Natalie Prass spent most of her twenties living in Nashville and honing her talent until the competitive town wore her down and turned her to introspection. Now 28 and living back in her native Virginia, among home comforts and old friends, she releases her self-titled debut album which has Nashville style and Virginia soul. She plays Deaf Institute, Manchester, 25 June
Country music is really gaining momentum in the UK. Why do you think it has never taken off before and did you ever envisage success this side of the Atlantic?
I don’t really know too much about the country world. I have a lot of friends who are completely in it, but I’m not a country connoisseur by any means. All I know is that it is extremely exciting that it’s taking off in the UK. I’m assuming it’s the good kind of country music? There are so many amazing songwriters that I know in Nashville who are making such great music. Kacey Musgraves, Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs, Heidi Feek, Jason Isbell, Rayland Baxter are just a mere few. It’s kind of ridiculous how good they all are. They should be on the radio, not all those highly compressed songs about trucks and beer. That was a big reason I couldn’t stay in Nashville anymore – it felt like all the bad country music was starting to slowly poison me.
How did Nashville shape you as an artist and what is it like for an aspiring musician living there?
I lived in Nashville for a long time. I moved there when I was 20. Your early twenties are crucial years for developing who you are as a person and artist. Basically when I moved there it was an awakening experience for me. Everyone was playing and writing all the time, most of it was bad songwriting (that I heard) but some of it was really good. I knew I had to really step up my game. I played anywhere at any time. Every night, if I could. I had no shame in my early twenties. I knew I just needed to get better. I had never listened to country music before moving to Nashville, but it’s hard to avoid it once you go out in the city. I really connected to the older country songs – the songs that could basically be sung in any genre they were so concrete and traditional. It changed my writing for the better, being exposed to classic country music. It’s just good writing in general. I don’t really consider myself a country artist, but I guess I’m definitely more country than Ciara.
Everyone is fighting, struggling, making it,
Nashville isn’t for everyone. I see a lot of people get stuck there and move in loops. I was a victim of that myself just a mere two and a half years ago. I have never been much of a party person. I’ve always had the mentality of “get your work done or nothing will happen”. But it’s hard to break out of the Nashville circle once you’re in it. Everyone is fighting, struggling, making it, faking it, every scenario possible, pretty much. It gets exhausting. I didn’t leave my house really – the last three years I lived in town. I cut my hair short, started to draw and paint on all of my clothes, made dog clothes for money, and recorded solo ambient songs about being trapped inside fish. I’m glad Jenny [Lewis] asked me to be in her band. It was starting to get strange in my world. But life is funny and you make the best of what you have at that moment.
Does your album conform to traditional themes of country music: nostalgia, America, heartbreak, stetsons?
I guess so. I mean, it’s safe to say that the Spacebomb crew [a collective of local musicians] and myself are all lovers of quality music. We all listen to anything that we think is good, not just older country music. Many different songs and genres influenced this record. I’m a big believer of if the song is good, it can be played in any style. Some of the demos that I sent to Matthew E White were nothing like how they were eventually recorded. This was a community record. Lots of brilliant mind-gears cranked during the making of this record and made it into something beautiful. However, I am a big, fat sucker for heartbreak songs. Always will be.
What other genres influence your music and who are you greatest influences?
I love R&B music. I really think it is the only genre that has never had an awkward or bad decade. It’s always been good. I love how direct the lyrics are and how it’s just completely emotionally-based music. I’m telling you – a good beat, groovy chords and romantic lyrics never get old. I’ve loved R&B ever since I was a kid and have never stopped. Old and new. I’m wearing a Janet Jackson t-shirt right now on my plane to Richmond. Some of my biggest influences are Diana Ross, Ciara, Janet Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Gal Costa, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone and, of course, Dionne Warwick.
Your album was finished in 2012. Why has it taken until now for us to hear it and does it feel strange singing songs written a while ago?
I don’t think many people realise how hard it is to put out a record, especially when you are starting from complete scratch. Spacebomb was only an idea when we decided to make a record together in 2011. We all had to grow and learn. We’re all nerds from Virginia Beach who knew zero about how to get from A to Z in being a musician for a living. We had to figure it out for ourselves. It was extremely frustrating at times, but it all worked out in the end.
It thought it would be a lot harder singing these older songs before touring started. But to my surprise, it’s actually been nice. My life has changed so much – I’ve changed most of all – so these songs are like a bit of my past that comfort me along the way.