Natalie Prass is missing her old Nashville apartment. It had peach-painted walls and was covered in inspiring cutouts, making it equal parts cozy and creative. She calls it her “peach paradise,” a place where she loved to go to sleep late covered in paper and markers and wake up early to keep working. Though she has been trying to be more minimalist in her life, there was definitely a comfort in the clutter. She hopes her new Richmond home will someday have that same sparkle – but, in the meantime, her music already does.
Like that teeny Nashville sanctuary, Prass’ songs are romantic and marked by simplicity. She is in love with romance, and for good reason; it has proved a rich topic throughout her music career, filling her songs with the perfect dose of sentimentality. From the pain of disintegrating relationships to sweet declarations of devotion, it is fully present in the lyrics on her self-titled debut album. The instrumentation has a romantic feel to it as well, featuring sweeping orchestral arrangements. These songs get more intricate at opportune moments – not cluttered, but with just enough extra adornment to make them special.
Prass sings with a voice that is disarming and earnest, and it makes the much-covered topic of love feel newly poignant. Falling both in and out of it inspires her, but it is ultimately the feeling of heartbreak that unlocks her best songwriting. “I think it’s easier to write when you’re kind of in a place of sadness and longing,” Prass tells me over the phone. “That feeling when you’re at your lowest point, you want to kind of do whatever you can to get out of it, you know?” Of course, she is sure to clarify with a laugh, this doesn’t mean she always wants to feel this way.
Even with this theme at the center of her music, it was an involved and time-consuming process to develop the layered songs on her album. Once Prass established the feel, it was broken down to the drums, bass, and guitar. Then a variety of sounds, mainly from warmly toned orchestral instruments, were brought in to fully shape the songs. Many musicians were called into the studio, which took a lot of organization, as well as money that, naturally, nobody had. Eventually, the album came together; the result is a cinematic, swirling ode to lost love.
As a longtime musician, Prass’ persistence goes beyond working on her first album. Though she had always been programmed to work – writing and recording and playing since she was very young, it was her time as a keyboardist for Jenny Lewis that really secured her relentless ethic. “She basically just taught me it doesn’t matter how tired you are, how shitty your day was, you just leave that at the door,” Prass says of the world tour she embarked on as part of Lewis’ band. “Our days were so long and hard, there was a lot of travel, but she just did it every night, so that was a big lesson to me.”
When the tour wrapped up and Prass refocused on her own work, she kept this in mind. Being in Nashville also helped her productivity, with its slightly competitive culture and opportunity for collaboration. Co-writing helped her stop being so hard on herself about lyrics, which are the most difficult aspect of her songwriting, and what she tends to beat herself up about the most. Song structure and melody, on the other hand, come naturally, as this is what draws Prass to music in the first place. “When I listen to music I don’t listen to the lyrics right away, I listen to the groove,” Prass says. “I listen to the melody, how it makes me feel, and then I start to digest what is actually being said.”
Listening and learning from music of the past is especially important to Prass. Her upcoming EP, Side By Side, is going to be comprised largely of covers. This makes sense for Prass, as she expresses appreciation for music that crosses genres and decades. Everyone from Anita Baker to Grimes interests her, and she enjoys arranging their songs with her own style. In the past, she has also covered the likes of Carole King and Janet Jackson. “Carole King is just a monster writer and player and singer, she’s everything. And Janet is the queen of laid-back R&B. I’ve always loved her voice and I’ve always loved her vibe,” Prass says with a special enthusiasm. “I’m just kind of a sucker for those kind of songs, romantic songs. I have no shame in that I’ve always loved a good romantic song. I love it, I never get sick of it.” By drawing inspiration from these ladies, her sound is enriched with a nostalgic feel, and resonates with the generations of past romances.
As for the future of her own work, Prass has simple but concrete hopes. She hopes to emulate more than the music of the artists whose songs she covers, and aspires to the same kind of long and productive career of someone like Carole King. Prass is on the right track, with a career that has been so far characterized by an unrelenting need to keep making and sharing music. “As soon as I kind of doubted myself, and was at rock bottom, and was like maybe I’m not a musician after all, right before I got hired for Jenny’s band, I got the call. Something happened in the universe,” Prass says. “As soon as you think you’re done, just push yourself a little bit further and see what happens.”