Jessica Pratt interview: "Wherever dreams or your unconscious lie, all my music comes from there"
Even though we were scheduled to meet, it was still somewhat surprising to bump into Jessica Pratt in a Stoke Newington pub on a quickly darkening November evening. The California songwriter's music is so ethereal and ephemeral that it often seems like its creator could surely only exist under specific conditions, in short pockets of time, that only precipitate once every few years, during which she might produce another 30 minutes of delicately exquisite music and then disappear once more into the atmosphere.
Of course, Jessica Pratt is not a mythical being, even if her gorgeously unique recordings might conjure that impression. In conversation, Pratt proved to be a considerate and contemplative mind, speaking with the softness and openness redolent of her North Californian origins. Our discussion of Quiet Signs, her excellent new album for Mexican Summer, revolved mostly around the difficult and "bloody" process of its creation; two words you wouldn't at all associate with the spectral final product. This is where the cognitive dissonance rang most loudly; how could something that sounds as if it's musical condensation collected and concentrated on tape actually need a serious amount of time, effort and struggle to create?
Read on to my conversation with Jessica Pratt to fine out how she grappled with bringing Quiet Signs into the world.
It's been 3 or 4 years since the last album, what are the big changes in your life and musical approach that we should know about going into Quiet Signs?
I don't know if there's anything incredibly specific as far as milestones, but I think one notable item is that I basically went on tour for a year playing the songs from the last record, and I think that playing that consistently night after night after night you learn a bit about how you sing and play, and you just naturally evolve. I feel like that definitely happened; I learned how to sing a little better or more effectively in certain instances. Anything you do that repetitively hopefully you get better at it, so I think there's a little bit of that at play.
It was interesting because there was this intense period [of playing shows] and then I just took a bunch of time off, it wasn't really planned it just sort of happened; I just couldn't do anything else, I just kind of had to stop. Then I sort of worried that my abilities had atrophied a bit, I felt very out of practice when I came back into trying to make music again. There was sort of a bit of an extended rehabilitation into feeling like I could really be in the zone consistently. Honestly, that took up the majority of the last year and a half at least, when I was making a concerted effort to make music again. I was pretty much just doing that like a full-time job.
I met my boyfriend Matt, who plays on the record and was a big emotionally-collaborative figure with the record. Music making has always been very private for me, but we definitely developed a really intuitive back and forth where I basically showed him any fragment that I thought was valuable and we would have a small dialogue about it. I wouldn't call it collaborative in the sense that he didn't write anything, but this is the first time that I've ever had anyone involved, first time I've even just had someone sharing an opinion before the finished product. We lived together at the time too, so it was a very fluid thing.
Do you have a regular practice, like a specific area or time when your write, or does it happen all over the place?
It's definitely home-based, I've never had an outside practice space or anything like that. Usually you find your places. The last record I just had my tiny bedroom, I did everything there. But I moved into my boyfriend's house, and it's a 3 bedroom place, it's not huge but there's definitely various rooms, and he works 9-5 pretty much, so I had a lot of time alone in the house and I would just go from space to space - and not every space feels good, there were certain rooms I never really went into.
Is it usually the case that you know what you want to sing about before you start writing the melodies?
It's a very unconscious process; it's like a weird divining thing where you just play the guitar and sing at the same time and at some point hopefully something gels. It feels a little bit like channelling something, there's never a preconceived idea.
Does it often surprise you what you end up singing about?
Maybe not the lyrical content; the words are always last, the shape of the words will be there but then I have to flesh them out with something literal later. But yeah I think melodies can be very surprising, you don't always know where they come from.
You actually recorded in a studio for Quiet Signs, how was that experience?
It was maybe scary at first; I initially began it on a trial basis because I was really unsure of how it was gonna go. I'm very used to recording at home, but I was having some technical issues, because I had rigged up this new setup involving a big tape machine that was really problematic. It was making me not want to work on music because I was afraid if I tried to record something it might get messed up.
Then I signed with Mexican Summer and they have this studio that artists can use, so I thought I might as well try it just because it's a good resource. Then very unexpectedly it worked out really well. It took a little bit of work to get the sound I wanted, but I was working with the engineer there Al Carlson, and he was very in-tune and really good at listening and then helping to develop the sound.
I guess not every song I brought in worked, and I think maybe it might not have been true if it was done like the last record, because cassette tape is very small and it's a forgiving world and you can do a lot within that, but at the same time there were things on a grander scale that might not have worked on smaller tape. It goes two ways.
In the notes for Quiet Signs it says you believe this is a more cohesive record than your previous, so what makes it feel that way for you?
I guess cohesive because it was the first time I'd ever begun writing songs with the idea of it being one object at the end. My last record there was a few scattered bits and pieces that were a few years old and a certain chunk that was written all in one blast. I think thematically [On Your Own Love Again] all makes sense together, sort of on accident. But this was the first time I had ever really known that everything I was working on was going to be part of a collection, so I sort of picked and chose based on that, so cohesive in that sense.
What are the themes that you see in Quiet Signs?
It might be too soon to say; it took me a long time to see those themes on the last record, and sometimes people pointed them out to me, which was interesting. I definitely see broader themes, for sure; it's more open and less guarded than the last record.
Yeah! There seems a lot more obvious emotion on the surface. I also hear a lot of escapist ideas.
That's interesting. I think I'm a big escapist. I'm trying to be less of one. It feels realer to me; the last one feels more like a dream imprint or something, and maybe had some more evasive lyrics on some level. I think I was just in a very different headspace [on Quiet Signs]; a more conscious headspace.
I also notice a lot of images to do with flight on the new album; birds, wings, aeroplanes...
Yeah, yeah, you're right. Again, not a conscious move. I think it just kind of happens like that, it naturally bubbles up. I don't know if you remember your dreams a lot, but you can go through certain phases where you have certain symbols that keep popping up, and maybe it's like your brain trying to process one particular idea or something, and I feel like it works in the same way with song imagery.
Is that what the title Quiet Signs refers to, these images popping up?
Quiet Signs is something that's half an intuitive phonetic thing and also a stand-in for some type of musical intuition; really listening to where things are coming from, sort of like the channelling thing that I was talking about a bit - it kind of relates to that experience, I still haven't quite figured out what it is.
The album starts with 'Opening Night', which was inspired by Gena Rowlands' performance in the John Cassavetes film of the same name, what was it about her that spoke to you?
That's again a bit of a loose, abstract grab. But at the very beginning, when I first writing songs for this record - there's a lot of theatres in LA that play old movies - and the Beverly Cinema was playing two Cassavettes movies. One was Opening Night, and I had just started seeing my boyfriend then and we went to see them; it's one of my favourite movies and I'd never seen it on the big screen.
Sometimes when you see a film, especially in a theatre, it'll stay with you for a while in your unconscious space, and it definitely did. I think whatever struggles you're currently going through, it's a pretty human thing to find yourself in a character or to relate to aspects of a character's experience, and there were definitely elements of that.
It's a really good film, but it's a very anguishing thing, and I feel like you should just watch it, but it's basically a person trying to muster a performance through this extreme personal hardship, and it's basically watching her unravel and then come back again. It's really intense and sort of this bloody battle - I know that sounds very melodramatic, but I think there were aspects of that that I related to in this period where I was trying to figure out how to feel comfortable writing again after taking so much time off.
You have quite a lot of moments in your songs where you sing wordlessly, and those are often the first bits that catch my ear, I find myself singing along to those parts first. Are you trying to convey emotion in those moments or is it purely melodic?
I think again it's just purely instinctual thing. I definitely grew up in a really musical household where people weren't necessarily playing instruments a ton, but there was a lot of singing and a lot of very confident singing all the time, just as a joke or just singing whatever comes into your mind. I feel like that comes naturally to me, and sometimes I want to vocally sing something that might be the equivalent of a horn line or something like that.
There's flute and few other instruments on this record that you haven't had before, did you have that intention before the studio?
No, I had no idea what was gonna happen. The studio thing was on a trial basis; Mexican Summer does free studio for artists on the label (and you pay the engineer fee), but that's an amazing resource, obviously. Al, the engineer, he's a multi-instrumentalist, but I had no idea we'd be working together in any capacity other than him being engineer, but it happened in a very natural way. Now I don't even really remember how it exactly all began.
He plays the flute on 'Fare Thee Well’?
That was one of the earlier songs we worked on, and I had this long outro that was really unusual for me, and I wasn't sure what I was gonna do with it. I thought maybe I would layer some things, and I think he was like "maybe we could try some flute," and I was like "alright..." I wasn't sure it was gonna work, but year I really really like what he played, this extended flute solo.
It's awesome! Lyrically, do you think your songs have narratives or are they kind of emotional movements?
I think that there's a narrative. It might not be a perfect story arc or anything like that, I think my lyrics have always been a bit impressionistic. But I prefer that, I think. Again, there's nothing preconceived, I never do anything super consciously, it doesn't work like that. Some of the songs on the last record have a bit more structure, as far as following a train of logic, but it doesn't feel necessary. There's just a core essence to the music that is there, and everything is just built to maintain that; I think that's the most important part. There's definitely meaning to all my lyrics, but I don't know if I'll ever write a song that's totally discernible from beginning to end.
How do you feel about explaining lyrics, or do you prefer to leave it to the listener?
That's a really good question. I really like hearing about other people's lyrics, but I'm also afraid about spelling things out too clearly for people, because maybe it limits their ability to interpret them freely. So, I sort of want to, but maybe don't want to.
OK, well, all I say is that I hard relate to the line in 'Here My Love' where you sing "try to keep my worries safe from where they'll do you harm," that one really gets me.
See that's a very literal lyric, they sneak in.
Are most of these autobiographical?
I'd have to think about it. I think in some shape or form, yes. This goes back to the stage actor playing a character that you're watching in a film; the emotion is there and real and based on something, but the form that it's presented in might not be a super straight-up literal thing; it might be put through a few lenses. I think sometimes that happens with my lyrics, where even perspectives will change or tenses will change, but it'll all be going toward the same general thing.
Do you ever think twice about some lyrics because they might be too honest?
I don't think my lyrics are ever so blatant that they take you out of it. I think generally, even the lyric that you pointed out, within the framework of the song it doesn't feel jarring or anything like that. But I do tend to avoid, just by instinct, anything that's too jarringly real in a way that isn't fun for me.
I have to ask about one more lyric, if I may, but it's the image "you're a songbird singing in the darkest hour of the night," is there a symbolism there?
Ooooh, it's very personal, and again I don't know if it's best to elucidate every bit of every song, but I think that sort of references singing to no-one, you know? Very alone.
'Crossing' isn't on my lyric sheet, and I can only really make out bits and pieces of words, was that purposeful?
'Crossing is actually a wordless song! The way that I write songs is always the same; it's melody and words that come at the same time, but it's generally phonetic structure of words. Sometimes I get lucky and some real words come in that feel good and work with the song, and I'll take those and work off them, but generally I'll write the structure of the song in full and the melody in full, and I'll just have all these weird dream puzzle-piece parts that I'll have to go through and systematically put words in.
But ['Crossing'] was just one that was very, very, very resistant to it. There are some real words in there, but it felt more than anything like a song from a dream, and I think because I was working very intensely on these songs for a year and a half, I was trying to do it like a day job, I would pretty frequently have dreams where I was playing a song, where I was hearing a song and then you wake up and you can't quite recall it. It felt so much like that to me, where the words are indistinguishable and the melody is just barely there when you wake up. I feel like that place is where all of my music comes from, wherever dreams or your unconscious lie, it all comes from there. It's very representational of something really important.
Interesting. It also sounds a little bit different, was it recorded differently?
I guess there are some slight production differences, it might be a little thicker than the rest of the record, because the rest of the songs are pretty straight-up. That one was just kind of like a weird slapping paint on a canvas, and even the piano in it is very choppy and pounding and maybe just a little bit cut-and-paste. It was the last song we recorded, so it was a real blow-out.
Did you always know that 'Aeroplane' would be the last song? It's such a perfect ending.
Yeah, it does feel like a perfect ending, but no I didn't. It's weird because that ending, the little coda, was just improvised in the studio, and I feel like that is what makes that song a good ending on the record. I didn't really have a super strong idea of the sequence until pretty far into it, but I'm happy it's the last song because it works really well.
What do you hope people feel when they get to the end of the record?
I guess I want people to feel whatever they naturally feel, but I hope that what I get from it makes sense to them. I feel like that last track, especially the last section, there's some desolation but there's also some hopefulness as well. I feel like it's really 50/50, and I feel like that's a good note to end on.
Very cool. Were you reading much around the time of writing and recording?
Yeah, I was trying to read a lot. I read George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo; I was reading that for the longest stretch while I was in the studio. I was there for three weeks in New York and it was really cold and snowing and it was the perfect headspace. I love George Saunders, and that just felt very appropriate. I also read James Baldwin's Another Country, which was amazing.
I read that Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia, but I think I stopped reading that right before the end because I was so frightened thinking about developing any of these weird neural problems where you hear music involuntarily, it was starting to trip me out, thinking about the way that your brain processes sounds. Some of his patients have auditory hallucinations they can't control, especially when it's looping songs like national songs or children’s songs, things they heard when they were a kid that are super-ingrained that aren't necessarily the most pleasant to listen to. I think about that a lot, how long that stuff stays in your head, and when it comes out. That's a really interesting thing to me.
Jessica Pratt's new album Quiet Signs is out tomorrow, February 8th, via Mexican Summer.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 7th February 2019.