Feature interview: Natalie Prass at Ace of Cups

Joel Oliphint
Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Natalie Prass was all set to record a follow-up to her debut album in December of 2016. Plans had been made. The label was ready to go. But about a month before the scheduled recording sessions, America elected a new president, and for Prass, that changed everything.

“I was in all this confusion and anger and sadness and feeling like I don't even know what country I live in,” Prass said in a recent phone call. “I was glued to my phone and my TV and news magazines. I felt so depressed. It was like somebody died. I was paralyzed. … There was no way I could record this record and believe in it and feel like I'm doing any good in the world. My heart wasn't in these songs. There are more important problems than my personal issues.”

A couple of days after the election, Prass called her longtime friend, Matt White, a producer and founder of Spacebomb Records in Richmond, Virginia, and told him she needed to rewrite the album. White supported her decision. Her label didn't.

“My label was so pissed off. People were really doubting me. But I felt like I had no other option. I needed to do it,” Prass said.

At first, Prass wrote by herself. “It was a lot of crying and writing and laying on the floor and crying and writing some more,” she said. “Then I started going to Matt's house every day, five days a week, and we would just talk and try to figure out what the hell was going on. It was very therapeutic for both of us. We started writing together. We treated it like a job, making ourselves work through it.”

Prass and White wrote and arranged new songs in January and February, began tracking in March and turned in the new version of the record to the label in April of 2017. “They didn't write me back for a month. They didn't say anything. They were so pissed. It was excruciating. Then I got mad,” Prass said. “There was no going back from there.”

Prass and her label parted ways, but the new album,The Future and the Past, finally saw release in June on new label ATO Records, and on Tuesday, Sept. 18, Prass and her band will make a stop at Ace of Cups in support of the album.

While the songs on Prass' lovely 2015 self-titled debut (also produced by White at Spacebomb) were awash in strings and horns,The Future and the Past is a funkier, poppier, more uptempo affair, taking inspiration from the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder and the hopeful sounds of gospel music.

“The only thing that was cutting through to me at the time was gospel,” Prass said. “There's a record store in Richmond called Barky's that I would go to. It's all gospel music. I got really into learning about Richmond's gospel scene, and [owner Barksdale “Barky” Haggins] would give me some recommendations. Gospel was the only thing that was making me feel human and feel hope.”

Despite the confusion, anger and sadness that provided the initial spark for the record, Prass was determined not to make a dour, depressive album. “I wanna say it loud for all the ones held down/We gotta change the plan/Come on nasty women,” she sings on “Sisters,” a vampy female-empowerment anthem.

“I feel like a lot of music from women my age or younger, it's so sad. And that's fine. My last record is not the most hopeful group of songs,” she said. “But I just want to change the narrative on what's accepted and expected from female artists, especially indie artists. I believe in making art that empowers people no matter who you are. I don't want to bring people down. That's really important to me right now — more important than ever before.”

Even “Lost,” which details a painful prior relationship, has moments that keep the song from sliding into despair. “All the scars are healing,” Prass sings.

“I was honestly really torn about putting [‘Lost'] on the record. It was dealing with stuff I didn't want to talk about. But I just said to myself, ‘This is empowering because, in the end, I did have the final say, and I wasn't going to put up with that behavior that I had been putting up with,'” she said.

Some songs made their way from the scrapped album ontoThe Future and the Past. “Short Court Style,” with its funky bass line, click-y guitar tones and layered, '90s R&B-style vocal harmonies, began life in an even earlier incarnation on the soundtrack to the short film “Oh Jerome, No.”

“At the time I was really into the Bee Gees and studying everything they had done. That music is so fun. I wanted a bass sound like that,” she said. “It was one of the first steps of diving into that world. Any time you take a risk and get out of your comfort zone, it makes taking more steps that much easier, and I'm all about getting out of my comfort zone. I love challenging myself.”

Ace of Cups

7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18

2619 N. High St., Old North

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Natalie Prass