The introductions have gone well. One of Rolling Stone’s “Ten New Artists You Need To Know.” One of Time Magazine’s “15 Artists To Watch in 2015.” The New Yorker raves it’s “a sound that’s crystal clear but somehow full and stripped down…this is a record that never feels retro, just timeless.” The poise and composure of Natalie Prass’ stunning debut album has been greeted with a resounding yes by critics and fans mesmerized by Prass’ refreshing take on the singer/songwriter tradition.
The self-titled debut is flecked with a lushness buttressed by Prass’ melancholic instincts for storytelling, rounded out by inventive brass and orchestral gestures, tender and exuberant all at once. The compelling stories behind tracks such as “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” “Bird Of Prey,” “Your Fool,” “Why Don’t You Believe In Me” and others, reveal Prass’ perseverance in nourishing her menagerie of influences into a unique and visionary first album. Her incredible journey includes a nearly decade-long stint in Nashville, shuttling to her native Virginia in the midst of that stay to create her debut album. Prass, now 29 years-old, currently lives in Richmond, where the album was produced, to be, as she puts it, “where the trees are tall, the buildings old, and friends near.”
Her astounding debut, produced by Prass’ childhood friend and Spacebomb studios founder Matthew E. White and his production partner Trey Pollard, was a painstaking effort that remained on the shelf for another two years before its release in early 2015. This nine track compilation is a testament to how Prass’ grit and pursuit of musical perfection stood her well throughout. “I always kind of laugh when they refer to me as a newcomer,” says Natalie. “I think my story is a case of when the opportunity arrived, I was ready.”
Ironically, White’s own surprise success with his acclaimed debut, Big Inner, contributed to the delay. Intense collaborations between Prass, White, and Pollard preceded it all: “I would drive back and forth between Nashville and Richmond doing the pre-production,” she says. “Matt and I did so much planning. He’s very thorough and so am I. We talked for months while I sent him songs and ideas even before we started. We talked out every last detail before tracking. Matt and Trey wrote the arrangements separately. They would say, ‘You take this song and I’ll take that one.’ We took our time. It was my first opportunity to record a full length album and I wanted to do it right.”
Prass and her collaborators share a mutual appreciation for what she calls classic songwriting. “My writing does have so many influences,” she acknowledges. “I go back to Irving Berlin, Sondheim, Burt Bacharach (many reviews cite Bacharach muse Dionne Warwick as a kindred spirit of Prass, with the artist even thanking her in the liner notes) but it all comes down to the strength of your songwriting and your commitment to that.”
Such dedication started early. Born in Cleveland, Prass moved to Tidewater, VA as a child, where she recalls being the only girl in teenage bands. After magnet school she attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but returned to Virginia after only a year. Soon, she would make her trek to Nashville, eventually attending Middle Tennessee State University and enrolling in their intensive songwriting program. She recalls plotting out her own personal repertoire even during her student days. “I used to space out a lot in class and work out melodies,” she says. “I’d sneak out and go to the bathroom and sing melodies and try out songs, even then. I wrote the melody and lyrics for the song ‘Violently’ that way, then I went home and figured it out on guitar.”
Prass’ distinct vocal command enables her to breathlessly glide over ornately arranged offerings like “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” or croon the almost-country bop of “Never Over You.” Rippling crosscurrents blow through the collection of songs as well as soulful wisps of what several critics have likened to Dusty Springfield’s 1969 blue-eyed soul masterwork Dusty In Memphis. Dozens of musicians contributed to the overall sound, but it’s Prass’ subtle conjurations of longing that make her debut such a powerfully intimate statement.
“A lot of times you’ll be working on a song and it surprises you by turning into something else. Like ‘Christy.’ I like how unnerving it is. It turned into an eerie, very personal song. But the one that is probably most personal to me is ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me.’” She doesn’t expand any further and she doesn’t need to. The lyrics speak for themselves: ‘Our love is a long goodbye,’ she sings in heartbreaking register. The song that Rolling Stone hailed as “a crumbled relationship ballad of cinematic majesty” stands on its own while also seamlessly rounding out the rest of her magnificent debut album.