It’s been a pretty ho-hum few weeks for Natalie Prass.
Or at least that’s the sense you get from talking with her.
“It’s been nonstop, but that’s kind of typical for me,” she says, traveling across Richmond from an in-store performance to this evening’s venue. “I’m just running around, practicing, going to Guitar Center more than I would ever want to in my entire life.”
But there are elements of her recent itinerary that scan as less than ordinary: Prass has just come from Amsterdam, and a few days before that, London, where she played a sold-out show at the Lexington. “It was insane,” she recalls. “It was completely packed.”
Also of note: While the singer-songwriter was abroad, her three-years-in-the-making debut was released, received universal acclaim, and led to profiles everywhere from The New Yorker to Grantland. Surely, she’s had to notice some of that.
“It’s funny,” Prass shares. “Sometimes I don’t even realize what’s happening, but then my mom will e-mail me a link to something, and I’m like, ‘Oh, cool.'”
She chuckles. “My manager will also be like, ‘Natalie, you need to slow down and check this out. This is so amazing.'”
The native Virginian has her blinders pointed at what lies immediately ahead, which is a lot: A quick East Coast jaunt in support of Natalie Prass; UK and southern US dates with Ryan Adams; separate tours with Son Lux and San Fermin; even a few dreamy gigs with Hiss Golden Messenger in North Carolina.
All in all, Prass won’t be enjoying much downtime between now and June. After nine years in Nashville, grinding through school and struggling as a singer-songwriter, she’s set on making the most of the opportunity: “It’s great that the record’s out, and I’m so relieved, but it’s like, ‘OK, there’s still so much work to do. I need to make sure that everything is line.”
Still, Natalie Prass is an achievement worth savoring: A lush, impeccably arranged collection of songs that pulls equally from southern and northern soul, traditional country, big band, and folk. It somehow feels both effortless and the product of a gargantuan undertaking, which is a near impossible combination to pull off. As has been well-documented, all the effort required to bring the record to life took place at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, where Prass collaborated with in-house producer Matthew E. White, arranger Trey Pollard, and a host of semi-pro studio musicians to sculpt and reenvision the songs that she had written in Tennessee. (She has since relocated to Richmond.)
Even though Prass seems to be floating above the hubbub the way that she glides through the orchestral arrangements of “Reprise” and “Is It You”, she does acknowledge this moment. “Anyone who wants to be an artist wants to release albums and wants them to do well,” Prass says. “I’ve worked really hard, but I’m also really lucky. There’s so much that goes into a record that nobody really thinks about. It’s rare when all of the stars align.”
“I need to take a second and be like, ‘Everything is all right. Everything is going OK. You’re doing a good job.'”
When you were living in Nashville, did you ever work as a songwriter for hire?
I did, but I didn’t really like it. I would write for other artists. I would write for commercials – like, music for a Tylonel ad. I’ve done everything. I was in Nashville for nine years. I was in school for almost four of those; the rest I was just busting my balls. I was trying everything that I could. I took it very seriously. I was like, “This is what I want to do.” But I realized very quickly that it was definitely not what I wanted to do. I would much rather try to be an artist, which is a lot harder.
Well, I shouldn’t say that, because I have so many friends who write three songs every single day, and they’ve signed a publishing contract, but they’re never seen a cut. They’re writing all the time and are so stressed. They’re like, “Oh, Reba McEntire is holding my song.” They’re struggling in a whole different way than I was.
I got offered those country music writing publishing deals, and I turned them down, because it wasn’t something that I was interested in. With the ideas that I had and what I knew that I could do, writing country songs felt like taking a desk job. I was like, “I don’t want to do that! I want to express myself. I want to focus on the music that I believe in.” It starts to eat your soul after a while. I did try it. I tried it for a while. But after a while you’re like, “No way. Get me away from this.”
I learned so much from Nashville, though. It was definitely a positive thing for me. It pushed me. It made me realize that it was exactly what I want to do, and that I’m strong enough and want to work hard enough to do this. A lot of people stop. A lot of people move to Nashville and stop, or they start to go to the bars too much. They stop working.
Nashville will always be there. I might go back. It’s not like I don’t like Nashville. It’s just that at a certain point, I was tired of going into the coffee shops and hearing people namedrop. It was around me constantly. I just wanted a little break from that vibe. Richmond is a peaceful, really beautiful, historic city. It just seemed like where I need to be, and the band was here.
You’ve said that you feel a sense of a loyalty to Virginia. Where does that come from?
I do feel a strong sense of loyalty to this state. First of all, I think it’s most beautiful state. Traveling a lot, I feel really fortunate that I grew up in such a beautiful place.
I grew up in Virginia Beach. All of the best friends that I had in Virginia Beach are all artists, and none of them live there anymore, except for Matt White, but he lives in Richmond. They’re all just the most amazing people. I talk really highly of Virginia and Virginia Beach and Richmond all the time. I always have.
Sometimes I think, “What if I grew up in New York or L.A. or Nashville? I’d probably be so much better than I am.” [Laughs] But you just never know. In Virginia Beach, we all had to work extra hard, because nothing was available around us. We had to make everything ourselves.
There’s the ocean too. [Laughs] I just had a really great time growing up in Virginia Beach, and my favorite people are from there. It’s home.
When you connected with Matt White again, and you started discussing making this record, what were those conversation like? What sort of album did you collectively envision?
There was a lot of back and forth. Matt has such a strong vision, and at the time – way back in 2011 – Spacebomb was only an idea. They had no idea where it could go. They just knew that they had this group of people: Pinson [Chanselle], Cameron [Ralston], Trey [Pollard], and Matt. And they knew the kind of music that they wanted to make. They knew that their musical values were in line. But that’s all it was. They had only recorded one record by the time that I had heard them.
Of course, I was like, “Oh my God, these guys are brilliant. I am on the same exact page. This is amazing. I love this kind of music.” There was also the fact that Matt is from my roots. I was in Nashville for five years at that point, and I had recorded a lot and done the whole shuffle. I thought, “This is what I need. I want to get out of Nashville. And this is so special: It’s my first full-length, and I’m going back to home and working with all these people who grew up in the same place that I did.” That just made so much sense to me.
There was a lot of planning. We talked about what the feel of the record was going to be. We talked about the songs. There was a lot of agonizing. There was a lot of pre-production. I was driving back and forth from Nashville to Richmond, so we could actually play through the songs with the core people – the five of us. It took a while.
Tracking the record took a while, too. I was there for a month and a half! It was a big process. I feel like you can tell from listening to the record that we didn’t just throw it together. We took a lot of time. There was a lot of thought.
In collaborating with Matt and Trey, were there things that you pushed against? Were there ideas that you had to warm to?
Not really, because, like, I know that Cameron [Ralston] is one of the best bass players in the world, and he plays bass better than I ever will. It’s the same with Pinson [Chanselle] – he’s a freak, and he knows drums better than I ever will. Everybody that was involved had the best ideas and the best attitude. We all worked together on making each song be the best that it could be.
The only song that it took me a little to get used to was the new version of “Bird of Prey”. I had originally written that song with a completely different feel. It was kind of set in my brain. But Matt and I were talking about the song a lot, because everyone really wanted it on the record. We were trying to figure out how that song was going to change. One day, Matt sent me a voice memo recording with them jamming on it with a new feel, and I listened to it a few times like, “Well, I don’t know.” And then finally I was like, “Oh shit, this is good. I get it.”
And I kind of put up a stink about Trey playing pedal steel on the record, which is hilarious, because there’s so much pedal steel in Nashville. But I’m a singer-songwriter and I go by my name, so I naturally always get put in a certain category – before people even listen to me. They’re like, “Oh, she’s Norah Jones.” [Laughs] So, I was really worried that if people heard pedal steel, they’re going to immediately think I’m this. But, you know, pedal steel is such a beautiful instrument, and it’s only one this one song, and Trey is so good at playing it, and it added a lot to the song. I’m happy that it’s on there now.
Was the intention always for the record to be self-titled?
No, I didn’t envision for it to be self-titled at all. If the record had come out three years ago, I would have probably come up with a name for it, but the record turned into such an epic journey. It had become this infamous thing. I was like, “I can’t even wrap my head around this record anymore. It’s been so long, and I’ve experienced so many emotions. You know what? It’s just going to be self-titled, because it can’t be anything else. It is what it is. It’s here and I don’t need to label it.”
When you were sequencing the record, did you want to end on a positive note [with “It Is You”]?
We didn’t plan that out in the beginning. You don’t make hypothetical tracklists when you’re picking the songs that you want to record. Making your track order is kind of the last thing that happens in the whole process, before you go to mastering.
But as soon as we tracked [“It Is You”], it was like, “OK, yeah, this is going to be the closer track.”
I mean, listen to it. It’s crazy. [Laughs] It’s like, “What the hell?” It’s like, “Yeah, Spacebomb and I can make music like that, but we can along make music like this. This is possible too.” I thought that it was a cool way to knock people off their socks a little bit, like, “What was that?”
I knew that it was a huge risk. I knew that I was going to get the Disney thing. I knew that was coming, but I didn’t care. I don’t care, because everybody knows Disney music.
I also wasn’t really going for the Disney thing. I didn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to write a Disney song.” I was more going for that classic, ingrained style of American songwriting. Look at “Someday My Prince Will Come”: That’s in all of the jazz Real Books. That’s a song that’s never going to die. It’s forever in American culture. That’s what I was trying to write, but when you have a high female voice, sure, it can sound like a princess voice. But I don’t care. [Laughs]
Had you ever heard that before?
Oh yeah, I’ve gotten it. I’s fine. [Laughs]