Some people are born careerists, but, despite debuting with one of the most stunning records of 2015, Natalie Prass isn’t among them. Reached at a tour stop in Tucson, Arizona, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter says what’s amazing her most these days is something simple: the fact she’s not standing in someone else’s shadow.
For years, Prass did just that, her musical gigs including touring as the keyboardist for indie-rock queen Jenny Lewis. Even after recording Natalie Prass, the fledgling solo artist didn’t expect to give up her day job.
Speaking on her cell, she says: “I think it’s just my personality, or maybe just because I’ve been playing music for so long and working so hard at it, that I don’t expect anything from it anymore. I just do my work, and then hope that it works out. I certainly didn’t think, ‘This will be a success and I’ll be on tour all year.’ ”
Instead, Prass has found herself with a packed schedule since the release of her record, her days spent doing interviews, her nights taking the stage as a headliner. In hindsight, she should have seen it coming. Guided by producer Matthew E. White (who’s a friend from her teenage years growing up in Virginia), Prass made a record that fuses baroque chamber pop with the kind of art-weirdo jazz flourishes that keep Tom Waits in cigarettes and bourbon. “Bird of Prey” starts out with a stomping bass line and then takes flight on three-day-bender horns and tornado-alley strings, while “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” is wounded soul stripped down to doom-tastic bass and drums.
Even if your listening habits start with Sufjan Stevens and end with Owen Pallett, the beautifully adventurous Natalie Prass will make you feel like you haven’t heard it all before. That uniqueness had a lot of people telling Prass to dumb things down for the mainstream.
“I’m not really a trend person,” she says. “I do what I want to do, instead of what other people think I should do, and I’m kind of stubborn that way. People on the business side of things want to hear stuff that’s popular and will get them a lot of money. My kind of retro-sounding songs, or whatever you want to call them, aren’t for everybody.”
They will, however, resonate with those for whom life is full of drama, not just musically but also on the personal front. Tellingly, the first line Prass sings on the record is “I don’t feel much/Afraid I don’t feel anything at all,” in the regal “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”.
“I was really struggling,” Prass admits. “I wanted to be a successful musician, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I wanted to be a songwriter and to get recognition—to make this my career and my life. And I didn’t want to work at stupid jobs anymore. I was also in a relationship with the guy that helped me finish a lot of the songs—I get hung up on lyrics a lot, and he helped me fill in some gaps.
“I was so in love with him and I was putting all this pressure on being a musician, and I wasn’t happy or han-dling stuff very well,” she continues. “I was just a kid in Nashville, where you’re surrounded by all these people who are really successful making music. I felt stuck, and I wanted more.”
With Natalie Prass, she’s got it, even if it was the last thing she expected.
“I honestly kind of thought I’d still be in Jenny Lewis’s band, playing with her and then doing my own thing on the side,” the singer admits. “That’s honestly what I thought and was preparing myself for. But I’m really happy I’m busy and doing my own music. It’s definitely been more rewarding.”
Natalie Prass plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (October 31).