Natalie Prass’s first full-length record has been out for a week, and two words have been repeatedly thrown her way now that her songs are out there for the world to hear: “Disney” and “princess.” As Brooklyn Vegan pointed out, nearly every single paragraph gushing over her pristine soprano, elaborate instrumentation, and timeless songwriting style has recalled the chipper, wholesome, preternaturally pretty melodies of the heroines of our favorite cartoon musicals. It’s easy to see why every critic from Vogue to Pitchfork listened to “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” or “You Fool” and pictured Prass getting dressed by bluebirds in the morning or using a fork for a hairbrush: Her voice is up there with those of Ariel, Cinderella, Jasmine, and Pocahontas before her. Thankfully, she’s in 3-D.
Still, who’s the gal beyond the “Part of Your World” comparisons? There’s not a whole lot out there about Prass, even though she seemingly appeared on the front page of music internet overnight. Of the venues she’ll be playing on her first headlining tour in support of the new record, Rough Trade is the latest to sell out, and she’ll be heading there February 6. Prass will go on to support Ryan Adams on the European leg of his tour shortly following her Brooklyn date, so we got to know the enticing indie talent before Pixar goes and digitizes her in an attempt to craft an indie answer to Frozen.
1) The Disney comments are all compliments, as far as Prass is concerned. She’s heard it before, as far back as three years ago, when the initial listening party for her album took place. “It wasn’t a surprise, to be honest,” she laughs. “You know, the record’s been tracked for a while. When we finished tracking it in 2012, we had a big listening party for everyone that was involved in the record. It wasn’t mixed or anything, but we had this party. Everyone heard the closer and said, ‘Wow, this is a Disney song!’ I’m completely aware of that. I think it’s a compliment! Who doesn’t love a really good Disney princess song?! [Laughs] I think it’s cool. I don’t take any offense to it. Bring it on. It’s great.”
2) You may recognize Prass from Jenny Lewis’s road band, as Prass joined Lewis for her tour in support of 2014’s The Voyager. She learned a ton from Lewis in their time on- and offstage, specifically with regard to how to run a happy ship when you’re fronting a band full of people living out of suitcases for months at a time.
“I was a sponge, just soaking up everything,” she recalls. “I learned a lot about being a sideman and a supporter of an artist, and how that’s so important, to just be a rock for this artist. Jenny doesn’t need any rock — she’s so strong and such a professional — but I learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re tired or if you have the worst day of your life, you have to go onstage, because that’s your time to let all that go and give the best show you can. And then after the show you just crash. She was just so good to us. She always made sure that we were taken care of; she was very attentive to our needs. I thought that was amazing of her. I’ve heard horror stories from other friends with different artists, but she was always on point. I’ve never had the opportunity to bring a band out [until now], but I’m definitely going to be like that. This is who I want to be as a bandleader.”
3) Speaking of being a bandleader, this tour marks her first outing fronting a full band. “The last [couple of] times that I played in Brooklyn, it’s was just me solo, or me and one other person,” she says. “I’m really excited to get to focus and relax and sing and play. I can communicate with them onstage and we can feed off each other. Sometimes it gets a little lonely when you play by yourself. The band is so good. We don’t really play the same thing every night. There are little subtleties we explore. That’s pretty exciting for us, too.”
On the next page: “I kind of wanted to write my own ‘Jolene.’ ”
4) Virginia is for lovers, and she’s one of them. Prass spent nearly a decade honing her songwriting chops in Nashville but fell in love with Richmond while working on Natalie Prass, which she recorded in her new city. Instead of unpacking from tour with Lewis, she just packed the rest of her stuff, left Music City in the dust, and settled in the Virginia capital just a couple of weeks ago. “I lived on a tour bus for a while, and I’ve been wanting to move to Richmond ever since we did the record,” she says. “I was so impressed with everyone I was meeting. The city was so beautiful. I love the energy. Sometimes there’s so much involved. It just kind of kept not happening. When I went on tour, all my stuff was in storage and I was living in a bus, and I was like, ‘This is my time to move, and I’m doing it now.’ I’d been thinking that for a while.”
Still, she credits Nashville as one of the chief muses responsible for her musical growth, and she can certainly hear the city’s pull on the record. “Nashville had a huge influence on my songwriting, no doubt. It’s kind of hard for it not to, as it’s a musician’s town. It’s everywhere. You’re learning so much, especially in your twenties when you’re experimenting and it’s your time to throw everything at the wall. Nashville’s definitely in my record, no doubt about it.”
5) Strings, woodwinds, and blaring brass are all present on Natalie Prass, but not necessarily in her live show. “We have the traditional rock setup: drums, bass, guitar,” she says. “I play guitar and keys, and then Trey Pollard plays guitar and keys. He co-produced the record and did the string arrangements. So the sound is obviously not an orchestra — there are no horns — but we’re very aware of that. We definitely have incorporated those horn lines into the show. It sounds different, but personally, I think that’s exciting. From what I’ve experienced, doing this for a while, people want to hear what the record sounds like. I think that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re definitely doing what’s appropriate, you know? We don’t have octopus arms! [Laughs] We have to tone it down. It sounds great. These guys are insanely skilled and have amazing, unbelievable ears, and it’s just such a joy playing with them, because we can build and get really quiet. It’s just an amazing band.”
6) This may be her first full-length, but she’s got two EPs to her name and years of material to work with. Don’t expect a one-dimensional set: Prass has been at it since long before 2009, when she released her first EP, Small and Sweet, and her setlist reflects that. “The thing is, I had the EPs and everything, but this is my first full-length, and I knew I didn’t have the resources or the platform to present my songs in a way that would reach a lot of people…That was the hardest part for me, when I realized that this record was coming out in 2015. I was like, ‘Whoa, I have to play some really old songs.’ I was psyching myself up: ‘It’s OK. No one’s heard these songs.’ I mean, people have, but not to this degree, so it’s fine. It’s been nice to visit these old memories, these old songs again.”
7) Some of these songs are difficult to perform, given the album’s themes of heartbreak and unrequited love, but “Christy” may take the cake as the weirdest tune for her to revisit onstage. “I didn’t listen to the record at all when I knew it was going to be kind of shelved for a while,” she says. “I just wanted to keep working on other things, and then when we brought it back out to mix it and master it, it did bring up a lot of old, unfinished feelings that I had just put away. With ‘Christy,’ we’ve been doing that one with a string quartet when we can — we’ll have the quartet in New York. I had written that song because I kind of wanted to write my own ‘Jolene,’ and then the song wound up coming true. It wasn’t true at all. It was just a story. It’s pretty broad, but yeah: Somebody started dating my one true love, and yeah, that happened. It was really hard. That was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. It sounds silly now, but at the time I couldn’t believe it was happening. That one always feels really haunting and mystical to me whenever we play it.”
Natalie Prass plays Rough Trade NYC on February 6. Tickets are sold out, but you can find them on the secondary market.
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