Natalie Prass performs at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
Natalie Prass wears her musical influences on her sleeve, but tonight she’s sporting “Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty” on a tour shirt picked up five nights before at a show in Chicago, where Prass sat seven rows back, mouthing every word of Janet’s set. It was one of the highlights of Prass’ own tour — a chance to see one of her idols, and a slight diversion from her nonstop gig schedule and whirlwind of international praise that led her here, to a greenroom in Washington, D.C. A tangle of dark hair and creative curiosity, the Richmond songstress prides herself on always learning, always striving and often drawing on the wisdom of her musical elders: Dionne Warwick, Carly Simon, Nina Simone and Janet Jackson, among others — which so far has resulted in one album and two EPs positively dripping with slick, grooving, pointed manifestations of love and long goodbyes — sometimes both at once, nearly always delivered timelessly.
When it’s showtime, she sways under the fuchsia lights of Rock & Roll Hotel. Her fingers tear into her guitar. Her soft, commanding falsetto could break your heart, and it breaks mine that November night at the close of her tour.
Prass had a banner year in 2015, and it began with a bang, or at least a lush horn section: January saw the release of her first album, a self-titled disc that rocketed her to a national and global tour, critical acclaim and multiple best-of-the-year lists. Thanks to a near-constant touring schedule, she spent only three cumulative weeks in her Fan apartment, her home since early last year.
Collaborating with producer Matthew E. White of Spacebomb Records on her debut album brought her to Richmond frequently when she was living in Nashville, Tennessee, and she finally decided to move after putting all her belongings in storage to go on tour with Jenny Lewis.
Natalie Prass performs "Bird of Prey" at The Broadberry
“There’s a lot more soul here, I think,” says Prass, who grew up in Virginia Beach. “Nashville has a lot of punk, it has a lot of country, a lot of rock. And there’s not as much jazz or R&B. Here, there’s a lot of that, and that music really speaks to me. I don’t feel like I need to live in Nashville or New York or L.A., and I don’t really want to. I’ve been able to see all different cultures and even states in our country, and I’m always so happy to come back to Richmond.”
When she returned from Washington last fall, she immediately set to work filling up at least five notebooks with scribbled lyrics and doodles. This year has been devoted to writing, when she hasn’t been on the summer festival circuit, or playing Australia and London, or deftly scoring and charmingly starring in “Oh Jerome, No,” a short film for Ray Ban, or appearing as Karen Carpenter — another of her idols — on HBO’s “Vinyl.” It’s safe to say Prass’ star is rising, but she’d be the last to admit it; she’s funny, and humble, that way.
Natalie Prass and crew at Montrose Recording, with producer Matthew E. White (center), and engineer/co-owner Adrian Olsen, next to White (Photo by Chet Strange)
Fans left aching for more of the melancholic slant on the first album may find little of it in her second. Perhaps, she says, it’ll be more akin to her “Side by Side” EP released last November: more playful, more funky, more fun. It's certainly more influenced by soft rock’s heyday, when The Doobie Brothers and Toto ruled the airwaves. Her label, Startime International (a Columbia Records imprint), is looking forward to its completion by the end of the year, and so is her growing fan base.
“They say you have all the time in the world to make your first record and that’s really true. The second one …” she trails off and starts laughing. The clock is running, a far cry from the five years she had while trading emails and songs with “like-a-brother” White and shuttling back and forth on the 11-hour drive from Nashville to Richmond to record. The payoff of all that travel was well worth it: Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Billboard all named her an “artist to watch.”
That doesn’t mean she’s got jitters over her next album, which she began demoing with White in early August, and with a producer in Los Angeles even more recently. “When it comes to my art and what I feel is good, I don’t let other people get to me,” she says. “I trust myself, I guess. But the fears I have, they come from [the fact that] I don’t want to fail. Nobody wants to. But I don’t think I’m fearing if people like me or not, I just want to make sure I do it and I’m proud of it.”
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC
A bumpy road down a shaded, tree-lined path separates Montrose Recording from North Side’s suburban tract homes and cul-de-sacs, a wormhole to an auditory oasis more befitting of the West Coast hills’ Laurel Canyon, which housed studios producing slick ’70s songs that sound like the one seeping from Adrian Olsen’s speakers.
Photo by Chet Strange
On her second day of demoing with White and Olsen, Montrose’s engineer and co-owner, Prass’ shirt features a different idol: Gal Costa, her favorite Brazilian singer. It's faint, but the country’s musical influence can, occasionally, still be found on the three songs she’s been recording here in preparation for her new album. The studio is woody, comforting and smelling slightly of musk. It is dark and warm and inviting. If you’re going to work 12-hour days, this is the place to do it. At the center of the engineering booth is the heart of the studio: a Daniel Flickinger-designed audio desk — custom-made for Chicago’s now-gone Paragon Recording Studios. Formerly owned by Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, it engineered Styx’s catalog, and The Ohio Players, and now it engineers Prass and a handful of other Richmond acts including Avers, of which Olsen is a member. He says it’s one of only five or six Flickinger desks still in use.
“It’d been a while since I really recorded anything,” Prass says, “so I walked in and started getting misty!” It was 2013 when she’d last demoed for a full album, but working with, more or less, the same cabal helped her slip right back into that state of mind. The band usually fully runs through a song 15 to 18 times after hearing Prass’ reference tracks for specific tones and energy she’d like replicated. They record when they feel it getting close, then listen back and determine the best take.
By this point in the afternoon, they’ve tracked through four or five efforts on “Never Too Late.” By the board, in the booth’s nooks and on its solitary couch, all seven ready themselves for their first listen-throughs. “Let’s hear ‘em in chronological order, so 17, 18, 19,” White says, from the back of the room. A tap of drumsticks counts off one, two — one, two, three before a resonant, smooth bass line sets the pace over soft piano chords. On the fifth measure, Prass’ voice floats in, a 1970s dream. How do we know when the honeymoon is over / tell me how do I know when it’s gone too far? The chorus is all playful keys, classy drum fills, soaring falsetto. Her voice and the bass line waver into lower registers, synchronized. A slight wailing from an electric guitar coming out of the bridge makes her squeal with glee from the couch.
“So is that the take we really liked?” Prass asks the group.
“No.” It’s unanimous, but not unsupportive.
“Great,” Prass chirps. Everyone laughs.
She wasn’t kidding about the soft-rock influences; this song has a casual but deliberate momentum to it, a track so cool it should be wearing shades, maybe sauntering down a shoreline somewhere, drink in hand, and absolutely wearing a breezy shirt fastened only by its bottom three buttons. At the close of each discussion, another take immediately begins and the room goes quiet. Heads resume their slow bobbing in rhythm with the music. White requests feedback; they name near-imperceptible missed beats, extended notes, vocal scratches. They play another take. They discuss. And the process begins again.
The fact that Prass can explore so many of her influences and range from soft indie heartbreak record to a sonic love letter to Tom Johnston shows exemplary comfort in her own songwriting, but she’d be first to chime in that it’s her peers and the Richmond community that make it possible.
“This is a really special place,” she says of her new hometown. “Coming here, it’s really creative and there’s lots of space and it’s beautiful and it’s diverse, and I’m just grateful that I’m here and can claim myself as a Richmonder now.”