To the Roots: Natalie Prass Gets Back to Basics

After a big 2015, the Virginia singer/songwriter returns to her home state and drops a stripped-down EP.
To the Roots: Natalie Prass Gets Back to Basics

After a big 2015, the Virginia singer/songwriter returns to her home state and drops a stripped-down EP.

Words: Laura Studarus

photo by Shawn Brackbill

November 19, 2015

Natalie Prass / photo by Shawn Brackbill

She once sat behind the drumkit with an all-girl punk band called Mom and is rarely without her beloved vintage KISS t-shirt. Still, dropping the occasional “fuck” is about as hard-rocking as singer/songwriter Natalie Prass gets these days. As a solo musician, her output has been characterized by sepia-toned glamour, lovelorn soprano vocals, and ’70s-reminiscent instrumentation, practically daring critics to slap the words “retro” and “throwback” on every mention of her work. Still, when it came time to record her new EP Side by Side, the Cleveland, Ohio, native managed to tap into her inner roughrider.

“We did it really fast,” she says of the one-day studio session. “But it sounds really good, because everyone that I have in my crew is a good musician. We just knocked it out. I’ve never done that before: ‘Record! Go! OK, we’re done, let’s put it out.’ I usually like to take my time.”

Prass laughs, confirming that the fun—but crazy—process did fall in line with her desire to keep moving forward. Her previous year backs up the statement. She hit the road behind her own material the day after finishing duties as Jenny Lewis’s touring keyboardist, and she relocated from Nashville to Richmond, Virginia. (“Moving is fucking crazy!” she moans.) By her estimate, it’s been two years since she’s had a proper break. Even as she speaks she’s on the go, walking laps around Portland, determined to let the fresh air cure a burgeoning sinus infection.

Prass’s newest EP features live versions of  “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” and “Christy,” both of which appeared on her self-titled solo debut in January. They slot neatly alongside covers of songs by Anita Baker, Simon & Garfunkel, and Grimes.

Given the compressed time frame and minimal cuts, it might be easy to assume that Side by Side is a “raw” take on her sound. Recorded at Spacebomb Studios (the recording space and adjoining label owned by Matthew E. White, who also coproduced her self-titled LP with Trey Pollard), the collection does have a live-to-tape intimacy. But it’s hardly rough. Prass and her band take ownership of each song seriously, imbuing Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” with an added sense of immediacy, peppering “The Sound of Silence” with jazz slurs, and shaping Grimes’s glitched “REALiTi” into a folk lament.

“Where I am now, I’m so grateful.”

Prass reveals that the EP was originally earmarked for a Spotify-only release before her label, StarTime International, decided on an official album rollout. It’s a position that she doesn’t take lightly—being wanted. When it comes to life as a musician, that’s a win, no matter what form it takes.

“When I was a kid watching VH1’s Behind the Music, it was just this dream,” she muses. “How does Gwen Stefani get from playing in clubs to who she is now? As a kid I didn’t understand that. It seemed like it could be so easy. ‘Oh, when you reach twenty-two, and you keep doing it, you’ll be famous.’ There’s this naïve, really dumb perception of how it all works. Then you get into the wave of whatever this is, and it’s so hard. There’s so much involved. Where I am now, I’m so grateful.”

At this thought, the musician’s grin radiates through the static-filled cell connection.

“I’m happy that me and my friends, in these random, non-cultural towns of Virginia Beach and Richmond, made something together that’s making an impact and that people are listening and enjoying it,” she continues. “We all joined in our passion and helped each other out. It’s really rewarding.” FL