'Keep your sisters close': Natalie Prass on her new album and the power of political anthems
Natalie Prass has always liked the color pink. On her 2015 self-titled debut, which showcased her brand of sweet, mid-century soul-pop, the 32-year-old Richmond performer made a point of appearing ultra-feminine, punctuating romantic, cooing tracks like “Bird Of Prey” and “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” with cinematic strings and horns.
“I’ve always been in this weird indie world, and for a long time I felt that it was not okay to be girly in that world,” she tells Entertainment Weekly. “With my last record I really wanted to embrace beauty and my sensitive side.”
Prass very nearly took the same route when preparing her Matthew E. White-produced sophomore record, The Future and The Past, which arrives on June 1 via ATO Records. Then the election happened, and Prass — along with the rest of the country — began to see pink a little differently. Scrapping most of what she had, Prass started writing again.
On The Future and The Past, she has claimed some of that dynamism for herself, wearing a bubble-gum-colored skirt and tie set of her own design during a Conan performance. Meanwhile, her sophomore effort is home to such female empowerment anthems as the jazz-gospel-funk fusion “Sisters,” where, against an all-female choir, she chants, “Keep your sisters close.”
Below, Prass delves further into her idealistic mindset while making The Future and The Past, which songs made it to the album’s second iteration, and why she sometimes hates being a woman.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Future and The Past marks the first time you’ve really leaned into politics, lyrically. What did you initially set out to achieve in writing this record?
PRASS: The subject material was shaping up to be another heartbreak record. I’d just gotten out of a pretty terrible relationship that I had a lot to say about. And some songs that I thought were the best ones were about that relationship. But then after the election happened I decided that that’s not important enough right now. I have so much more responsibility. At least, I chose to have that responsibility.
A lot of my favorite artists throughout the years have used music as a form of talking about the state of the world and social justice, so I just thought that’s what I need to talk about right now. And if I didn’t say something and try my best to make a statement on how I believe people should treat each other, then I’m going to be really upset that I missed that opportunity.
It really feels like people — regardless of their political views — will look back on the night Trump got elected and remember exactly where they were. What were you doing that night?
[My boyfriend, Dr. Dog drummer] Eric [Slick] and I went to an election party. The local comedy troupe had these stand-up shows, and it was just a big party and a lot of good people. Everybody was decked out in Hillary gear, and it slowly just got darker and darker and people started to cry, and leave. Oh yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was horrible.
It sounds like you processed a lot of that emotion in the track “Sisters.”
Yeah, I think what hit me really hard with Hillary’s loss was just the deep, deep cultural stereotype women — all women — face. Women are against women, and men are against women. Like, women have to rise above so much to get ahead. I feel guilty that sometimes I hate being a woman. I hate it because there’s so much weight on your shoulders at all times. Maybe I’m just really sensitive.
I needed, especially at that time, a modern anthem. I wanted to talk about family values, money, and how hard it is for people to get by in this country. And then I wanted to talk about domestic abuse. I wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.
To what extent have you perceived casual sexism in music circles?
I wasn’t allowed to have opinions in my world. No one really cared about what I thought, and if I did speak up it was kind of brushed aside. I wasn’t taken seriously being the only girl playing in band growing up.
You’ve described your blazer and bow tie on the cover of The Future and The Past as symbolically blending masculine and feminine. Was what you wore for your Conan performance — a pink skirt and tie — a continuation of that theme?
Yeah, definitely. The outfits that I’ve been wearing to perform in, I designed those. I’ve always felt very in-between with everything. I’m not girly enough. I’m not boyish enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not artsy enough. I’m not jazzy enough. It’s like every turn I’ve always kind of felt like I was stuck in this awkward place. But I’m genuinely trying to stay in my own lane and do what makes me feel like me. I just feel like I’m this awkward thing. Even when I lived in Nashville everyone was like, “Why do you live here? Move to New York.”
Anyway, so The Future and The Past, we’re just stuck in between. We’re stuck in this middle moment, and I’m really happy that there are all these gender roles that are now being taken down and there’s language for it. Because it makes me feel a lot more comfortable with who I am. My boyfriend is super-feminine, and I just feel like we’re allowed to embrace those parts of ourselves now. I wanted to show that in my clothing with a very masculine, retro — but modern at the same time — outfit and a pink bow in my hair. My friend sewed yellow rose buttons on my shirt to symbolize the Women’s Suffragette Movement.
Some of this album also addresses the pain of your last relationship, in particular the song “Lost.” Does the changing way we talk about gender, womanhood, and even the #MeToo movement change the way you think about the dynamic of that relationship?
Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t doing that. It was very much self-referential with the music I was writing. I think I was definitely going through a lot of shock and a lot of just trying to process how the hell I got caught up in such a crazy experience. And it was one where it did feel abusive because I was constantly trying to get out of it and I kept getting manipulated back. This whole power dynamic to keep me around, threatening me. It was just a wild experience and I had to finally just completely cut everything off. Which is creepy because that’s not who I am. I’m a very loyal and compassionate person. I knew that because of the way I was being treated I was reacting in a way that I don’t normally act. I didn’t know who I was anymore and I felt totally swept up in this crazy storm of a person.
Is it fair to call “Short Court Style” a love song about someone new?
It’s a song about Eric. I really feel like I’ve met my person in Eric. I’ve never felt so comfortable, and we can get through anything together. But we had to do so much work to get to where we are now. And it doesn’t stop; it doesn’t mean that we are in this blissful love relationship. Which we are, but then we also have problems that we have to face. It’s more about the hard work and the rewarding payoff of real love.
Speaking of love songs, “Far From You” sounds like the inverse of The Carpenters’ “They Long To Be (Close to You).” Was that intentional?
Yeah, that’s intentional. Karen [Carpenter] is a [major] figure in my life. My whole life, I’ve been told I look like her. I got into her at a very young age, ‘cause my very first singing gig was back in a studio singing “We’ve Only Just Begun” at like 12 years old auditioning for this singing group. You can hear the kindness in her recordings. She just had this really inviting, warm quality to her voice. And then she also happens to be the sickest drummer ever. She could challenge Buddy Rich, or something. Then just the challenges with men in the industry forcing her from out behind the drum kit, and being out front. And then she got judged for her looks and her body and she felt out of control, and her mother favored her brother. The one man she married [Thomas James Burris] only married her for her money and stole it. I just really admire her. She’s just like a reminder to me to support women and love women and respect their place in the industry.
What are some things you’ve seen since the election that make you hopeful?
Simple things. Like, I love that it’s now becoming part of our cultural to talk politics. That’s something that I don’t think, especially in the South, people ever did. My family never did. I love that the conversation is now open, and it seems like people are way more engaged than they’ve ever been before, myself included. I love seeing the young generation, with gun control, taking the lead. That fills me with so much hope. There’s so much to be upset about, the list is way too long, but I think real change is going to happen.