Jessica Pratt doesn’t have many contemporaries. Her nylon-string reveries exist in a precarious space between the then and now, and she seems destined to float as a cult figure for generations—but just the same, she’s right here today, busy and appreciated. At this point in time, there’s nothing cult about her.
Rather than just the stylistic touchstones—Leonard Cohen, Karen Dalton, Marianne Faithfull—that can be felt in her three albums, it’s almost more prudent to understand Pratt through the spiritual characters of her world: The mystique of Brian Jones. The hair of Leon Russell. The off-balance album-cover poses of Townes Van Zandt. (Indeed, a new song titled “Fare Thee Well” is likely more indebted to Townes’s “Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel” than the “Fare Thee Well”s of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan.)
Quiet Signs, Pratt’s new album, is a winter album put out by a label with summer in its title (Mexican Summer, naturally), and is more haunting than anything she’s put out before. It’s less immediate than On Your Own Love Again, her 2015 arrival, but once the melodies work themselves into you, they’re impossible to wash out. You won’t want to, anyway.
If all this sounds a bit intense, know that Pratt herself isn’t as serious as her music might infer. To give you an idea: When it happened that we may have to switch interview locations from The Dresden (a Los Feliz bar not known for its promptness in opening) to the glamorous House of Pies up the street, she was quick and ready to dish out a knockout House of Pies reference from The Critic. So with Jay Sherman close on our minds and deep in our hearts, we sat down on the patio for some coffee, as the Los Angeles rush hour buzzed in the background behind.
Aquarium Drunkard: The last time we talked, I was obnoxiously aghast at the fact that you live here without a car. I couldn’t believe it.
Jessica Pratt: Well, ’cause you’re from here.
AD: Yeah. They just don’t train us to think that way. Which is probably kind of awful.
Jessica Pratt: I mean, I do kind of think you need a car here. It’s remarkable that I still don’t have one. I think if I had just been hanging out in LA and doing absolutely nothing for years, I probably would have gotten it together, but having the years interrupted by touring and working on stuff… And then, honestly, if you’re not going really far every day, back and forth, in LA at least, taking public transportation and Uber is cheaper than having a car. I was reading some articles about this to justify my laziness.
AD: Oh, it’s definitely justified. I was also thinking that your music kind of suits the ebb and flow of public transit a little bit.
Jessica Pratt: Really?
AD: Well, you know how you might imagine car music as being a little bit fast and big, or maybe krautrock-y even? Traditional car music, that is. But on public transit, when you’re sitting on the bus or the train or something, you kind of want something more relaxed and introspective. At least I do.
Jessica Pratt: Yeah, I think I and many people have long romanticized train travel—and buses, even. I grew up taking buses. We always had cars [growing up in Redding, California] that would break down periodically, so it’s a very familiar state of mind for me. But again, I think it’s all pretty subjective, you know.
AD: I remember reading Beck say something about how he values drummers who are good at playing slow rather than fast, because he thinks it’s more difficult to play at a slow, introspective speed. I was wondering about whether playing at a sort of glacial speed comes naturally to you, or whether you’re constantly telling yourself to slow down.
Jessica Pratt: It’s interesting because there are definitely some songs that feel fast-paced to me, but maybe that’s coming from a person who doesn’t play, like, really spastic music. But even on the last record, there’s definitely some uptempo songs on there. And this one, too—though less so this one. I don’t know, it’s just your natural rhythms, and I never try to shoot for anything in particular. It just happens.
AD: I feel like from paying attention to your Instagram, you have a focus on the bizarre and the weird aspects of this city in particular, which is just such a strange, strange place. No place I’ve ever been has as many weird people as LA. Is that proximity to weirdness something you value? Do you make a point of people-watching here?
Jessica Pratt: I think LA has a certain draw due to the mythology around this place, and it brings a lot of strangeness to it. There’s an inherent, vibrationally dark thing to parts of Los Angeles. There’s also a lot of lightness and magic here, and I think it’s the confluence of those things that makes it a really interesting place. But yeah, I do value that sort of thing. [Los Angeles] has all of these warring psychic energies that make it a sometimes challenging, but really inspiring, place to be.
AD: I feel like I saw you one time on the street in Beverly Hills, like a vision amongst the ridiculous of that part of town, as I was driving through.
Jessica Pratt: What were you doing in Beverly Hills? Gettin’ a Rolex.
AD: Mmhm, a second one.
Jessica Pratt: A third one. No, no, that makes sense because I used to go to therapy out in Beverly Hills. There was this woman who did, like, a sliding scale for a couple of clients. I don’t even remember how I found her. She has this penthouse office on Wilshire.
AD: It seems like Beverly Hills is almost the weirdest place of all. People seem to think it’s boring or lame or whatever, but it’s actually fascinatingly bizarre over there.
Jessica Pratt: I think that anytime you get a concentration of wealth like that, especially on the more ostentatious side, there’s no way it can’t be somewhat interesting—and maybe repulsive.
AD: Speaking of city life, I want to talk about how you went to New York to record Quiet Signs. You made a point of recording the last album yourself, after having done the first album mostly in a studio and not being too thrilled with the experience. So I’m wondering when you decided that you wanted to give that studio setup another shot.
Jessica Pratt: Well, [the studio experience from Jessica Pratt] wasn’t really real… It was just firesale style where it was, like, we gotta get in, do this shit real quick. I actually intended to record this one at home—or at least part of me was planning on that. But I sort of upgraded to this reel-to-reel thing, and it was really cool and it sounded nice, but it had a lot of issues. It was always breaking. And right when I started writing seriously for the record was kind of right after I signed with Mexican Summer, and they mentioned that they have a studio… I did not think that it was going to work well—I thought it would be fine, I just didn’t think I’d be able to work with the same freedom and confidence that I’m able to when I work alone. But it worked out.
AD: With all the little piano parts played by [co-producer] Al Carlson and Matt McDermott, this seems like a pretty collaborative record when you compare it to On Your Own Love Again. Were the arrangements coming together in the studio?
Jessica Pratt: It’s very case to case. I mean, the way that we would do it mirrored my process for the last record, which is: bring a fully formed thing into the studio, in that the guitar and vocals were these fairly immovable pieces, and then we would get a solid take of those, and then sit with it for a while, and then kind of just see—because I would have all sorts of ideas when I was recording little voice memos of the melody at home and trying to work out the song. But in actuality, you don’t really know what is going to complement it, especially when you don’t know how the production will sound once you’ve done it. Generally, I would just try to listen for something and things would pop up and it would either be something that I could execute myself or it wouldn’t be. I think on the last record there were instances where I sang parts that I heard in my head that could’ve been played by an instrument or something like that, so it was pretty exciting to have someone there who could possibly fill something out on piano.
AD: It didn’t lose the intimacy of the second album, either. I was surprised to find that it was a studio record, because I just put it on and thought, “This sounds like a Jessica Pratt record,” which I guess is the most important thing.
Jessica Pratt: Yeah, I think I was surprised, too. But, you know, it’s a really nice studio. And even if you’re recording to two-inch tape, it’s pretty great fidelity, so sometimes it can just sound just as clean as digital.
AD: The sound of your records is very church-like and spiritual to me. Listening to this record reminds me of the scene in Home Alone when Kevin goes to church on Christmas Eve, and they’re singing “O Holy Night” or whatever, and the old guy is kinda creepy in the corner—what I mean by that is: overall, good vibes, but also kind of scary.
Jessica Pratt: Hmm, ominous church music. That’s interesting because I feel like, at least with this record, there’s [been a couple of reviews that make reference] to traditional songs, like Christmas music, and yeah, I can see that.
AD: Did you grow up in a religious household or anything like that?
Jessica Pratt: Quite the opposite. Raised by my mom—single mother—with my older brother, and my mom was not at all religious. I think my grandmother took my mom to church when she was really young. Like, Baptist churches and stuff like that, and it was pretty…traumatic for her. I think my grandma thought it was a good thing to do. It wasn’t like she was particularly religious or anything. So, yeah, it was always an anti[-religious] household.
AD: You just finished a string of dates opening for Kurt Vile. Do you find those kinds of audiences tough to play in front of, if they’re getting ready for a big ol’ rock show?
Jessica Pratt: I think it’s really show by show, and there are many variables. It has to do with the type of venue, the size of the venue, the headliner—because I’ve been on a number of opening tours for bigger bands—the city, even the day of the week. There are all these factors. I think in Kurt’s instance—especially the sort of incarnation of his music that he’s working with right now—he has a very kind of kick-ass rock band. They’re pretty polished. Kurt is definitely the wild card in that setup. I think that he’s spoken a lot about wanting to sort of believe in his own mythology and build up his own persona into this bigger thing. And I think he wants to reach a lot of people.
AD: He’s got to be the closest thing this generation has to a Neil Young.
Jessica Pratt: Yeah, which I think is cool. But he’s definitely playing bigger venues, and these were probably the biggest venues that I’ve played, and I think that when you make various small, subtle sounds, it’s very difficult to fill a very large space, even if it’s dead silent. And if people are talking it can feel a bit futile. I’m sure this is something that he dealt with as well, because he’s a very idiosyncratic, quiet, strange-sounding singer and player, and at some point you have to level up to fill these spaces.
AD: Do you ever get the temptation to write some songs for a big-ass rock band or whatever?
Jessica Pratt: I mean, I definitely have ideas about different kinds of music sonically that I could play, for sure. I’ve never played with someone else dictating the rhythm, which is sort of what you have to do with a drummer, unless you get, like, a very specific person who can play along with you. It would have to be some sort of Madcap Laughs drums—that are just sort of after the fact in feel, you know? I think if somebody else was dictating the rhythm, or if I had to be very aware of other people, and stay in time for them, it would be disastrous. Or it would just negate something very important. words / n rogers