Music/Interviews

Natalie Prass is dancing to the possibilities of resilience

Fresh off an intimate tour with Kacey Musgraves, the Nashville-based artist pulled from her past to create a timeless dance album you can march against violence to.

April 1, 2019

When I call Natalie Prass in mid-February, she’s reeling about the relative winter warmth back home in Nashville. “The polar vortex! I feel so bad for you guys. We just got off tour from the northeast, where it’s freezing,” she offers as consolation for my, well, northeastern dwellings.

Last June, Prass released her second studio album, The Future and the Past, to widespread critical acclaim, and spent the first few months of 2019 supporting country-pop’s beloved cowgirl Kacey Musgraves on her “Oh, What A World” winter tour. In April, she will embark on the second North American leg of her own headlining tour. In the meantime, she is visiting NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, dancing under a glittery disco ball at The Late Late Show with James Corden, and taking a breath in Nashville, where she’s relocated from her hometown of Richmond, Virginia.

Touring with Musgraves, who has disrupted the gendered stereotypes of “bro country” and encouraged inclusion in the genre through her explicitly LGBTQ+ positive lyrics, was a match made in 70s-style, music-you-can-dance-to-but-also-cry-to heaven. “Kacey is such an icon of our time,” Natalie raves to me in delight. “She really created this energy in the room where we were all one big community. It felt like everyone was really connected to one another, which is amazing, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my shows—create a big space where we can all dance together, sing together, and everyone’s welcome.”

On tour, Prass would join Musgraves on stage in the middle of her set to cover Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” “It was beautiful to be on stage singing that song and watching literally every person singing and dancing. It’s a feminist anthem, it’s an LGBTQ anthem, and it’s all about empowerment.” Performing the song night after night recalled one of Prass’ earliest musical memories of covering the song in her preteen band, which she formed with now-frequent Spacebomb collaborator Matthew E. White.

As a tween, she found solace in the female giants of pop like Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross. But her adoration went beyond their music to include what their social influence represented: female embodiments of strength and self-possession. “I grew up in a home where feminism wasn’t a thing, at all. I didn’t completely understand the social culture around me, but I knew that it wasn’t right.”

“Even though I’m different from [those artists] and the music they make (though I wish I could sing like them), their music is powerful. I understand how unfair the music industry is to women, the judgment, the jealousy, and it makes me [want to] support them even more. They just keep me going.”

Even though I don’t know Trump, he was affecting me in my home, he was in my life, in everybody’s lives.”

Natalie Prass

Around the same time she fell in love with pop’s luminaries, she read her first book on feminism, Inga Muscio’s Cunt, and entered Richmond’s music scene, often finding herself, to her chagrin, as the only girl in the band. “I stopped shaving. I didn’t shave any of my hair, I made all my own clothes. I was like, ‘I don’t need to impress anybody! I’m not here to impress men!’ I became such a punk feminist. I feel like I got that out of my system,” she says with a laugh.

Now, with two LPs, as well as some collaborative albums with fellow artists on Spacebomb Records, under her belt, Prass is well-versed in the type of self-directed resolve required to make music that equally explores individual and collective experiences. Yet the road to her stunning sophomore was not always clear. After her 2015 debut, she reworked her musical direction, and switched labels, to better suit the political moment she wanted to respond to. Written in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election to America’s highest office, The Future and the Past dives into the zeitgeist of a changing nation, through the interiority of Prass’s perceptive mind.

The groove-based synth, bass, and percussive hooks, that deliver The Future’s message of resilience, nods more explicitly to the history of high pop, than her 2015 self-titled debut, which plunged the listener in the darkest belly of devastation and then elevated them, through swelling orchestration, to catharsis.

Three years later, The Future stems from a tradition of dance music made out of political struggle, and attempts to explore the deeply personal in order to articulate a sense of collective hope. “These songs weave in my personal experiences with a certain relationship that I had, and the mess that was happening in politics, because there were a lot of freaky similarities. Even though I don’t know Trump, he was affecting me in my home, he was in my life, in everybody’s lives.”

Rooted in traditions of soul, disco, and 90s pop, the album’s distinctly retro sound is forward-thinking in its political bend. The album’s opener “Oh My” whisks the listener in to the in-between of past and future: a place that can cause discomfort when bound in its impenetrability. And yet, it’s impossible not to groove to. The Future reminds you that in moments where there is no balm for generational wounds, it’s still possible to be inspired to move (dance, leap, or stroll) through it. “I’m just happy that growing pains are happening and I think we’re going to be better for it in the end. I am really excited for people who are now speaking up because now there is a support system.”

This was not the album that Prass intended on releasing: initially, she wrote an entire other album of original material that charted a heartbreak – a seemingly more logical follow-up to 2015’s Natalie Prass. But after the 2016 election, she felt compelled to start from scratch. “I felt like what was happening in this country was way more important to talk about than my personal experiences, but it definitely ended up melting together in a lot of the songs.” In talking about her personal experiences, she is, in many ways, talking about what is happening in this country. 

She wrote the album when suggestions of “fake news” dominated political debate in the 2016 news cycle. Attuned to the way realities were quickly distorted, she grappled with the ways women’s experiences became open to public scrutiny. The exposure of intimate moments put on display and misreported can feel like a specific, cutting kind of gaslighting: one that questions your psychosomatic self-knowledge of events that took place. “[The election of Trump] was affecting me in all the same ways that I was affected by this ex of mine —the blatant misogyny and controlling through manipulation. I wanted to speak up about that.”

The histories of dance music that fuse the album’s groovy textures make it an album to move to, and for her, to move through the pain of heartbreak and political despondence.

Despite the destabilizing frustration she felt, Prass was determined to channel it into something hopeful. The histories of dance music that fuse the album’s groovy textures make it an album to move to, and for her, to move through the pain of heartbreak and political despondence. “The body is so delicate and intricate and I’m so in tune with it, and when I’m on stage, you really feel like everything needs to be working together. And the energy I’m giving off is intricate and nuanced. So people can really read my energy and my emotions, my body language. It’s all we got.”

Prass also found inspiration by looking inwardly, and ultimately, going home. “The only music I could listen to [when writing] the record was gospel. Luckily, I was living in Richmond, which has such a rich gospel history, so I learned a lot and listened a lot. Gospel music is about pain, and oppression, and disappointment, but also, ‘we’re gonna sing, we’re gonna dance, we’re gonna clap, and we are resilient, and we can overcome.’”

She does not delude that gospel was written exclusively for someone like her but instead, Prass listens generously, and amalgamates that which moves her with the specificity of her experiences. “It was so healing and comforting that it made me want to get a choir in there, which wasn’t something I was planning on doing. I thought, this record needs women of all kinds in there, singing together in unison.”

In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit declares that “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.” Through channeling the ethos of uplifting that gospel inspires, Prass has created something entirely authentic, fresh, urgent. “Even though my record’s political, I tried to make it a celebration, [and remind everyone] that we can get through anything as humans, and it doesn’t have to be hard.”

Even though my record’s political, I tried to make it a celebration, [and remind everyone] that we can get through anything as humans.

Natalie Prass

The politics of celebration make The Future, at its core, a protest album to dance to. It sounds like it is meant to be shared, whether in moments of weeping or rejoicing. “There is nothing more joyous than letting go and dancing. Your body, your muscles, your brain loves it, loves dancing. It’s so good for you, and it’s so powerful because you’re physically saying, ‘I’m gonna overcome.’”

And yet, throughout the album, for all the melodic invitations to let go, Prass’ corporeal knowledge of tension runs deep. The gorgeous, subtle restraint in her voice feels like a refusal to pull out all the party tricks at once. The possibility of musical release sits in her body, completely in her control. When she unleashes it, it can unravel the knots that you didn’t know she tied in your stomach.

One of the only times she really lets her voice soar is on “Lost” which provides one of the album’s rawest moments.“”Lost” was very much about someone controlling me, who had gotten deep within my being. I felt like there was no escaping it. I really didn’t want to put [that experience] on the record. I was feeling like I would rather just shut the door on that chapter, and instead talk about everybody else.”

“What made me finally say, ‘okay, let’s put it on the record,’ is that I did get out of [that relationship]. I said to myself, ‘I have a fucking line, and you’ve crossed it, so I’m getting out,’ even though it was really hard. That was powerful. Even though I know these things, I knew that I should be more than what I got myself into, it happened, and I was embarrassed. It felt like ‘you made me lost, and I am not that person. So I’m out.’”

She holds on to that sensibility of steady endurance in slow-burn feminist track, “Sisters.” The power of this song is not grounded in the same kind of anthemic euphoria of “I Will Survive.” Instead, Prass’s voice, at once withholding and confessional, summons a mantra-like celebration of female stamina. She articulates a solidarity that embraces differences in women’s experiences, alluding to women who struggle in abusive relationships, sexism at work and at school, and economic inequality. (“One time for our girls at school, who can’t get ahead no matter what they do/And when they grow up and they try to get work, they ain’t nothing but the shorter skirt,” she croons). All this, layered on a hypnotically catchy hook and groovy bassline, it was a song made to march to.

The Future and the Past offers the radical invitation to celebrate and fight at the same time: a joining of actions that, as Hanif Abdurraqib points out: “Is perhaps what represents the ethos of this [American] country more than anything else.”

“There’s nothing more powerful than smiling at the enemy, and the enemy is injustice,” she finishes. “The human spirit is wild, how resilient we are, but it’s also fragile. You have to make sure you don’t let anger overcome your spirit. You have control over the obstacles that come your way. I wanted to hammer [that] home.”

You can catch Natalie Prass supported by Becca Mancari on April 13 at Bar Le Ritz in Montreal and Toronto on April 14 at Horseshoe Tavern. Tickets can be found here.

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