After her eponymous breakthrough album, Natalie Prass is at crucial stage. If a first record makes a name, the second makes a career. She was ready to record another brilliant song cycle about heartbreak and hope when reality intervened.
Her self-titled debut charmed critics from Pitchfork and the New Yorker, making multiple best-of-2015 lists. The singer’s stylish glamour was featured in a Vogue Music video. The low-risk next step would be to build on success, consolidating her base by repeating the proven recipe. For Prass, that would mean a new set of intimate songs of heartbreak soaring through a lush sonic landscape, ending with a sunny, cinematic swell of romantic optimism.
“I was scheduled to record in December,” Prass says. “If I had, it would have been another breakup album. Then the election happened, and I went into a pit of despair. My heroes are legends like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. I was so deeply affected, I would never forgive myself if I put out something neutral.”
Prass has a backlog of more than five albums’ worth of unrecorded songs, but few fit her new socially focused vision. Producer Matthew E. White, whose Richmond-based Spacebomb Records released her debut, agreed to shift the studio sessions until March and April.
But her new record label was less enthusiastic, she says: “Everyone asked: ‘Is this a phase? Are you still going to feel like this in a month?’”
For a company that exists to create a predictable product, those questions make perfect sense. But for the artist there’s a different calculation. “I would never work with somebody just to sell records,” she says.
The label encouraged her to record in more a more conventional commercial setting.
“They wanted Nashville, Los Angeles, anywhere but Richmond,” Prass says.
She went out to see the alternatives but ultimately decided to stay with the Spacebomb crew. “I am lucky to have the most talented friends,” she says. “I trust them to know me and what I want and to not step over me. When you are the only girl in the room, it is hard to be taken seriously. It’s a delicate thing when a woman is telling men what to do. Even when they are beautiful, sensitive, compassionate, caring people, with wives and daughters, it’s complicated.”
Prass sees White as one of the last of a vanishing breed. “He’s a true producer, which is a lost art. I’ve seen many people who have the title but aren’t really producers at all.”
She’s known White since competing against each other in a battle of the bands when she was a high-school freshman in Virginia Beach. “He’s like a musical brother. We co-wrote a lot of the songs on the new record. He understands who I am, my path, my musical taste. It was the perfect zig and zag.”
The production this time is more stripped-down, with Alan Parker on guitar, Devonne Harris on keys, and the Spacebomb Rhythm section of bassist Cameron Ralston and drummer Pinson Chanselle. Trey Pollard, who arranged the sweeping orchestration of the last record’s closing (“It Is You”) skyped in from the Foxygen tour to lead a few string sections.
“If you asked guys in Nashville to play something 30 times, it would never happen,” Prass says. “However, when we recorded the single for the album, it took from 7 p.m. to midnight. That is what is so beautiful about this place. They are true musicians, so passionate about getting everything right they would play all night.”
While politically inspired, Prass says, the record is fundamentally positive.
“I would never point fingers,” she says. “If things are hard we have to keep going and stick together. Everything is going to be OK.” As models, she cites Stevie Wonder’s sunny social advocacy and the danceable insight of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
“You’re catching me at a point where no one else has heard it.” Prass says. “This is my first record for a new label. If they don’t like it, I might not get my budget for remastering or album art. We’ll see how they handle it, but I think they will release it.”
In the interim, Prass is organizing a stripped-down trio tour (Harris, bassist Andrew Randazzo and a drum machine). She’s planning to go to Brazil to record songs inspired by the ’60s genre-transgressing Tropicalia movement.
There is no grand strategy, just the commitment, and the risk, of staying true to herself.
“Truthfully, you can only plan so far ahead. There is so much involved,” Prass says. “Maybe that is why I am a slow bloomer. I want longevity, not just a single.” S