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Escape Velocity

Boundless Intonations: An Interview With Jessica Pratt
Suzie McCracken , October 22nd, 2015 12:20

The Californian singer-songwriter talks to Suzie McCracken about following up the excellent On Your Own Love Again, lyrical ambiguities and playing games with language before she plays Hackney's MIRRORS festival

Jessica Pratt speaks really quickly. The transcript of our interview kind of sounds like she emailed over her answers, with a couple of "I guesses" added in for effect. But she just talks intelligently and at pace; you get the feeling she spends a lot of time contemplating her place in the world, so when asked about it, her opinions seem to flow from her almost supernaturally. It takes me by surprise - her music is so considered that I'd expected 40 minutes of cushioned calm. But it's actually the perfectionist in Pratt that characterises her 'on show' self. Her eagerness to get her words out has something of the feeling of her fingerpicking; her eloquence is a result of a brain always on, tossing thoughts arounds until they reach an articulate conclusion, in the way her fingerpicking sounds like it's her fiftieth, compulsive attempt to ensure the notes are imbued with the correct degree of emotional intensity.

It's some distance from January's On Your Own Love Again to be speaking to Pratt. There's also a heatwave in LA right now and she's in an apartment with no AC, wearing a T-shirt recently removed from the freezer. And yet she is sunny, with barely a bad word to say about anyone or anything. Because her career began in earnest after Tim Presley started a label, Birth, just to release her debut (an origin story that's too damn wonderful not to include in every piece about her) I assume she'll fight against any suggestion that her subsequent releases - said first, self-titled album from 2012, followed by On Your Own Love Again - and tours have been fated. But, when I present the opportunity for her to have a moan, she is instead content to speak of the "fortune" of her situation.

She also talks as though being on Drag City is some wonderful gift that they've given her, rather than it being anything to do with the fact that she's perfect for them, too. She's a pleasure to talk to, and after speaking it's almost heartbreaking to think she was ever in a place where she could write the lonelier moments on On Your Own Love Again, but I'm so glad she's already preparing for album number three.

On Your Own Love Again came out nearly ten months ago. How has touring been going since then?

Jessica Pratt: I guess because the songs on the first record were so old and I was playing them live even before the record was put out, these songs still feel really fresh. The longer you play something consistently, especially when you're playing with another musician, the more opportunities you have to make a discovery. But more than being tired of those songs, I'm eager to write new songs. And I haven't had very much time in the last year. I've toured at least once a month since January. So it's been a very long run, which is great and necessary, and it's the first time I've ever really done a full tour cycle for an album. But I've just been getting all these ideas for a long time now and I'd like to work on them.

You've talked about your solitary recording process in the past - you don't seem like the kind of musician that would thrive with an 'on the road'-style, unless you've taken to it?

JP: It's a complicated thing, because as much as I like to stay in my little zone, being forced to go out onto the road is probably a positive thing as far as emotional growth is concerned. And touring with different bands, different singers, you're exposed to a lot of things you might not have considered. Like I just got back from the Beach House tour and especially being around another female singer... it's a really special thing to be able to see how other people work.

But yes, I don't know if I'll ever be the kind of person that can write a song on the road, but maybe I can get better at it. It's a bit frustrating. I mean, I have a large quantity of melody fragments and so many notes on my phone and Post-it notes at the bottom of my bag. I try to gather them all up after every tour and stockpile them. It'll be weird because it'll be a very different process than the last record, which was sitting down and having it all come out at once. It'll be interesting to see how all the touring has affected this next one.

Lots has been made of your lyrical eloquence and idiosyncrasies.

JP: I guess I never thought of having any inclination towards lyrics in a self-congratulatory way. But I've always loved language. My mother was a very intelligent woman. We played a lot of word games when I was a kid: associative games where she would say a word and I would try to come up with something that was the complete opposite of it. She would say "cookie" and I would say "window" or something. And just in general she was very funny and often used strange voices and accents. I just grew up in a house where we really explored that kind of stuff a lot.

I guess I like singers that... I don't want to say have unusual voices, because I maybe feel like that's something people get stuck on. It's not like I only listen to Buffy Sainte-Marie. I just, you know, want something interesting. And there's so many ways you can utilise language and intonations on any word. It's a boundless thing. Maybe the older you get and the more you play music, you kind of get to stretch out and you discover parts of yourself that you didn't realise were there. It's pretty exciting to think about all the options you have - you're literally limitless, you know?

Do you enjoy the ambiguity that your playfulness can prompt? I know the tQ reviewer at least was pleasantly confused by some of your pronunciation.

JP: I guess I haven't noticed as much people not knowing what I'm saying. I do read some reviews though and I've definitely read some that speak to, like, an unusual flare. But for the most part I feel like, if there is an ambiguity, songs still seem to be emotionally intact despite that. People love to analyse lyrics even if they don't understand what you're saying.

You definitely operate in a musical space where I feel like people could feel like they know you after listening?

JP: I think there will always be people that do that. There are plenty of music-makers that I feel very emotionally connected with. But there are very few cases where I would actually approach someone and be like, "I know this what this means." But I guess I understand that sort of thing; I have a tendency to run away with myself in my own head.

Again, it just speaks to the range of humanity. I guess a good barometer is being at the merch booth. You get a very accurate sampling of all the different kinds of people that there are. There haven't been many occasions where people have gone overboard. People just express themselves in different ways and usually it's all in a somewhat normal range. But if it was on the negative end I don't think it would freak me out. I guess it's flattering and reassuring to know my music can produce that kind of effect in anyone.

What artists do you feel that emotional connection with?

JP: Aw, you know, tons of people. I just mean it's just the way we function. We want to feel connected to this thing and that we are special and that we understand it specifically and that we can relate to it because that person is like us. I think that's why people have heroes a lot of the time. Or they are looking for qualities in people that they wish were more prominent in themselves.

How has this period between the release of the last record and now affected how you feel about your place within the wider industry?

JP: It's been 99% positive. I think if maybe I were a more mainstream person on a bigger label, my qualm would be that people would maybe be trying to influence me. But that certainly isn't the case with me.

I think if your music is available to the public and you have the good fortune of it doing okay and people wanting to talk about it, it's impossible to completely rid yourself of the emotional impact and that knowledge, even if it's positive. I try as much as I can to keep it in perspective. Even when I was making the second one I had thoughts like that. The songs were so old on Jessica Pratt and I had so much time to develop musically that I wasn't self-conscious about putting out another record. I thought that I had enough built up that I thought I'd make something that at least I liked. So it was a little bit easier. But this time more people are aware of it. It's a very dangerous game. I think with some people, where it's a really extreme version of that story of blowing up and being huge and people getting really attached to that first thing, I think it can really ruin some people. I've had the opportunity to do things I never, never thought I would do. I didn't even leave the country until I was in my mid-twenties. I've gone through some crazy, transitional things since the album came out. So I think maybe there's just as much of a period of growth from the second record to now as from the first record to the second. But it might have occurred in ways that are more subtle. And I'm curious to see what those are when they start coming out when I start writing.

You've said the word "fortunate" a few times, but you must take steps to insure yourself against that craziness as well as being "fortunate" to not be a huge, huge act, right?

JP: I mean sure. I think I've established enough of a system with the industry that serves me. I'm on a label that's known as the home of people particular about the way that they do things. Drag City is very freewheeling. If you have this leverage system in place where you sign to a label and they give you money and even the polite inclination that you should do something can kind of kick your brain, you know? It's like: "You might want to consider doing this." And I'm very impressionable sometimes and I think it's good that I'm not on the end of a slightly more corporate thing.

As for emotionally protecting yourself from that kind of stuff... when you first start doing it you're more susceptible to seeing pictures of yourself and weird live sessions that you did with terrible sound. Because everyone just needs to have their thing of you no matter how unimpressive it is. And I used to care more about those things and what people would think of them. But now I understand that it just winds up being in the slew of things that are eaten up in the internet. I guess I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I want everything to be right. But if something doesn't sound perfect, you just have to know that that doesn't define you and that you can make the quality sing when it's time to do so.

As for constant touring, I don't know if there is a way to emotionally insulate yourself from damages that occur. I mean the best thing you can do is take care of your body and your mind. You can not get fucked up all the time but then the monotony of tour drives a lot of people to do that. I've never toured anywhere near this much so I guess we'll see how it goes... maybe I'll have lost my mind by the end of it.

Let's finish by talking about something lighthearted. Do you have any musical tastes that you think would surprise someone who enjoys your music?

JP: That's a hard question to answer. Sometimes when you're talking to people they're like: "Oh, in this interview you said this." And it's probably some not-weird thing like Brian Eno, that's weird to them because they think you're a person that only listens to Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens or something.

Maybe what I'm trying to ask is if you have any recommendations for a fan to take them a little outside their comfort zone?

JP: I've been working on this thing for another magazine that's my top five psych-folk records, which is kind of a predictable thing to throw at someone who makes music like me... but I'm a really big Robyn Hitchcock fan and there was this one album that came out in '86 called Invisible Hitchcock. It's a compilation of unreleased material rather than an album in its own right. I was just musing on it earlier this morning. It had such a huge impact on me and nobody knows that record, but every song on it is gold and people should listen to it.

On Your Own Love Again is out now on Drag City. Jessica Pratt plays MIRRORS festival in Hackney, London on October 31; for full details and tickets, head here