Interview

Q&A: Jessica Pratt On Her Mother’s Death, Recording On A 4-Track, And Fusing Fantasy With Reality

When Jessica Pratt sings, something billows out of her. It isn’t merely her remarkable voice — soft and scratchy with a singularity that’s almost chilling — but a bigger force. Pratt is a songwriter whose lyrics fill space and hang there long after the first utterance. Her singing voice is so mesmerizing that the comparisons to other odd-voiced women (Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan) come easy, but her closest companion in songwriting might actually be Bill Callahan. They both construct deviously simple melodies that warp into lingering, linear stories with a tendency to end sharply and suddenly, or not at all.

Hearing Pratt’s early material famously spurred Tim Presley (White Fence, Darker My Love, etc.) to found Birth Records with the sole purpose of releasing her 2012 self-titled debut. Three years later, Pratt is releasing her sophomore record, On Your Own Love Again, through the storied independent label Drag City, making her labelmates with cult figures like Callahan, Newsom, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

These songs are wiry, cloaked in the hiss and pop of the past, manifestations of the home-studio and 4-track recording processes favored by Pratt — but they are by no means derivative. It’s especially difficult for artists working in a milieu like folk to emerge in their own right, carve out their own space in a genre populated with ancient greats and spiffy, pop-leaning regurgitation of tired tropes. But Pratt skirts common pitfalls by disregarding both the current trends and sometimes formulaic templates of the past, forging instead an astrological hum that inhabits your mind like a ghost story. Forceful in lyric only, her child-like voice sounds steeped in untold years of slow-burning loneliness.

The songs on this album are so gentle they almost lose their bite, almost lose their sadness, if that voice didn’t bring it back in with tonal twists and phrasing that sometimes conveys more than the words themselves. I spoke with Pratt about the underpinnings for the album, how her mother’s death impacted her music, and the fusion of fantasy and reality in her songwriting.

STEREOGUM: You often mention how your mother’s eclectic taste in music influenced you while growing up. What was her reaction to your decision to pursue music?

JESSICA PRATT: People always feel so bad when I say this, but she passed away a couple of years ago. It actually happened at a weirdly serendipitous time, basically, a couple months before the first record came out. It kind of made a lot of sense in a way, like this weird rebirth thing.

STEREOGUM: I’m sorry to bring that up, I had no idea.

PRATT: Oh no, it’s okay! It’s not a hard thing for me to talk about. But she always thought I was really talented and was very encouraging. It’s sort of sad, I wish that she could see where things are now, but at the same time, who’s to say it would’ve even become this exact thing had she not died? I don’t know, it was a very significant death so it all tied together.

STEREOGUM: Was playing music and recording something that you always did alone?

PRATT: Very much alone — I didn’t even go to public high school, so I had like a weird — not in a bad way — but I didn’t have a typical adolescent experience. I ended up hanging out with people in town that were like five years older than me, and were into music and shit. Which, I was pretty starved for so I think it’s good it happened that way. I always played music alone and just recorded things in my room and didn’t even show it to very many people.

STEREOGUM: Were you home schooled?

PRATT: Technically, yes for high school. But it wasn’t really like that, it was mostly laziness and a disinterest in going to school. I didn’t like the school that I went to, all of my friends went to a different high school and I just hated it so much. I didn’t feel connected with anyone there. For better or worse, my mother was very lenient with me in that regard. We very much had a — she was more like a friend than a motherly relationship really. Sometimes I felt like I was the more maternal one [laughs]. She was very silly and I was kind of serious.

STEREOGUM: What was really influencing you musically during this time?

PRATT: I wasn’t very good at guitar at that point, so I could only do really basic shit. I went through a huge Stones fanaticism phase. I really liked Marianne Faithful’s singing a lot, she has this record that actually didn’t even come out it’s unreleased, called Rich Kid Blues that she did when she was like a full-blown junkie and she can’t sing and it’s all off key and shit. But she’s singing with a full studio musician band and they’re super polished sounding, kind of like that weird, semi-accidental raw feeling. I got that record and I was completely obsessed with it and tried to sing like her a lot.

STEREOGUM: Your first record was a collection of scattered, older songs, how did you feel recording On Your Own Love Again with the idea of an actual album in mind?

PRATT: There was some sort of a jumping off point, because I did go into it with the notion that I might possible use these three songs I had already recorded before. Those songs are the common link between the first and second records. “Strange Melody” is a song that I recorded maybe the year that the first album came out. I recorded it six days after my mom passed away, which is something that I only realized much later. I was looking at the dates on the tape and I was like ‘holy shit, that’s fucking crazy.’

It was recorded in the same fashion as the couple of home recorded ones on the first album. The self-titled is mostly a studio record, but the first song “Night Faces” and last “Dreams” were recorded with basically the same exact process that I used for this record. Because of that, I felt like it was the obvious next step to do the second record how I wanted. It was all on my 4-Track (a Tascam 424 MK Portastudio 4-Track) in my tiny bedroom in Silverlake. I was pretty sad and lonely at the time because I had just moved to LA. But I think I was excited — it was very unfamiliar. I spent a lot of time alone, by choice, trying to finish that record. So it’s a very weird snapshot of a time that was strange and new to me.

STEREOGUM: The title for the record, On Your Own Love Again intimates a return to something. A lot of the songs are sad but there’s a calm to them. Do you see the album as cyclical? Is this a break up album?

PRATT: There was some shit happening when I was writing those songs, there was definitely some heartbreak in there. Everybody’s human experiences tend to be cyclical to some degree, and the older you get, the more you realize that. You’re working out the same problems over and over until you figure parts of them out. That was a phrase that came out of my mouth when I was writing that song, and I think a lot of times people accidentally psychologically strip out a psychic mantra that can end up ringing really true. It’s a weird phrase that doesn’t necessarily have a real solid implied inflection, you could put the intonation on any of those words and it would mean something different. I like that it’s the fusing of reality and fantasy. It’s kind of vaguely psychedelic, but at the same time sounds like it could be an easy-listening record. Those are the two worlds musically I like to draw from, polished, pop-sounding stuff but also weird crazy stuff.

STEREOGUM: It sounds like there’s a lot of room on the record for people who are off on their own or difficult to be in relationships with. Even on “Strange Melody” the phrase I kept coming back to was ‘You can’t see me/ The better half of a strange melody.’ How do you relate to that personally?

PRATT: Lyrical content is great when it’s abstract enough for people to have the space to project their own psychic things onto. That’s how you bond with songs. Relationships can be a lot more complex than you ever imagined as a younger person. From ages twenty to thirty five when you’re really going through your first batch of serious relationships, you have a lot of these fairly elementary realizations about human interaction: how everybody is kind of fucked up and there’s no real getting around that. And you’ve got to find people who are fucked up in the right ways to complement you for a while. It was a heavy period of discovery for me in that way that resulted in those songs.

STEREOGUM: Is there a specific song from this album that really resonates with you personally above the rest?

PRATT: I really like “Moon Dude” a lot. I’m happy that people like that song. It was kind of the first song of the stuff that I wrote that was the bulk of the new record. There were those three older ones, and then “Moon Dude” was the first one of the new batch. It was kind of unlike a song I had written before. I was in a weirdly happy place, I was still living in San Francisco then and I really like Will’s playing on that with the clavinet, it was very dreamy. I told him I wanted “mall production” on it. I told him ‘I want the reverb on it to sound like it’s in a big mall’ and I think he achieved that.

STEREOGUM: I love how it’s this elegant cosmic imagery juxtaposed with the casual slang of “dude.” I love that intersection.

PRATT: It is true that I sort of retrospectively looked at those songs and realized that it’s a very thematic element of the record, again, the fusion of those two things, fantasy and reality.

STEREOGUM: What prompted you to use “Back, Baby” as the only introduction the album?

PRATT: I think it was an instinctual thing. You look at a bulk of songs and I think most people will be able to look at the same bulk of songs and say “that’s the hit.” I went on a tour in Europe and that’s basically the most that I’ve played those new songs, — and even that was a fucking year ago — but that song seemed to have a resounding reverence with people. That was the one people would remember first.

STEREOGUM: What are your thoughts on people categorizing you as freak folk. Why do you think that is continually brought up in reference to your music?

PRATT: Sometimes people aren’t sure how to negotiate the way that an unusual voice makes them feel, which seems to be people’s impression of my voice so far, that it’s slightly unusual. You know, Joanna Newsom sings kind of high and is very belty, and it feels like it could be some sort of weird stage thing — and Devendra is weird sounds. I think categorization is just something that people inherently have to do to understand things and to communicate to other people, so it’s inevitable.

STEREOGUM: Whenever people talk about you they always talk about Tim and how he founded Birth Records just to put out your record. How does it feel to have that as a major part of your narrative?

PRATT: Any time there can be a “story” element people are going to gravitate toward that. And it was a very important part of my process coming into music. It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for him, in this way. Maybe I would’ve gotten my shit together eventually, but it was a very concrete thing that set it all into motion. But I think now that there’s a second album out, eventually that will no longer be the focus at some point.

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On Your Own Love Again is out today via Drag City. Buy it on iTunes.

[Photo by Dola Baroni.]