Jessica Pratt’s gorgeous new album follows in a grand tradition of American folk music, weaving the themes of Joni Mitchell, but with Pratt’s own slight psychedelic and surrealistic spin. We talked to Pratt about On Your Own Love Again, mixing warmth with melancholy in her music and how dudes in board shorts can ruin a concert.
I saw you a few years ago opening up for Father John Misty. That was a rowdy crowd, and you don’t have aggressive volume in your music, but you were able to entrance the audience. How do you try to connect in that way?
Honestly I’ve never really thought about it in the way that I go into it try to connect with them. I feel like it’s a defense mechanism, trying to go into it trying to create what sounds good to me and if they like it, that’s good. But I’ve never really been in the position — because of how solitary my relationship with music has been — I’ve never been in a position where I feel like I’ve ever allowed myself to desire that or something like that.
That was the first tour I ever when on and prior to that I had barely played shows at all. I wasn’t really perusing music actively; it was like, two shows a year maybe. So that was like a real big crash course. It was a full U.S. tour, I drove across the country; all the venues were really big. It was a really strangely booked tour; sometimes, looking back on it, it seems like a mistake or something.
Generally the audiences tended to be quiet and respectful, but that tour was a grab bag. I like [Father John Misty’s] music, but the sound of that record and perhaps maybe more so with the band he was traveling with… I don’t consider it generic or something, but it’s pleasant enough that it appealed to such a broad range of people that, based on what city you’re in, it could be a nightmarish crowd. We had one in Phoenix where it was like, dudes in board shorts playing ping-pong and drinking beer on a Friday night… but I don’t know, I just kind of play what feels right, what sounds right and hopefully they like that.
On the album, and I got this sense while you were performing, there are songs that are very warm, welcoming and intimate, but they become quite sad when you look at the lyrics, especially on something like “Baby Back.” How do you fit that together to make it make sense?
I think that that’s kind of in the history of pop music. Maybe try to channel some more unsavory emotions into something digestible like a beautiful song. I guess a lot of my process with this stuff is not…I haven’t examined it and I haven’t really set forth with a plan in a lot of these situations. I don’t think of warmth and somber lyrics being contextually being mutually exclusive. I guess I do kind of sound like…some of them are more up tempo…I guess I don’t know how I feel about that.
You’re totally right that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, it’s just an interesting trope. Listening to something like The Shins or Fleet Foxes, with gorgeous melodies, only to feel depressed when you look at the lyrics. Like “shit this is sad! And I’ve been bobbing my head to it,” it’s an odd juxtaposition.
Yeah! It’s a much more severe sounding music, but, even stuff like Nirvana where it’s such a guttural groove and I like the sound of it so much, but the lyrics are devastating and so fucked up and crazy. But I think that’s what music does. I think delivering a line with music, it can potentially lessen the harsher side of it. I don’t want to say it lessens the impact, because that’s not really true.
While listening to the album, there seems to be a theme focusing on memories throughout. Lines like “peoples’ faces blend together like a watercolor you can’t remember” or “in your glass world…where time’s a frozen thing.”
That’s funny, because the glass world line…it’s so cool to hear what people interpret things as. I didn’t think of that as memory, but I like that the lyrics are abstract enough in certain areas that people can color it with their own interpretation.
I’ve heard a lot of conversations about the importance of the artist’s meaning versus the listener’s interpretation. Some people get kind of thorny around it, but what are your thoughts?
It’s hard to tell. I don’t think one is more important than the other. I think a lot of it has to do with the “magic” part of it. That line is about being very icy and sort of having a wall around, like in a snow globe or something, being untouchable…I don’t know. Lyrics are fun! I feel like, sometimes, they’re neglected in a lot of current music…a bit. If you write a rock song or something loud, I don’t do that so I don’t know what it’s like to write lyrics for it, but maybe you have to simplify things a bit more.
I feel like I’m generalizing, but I think people get really excited when rock or really aggressive music have excellent lyrics, whereas folk or hip-hop, the words are front and center it’s easy to take it for granted.
It’s not always easy. Just because you think of a line, doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good in a song. And I feel like a lot of songwriters do operate that way, just writing lines down and putting it to music regardless of whether or not it flows or feels good.
Mine is very phonetic-based initially in its structure. Then, fortunately, things tend to fall into place in terms of content, but also the shape of the word. It’s complicated, everyone has their own methods.
You write poetry outside of your lyric work, correct?
Not that I’m like an experienced writer; I feel like it’s something a lot of people do. I did it a lot more when I was younger. I think it’s a good exercise; I just like words so much.
When you’re working on poetry, do you feel like it can help you with lyrics, even with the difference between phonetics and only reading the words as opposed to singing them?
I feel like anytime you practice something, anytime you become more familiar with a talent of your craft it will help. If you read a lot you can feel your brain being more solid, working a bit quicker. You know, the wider breath you have for knowledge of words and the way they interact with each other is important. But I do feel like the process of writing words alone… the way that verses come to me when I’m writing a song is a very different world. I think it comes from different parts of the brain. It’s almost like mathematical and a watercolor or something. I think you have so much more room to work with when you’re just writing poetry.
You know, I don’t think about myself that often or that constantly, but, because I’ve been doing all these interviews for a month and a half, you answer questions about yourself all day and sometimes people ask questions and it’s something you’ve never thought about. I realized that growing up, while I was a teenager, pre-adolescence too, I would keep notebooks of…I guess what you would call poems? But, in my memory, they would always be…and this was before I really knew how to play an instrument too, but they were always songs with verses and choruses and stuff. That was the structure that I used.
I guess I was sort of struck by the fact that that is a little strange, not having played an instrument at the time. I never thought about it back then, only now in retrospective.
I wanted to ask about the “peoples’ faces blend together” line. What created that line? Was it about touring or losing connection with people?
I think that line and, obviously a lot of the songs, are about being heartbroken. I think it refers to the state of being that I was in, kind of a little bit numb. I don’t have a car in L.A. so I walk everywhere…it’s a little bit about zen or something and things just being kind of a wash, but sure it could apply to that too, it’s the same kind of drama.
Some of these songs don’t go in the direction you would expect them to go. “Game That I Play” has that completely unexpected coda and “Jacquelyn in the Afternoon” has a sudden detuning the middle of the song. What were the thoughts going into the recordings of those songs?
I think it’s just knee-jerk stuff. I had that little end piece that I really like so much and it was from the end of a different song that I didn’t end up using, but I liked that thing so much and thought it should be on the record so I wanted to find a song I could sew it on to. For the “Jacquelyn” thing it’s so funny, because I found it so minimal, pretty inconsequential to me, but it’s amazing how much people focus on that part in that song like it’s a really big deal, which is cool. You know, you never know how people are going to react to things. Then some things that you thought would be glaring to people, they don’t even notice. It’s just really funny with peoples’ perceptions of things because your own subjective experience would be you making music and listening to it again and again. Your perspective is warped so it’s really amazing to see the world through music and all the different things people have to say about it.