Natalie Prass on “The Future and the Past”

Caught in the Middle

Nov 15, 2018 Photography by Ray Lego (For Under the Radar) Issue #64 -  Kamasi Washington
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By November of 2016, Natalie Prass was prepared to take her next step. After her ornately baroque 2015 self-titled debut took her around the world and to the upper reaches of numerous album-of-the-year lists, she was ready to go back into the studio with a new set of intensely personal songs, rife with heartbreak and loss. Recording sessions were scheduled for December, and her team at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginiamany of the same players who had contributed to her breakthroughwas in place. And then Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and seemingly everything changed overnight. Her sophomore release would have to wait.

"After the election happened, I felt like I had no choice," she recalls. "For me, I felt like my own issues and my own personal problems and relationship issues were so insignificant to what I was experiencing and what we were all experiencing. I just didn't think releasing something neutral was important. In the beginning it was, 'Okay, I need to write. That's the only thing I know how to do to process all this stuff. It's the only thing that helps me.'"

And so the songs that she had worked so hard on preparing for her next album were scrapped. This decision was not without repercussions. After Prass decided to delay her recording sessions until March, 2017, StarTime Internationalthe Columbia Records affiliated label that was paying her to write and record her new songsdecided to part ways with her (she eventually signed a new deal with New York independent label ATO). In the aftermath, she questioned whether she wanted to keep making music at all. Living in a tiny studio apartment in Richmond, she rented out a rehearsal space she shared with a local heavy metal band, working in the mornings before they arrived. There she would "lie on the floor and cry and write and read and play piano for a bit and then cry more," she says. She wasn't certain how to translate those feelings into songs, but she knew she didn't want to make a depressing, discouraged, despondent body of work. She wanted to make something that served as a call to action and invitation for healing. Whatever she wrote, she was going to have to perform it every night on tour, and she didn't want to dwell on her sadness in front of audiences for two years.

"I guess my intense feelings that I had after the election made me dive even deeper into heavy grooves and taking it one step further than maybe I was going to," she says. Throughout the writing of the songs that would become The Future and the Past, she found herself drawn to the resilient storytelling and community spirit found in gospel music. Soon, she found herself at Barky's, a legendary Richmond music store that deals only in gospel music, sorting through their collection. "I just needed that music to hit like a hammer to shatter any kind of despair I was feeling to help me stay focused and positive and still connected to humanity and still feel things are going to be okay."

One of the first songs to come out of her writing sessions was an upbeat, deeply groovy track she called "Sisters." Using one of Spacebomb founder Matthew E. White's drum machines for inspiration, she soon crafted a track around a sustained A-minor chord. She wanted to create an anthempart drone, part battle cryto serve as a statement of solidarity for women who are underpaid and unappreciated, for every little girl who grows up believing (as she did) that femininity equals weakness.

"Well, if any on this record is going to spark a conversation with divisiveness, it would be that one," she admits. "That one is pretty unashamed of where my political views stand. Obviously, I use the words 'nasty women' in the chorus, and I know those words are very divisive. That was probably the biggest struggle for me on the record: 'Should I say those words?' And I was finally like, 'Yes, I should,' because I remember watching the debate, and when [Trump] said that it brought back so many deep, deep memories about that kind of aggressive language used toward women that I've heard directed toward me my whole life. And when I wrote the song, I was still very much processing all of that."

The influence of Stevie Wonder looms large over The Future and the Past, Prass says, as his Songs in the Key of Life served as an example of the sort of political yet not polemical songwriting she hoped to do. You can hear his influence in the subtle and soulful production, the funky and limber grooves, and lyrics that express longing and frustration without bitterness. More than anything, Wonder's influence is found in Prass' emphasis on creating an album that isn't so much about her personal struggle as it is about the collective ache of this moment and this movement.

"I just feel like, 'Okay, I know how [Wonder] has influenced me in my life and in my views and in my musical tastes," she says. "I can be that for people, hopefully for young women, to inspire them to be their best and be engaged and to feel compassion.' In my 20s, I was just a nervous wreck, just so depressed and anxious and feeling like 'What am I doing with my life?' And you could hear the anxiety in my voice, even in the first record. And now I feel, especially after I hit 30, like, 'Oh, my God, it doesn't matter,'" she laughs. "I mean, it does matter. It does matter to take care of yourself and be comfortable with who you are and nurture yourself. But for me personally, I want to make sure to unify whatever is happening right now."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Issue 64 (August/September/October 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.natalieprass.com

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