The world of pet clothing’s loss is music’s gain. Natalie Prass got so tired of waiting for her exquisite debut album to be released that she started a company making outfits for dogs.
“There came a point when I was thinking, ‘I’m now 26, 27, working on music every day but I’m not making, like, a lot of money. What’s happening? I guess I’ll just start making dog clothes’,” the 28-year-old tells me, as if that’s the natural next step for every struggling singer-songwriter. “I was designing and making them myself and sold a ton. I was like, ‘Is this my calling now?’”
But Analog Dog is now a thing of the past, and rightly so. No Lassie hoodie could be as good as Prass’s self-titled collection of nine songs that goes on sale at the end of this month. It would be insanity to declare it the album of the year just two weeks into January but I don’t care. I’ve listened to almost nothing else for the past month and have no intention of changing the record.
It’s a rich, sophisticated set to file alongside Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, Dionne Warwick, Carole King and Scott Walker, with Prass’s pure voice the calm centre as strings, horns and flutes flutter and swoop around it. It would sound like a classic in any era.
“That’s so cool, thank you so much,” she says with grace, as I attempt to relay these thoughts to her without her feeling the need to take out a restraining order. She’s got a pixie face and an easy laugh and, in case you haven’t already deduced as much from the dog clothes thing, is a bit of a kook.
She confesses to being a teen fan of “LARPing” — live action roleplay events where she can spend days pretending to be a werewolf or a banshee. She spent much of her late teens and early twenties cycling around Nashville with a pet cockatiel on her shoulder. “I had the same bird from the age of about 12 to 23, then one of my room-mates accidentally killed it,” she says, and bursts out laughing. “You don’t have to put that in, it’s kind of depressing.”
Now there’s just her Boston terrier, Marvin, who has accompanied her on this week’s move from Nashville — where her parents now live and where she attended Middle Tennessee State University and began carving a career as a session singer and keyboard player — back to Richmond, in Virginia, the state where she grew up. Richmond is the home of Spacebomb Records, the independent label that releases her music.
It’s an unusual set-up in its early stages: a house band plays on each release, offering a full, luxuriant orchestral sound to unknown songwriters who would normally be expected to produce something much more lo-fi. Prass’s album sounds expensive as well as utterly gorgeous. Check the single, Bird of Prey, which is online now: it’s a sprightly pop tune launched heavenwards by an elegant heap of extra ornamentation.
“We did it on no money, working on spec, pulling in favours. It’s supposed to be like the Stax band. I knew what I wanted to do as far as having that Muscle Shoals, all-American kind of sound. But those guys took it to the next level. When I saw the horn arrangements my mind was blown, I got goosebumps. Oh my God, it’s so beautiful and I never would have thought to do that. That’s what’s so wonderful about collaborating: your idea can explode and become something else.”
You might be familiar with the sound she’s talking about from Matthew E White’s 2012 album Big Inner, an epic piece of florid country-soul that made a cult success of him and launched him on tour around the world. White, 32, is a childhood friend of Prass. They were in a band together as teenagers in Virginia Beach. He is also Spacebomb’s figurehead, and his album was the label’s first release.
Its popularity kept the team busy, so much so that Prass’s album has had to sit in a drawer since being completed at the start of 2012, despite the faith that White clearly has in her. “She has the charisma, singing style and vibe of Diana Ross,” he has said.
“We finished this record right before things got crazy for him. It was incredible, we were all so thrilled, rooting for him, but it kind of put this record on hold a little bit. That’s totally fine, that’s just how it works,” says Prass, sounding like it wasn’t quite totally fine. “In the meantime I just wrote more songs, recorded a ton, played around and joined Jenny’s band.”
Jenny is Jenny Lewis, the singer of notable Los Angeles indie group Rilo Kiley and now a successful solo artist. It was seeing Rilo Kiley that made a teenage Prass realise that girls were allowed to play the electric guitar. For the past year she has been playing keyboards on tour with her heroine’s band, though she’s about to make her final appearance. She was in London at the Islington Assembly Hall last autumn with Lewis but a concert in King’s Cross later this month will be her first solo show here. “I wish I could do both because it’s so much fun playing for Jenny. I learned so much from her.”
Now, finally, it’s her turn for the spotlight. Both practically and emotionally, it hasn’t been an easy road to get here. She’s made a break-up album, with many of the songs dealing with her split from Kyle Ryan Hurlbut, who now plays guitar in country star Kacey Musgraves’s band. “Break-up albums are the best kind,” she says with optimism. “It’s just what was happening and I had to deal with it somehow.”
On her album, look out for Your Fool, which arrives early on as a lively number filled with rolling piano and handclaps, then reappears almost unrecognisably towards the end with Prass speaking the lyrics over a soft wash of flutes and strings. It’s remarkable.
Since these songs were made she has had time to write many more, but don’t expect a flurry of bonus material. “I’m not sure yet if those songs belong in the world. It’s really healthy just to keep writing and recording, keep exploring what you can do.”
Now it’s time for her to enjoy the inevitable acclaim for her older music and build the following that it deserves. There’ll be no returning to her old life. There are going to be a lot of chilly dogs out there this year.
Natalie Prass plays The Lexington, N1 (020 7837 5371,thelexington.co.uk) on January 27.