“I just flew in from Arizona, but I’m home,” Natalie Prass said with a sigh of relief at the start of our interview. “Home” is Richmond, Virginia for Prass, who, prior to re-locating to Richmond a year ago, lived in Nashville, Tennessee for ten years. Richmond is also the home of Spacebomb Studios, where Prass and the supernaturally talented house band have recorded an album and an EP of earthy and soulful pop.
While she is enjoying being home now, soon Prass will be heading off again and coming to Australia for shows and festival appearances around the country. Ahead of her trip to the antipodes, Natalie Prass spoke to us about her writing and recording process, the tender subjects of her songs, performing live, and how it seems things are always changing.
Places like Richmond and Nashville have such a rich musical history. Do you find that’s influential on your sound and your identity as an artist?
Yeah, it’s so interesting. They have different energies – like, completely different musical energies. Nashville definitely dominates as far as being a music city, but Nashville is definitely more business, definitely more formulaic kind of country-pop writing is what that city is all about. I think it did have an influence on me because it kind of kicked my ass into learning about how to write when I didn’t want to – when I wasn’t inspired or something… Everybody’s doing it and it’s really competitive. It was really good for me, and just being around people that do it all day every day was really eye-opening for me.
And Richmond is cool, ‘cause it’s like jazz. It has kind of like a naïve, creating for the love of creating kind of vibe to it, and that’s what I really love that that’s what I wanted to get back to. I wasn’t making any money when I lived in Nashville doing music, really, but… I just wanted to get back to the roots of why I make music and why I love music and so many people here are just ridiculously skilled and creative. There’s a lot of gospel here, a lot of R&B, a lot of jazz, but also there’s a lot of punk and hardcore and experimental stuff – It just has everything and it’s all coming from a really good place. I really like it. There’s no industry here, you know?
Is your song-writing more of an individual pursuit, or do you treat it as something collaborative?
I write by myself a lot, but I’ve also grown to really love collaborating as well. It gets kind of lonely, I guess, when you’re just in your head all the time and you’re home and you’re writing… And I love that, and I definitely do my fair share of that, but I’m just exploring working with other people ‘cause obviously you work a lot faster when you have somebody else, and I get kind of caught up in my head a lot, second-guessing my decisions. When you work with somebody else, they’re very quick to say yes or no, or you can say something and that triggers something in them to say something even better. I’ve really been enjoying co-writing; I’ve been writing a tonne the past month, ‘cause my goal is to start recording again in June for the next record.
Your songs are very personal. The first time you performed for people or with people, was it a confronting experience?
I think the only time it’s weird for me is if the person that it’s about may be hearing it. If I think about that, if I think about like, “Ooohh. They probably listened to that,” and it makes me feel kind of funny for a second. That’s how I’ve always written – I know that’s how a lot of people write. But I’ve written for other people and I’ve written for commercials, and then just trying to write just to write, and if it’s not coming from a place where I feel like I’m really passionate about it… I don’t know. I just feel like the song’s not as good. I feel fake.
So I’ve always written from a personal place and I’m kind of used to just putting myself out there in that way and it doesn’t really bother me. We’re all human. We all feel the same things.
Speaking of putting yourself out there, you’ll be coming to Australia very shortly for the first time. When you travel do you have different expectations based on where you’re going, or do you just take it as it comes?
It is crazy how in different countries and then in the U.S., different states and cities, it’s so different everywhere you go – the energy, how people react, how loud people are. In the States, if you go to a middle of nowhere college town, it’s probably gonna be pretty drunken and loud and kind of disrespectful. [Laughs] You go and you party and you drink and everybody has a good time, and that’s wonderful. But then you go to London and everyone is just silent and waits until the end to clap, and sometimes that can be really scary for people.
You have to be kind of mutable and open to accept whatever energy’s being thrown back at you on-stage and just work with it and try to do your best. I think that’s fun. I really get a kick out of that, ‘cause I love talking to the audience and feeling really connected with everybody and creating a communal vibe and picking up on people’s vibes. I’m a person that picks up on energy and I just love it, ‘cause it creates a new experience every night for me.
I don’t really know what to expect from Australia though. I’m assuming everyone is going to be super pleasant, and nice. I hear everybody’s really nice in Australia.
It’s interesting that you say that you respond to vibes and energy. Listening to your latest EP Side by Side, it’s really interesting the way you transform not only other people’s songs, but your own songs. Do you find that songs are always changing as you perform them?
Definitely. It depends on who’s playing with me, what the band is, what instruments are on stage. Even for the crowd, too, sometimes I’m like “Let’s pick it up tonight,” or “Let’s keep this really chill tonight.” It always is evolving, sometimes ever so slightly. It’s so much fun for me to change things up – I just get a kick out of it.
Who are you bringing with you on tour? Have you got a big band or a smaller combo?
No, I just got a traditional, you know, your typical rock ‘n’ roll style band. So, it’s gonna be two guitars, bass and drums.
Do you have any surprises or favourite songs that you’d like to perform live?
Yeah! It’s so funny, there’s like, a big e-mail thread between me and the band and my management. I’m like “Hi guys, I wrote these new songs – we should play some new songs that are really fun. I’ll send ‘em over.”
And my management was just like “Natalie! What are you thinking?” [Laughs] They’re like, “No! You can’t do that!”
We’re obviously going to play stuff from the record and I would like to play stuff from Side by Side - the covers that we do. We haven’t played the Grimes cover yet live. I would like to attempt to play that one, ‘cause it’s such a good song. We would have to change it again, ‘cause we’re not gonna have any piano. You know, always changing!
Is there something about certain songs that makes you want to perform them?
Yeah, definitely. I’m a sucker for melody and groove. I’m just a big Grimes fan in general, I think she’s so cool, and I really respect how she’s just created her own world, you know? It’s songs that I’ve loved forever, like, I love taking classic songs and turning them something that you really wouldn’t expect, too. I never really saw myself as playing covers live, but I’ve noticed when you’re touring on nine-song record and you’re playing for an hour-and-a-half, you have to fill in your set. It’s kind of nice to throw in songs that people are familiar with.
You mentioned earlier you’ve started working on the material for your next album. Have you thought about a change of direction or anything like that?
We recorded that record so long ago. I was considerably younger - we finished it in January 2012 – so I’ve grown a lot as a writer. My ear has grown a lot, and I think it’s going to sound different, but it’s still me, and I’m into what I’ve been into, and what I think is good.
I don’t want to stray too far. I’m gonna put out, like, an electronic album. I’m still really into live musicians and arrangements and stuff. That’s the music that I just love and listen to all the time. It’s not gonna be crazy different, but my songwriting has definitely changed a bit.
Natalie Prass’s 2016 Australian tour kicks off in Melbourne on Monday February 29. She is performing in Sydney at Newtown Social Club on Sunday March 6. Her self-titled debut album and the Side by Side EP are out now.