To the long list of people inconvenienced by Donald Trump’s presidency, we can now add Natalie Prass fans.
The 32-year-old musician from Richmond, Virginia, released a stunning, self-titled debut album in early 2015 — beautifully ornate music draped in strings and horns that harked back to the classic soul of Dionne Warwick, Curtis Mayfield and Dusty Springfield’s Memphis recordings.
The usual tours and festival appearances followed wide critical acclaim. Then she returned home to write new material and record a second album, again with her schoolfriend and fellow singer-songwriter Matthew E White and his band at their Richmond studio, Spacebomb. Again she’d written largely about a relationship break-up, a different one from the split that gave such sweet sadness to her first record.
Then, on November 9, 2016, she found herself at a party intended to celebrate the election of Hillary Clinton as the first female president of the United States. “It ended horribly, people crying in the corners. I was so devastated by that result. It was insane how deeply it affected me. Any time it came up I would start crying,” she tells me. “So I decided to scrap the whole album.”
The election of the pussy-grabber-in-chief made her think about attitudes to women generally. “This man, who is unqualified and inexperienced, won over a woman who was perfect for the job. We still have so far to go as a country. People don’t like to listen to women or take orders from them. I feel that a lot as a woman playing music.”
When she began writing more new songs at the start of 2017, she came up with Sisters, one of two singles currently available before her second album’s June release. It’s a weighty, Gap Band piano groove that urges: “You gotta keep your sisters close to ya.” A mass of female voices sing in the chorus: “I wanna say it loud/For all the ones held down/We gotta change the plan/Come on nasty women.”
On the cover of the album, which is called The Future and the Past, she sports a checked blazer, a bow tie and a shirt whose yellow rose buttons are a symbol of the Suffragettes. “The photo is a statement on women having to be beautiful,” she explains. “I wanted to blend masculine and feminine.”
Another new song, Hot for the Mountain, is tense and jazzy, repeating: “We’ll take you on/We can take you on.” She has expanded her sound with electric guitar, funk and a smattering of electronics, but all her righteous anger doesn’t harm her accessibility. Her high, sweet voice never sounds incensed. The other song that’s available now, Short Court Style, is pure joy, with a summery G-funk synth line hovering over the chorus. A small London audience will get an early preview at a Bush Hall show on Monday.
She cites This is My Country, the 1968 album by The Impressions, and the Seventies work of Stevie Wonder as inspirations. “Stevie Wonder is obviously the master at political music that’s for everybody, that’s still joyful. I was hoping I could make something like that, where there was a message but it didn’t necessarily feel like I was pointing fingers. I didn’t think it would do any good if I just sounded pissed off.”
As so many people have been doing lately, Prass, who spent much of her 20s as a jobbing songwriter in Nashville, has been looking back at her experiences in the stark light of the #MeToo movement. “I realised how much bull-s**t I’ve had to deal with, being a woman in my industry,” she says. “A lot of not being taken seriously, my opinions not mattering or not being considered as good, being treated inappropriately — the list goes on. When I was a little girl and wanted to be in bands, I was literally the only one. I had to adapt to boys’ behaviour, to transform myself into a guy. What if there had been a bunch of girls I could play with? Who would I be now? After the election all these things started coming back. I was mad about it.”
When she was ready to record again last spring, a few older songs still made the cut, but just over half was post-Trump material. “I did have a lot to say about this terrible relationship I’d just gotten out of, but there are way bigger problems in the world.”
She wrote with White, who was just as shell-shocked by the political situation, and surprised by Prass’s personal revelations about her experiences as a female musician. “It was really therapeutic for us to write together and talk,” she says. “A lot of times he’d say: ‘Oh! I didn’t realise it was like that for you.’”
White’s Spacebomb production house is an unusual set-up for the modern age. It has a house band, in the manner of the Motown, Stax and Muscle Shoals studios, who play on everything. It’s the talented local musicians, who largely attended the Jazz Studies course at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, that make a less well-known artist sound as if a major record label has spent millions on them.
“Matt had a very heavy hand in the production of my first record,” says Prass, who was amazed by how great the string and horn arrangements sounded. “He totally transformed it, and I loved it.” But thanks to her increased confidence, the new album remained in her hands much more. “I think I do have more respect now. I feel like I was just as involved in the production as Matt. I was very specific about what I wanted. I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the room with the guys.”
The end result is what she calls “the most ‘me’ record I’ve made”.
“I have a strong sense of who I am now,” she says. “I’m older, I’m more comfortable as myself. I’ve always been very shy. Now I don’t care any more.”