had to find a place to live and I knew I had a record coming out in a little bit. We only had three shows in Europe and then five shows in the U.S. and then the record came out and kinda took off. So I was kinda planning on maybe doing both, but I didn’t know how busy I was gonna be, and then quickly I figured out that I couldn’t do it. I’ve been gone pretty much non-stop on my own since January. It’s been a crazy shift and the difference.
: When I first started listening to you, I would think to myself “Well, this is kinda like Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom.” But now, after listening to the album so many times, those thoughts don’t cross my mind anymore, because it really feels like it’s you and your style. Natalie Prass sounds like Natalie Prass. Can you put your style into words? And are you accomplishing what you set out to do or do you just get this feeling that things just happened?
Prass: I’ve had this idea that’s hard to put into words, because it’s just been a long journey and I’ve just been grinding and singing. But I will say that people like Joni have sufficiently influenced my singing style. I love singing, but it was important for me to have and develop my own thing. I wish I could sing like a badass black woman or gospel kinda stuff. I can’t because I’m a 108-pound white girl! [laughs] So I just figured out what I can do, my limitations of my own voice, and worked really hard on developing what I can do and taking it as far as I can go—in a healthy way, because it’s easy to fuck up your voice. You gotta do it right.
A lot of playing, a lot of listening, a lot of writing and eventually just kinda getting to this groove. I do make artistic decisions that I don’t want to sound like anybody else. I want it to be genuine. I want it to be me. But I take a lot of useful stuff from from older artists who bring me joy and make my ears perk up and that I find interesting. I enjoy R&B music, modern R&B [chuckles] very much. I love anything with a nice groove and thoughtfulness. So whatever mixture of that with like a little white girl, that’s my style!