March 2013, Richmond, Virginia. Matthew E White’s Big Inner album has become a minor word-of-mouth sensation: a country-soul fantasia, saturated with lavish horn and string arrangements, mostly recorded in the attic of his Richmond house (You can read my 2013 interview with Matthew E White here).
Today, though, White and the other core members of his Spacebomb musical collective are gathered in his dining room, previewing a few of their other productions. There is a glossy single by Howard Ivans, redolent of upscale ’80s soul. Another ornately deranged piece of work, a child’s nightmare as if scored by Zappa, will be eventually credited to Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra.
Then, there are a clutch of songs by a singer-songwriter called Natalie Prass, a schoolfriend of White’s from Virginia Beach who currently lives in Nashville. Prass’ voice is mostly calm, and she sings of heartbreak with undemonstrative candour, leaving the grand romantic gestures to the instrumentation which surrounds her. Horns and strings seem to be in constant dramatic motion, but the extravagances are always anchored by the steady funk of the rhythm section, by a nonchalant pianist.
It is ambitious music, even compared with Big Inner – references to Gamble & Huff, Charles Stephney and Curtis Mayfield’s kinetic arrangements seem apposite – and it also sounds rich with potential; if Feist can sell a million records, then why shouldn’t Natalie Prass? The Spacebomb quartet are a generally discreet crew, but as string arranger Trey Pollard gleefully conducts along to the iPod, it’s clear they know what treasure they have. The question is: what are they going to do with it?
For a long time, the simple answer appears to be, very little. A couple of Prass’ tracks sneak out on A Spacebomb Family Sampler, a bonus disc bundled with the copies of Big Inner that are sold by Rough Trade around Christmas 2013. The Howard Ivans single and Grandma Sparrow album are released in the first half of 2014, but the only traces of Prass are the odd Youtube clip of a folk singer with an acoustic guitar; beguiling enough, if not exactly representative of the scope that White recently described to Uncut. “She has the charisma, singing style and vibe of Diana Ross,” he says, “this really wonderful, sensitive voice with a lot of strength behind it. But she writes like [New Orleans songwriter] Earl King. I think she’s brilliant.”
As it turns out, Prass has been busying herself recording a couple more albums’ worth of material, and playing keyboards in Jenny Lewis’ band. It was only at the end of last summer that a single emerged. “Bird Of Prey” found Prass exercising her best Ms Ross coo over a limber piano and bass groove that owed much to G-funk, or at least the ’70s records that Dr Dre once sampled. The string and horn arrangements (by Pollard and White respectively) were rococo, rapturous, but they never overwhelmed Prass’ lightly expressed tale of separation: “You, you don’t leave me no choice/But to run away.” The b-side was a smoked cover of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place”. For some of us who heard it, there wasn’t a better single released in 2014.
Now, to begin the new year, Spacebomb – via the Caroline label – have finally deigned to release Natalie Prass, some three years after it was recorded. As the singer herself notes, this is broadly timeless music, and the delay hasn’t made it an anomaly in 2015. “It’s important to find the right context, the right time, the right team and the right way to get music to listeners,” says White. “Releasing records is a skill, just like making records is a skill. We’re a really small label, and we wanted to have the right things in place to support a record that we felt was really worth supporting.”
Natalie Prass features “Bird Of Prey” and eight other tracks. One song, “Your Fool”, appears twice: as a delicate, catchy vamp that elicits those Feist comparisons; and as “Reprise”, an abstracted instrumental flurry, over which Prass reads the lyrics with the measure – though not quite the stentorian gravity – of Isaac Hayes. If the music is predominantly rooted in the lusher end of ‘70s soul, there are a couple of flighty, beatless confections, “Christy” and “It Is You”. The former is a tale of infidelity that became weirdly prophetic when Prass broke up with her boyfriend and co-writer Kyle Ryan Hurlbut during the recording of the album. Designed as a homage to the Brazilian singer Gal Costa and one of Spacebomb’s abiding heroes Rogério Duprat, the orchestrator of Tropicalia, you might also spot (inadvertent) similarities with the work of Dory Previn and, perhaps, Joanna Newsom’s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Ys.
“It Is You”, meanwhile, is a preposterous recreation of vintage Disney scores; so much so that one imagines Prass singing it to animated songbirds perched on her arm, chipmunks and raccoons clustered adoringly at her feet. Artful, whimsical, a little cloying – and easily enough avoided, sat as it is at the end of the 40-minute album.
Before that, there are a clutch of gorgeously-rendered pop-soul songs that climax with “Violently”, the apotheosis of Pratt and Spacebomb’s style. It begins with an easy grace and strong Muscle Shoals vibes, the offhand excellence of pianist Daniel Clarke, a vet of sessions with kd lang and Ryan Adams, very much to the fore. Gradually, the layers of orchestration accumulate, and Prass’ words, at least, ramp up the intensity. “I just want to know you violently,” she sings, “I’ve had enough of talking politely/The red is there, it’s all over me.”
Rarely, though, has a singer delivered such a vigorous message with such stillness. Ardent discretion is Prass’ trump card, that and the way she allows her musicians to do the impassioned heavy lifting. Who needs belligerent melisma when you have, on “Violently”, a jazz drummer like Pinson Chanselle playing escalating, cymbal-heavy fills that do the same job with so much more elegance? “This record is a community,” says Prass; a community, it seems, clever enough to share out even the most meaningful emotional responsibilities.
Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JohnRMulvey
Q&A: NATALIE PRASS
When did you start recording the album?
2012. I sent Matthew E White a bunch of songs and he was very thorough at discussing exactly what we were going to do. One of his main strengths is planning – he really helped me put everything together. We recorded it in about a month. We mixed it later, mastered it later, but tracked everything all at once.
Have you been frustrated that it’s been on the shelf for so long?
It’s been very emotional, but you can’t worry about that too much now. What’s great is that it’s such a classic-sounding record. I wanted to write music that could be from any time. But of course, I wanted it to come out when I was 25, not 28.
You must have written a lot of music in the meantime?
Oh yeah, I’ve recorded two more records… What else am I gonna do? I did one in Burlington, Vermont with my friend, Seth Kaufman, who played on Lana del Rey’s new record and with Ray Lamontagne. And then I recorded another record in Nashville, where I played everything. I don’t know what’s going to happen with those. I don’t know if I’ll release them as full-lengths. I’m constantly writing and I like to be busy, but I know this record needed to come out first.
In Nashville, you can make a record like this, but everybody wants a ton of money if they’re any good. This record would’ve cost 70 grand or something, maybe more. It wouldn’t have been possible.
Is this the kind of record that you always wanted to make?
Yeah. The music I grew up listening to – that I still listen to and will never tire of – has this kind of community sound. Sometimes it’s better if the singer-songwriter doesn’t have to play everything and doesn’t have to produce. Sometimes more ideas come to life when many people have all these great ideas and talents. Matt [White] will tell you he wouldn’t be able to make his records by himself, it’s a whole bunch of people bringing what they’ve studied for years. Even though I love being in charge – these are my ideas – sometimes it’s better to open up and let people help with what you’re trying to do. Everyone has their moments on this record. This record is a community.
Can you be specific about the music that inspired you?
I grew up listening to Motown; my dad is a huge Motown fan. The very first female voice I ever fell in love with was Diana Ross. The first CD I ever bought with my own money, in second grade, was by The Supremes. I’ve always been a huge Dionne Warwick fan, I really connect with that kind of delivery and overall musical vibe. I love Sly And The Family Stone, Gal Costa. Those are the ladies I’ve been studying. Finding my voice, finding my singing style took a lot of exploring, and those girls, they had a huge part in how I wanted to deliver my songs.
When you’re a singer and growing up in Virginia Beach, where both Matt and I grew up, it’s a navy town and it’s a tourist town, and there’s not much culture there. So many amazing people came out of this weird beach town, and I think it’s because we all had to work a little harder to find stuff. We didn’t have anything. We just had to keep going. I didn’t even know girls could play electric guitar. The very first time I ever saw a female playing an electric guitar was Jenny Lewis, when she was in Rilo Kiley. I was in ninth grade and now I’m in her band, it’s kinda cool. I thought girls played acoustic guitar and piano, girls didn’t rock out.
Do you feel like you’ve emotionally moved on? Because a lot of the songs feel very emotionally specific to what was now a long time ago.
I co-wrote ‘Christy’ with Kyle Ryan Hurlbut, the guy I was dating. And at the time, the song didn’t have any sort of narrative to my personal experience. But then a couple of years later that song sort of came true. And the girl’s name is almost ‘Christy’. We split up in the middle of recording the album. I didn’t have lyrics for ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me?’: I wrote the lyrics the night before we recorded it, and that’s obviously about Kyle. The songs became even more personal, took on new meaning. It’s pretty crazy.
‘Is It You?’ is very Disney…
Yeah. but I feel this style is beyond Disney, it’s the style ingrained in us when we’re growing up. Everybody knows that style of music and that kind of writing, but no-one really does it. I got kind of obsessed with ‘He Needs Me’ by Harry Nilsson from the Popeye movie and I started writing a whole bunch of music like that. Not everyone’s gonna like it, there’s gonna be a lot of people confused maybe, but I feel like it’s music that’s undeniably in your blood. I like it closing up the record, for sure.
“I was blown away…”: Matthew E White on Natalie Prass
“I’ve known Natalie a long time. Natalie and I, we’re both from Virginia Beach. I met Natalie at a Battle Of The Bands when she was in 8th grade and I was in junior high school. I was playing harmonica and she was playing pop music. We both left Virginia Beach and we both take work seriously, but I hadn’t heard her in a long time. So when she played some of her songs for me I was really blown away. She’s an incredibly fresh, exciting talent.
“We’re a really small label and Big Inner took us on a crazy ride. It took us some time to learn from Big Inner and tighten up things. This is just a good time: it makes sense for Spacebomb, and it makes sense for Natalie. There are so many records that we have on our shelf, incredible records that never end up heard. And there are so many records that are out in the world that are complete shit. To me, it’s very clear that the common denominator for people hearing music is not always the music, it’s the people behind the scenes getting that music into the right people’s hands, getting it magnified and reflected in the right way. I don’t say that to come down on anybody, it’s just this is the reality we’re in, so it’s important to match an artist and a piece of art with the team that will support it appropriately. As a small business, it takes a while to get the right things in place. That’s how good Natalie’s record is.”
Picture: Ryan Patterson