Published Jun 01, 2018It's been three years since Natalie Prass dropped her gorgeous, self-titled debut, and six years since she recorded it. The first thing that fans should know going into her followup, The Future and the Past, is that a lot has changed.
First and foremost is the ascendency of Donald Trump. Like so many artists, his presidential win in November 2016 sent the North Carolinian reeling, to the point that she decided to scrap almost half of what she thought was a completed record. "I would have been devastated if I released a neutral record," she tells Exclaim!, "one that didn't talk about any of the things that are so, so important to talk about right now."
Originally, The Future and the Past concerned the end of a toxic relationship, and was supposed to be recorded in June of 2016; that got pushed to December, and after the election, Prass pushed it again, this time to last March. In the interim, she ditched a number of songs that had been slated for inclusion. In their place, tracks like "Sisters," "Hot for the Mountain" and "Oh My" tackle culture divides and gender and income inequality all of which have been exacerbated over the past year.
Yet, rather than rage against a country she claims to no longer recognize, Prass wanted to inject some joy into it, a trick she nicked from Stevie Wonder, specifically his classic double LP Songs in the Key of Life. "He's like the master musician public servant," she says. "When I was 14 and then I bought that for myself and… I just remember thinking like, 'Wow,' he's talking about really heavy things, but I feel joyful when I listen to it at the same time as it makes me feel compassion and it makes me feel united with humanity."
She did her best to emulate the master. The repeated refrain "We'll take you on" from "Hot for the Mountain" is about as confrontational a lyric as you'll find on the record. Yet its message of unity is more powerful than a thousand "fuck Trumps." "Ultimately I just wanted this record to make people feel engaged and feel empowered."
Music as public service was a concept that resonated with Prass beyond her political beliefs. She says that she's considered songwriting a selfish pursuit since she was a little girl. "Music for me has always been a community thing. It's always how I make friends and hang out with people, because I didn't know how to do that. This is what makes me special."
Prass no longer has to work a day job, something for which she is grateful. But with that comes pangs of guilt, assuaged only when she looks at her vocation from a certain point of view. "Music is what makes you feel joyful and makes me feel like I'm not alone. It's everything. So I have to look at it as if I'm just doing public service. I have choose to look at it like this is my job — to help the world and put positive energy into it."
Finding such a headspace is illustrative of the other major change in Prass's life over the past six years: she's got a better handle on who she is and where she fits into the word. Consequently she's far more self-confident. Although Matthew White once again produced with his Spacebomb crew of players, Prass did lead the session for the beautiful "Lost" while her friend was away in Europe.
Even when White was present, she asserted herself in the studio. This time out, she wanted a "band friendly" record that could be replicated on stage. Gone are the stately strings that typified her last record. In their place are deep grooves inspired by '80s and '90s R&B. These songs are designed to move bodies as much as minds, with lyrics that espouse solidarity in the face of adversity.
"I had to do so much self-searching and self-work and learning how to navigate in a world that seemed very mean," she admits. "Now I just feel a lot more confident in my own skin. I still every day check myself, but like I just feel like there's no time to feel sorry for myself and that's not who I want to be for other people. I still have a lot of insecurities, but like I think I'm better at dealing with them now and owning them and forgiving people and forgiving myself."
The Future and the Past is out now on ATO.