“I definitely have some resistance to being ‘the ukulele-driven girl band.’ I am not unaware of the stigma that carries,” Kay Kasparhauser says with a dry, drawn-out chuckle. Of course, anyone who’s seen her play a show lately — or heard the early demos of “Dreamboy” or “Stabler” released via SoundCloud two years ago — knows that while such a description might apply to her band, the Prettiots, they can’t be written off so easily. Take those demos: One is an ode to Christopher Meloni’s brutish but heroic Law & Order: Special Victims Unit character in which the singer falls for a guy who, like Elliot Stabler, has a “short temper but a big heart.” “Dreamboy,” meanwhile, reads like an OkCupid profile, with Kasparhauser longing for someone “not too nice and not too mean, and hopefully not gay.” Yes, there’s kitsch and quirk at work here, but there’s also an acid wit that cuts against the cutesy instrumentation — and that ought to keep the Zooey Deschanel and Ingrid Michaelson comparisons at bay.
The result is, in any event, an insanely catchy batch of earworms. The twelve tracks that populate the Prettiots’ debut LP, Funs Cool (out via Rough Trade on February 5), don’t contain a ton of variation, built as they are on an economy of elements: Kasparhauser’s ukulele, her easy lilt skipping like a shiny pebble over the stoic surface of her bandmate and bestie Lulu Prat’s spare harmonies. Prat fills in guitar parts here and there but mainly sticks to plucky basslines that, with a little extra vim, could as easily have found a home amid Warped Tour pop-punk sing-alongs. But Prat wisely concedes abandon to her bandmate, a move that reflects their respective personalities.
Both girls grew up in New York: Prat in Brooklyn, Kasparhauser in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps for that reason, Funs Cool takes on a quintessentially NYC feel, whether in ultra-specific, off-the-cuff lyrics about bathroom sex in a bar between Grand and Broome (“18 Wheeler”) or on a song like “Move to L.A.,” in which Kasparhauser blames bad weather for an impending breakup and urges her partner to seek the warmer climes of the left coast. “We just went to L.A.,” Kasparhauser recalls, “and we played that song at the end of that set, and I looked out in the audience and I was like, ‘Oh, 70 to 80 percent of my friends that are at that show did this!’ Like, the only reason they’re in L.A. at a show of mine is because they just did what this song is about.” Though both girls say they can’t imagine living elsewhere, wanting to ditch the Big Apple and ride off into the sunset will feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s put in time here.
“There is something different about the experience of being a person in New York, and again, it’s the only one I know,” Kasparhauser says. “I don’t even think I realized how true that is until I sat down and listened to the whole [record]. We did not set out to make a New York album by any means, but it’s a product of both of us being born-and-raised New Yorkers. It’s also a pretty angsty album, and I feel like New York is a pretty angsty place.”
It’s also a notoriously terrible town for dating, making Kasparhauser’s awkward tales of relationships gone awry instantly relatable. On the somewhat superfluous spoken-word “10-10 Would Chill Again,” the girls take turns reading actual texts they’ve sent each other (“He’s cute, but he lives off the G train”). In “Boys (I Dated in High School),” Kasparhauser catalogs DJs met on Avenue A, hot artists picked up on the 1 train, and various other “not very nice, not very cool” men she encountered mostly while underage in the city. She wryly mentions losing her virginity at seventeen to someone who was twenty-three, right before prom. It’s both salacious and hilarious, something of an update to Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run,” from Exile in Guyville; in that song, Phair bemoans relationships that feel more casual than she’d like, noting that men will sleep with her and then simply leave whether she’s seventeen, a grown woman, or, shockingly, twelve. Like Phair, Kasparhauser knows how to operate within the parameters of other people’s expectations — and how to command attention and respect by subverting them.
For Prat, Funs Cool‘s distinctly New York vibe is more than the sum of its references to bad dates and MTA lines. She notes that the Prettiots’ dark sense of humor is what hometown audiences seem to be responding to. “The really dry humor isn’t as appreciated [elsewhere],” Prat says. “In a lot of other places, it wouldn’t be understood, so we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the point that we’re getting to now, ’cause we wouldn’t have had those opportunities outside of New York, where people totally get what we’re talking about.”
The duo’s deadpan anecdotes pop in vivid detail all over Funs Cool, with all the anxieties inherent to New York living writ large — not to mention the same reflexive directness that often earns New Yorkers a rude reputation. Both Kasparhauser and Prat admit there’s a certain power in saying things that might make others wince. “I think people are taken aback by it because it’s just, like, brutally honest,” Prat says. “But that’s just who we are, and that’s definitely how I deal with my issues. That’s one hundred percent how we’ve dealt with a lot of depression and personal isolation and social anxieties. We deal with those insecurities by making fun of it.”
That attitude is most apparent on “Suicide Hotline,” in which Kasparhauser uses Sylvia Plath as a gauge for whether she’s truly a danger to herself (though Dorothy Parker probably offers a better parallel to the singer’s disposition). If Plath is a ten, Kasparhauser decides, she’s a four, since her head’s “not in the oven”; later, in a sort of meta-assessment, she admits that ” ‘Dreamboy’ is no Bell Jar.” When they play this song live, Kasparhauser often dedicates it to her therapist. “Making people a little bit uncomfortable is a really great thing, I think,” she says. “Pop music is so much about comfort. To take that arena and use it to address stuff that people are kind of awkward about is cool.”
And when it comes to getting the message across, Kasparhauser believes the ukulele actually helps. “I think that some of the things that I’m saying in the lyrics wouldn’t be as palatable, maybe, if it weren’t for that,” she says. “There’s also something that’s kind of funny and frank about the ukulele itself. It doesn’t pretend to be a great instrument. It just is what it is; it has its own little character. No one is pretending that the ukulele is particularly hard to play, but it’s still there. I’m not pretending to be the first person who’s saying what I’m saying — it’s age-old sentiments about boys and self-confidence and feeling shitty and being human and being an artist.”
In other words, the Prettiots are making art from the fact that sometimes, simplicity is a survival tactic in a hectic city where the only way to escape our neuroses is through common comforts, be they chords strummed on four strings or time spent kvetching with close pals about romantic snafus. With those universalities, the Prettiots are certain to expand their scope well beyond New York crowds. They’ll play an album release party at Alphaville on February 12, but the rest of the year is already booked with European tours and trips to Australia and Japan. The band’s whirlwind success over the past year has been intense, Kasparhauser says, but more than welcome.
“We’ve had an amazing year, honestly. Lulu and I have had moments where we’ll be backstage or on a tour bus and we’ll look at each other and be like, ‘This is ridiculous, right?’ I’m definitely a person of extremes, so if it wasn’t some extreme variation of a music career, an extreme year of being on fire and being in a million different countries, it just wouldn’t feel right to me. It’s definitely overwhelming, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The Prettiots will celebrate the release of Funs Cool at Alphaville on February 12. For ticket information, click here.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.