A year ago, Natalie Prass supplemented her income by making ridiculously cute dog clothes. Today she’s the unlikely darling of Vogue, Pitchfork and Time — all of which deemed her buzz worthy after hearing a handful of soul-soaked tracks from her self-titled debut.
“I was writing and doing music every day. But while waiting for the album release I just had all this energy and needed to put it into something else,” Prass says, laughing.
The 28-year-old songwriter is the first to acknowledge that pursuing music sets you up for “a really weird journey.” Still, the last couple of months have been strange to say the least.
Following her canine clothing venture, Prass snagged a gig singing backup for Jenny Lewis on her summer tour after a friend put the two in touch.
“One thing I’ve learned about the music industry is to never expect anything,” says Prass, a self-proclaimed late bloomer. “Keep focused, work and move on to the next thing.”
In her case, the next thing looks to be a big deal. When Style spoke with Prass, she was still settling into her new Richmond digs as a recent transplant from Nashville.
“I just moved a week ago, but it feels like home already,” Prass says. “The food scene is totally impressive and the coffee is off the charts.” Born in Cleveland, Prass grew up in Virginia Beach, in what she recalls as “a very strange city.”
“I am who I am because I lived there,” she says, “but you had to fight for any kind of culture.” While the city lacked a cohesive scene, Prass spent time honing her craft and playing local gigs. It was there that she met musician Matthew E. White. The Spacebomb founder and producer extraordinaire replaced Prass in a band that she was leaving, but the two were merely acquaintances running in the same “Virginia music crew.”
The mutual respect and friendship came years later when a friend, James Wallace, who’d worked with White, suggested that the two consider collaborating.
“I knew Matt was insanely talented,” Prass says, “but I didn’t realize his ear for producing until I heard that James Wallace record.”
In Nashville, she says, you hear a lot of “you should work and or play together” that may not come to fruition. But with White, she went for it. They exchanged song ideas by email and the 28-year-old songwriter wound up in Richmond recording an album.
Prass fondly recalls the night she first arrived in Richmond: “I love to cook and the Spacebomb guys gave me this really nice cookbook and a sweet welcome letter saying how excited they were to begin work on the project. But then there was a multiple-sheet outline of what we were going to do every single day, with times. It was clear we were going to work.”
Everything came together beautifully in a month, recording at both Spacebomb locations. Over nine tracks, White’s signature soundscapes unfurl with sonic grandeur. The grooves remain funky, but subdued in the best way. By design, it draws on elements of some classic recordings.
Prass is “obsessed” with Dionne Warwick, she says: “She’s very special to me. My dad gave me ‘Presenting Dionne Warwick’ in high school and it remains one of my top five records of all time. We were partly going for a sound like that.”
White also encouraged Prass to experiment with her vocals, giving several songs unique textures — something the singer hadn’t previously done.
“I did a whole track of just making weird sounds, like growling, in the background,” she says. “If you listen closely, you’ll hear those things.” But what rises to the fore aren’t guttural sounds, but rather Prass’ pristine vocals cradling simple but heartfelt words.
“It doesn’t have to be Dylan,” she says. “When lyrics and melody all come together and something like — I need you — sounds like something you’vet never heard before, that’s an accomplishment of a good song.”
On her debut, Prass has crafted a timeless record full of such songs, so the aforementioned praise seems warranted. When you remind her of the glowing reviews, she utters “My gosh,” as if she’s hearing about them for the first time.
“You put everything into it to make it the best it can be. It’s a nice incentive, to hear these things,” Prass says. “If I’m doing something right, great. I’ll keep going.” S
Natalie Prass performs at the Broadberry on Tuesday, Feb. 3, with doors at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $12 the day of the show.