Back in February 2012, Natalie Prass stood atop a mountain she’d conquered near Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The singer-songwriter had recently finished tracking the songs for her debut album and decided one afternoon to take it all in. There, on the mountain’s peak, with a hiker’s high chasing the excitement that came with her album nearing completion, she emailed the guys at Spacebomb, the production studio and record label in Richmond, Virginia, where she’d recorded.
“Is there a ballpark estimate of when it’s going to be released?” she asked.
The reply: We’re thinking February 2013.
“And I remember my stomach dropped,” Prass tells me, laughing in hindsight. “I just pictured myself standing on that mountain again, a year later. That just seemed like an eternity to me at the time.” At the time. On January 27 — yes, this January 27 — Prass’s eponymous debut LP will finally be released.
It’s a nine-song capsule of longing and grief crosshatched by fantasy, from a voice somewhere on the spectrum near Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Janet Jackson, if Janet had any ambition toward singing jazz standards. Prass may note parallels between her voice and Jackson’s, but she will just as soon stumble over herself to recant them. “Her voice and mine, I feel, have a lot of similarities,” she says. “I think. Maybe. Maybe I’m just — she’s amazing.”1 It’s a bright, delicate voice. You end up wondering how it’s got the strength to recount so much strife without losing its luster.
You can listen to her cover of “Any Time, Any Place” and judge for yourself. By the way, because you’re wondering, Prass had already planned to record it before hearing Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice.”
The album’s delay is an unavoidable reality for a small label. In 2012, when Prass’s record was tracked, Spacebomb made its inaugural release, founder Matthew E. White’s soulful, murmuring Big Inner, which garnered critical acclaim beyond expectations. “Everyone was really surprised and excited, so they had to focus all their energy on that, which is totally understandable,” says Prass, who’s based in Nashville. “And it has made a great foundation. Everyone kind of knows the rounds now — what to expect, what to do.” In the meantime, Prass kept busy. She wrote more songs, recorded two other records yet to be released, and, in the spring of last year, joined Jenny Lewis’s touring band. She didn’t listen to the album much. She knew its time would come.
Vampire Weekend member (and sometime producer) Rostam Batmanglij has said that good producers are able to draw out the “superhuman qualities” of an artist. Listening to demos and older versions of songs like “Bird of Prey” and “Your Fool,” I noticed how protracted the melodies were compared with how they are now — the words came out bulky, bloated, as though Prass’s lilt were being weighed down by gravity. On the album, producers White and Trey Pollard peel away the husk. Maybe Prass’s sugarcoated voice won’t register as a superhuman quality, and maybe it shouldn’t. White and Pollard reveal a voice completely vulnerable to the elements around it. Their lush string and horn arrangements show what she cannot tell. They bring the violence on “Violently.” On “Christy,” about a bizarre love triangle, the strings take on a split personality, fluttering and crashing abruptly, creating a tension that highlights the flecks of obsession and neurosis in Prass’s voice. It sounds like a crack in the wall of a magic kingdom.
Prass takes us through her obvious influences in ’70s soul, old Nashville country, and R&B, but, on occasion, she also sends the listener tumbling through a dream portal, where life feels and sounds like a Disney princess movie. The portal was created early. Live-action role-playing dominated Prass’s early teen years. Dressed up as a werewolf one summer in Boston at a LARPing camp, she stared up at the night sky and says she thought, This is the coolest, best moment of my life. I need to remember this. Completely embarrassing? Yes, but not without merit. LARPing saved her life.
“When you’re that age — that middle-school age, early high school — you’re changing,” Prass tells me. “You’re going crazy. So I put all of my energy into pretending I was someone else, battling and screaming and all that stuff — casting spells and getting into a whole fantasy world. It was really healthy for me.”
On YouTube, there’s a live performance video from 2011 of “It Is You,” the album’s closer and modern-day Snow White song you didn’t know you needed. In it, Prass stands alone onstage with her guitar, twee as fuck. She rushes through the most affecting parts of the song for a portion of the performance, but slows down at the very end, delivering the last few lines with her eyes closed. She has fallen into the portal. As the crowd applauds, her eyes open and she’s back onstage, nervously laughing, plucking chords to stabilize herself. Since then, the song has undergone a Cinderella transformation; the waltzing string arrangements on the album version swirl about like a fairy godmother’s magic.
This album is an introduction for new listeners. It’s more of a yearbook for Prass — songs and stories rooted in moments that have, for better or worse, defined her twenties. The oldest song on the album is “Violently,” which Prass wrote in class in early 2009 and performed in front of a crowd the very next day. I ask her what it’s like to grow alongside her work, what it’s like to be in a committed relationship with songs about heartache. Prass falters for a bit, like anyone else would if you asked for a quick synopsis of their last six years.
“In a way, I guess it is comforting,” she says. “Maybe even, especially, with that song, ‘Violently.’ It feels like an old friend. You think about all these different memories or places that you’ve played it in the past, and think, Wow, I’m still here playing this one song. But there’s never been a good platform for it to be shared with an audience until now. You go through so many changes, especially in your twenties. You’re growing so fast, learning, and there’s something kind of nice about how this song is still here. And I haven’t really played [‘Violently’] in years until now. But now it’s appropriate again. Here it is. It’s back. And it’s going to be great. We’re gonna go on this journey together, old song. Because my life has changed.”