Natalie Prass On The Tumultuous Political Climate That Inspired Her New Album, ‘The Future And The Past’

Tonje Thilesen

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Natalie Prass has a voice like a cupcake, a creamsicle, a rainbow. She has a way of infusing the simplest turn of phrase with unspeakable wonder, injecting a line with a trill or a breath, wielding pause and emphasis with expert, joyous control. On her 2015 self-titled debut, Natalie Prass, she became the poster child for Spacebomb Records, a regal, independent label and studio based in Richmond, Virginia masterminded by one Matthew E. White, whose own 2015 record further helped cement the collective’s orchestral flex was the rule, not an exception.

In the ensuing three years, Prass became a beloved indie breakout artist, a critical darling with enough clout to make it onto late night TV, and a festival staple praised for her stunning live show. She quickly began work on an album to follow up her debut, whose songs were, at the time of their release, already quite old to their creator.

But as the album neared completion, another big shift in the world occurred — Donald Trump was elected president. No longer satisfied with the songs she’d nearly recorded, Prass went back to the drawing board, intent on creating a record that reflected the shared political turmoil of those who did not align themselves with Trump’s policies. The resulting album, titled The Future And The Past is the product of Prass’ own effort to educate herself and offer support and resilience to those most impacted by the Trump presidency.

Tracks like “Hot For The Mountain” and “Sisters” in particular imbue Prass’ humid, urgent brass-pop with revolutionary and feminist themes. Her voice floats, airy, above Spacebomb’s elegant, high-intensity band, who mix funk grooves, soulful jazz, and jittery pop with eclectic aplomb. The Future And The Past is, like its name suggests, a record that seeks to find a place between the resistances of the past, and the battles to be fought in the near future.

Over the phone a couple weeks ago, Prass and I spoke in depth about the shift she felt as a creator in the era of Trump, the impact of Spacebomb on her songwriting process, and how her community in Virginia influences her work.

When your debut came out, you talked in interviews about how it sat completed for a long while before you released it. Recently, you also shared that you had another album written too, but post-election felt the need to shift. Can you talk a little bit about how your work changed to give us the current version of it?

On the album that I was going to record, I didn’t really touch on any political issues. So, the subject matter changed significantly. Musically, my head was already in this place where I wanted to make a more fan-friendly dance kind of record, or I wanted to try. When I was touring on my last record it was really difficult for me to make those songs into just, like, four-piece band music when the recording was so heavy orchestrated.

I’m really into bands like Steely Dan, where it sounds chic; just a band in a room more or less and everybody has their parts. It’s still very much orchestrated and very much intentional as far as when people play and when they don’t — it’s just as important when they don’t. I was already very interested in piecing together a record like that. Then when the subject matter changed, it made me go even further. It made me be a little more aggressive with it. I still didn’t want a record that sounded angry, or that sounded sad or hopeless. I wanted to make something that would fire people up, and most importantly, fire myself up — because that’s what I needed at the time when all of those feelings were so fresh.

As far as the original songs that you had for the first version of a second album, have they fully morphed into this release or are any of those still hanging around that we might hear one day?

Some of those songs that I didn’t end up recording I think are still really good. I’m really picky about what songs I choose to put out. I feel like I should put those songs out eventually, but I don’t know when. I have no idea when that would happen. I’m thankful that I’ve had a lot of time to calm down and reflect and read and educate myself on why everything [with the election] happened. I was definitely in a state of like, shock. I think a lot of people felt that way. So I started reading as much as I could, watching as many historical documentaries as I could. I was totally naïve. So I made a pact with myself that I’m always going to educate myself, and learn and grow, and try to always have an open heart. And even if people don’t have the same views as me, we have to get along somehow.

Some of that feels reflected in the album title, The Future And The Past, which is overtly talking about how things are changing but also how it’s staying very much the same. Can you talk a little bit about how that phrase sort of informs or encapsulates the record for you?

I feel very aware of how in-the-present we are. How we’re all living in the time of a big cultural shift, and trying to put all the pieces together from the past that led us here. Then, thinking where we’ll be in ten years, culturally: How’s this all gonna … are we all gonna learn from this? How are we gonna shift? Because we are shifting. It was just the feeling of being very much in the middle. It’s also a lyric from one of my favorite songs on the record, the “Hot For The Mountain.” I was trying to be multi-meaningful with that title.

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I was going to ask about “Hot For The Mountain,” it’s one of my favorites on the record. That lyric is “So let us raise a glass / To the future and the past / Keep on shaking /Till we break it.” Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing that one?

That one was one of my favorite ones to write. I wrote that one with the producer, Matthew E. White. Matt lives a ten-minute walk away from me and I’m over at his place quite a bit. It was really nice getting to kind of hash everything out with him while this was all happening, we were both feeling a little out of sorts. Getting to talk to him every single day. But we wrote that one to his drum machine. He just started playing this beat and I started singing the melody to it and then we figured out the chords and subject matter.

At first, we were thinking about talking about Richmond specifically, but then ultimately I wanted to write about how feeling like I was coming from a place of an outcast. For people that don’t quite fit in or who feel alone, the reassurance that you’re not alone, and we can work together. If you have a good heart and you want to make a difference, then don’t be afraid — that kind of thing. That’s where I was coming from with it. It’s a little open to interpretation, but it’s a peaceful reminder that there’s love in the world, there’s love here. Come with us, we’ll stick together and keep focused. We’re hot for the mountain, stay focused, don’t let anything discourage your good heart.

I know that you’ve’ worked in conjunction with Matt White for a long time and that he’s sort of a childhood friend for you. Can you talk a little bit about that working relationship as well as sort of the transition from working with his label home at Spacebomb to now working with ATO for this release?

Matt and I have grown together so much, we didn’t really hang out or anything when we were kids, but we really got reconnected by a mutual friend in Nashville that’s from Richmond who told me I should hit up Matt, and that we were coming from the same place. Finally, Matt saw me play live opening for that friend, and he was like, ‘oh, you’re awesome, we should try to work something out.’ When I went to Richmond for the first time to record with them and kind of do some pre-production, I was so amazed by the musicianship. I think that’s what struck me the hardest of the whole process because I was so used to just recording everything like on my cell with like one other person.

I can get around on stuff but I’m not like highly educated in the bass — and that was just like a whole new world for me. I was like, ‘oh, we can make any kind of music we want!’ But I just didn’t even know how to… I had no idea how to communicate with these people. It was all so new to me, so I was observing mostly and really had a lot of trust in Matt. I knew I wanted to make some kind of Dionne Warwick-esque kind of record and we talked a lot about that, but Matt just knew how to get it there when I didn’t have the language yet.

Tonje Thilesen

Did it feel different, this time around when it came to recording?

Now all these years later — because that was like in 2011-2012 — I feel so confident in my abilities and what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, and so recording this record, I had a really huge, heavy hand in the whole production of it. Or just what I wanted it to sound like — the direction I wanted everything to go, down to drum sounds and guitar sounds and what I wanted the keyboard player to be playing, stuff like that. But with Matt, there are so many nuances with producing, and I just wasn’t ready to wear all the hats yet. Matt is the producer of the record but I was so involved and he wanted me to be involved and encouraged it.

So I was like running into the live room, saying, ‘no this vibe isn’t quite right, let’s do it more like this, and I would kind of sing it and dance around.’ And they’d like, ‘oh okay, yeah, we get it.’ After they’d change the feel of it, then we would chisel down from there. Anyway, it was just really rewarding, like the first song that we tracked, I got tears in my eyes. We did “Oh My” first. Because, it never gets old having an idea in your head and then hearing it come back to you, even better than you were imagining.

Introducing the album, you noted that it was about giving a voice and freedom to women, specifically. Can you talk about why that became such an urgent theme in your mind?

Like I said I was a little naïve. I thought things were getting better. I knew there was a lot of issues in our country, but I just thought we were moving in the right direction, or that most people want to move in the right direction. I was so ready to have a female president and it was a smack in the face. I feel like if everything about Hilary was the same except for the gender, I think that person would be our president right now. I really do. So it was just a smack in the face, like oh yeah, people don’t want to listen to women, people don’t want to have women in leadership roles, and they don’t trust them. There are all these deep stereotypes that we still have to fight through. It has fired me up.

As far as the first single — what was it about “Short Court Style” as a song that sort of made you want to introduce the whole album with that track?

That was a fun, easy entry into being like ‘hey, I’m here again.’ It was just kind of like a neutral. “Sisters” first didn’t feel right to lead off. And also everybody on my team was like, ‘that’s the one you need to release first.’ So it had some consensus.

You said your first record feels like “I’m singing a lullaby every night to my younger self,” and I loved that. So if you were to sort of typify this new record in the same way, what scenario would you be singing these songs to? Would it be to a past self, or who would they be sung to?

I feel very in-the-present with these songs. The goal was definitely to excite people to get involved and engage with their communities, their country, and humanity. Music has always been that for me, it makes me feel connected to humanity and compassionate for humanity. I’ve had the chance to perform them live just recently at SXSW, and on tour with the Fleet Foxes, and in Europe. I’ve never felt that present with my lyrics before. Like, ‘this is what I’m thinking.’ Maybe my other songs were so old by the time they came out, that it did feel like a past life I was singing to. Now, I felt strikingly in the moment.

The Future And The Past is out now via ATO Records. Get it here.