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Jessica Pratt writes folk songs that hang like cobwebs, spinning ghostly thoughts into deceptively simple melodies, the kind that stick in your mind long after the sound stops. Ever since White Fence’s Tim Presley founded a record label just to release her earliest songs on a self-titled album in 2012, Pratt’s name has become synonymous with the folk legends who came before her, evoking the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Karen Dalton in her lilting lo-fi melodies.
Releasing her second record, On Your Own Love Again, through Drag City in early 2015, touring in support of that album kept her busy for some time after it came out; dealing with personal issues and the blossoming of a new relationship kept her occupied for another stretch, and finally toward the end of 2016 she began to work in earnest on new material. Approximately two years later, her third record is finally here, and the wait was well worth it for an album that may just be her best work yet.
Quiet Signs, out last week via Mexican Summer, is a nine-song collection of spare, delicate songs that evoke ’20s and ’30s film noir and the cinematic softness of decades prior. For this record, Pratt was creating a cohesive body of work with an album in mind for the first time, and the songs share a certain kinship with each other that reflects this, hanging together like a tapestry, with many different threads creating a singular, stunning picture.
Ahead of the album’s release Pratt and I met up at Eightfold Coffee in Echo Park to discuss the gap between new projects, her songwriting style, and the inspiration behind some of the specific songs. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.
Last time we spoke, it was right before On Your Own Love Again was coming out. How do you feel this album connects to that one, and are they different? There’s been quite a span of time here, since 2015.
On Your Own Love Again was recorded in 2013, and a few of the songs were recorded a bit earlier than that when I was living in San Francisco. I was 26, 27 then, and now I’m 31. It just feels like it was 10 years ago, when you go through a real transition phase in your life. I had just moved to LA, wrote a song within the first two weeks of moving here, and that went on that record. So it just feels like a lifetime ago. Time is a lot about your perception of self and I’ve learned a lot about the way that I make things. I’ve also toured a lot since then and my musical sensibility has evolved. But there are strings that connect the two records. In a good way, I feel like I’ve grown a lot, and I’ve wound up making a record, this new one, that feels very different in ways that are gratifying for me. Especially since my first record was mostly an incidental thing.
Going four years between albums these days is pretty long, so I just wanted to know what you’ve been up to? I know a lot of it has been touring, but what’s been going on with your musically? Was this long break something that happened naturally?
It wasn’t purposeful. I went on tour for pretty much a year straight and then went through some very personal things at the time. I was not the healthiest physically and mentally. For people who struggle with various issues, tour can be this weird bubble world where you just exist on autopilot. Not to say it wasn’t very gratifying and I didn’t connect musically with people, but as far as personal growth is concerned, I wasn’t really examining myself at all. I feel like it’s one of those things that in order to keep going, you just stare straight ahead. By the end I think I’d agreed to do a little too much — but I’d never done touring before, so I didn’t know my own limitations. Once I came back, I moved into my first place by myself. When I was on the road, I was daydreaming about writing again, because it had been so long since I’d been able to.
But I didn’t work on anything for seven months or something. I actually was writing all the time, but just these little fragments that didn’t turn into anything. Little sparks and inspiration would come… but it took me seven months to get back. Then I met my now partner, Matt [McDermott]. I started a relationship with this person, and I think it was a combination of feeling ready to work and being recharged from this exciting experience of connecting with somebody who’s very passionate about music. It was fun to talk about things and examine things together. He was previously a fan of my music and so he was familiar with it. Then, the people who worked for me started asking about new music — which is their job of course. And I was starting to feel the guilt and the weight of that. It takes a long time to make music.
When did you start working on songs for the new album?
It was November, December or something of 2016 when I started writing in earnest. I felt like a switch was flipped or something. I was like, ‘now I’m ready.’ And I just started working really diligently. And I made arrangements to try recording at the studio in Brooklyn with the label. It happened in this very staggered way because I was basically starting from scratch. I went to the studio on a trial basis and we eventually found our rhythm. It was basically writing for a period of two months, and then I’d fly there and record. Come back and write again. Fly and record. We did that so many times.
I read that you’d written most of the songs here in LA but recorded them in Brooklyn. Was that simply because Mexican Summer’s studios are in New York?
Yeah, basically. I had a set up on my own, but the thing I was using was this giant finicky tape machine I had wired… that was nice. I tried to use it, but it was haunted or something so it didn’t work half the time. I just didn’t have a proper setup. In lieu of figuring it out, I had just signed with Mexican Summer, and they have that studio. So the fact that it was starting from scratch and going back and forth to record was very taxing in some ways, but ultimately it made for a dynamic experience.