Natalie Prass interview: "I'm a lot more comfortable with letting myself out, giving direction and being in charge of my own business."
Today sees the release of The Future and The Past, the second album from Natalie Prass. It’s an album that shows incalculable growth, being as it was recorded more than 5 years after her debut, and was even further delayed by Prass’ decision to rewrite the majority of it following the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. The resulting album veers between seething and emphatic, with some stops at the lovelorn ballad type songs that made us fall in love with her in the first place.
Regardless of the topic though, Prass and long-time producer, collaborator and friend Matthew E. White have created an album that is eminently poppy and danceable, even when tackling the tough topics. This became even more clear when Prass and her band took the stage at London’s Bush Hall to perform the new material, and she didn’t stop moving for the entire set.
We got to sit down with Prass the day after the show, to discuss the contents of The Future and The Past. Throughout the extended chat she was always laughing and upbeat in her contemplations, regardless of subject, which got quite serious when we delved into how recent life and political developments have come to influence Prass personally, emotionally and musically.
Firstly, I loved the show last night, it seems like you had a good time too!
I had a great time!
I was impressed that you managed to stay in shirt and tie the whole time, it was so warm in there!
It was really hot!
As soon as I saw you I thought “that tie is coming off within one or two songs, top button undone,” but you stuck with it! You weren't sweating?
No, I was definitely sweating. I have to go to the dry cleaner today. We were all disgusting.
The new songs sound amazing live!
Thank you! We're still working it out, but I think we're off to a good start.
And some of those guys are the same guys you recorded The Future and The Past with?
Yeah, Pinson [Chanselle] on drums played on my record - he played on both of my records. And then Alan Parker played on the new record.
Alan and Devonne Harris are the new members to your recording band, how have they added to your sound?
Those guys are just so fluent in their instruments and so skilled, and it's really nice. They all know how to play together really well so they feed off each other, which is really nice. I feel like they all understand how to support a song when they're all together.
There's quite a shift in sound from your first album, was that your doing or was it a group thing?
That was definitely my doing. I've grown a lot since I recorded that last record, which was in 2011-2012, and then it came out in 2015. And now my record's coming out in 2018, so between all that time I feel like I've developed into a thing, and I was really excited to show that side of who I am and my tastes. I said to [Producer] Matt [E. White] "I want this to be a record that everybody can enjoy, but I still wanna challenge people with arrangements and trickiness." I still love heavy musicality, but I wanted it to be more like a Steely Dan record or something, where you can still put on 'Peg' and dance [laughs] but still, the musicianship underneath is top notch. And I just wanted to have more fun on stage.
There are many reasons why I wanted to push it in this direction. And then also when the election happened it made me want to go in that direction even more, because when that happened, when the results came in, I was devastated. For months I was in a really, really dark place, and the only music that was truly getting through to me was gospel music, and I'm not a religious person, but you can't deny how powerful gospel music is. Richmond has a heavy gospel scene, and there's this record store there called Barky’s, and it's been open for 60-something years. It's the oldest record store in Richmond and the guy who owns it is in his late 80s, but he's amazing. I would just go in there and he would play stuff for me. I was like "this is what I need to feel like: hopeful and not like the world around me is a dark and confusing place." So I felt like I needed to make music that would help me and potentially help others, because if I feel this way there must be others who feel this way.
So after the election result it was a little while before you could start working again?
It was pretty crazy. I thought I was scheduled to record in June 2016, and then it got pushed to September, and then it got pushed to December, so we were gonna record a whole different record in Decemeber 2016, but then when November hit... I was so frustrated during all that time like "really? we're pushing it again? And again? And again?!" for all these reasons out of my control, it was really frustrating. Then when November happened, I was ironically the person who wanted to push it to March, because I wanted to rewrite it [Laughs].
It kind of feels like fate to me, because if I'd released that record right now, I'd be talking about that record and playing that music, it wouldn't feel as fulfilling and meaningful. It would feel meaningful but it wouldn't feel like I would be doing my public service that I really sought out on this record, because I feel it's really important. Compared to others, I have a smaller platform, but I still feel like why not use it? I still have to say what I believe, and I still wanna stand up for people, and I wanna spread joy and hope. I would be very upset with myself if I just released some kind of neutral record that wasn't actually saying anything about what's actually happening in the world, so it feels like fate that it happened.
You say you want to spread joy, which is what I get from the album, but that's a surprise given the topics and everything that's been said about it. But the joy was your way to overcome these things?
Yeah, definitely. I guess you need to look at it like life is just that way: there's a ton of shit, but you have to focus on the positives - what is the silver lining? For instance, in our country, what I've noticed, is we talk about politics now, when that wasn't really a general conversation topic before - you just kind of avoided it. You talk about politics a little bit more casually, just in everyday conversation, but that's not in American culture at all really. My sister married a German man, and I remember meeting him when I was 15 being like "whoa, we're just talking about Bush right now with my parents!" You don't talk about politics with your parents - at least not my parents, because I have completely different views to my parents. So it kind of freaked me out, because I'd never really done that before. I feel that's a really positive change in our country, now everybody's engaged and talking about it and wants to fix it. We need to focus on that. Well, not everybody wants to fix it, but most Americans do.
Alright let's get into the album, The Future and The Past. First let's talk about the front cover and how that relates to the album. It looks like you had fun making it?
[Laughs] Yeah! It was made by me and my best friend, Erica Prince, who did the album illustrations on my last album. We've been best friends since we were 14 and we've always collaborated with one another; it's just funny, we're still doing all the same stuff together, but now I can pay her [laughs]. We did the 'Short Court Style' music video together, and she and I had a bunch of different Pinterest boards, and I basically just wanted something that looked retro-yet-modern, I wanted to tow that line and I wanted a certain colour palette, and I wanted to blend masculine and feminine. There's minor symbolism in the stuff: I have this yellow shirt on in the cover, it's a vintage men's shirt, and I had a friend make it fit me and then sew yellow rose buttons on the shirt, which is the symbol of the Suffragettes. I wanted to wear a men's style coat, the coat was modelled on a man in the Instagram post of this vintage shop in Brooklyn but I was like "I need that suit, that's the suit I want!" so my friend made it fit me as well as she could, it's still kind of weirdly shaped. I wanted a bow in my hair and blue... I don't know, I just wanted it to be striking.
And then the title The Future and The Past, I wanted the fashion to reflect that, like retro-futurism. I feel like my music is that way; I really love music from the past, I'm not ashamed or afraid to say that heavily influences my music, but I’m always very aware to put my own spin on it and make sure it's current - hopefully I'm achieving that [laughs].
Definitely! That's definitely something I get from the album. One you mentioned on stage last night is Karen Carpenter...
Yeah, I feel like I've always related to Karen, in that she's pretty goofy and I'm really goofy [laughs]. She definitely took a lot of criticism and she was from a different time, when women didn’t have as much of a say, and she was from a family that was very hard on her, and pushed her to do things. She had it really hard, and I've never had it that hard, but because of women like her and women that have come before me, I know how to navigate myself and where I belong and who I surround myself with, and I can totally control my world - and maybe she couldn't really do that. We're also both Pisces, if you wanna get into that [laughs], but I just see a lot of myself in her - I think maybe it's because we look so much alike, but also because of her mannerisms and stuff.
You said you were introduced to her when you were 12...
Yeah, I had never heard of her before. I started singing at a pretty young age, and I did a lot of musical theatre. That's when boy bands and girl bands were huge, when I was 12, and this guy was like "I'm gonna try to put together a boy and girl singing group," and I auditioned for it. I was such a weirdo when I was that age, I was making all my own clothes, and - I guess I haven't changed that much - I remember I was wearing a really shiny silver outfit [laughs], and I still wear a lot of shiny stuff. He was like "you look like Karen Carpenter, let's have you sing 'We've Only Just Begun'," so I learned it and then I dove into everything Karen.
Was it easy to find stuff about her pre-internet?
My dad bought me a CD and I instantly connected. Her voice is just so effortless and beautiful and you can just hear her sweetness in her voice.
I wanted to go through the tracks on The Future and The Past in order, but we might as well jump ahead to 'Far From You' while we're talking about Karen Carpenter. You wanted to do kind of your own spin on the classic Carpenters song 'Close To You' - is it like an ode to her?
Yeah. I guess I just wanted to write a song that was a tribute to her. A lot of people, when they think of Karen they think of how she died, and they don't think about how talented she was in her drumming and her musicianship and just how beautiful her spirit was. So I just wanted to talk about that in a song.
Alright, let's go back to the start of the album. It starts with 'Oh My', which has a verse about global warming, is that something you worry about a lot?
I'm one of those people who's like "maybe I won't have kids," because if I have kids they're going to have to deal with the Earth burning up [laughs]. It's sad, I shouldn't think of it that way, I should think of it in the positive way, like "maybe there's something that can be done, and the future generation will step in where generations before have failed."
Is that one that came post-Trump and was it in reaction to his seeming disregard of the threat of global warming?
Yeah, it was after and yeah I think withdrawing from the Paris agreement was the first thing he did. There were months where any time I heard Trump speak, or any time Hillary Clinton was mentioned, I would burst out into tears, I couldn't handle it. But it just shows how the news was really messing with me and everyone around me. A lot of my girlfriends were feeling the same way; wouldn't leave the house, were wrapped in blankets. It was a crazy time. It's crazy that that man had such a crazy effect on all of us that way. It's like I really don't like him, but I'm really pissed off that he's affecting us physically.
Why did you put 'Oh My' first?
It was the first one I recorded and it is just the perfect ice breaker. I thought it was on message with the new direction of the record. It's a good overview, like "this is crazy, what the hell?" and then: here's the rest of the record [Laughs].
'Short Court Style' then lightens things up a bit. Is that the oldest song in the collection?
No, 'Nothing To Say' is, actually.
Ah right, because I listened to the Song Exploder episode about 'Short Court Style', and you originally wrote it for a short film back in 2016. It's such a fun song, I can see why you chose it as the first single, and the video looks like so much fun too!
Thanks! It was so much fun! That was the first time I'd ever directed anything, and written a treatment, and produced a video. Me and my best friend [Erica], that was a complete collaboration between the two of us, and I felt like we were a little in over our heads because neither of us had done a video where it's just us before. She directed my 'Why Don't You Believe In Me' video, but we had this girl Tiona [McClodden] film it and everything, and it was so easy just being in a room. This was a whole production, being outside, renting lights - there's so much stuff like shovelling horse poop so the dancers don't step in it when they're dancing. There was a team of four of us, but it was so much work, I've never been that physically exhausted after a project before. Just like running, running, spin spin spin, running running running [laughs]. And it was freezing and it was raining, and I'd painted that merry-go-round two days before, and I was like "oh it's kind of wet still, oh well, here we go."
So what did you write in the treatment, just "I'm gonna run around and spin..."?
[Laughs] No it was a little more conceptual than that. The lyric that stands out the most is "round and round," so it was Erica's idea, she was like "what if we find one of those merry-go-round things?" and I was like "Yes! But how do we find one?" Because they're banned in the States, because lots of kids injured themselves, so people own them privately if they still exist. Luckily I found on Facebook - the only time I've used Facebook in the last few years - I found one not too far from Richmond. So around that merry-go-round I wrote the whole story, about how we're all circling together in space and time, and time is continuous and time moves on and we're all just cycling through life together. So that's the conceptual part of it. When it gets to night time and the stars come out I wanted it to look like I was in space or something.
You co-wrote 'The Fire' with Mikky Ekko, how do you know him?
From Nashville. I've known him for a very long time. We sang at a wedding together in 2008... I've known him for so long, since when he was just starting off with the Mykki Ekko project. That's kind of a crazy story: Steve and I wrote that song together, and then he wrote his own version, but then I couldn't quite remember what we did, so I wrote my own version. So he's still a co-writer even though I completely rewrote it.
This song feels like it's a similar heartbreak to the first album, but much more confident and full of self-importance, which is true on all of the softer songs on the album. Has that been part of your growth?
I feel like as a person I've had to overcome a lot. I still deal with it very much, but anxiety and depression and self-esteem stuff. When I was in my early 20s it was crippling, and when I listen back to my music - I was listening to recordings I did before the record with Matt [Natalie Prass], and you can hear it in my voice. It's like "God, this is hard to listen to." And I remember even when I was recording with Matt on the last record, I thought to myself "I need to sound more confident," and I thought I was giving it my all, but even when I listen to that record I'm like "shit, I can still hear [that lack of confidence]." I've had to work through so much, and it's still a process. I've always had a struggle with that, and I do feel like I'm a lot more comfortable with letting who I am out, and giving direction, and being in charge of my own business. You have to step it up if you want to survive, and this is what I want to do, this is what I love, so I feel like I have to do this or else I can't be a musician.
I really like the image "a sparrow within all of the noise" - is that how you see yourself?
I guess so, yeah. I love birds [laughs], I get compared to a bird a lot. There's a freedom to birds, but also a softness, they're very delicate but they're also very free.
'Hot For The Mountain', along with 'Sisters', is kind of the mission statement for the album. Do you consider this a protest song?
I do. The song to me is written for - this is my interpretation of it - but it's written for the outcasts. But it's just like "be yourself, but work with one another, and if we work with one another then we can make real change." I guess that's where I was coming from, so yeah it is a protest song.
And then 'Lost' is almost the complete opposite. And it's also the first you entirely produced on your own, how did that come about?
Matt was in Europe touring [laughs]. I wasn't intending for that song to be on the record, I thought that it didn't go with the rest of the message. That song is like a pop ballad and I was like "I don't know if I wanna do that. I can write that music and I'm capable of making music like that, but I don't know if that's what I want to do." But I thought about it a ton, and everybody around me was like "I can't ever get that song out of my head, it's a really good song." And it was written about somebody that I thought didn't really deserve any of my attention. The #MeToo stuff hadn't reached the public eye yet when I recorded it, but I thought "this is really important"; it's about overcoming a more-or-less just a bad relationship, so it's overcoming that and putting your foot down, but at what cost? It's like "no, my line is here. Enough." I thought that was important, I was like "OK, actually this is a very empowering song," and I think a lot people could relate to that.
The verse "Though all the scars are healing /You’re always biting back… When I lie down then you attack," is quite tough, but it is empowering to come out and say all these things like that. How did it feel to produce?
It was great. It was just me, Devonne, Pinson, and Cameron [Ralston], and then Trey [Pollard] came in and we did strings. That song, it didn't need much, it didn't need a full transformation or anything, it didn't need a lot of planning, the song kind of spoke for itself. But it did feel really good, me being totally in charge of the session.
But with this record, even though Matt's the producer, which he very much is, I was heavily involved. Matt and I are so comfortable with one another, we're like brother and sister, we love and respect each other so much and we're not afraid to speak our mind with one another, but the difference between the first record and this one, the first one I was still feeling everybody out, I'd never done anything like that, I'd always just built tracks by myself or with one other person. So now I was very comfortable with how Matt's world works, and I was like "I got this." It was very much like a collaborative thing, but there's so much to producing that you don't really think about. With music I didn't want to be completely thinking about all that stuff too, I just wanted to focus on the music. But I did produce my very first record a few weeks ago for another artist, and that was fucking awesome. I was like "oh this is great when it's not my own music, I can be all business" [laughs]. So I think producing 'Lost', where it's just me in charge, did prep me for that, and I'd like to do that more often because I really enjoyed it.
'Sisters' was exciting to record, right?
Oh yeah! Most definitely. It was also really scary. Matt and I, after the election, we got together every day or every other day and talked and listened to music and wrote music, but mostly it was talking. He has a bunch of drum machines, and he had this one beat saved that had the melody of the chorus, but it was real jagged. I was like "that's really sick, that could be a chorus, and that feels like what we've been talking about for the past few days, let's write around that." Then we ended up building the whole song around it.
That was a really therapeutic one for both Matt and I because, y'know Matt doesn't really understand what I've gone through and what a lot of other female musicians have gone through, because he's a dude - and that's not his fault. But I remember there were a lot of times Matt was like "oh shit, I didn't think of it that way," or "Oh I didn't realise that was a thing," which I thought was really cool, that we were getting on the same page. But it was also really scary putting ourselves out there like that, I wanted to talk about the family leave care, how hard it is financially to exist in America because everything's so expensive and it's easy to go into debt when you're living in America, especially if you're a single mom. So I wanted to talk about that, and I wanted to talk about domestic abuse, and I wanted to talk about sexual soul and stuff, and how the system in America isn't set up for women to succeed, and there's a lot of hurdles we have to jump through, and we have to play this weird game to get to the same place, always towing the line.
The thing is the problem is just built in our culture, so women that want to be their own person and successful and a business have to jump through all the stereotypes that women have against women and men have against women, so everyone's against us. So the chorus kind of sums it all up like "well, we gotta change this, and we need to stick together because if one ship rises we all rise. We have to level the playing field here, and we have to make the world better for everybody to live in."
And it sounds like you had a great time recording the gang vocal on 'Sisters'.
Oh my god, that was incredible! When all those girls came in, there was like 9 of them, it was amazing! I never had a choir on my music before. I wanted to emulate that gospel sound without going full gospel, I just wanted a lot of unison. I thought if we were all together as a group singing in unison that would portray what I wanted to come across.
It sounds like it could be the theme song for the Women's March. Did you go?
I did. As soon as it was announced I knew I was going. I actually wrote a song called 'Women's March' as soon as I found out about it, and it almost made it on the record.
Are you enjoying playing 'Sisters' live?
I am! And I love that all the guys in my band are hard core feminists, so it feels really good, I think they enjoy playing it too. I would like to have some women in my band [laughs], but it's nice that I have such feminist guys in my band.
On the lyric sheet under the title of 'Never Too Late' you've put a little note: "I would just like to say, of course it can be too late." Who is that for?
[Laughs] It's just... sometimes it can be too late. Sometimes people don't deserve your forgiveness, or you can forgive them but you can't move forward together. You have to move forward apart. When I was writing that song I was in LA, and I was listening to a ton of Beegees and Steely Dan and Quincy Jones productions, and I was like "I really wanna write a song like that, in that world." I was mostly thinking it would be nice to talk about it being never too late to forgive people, and everything being OK, and that you love them. I don't know, I thought that was a nice thing to say... I was thinking a lot about my family and people that you should just forgive and move on. It's not too late to just love somebody.
'Ship Go Down' is a direct retaliation to what's happening in America. What was your mood when writing this one?
That's probably the most angry one on the record. That was really nice, I was just laying on the ground in the studio, singing that last part where I'm kind of screaming for a couple of minutes, and we edited it down too! [Laughs] It was like, "whoa!", but it felt really good to just wail at the end there.
When you're singing "it's crazy to see a ship go down," it sounds like you're stepping back and just observing the chaos. Do you feel helpless in that moment?
Yeah, I was definitely on the naive side. The first election I voted in was for Obama; I could have voted when I was 18 for Al Gore, but I was just a dumb 18 year old living in Boston and I wasn't together enough back then. Before Trump I was just thinking "our country has a lot of problems but at least we're going in the right direction; most of us want things to be a certain way." So I was definitely very naive, and so when I saw this man kind of destroy everything that I thought our country was, it just felt like I'm sitting back and being like "oh my god," just watching it happen on TV every day, realising everything around me is totally not what I thought it was.
And tell me about the line "only when I'm floating I can see all the sweet lights twinkling below me."
It's just like only when I kind of step back and observe that I can see that there's lights, but oh my god now they're falling. I'm thinking of the Titanic, seeing the lights underneath the water.
You said 'Nothing To Say' is the oldest song in the collection, but I definitely get that same feeling of new self-confidence, and even a little of the protest spirit...
There is. That's a kind of more political song, but was written back in the day. I think we wrote that song together in 2011. The verse "Doesn’t matter where you started/ Every good man will fall / No matter the flag that’s raised / Or the place that you call your home," I guess we were just thinking about the war going on still at that time, how we're all different but we're all just here together. I guess back then I didn't really understand what was going on as deeply - I still don't.
But that final line I guess is something you’ve followed: "there's no looking ahead if you stay the same." You've always had that feeling.
Yeah, it's like you have to change and change with the times and grow. It's really important for the soul to keep searching.
Recording 'Nothing To Say' was so much fun. That was Devonne playing everything on that track, and Matt was basically like "I don't know what to do with this song," and I was like "I got it." And so I was like "alright Devonne, I want you to pull up fake keys..." I was basically his Juno for that song, and we threw everything at the wall. Me and Devon were building everything, throwing everything out there, and Matt filtered through it and was like "Ok we'll keep this, let's put an effect here." That was really fun, we were all just laughing making that track. It was also really fun making my backing vocals on that track, I just wanted to go all the way on it. I was thinking a lot about Kate Bush and Prince.
Which brings us to 'Ain't Nobody' at the end, why did you put it as the last song?
Like 'Oh My', I thought it was a nice bookend. We had the choir for that one. It's definitely touching on women's rights, because it's still a big thing with the pay gap and healthcare and all the stuff like that still happening.
I really like how you sample the "we'll take you on" line from 'Hot For The Mountain' in it, which ties it all back together, was that your idea?
Yeah it was!
And for people who want to get deeper into the themes, were there any other books or different media influenced you in the creation of the album?
There are a couple of organisations that I donate to: the NARAL and Gloria Steinem's new incarcerated women's foundation that she started. I don't know, I guess I'm always reading some kind of feminist literature; Roxane Gay is pretty great, Brené Brown.
What do you want listeners to feel when they finish, or what they should take away from The Future and The Past?
I want people to feel like they can just take charge, put on some armour [laughs]. I want people to feel joy, to feel powerful, to feel inspired. I know when I dance it makes me feel like everything's loosened up and I can do anything. Dancing is a way that really pumps me up, I always dance before I go onstage...
And then you dance a lot on stage!
And then I dance onstage [laughs]. But I just want people's spirits to feel lifted and ready to take on whatever the days throw at them.
How does it feel to play the old songs in the new style?
It's really fun, it's fun to reimagine. The core of the song is still there, but there are little nuances that have changed. I think before when we were touring on the record as a four piece we were a lot more reserved, and I think now with the new material we've had to step up the old material to make it fit in. That's been a lot of fun, putting a lot more power behind those songs.
The sing along for 'My Baby Don't Understand Me' last night was such a great moment. I started singing "our love is a long goodbye," under my breath and then it turned out everyone else was doing the same, and we gradually got louder until the "waiting on the train!" It was so great.
[Laughs] That's awesome. I always get emotional. People don't always sing along during that part, but there's a handful of times when people do, and it never gets old. I get really emotional when that happens.
Natalie Prass’ The Future and The Past is out today on ATO Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 1st June 2018.