How Jessica Pratt Zoned Out and Made the Calmest Album of Her Career

Photo: Guillaume Belvez

Read enough about Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt and certain words will crop up again and again: “folk,” “simplicity,” “’60s,” “smallness,” “slowness.” It can seem reductive to paint Pratt with such descriptors, but on the surface of her songs — made primarily via her wispy, high, reverb-laden voice and acoustic-guitar strumming — those words readily affix themselves. In an ever-quickening, consumptive lifestyle, such traits can also be a balm, curative and calming. Put any of Pratt’s albums on and they might quickly segue to the background and pass without much notice, over before you’ve really looked up and tuned into their particular frequency. Pratt’s sound can feel a little like a rain-smeared window: blurry, vague, contemplative.

But lean in a little more and all sorts of melodies, sweet songs, and indelible textures suddenly blossom. The Californian picked up her brother’s guitar at the age of 15 and soon had mastered all the guitar licks from T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. But her own songs were more hushed, kept closer to the heart. When garage-rock auteur Tim Presley (of the band White Fence) first heard Pratt’s home recordings, he emptied his savings account and started a label to release her 2012 self-titled debut album. For anyone who has become enchanted with Pratt’s songs, that fervent feeling becomes easier to understand. Her voice sounds like it’s whispered directly into your ear, her guitar delicate enough to seem that it might be a melody you’ve just imagined rather than heard. Deceptively simple, Pratt can mesmerize a sold-out crowd, as when she opened for Kurt Vile late last year, drawing them into her world.

Recorded at a proper studio in Brooklyn rather than at home in California, on her third album Quiet Signs, Pratt keeps the intimacy, hazy atmospherics, and lo-fi hiss of her previous albums intact. Still built via voice and acoustic guitar, other instruments rise to surface after a few spins. Themes of love and heartbreak drift across the album. The folk elements slowly open up to reveal traces of jazz, Brazilian tropicália, French yé-yé, and gentle psychedelia. Her double-tracked vocals and restrained strums on “This Time Around” impart a sweet cloud of melancholy like the weariest of bossa nova. “Fare Thee Well” seems to arise out of a mist, suddenly blossoming into Brill Building pop, before a flute enters and the song becomes weightless. It captures that uncanny moment when a former love finally lessens its hold on your heart, Pratt sighing, “Now, I know it’s over now / Hard to notice you in the crowd.” We reached out to Pratt to learn more about carting her fragile songs across the country to record them, her ability to space out, and more.

I was wondering if the first song on the album, “Opening Night,” is a reference to the John Cassavetes film of the same name?
It is in some ways a reference to the Cassavetes film. I saw it on a double feature with Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, right when I was first writing for the record in earnest and it just stuck with me. Aside from being a beautiful film, several themes resonated with me after all these years. There’s this eerie awareness of mortality in Gena Rowlands’s character. She’s teetering on the verge of mental disintegration and yet endeavoring to deliver this performance while being more or less underwater. It sounds melodramatic, but there was something about that which really struck me at the time. I had been dealing with my own personal demons just prior to that time period and was still coming up for air when I saw it.

The piano piece was an iteration of the song that follows on the album (“As the World Turns”), and that was because Matt (her boyfriend and bandmate) and I were trying to come up with some parts to play live. He wrote that on the piano, but it didn’t really work for a live setting. But the moment I heard it, I became convinced it should be the opening track.

There’s this singular world about your music. How do you pare things down to this rarified space?
I don’t know! People have a natural filtering process and your brain grabs onto certain chords instinctually. You can only handle so many influences at once and those things emerge in your sound, piece by piece. It’s good to whittle things down. There are things I listen to perennially that probably have a big impact, but it’s an organic process for me. Maybe if you had too many things going, it would come out as a big mess.

In a time of sensory overload, listening to your music draws it down in a way. It quiets you down to listen to it.
I do think it’s good to limit your exposure to certain aspects of the world. Social media can contaminate. After many years of working, avidly playing music, I have honed the ability to really become immersed in what I’m doing, regardless of where I am. It’s a really important form of unconscious meditation that I do. I think that’s why people create things. I don’t feel I have to seek refuge from the world in order to create. Day-to-day life, as long as I’m stationary and in one place, I can tap into something, regardless of what’s going on around me.

How does a song start for you?
It’s one of those things where if you’re finished with a song and you try to retrace your steps, you can never really pinpoint what happened when. Typically, I’ll play for a certain period of time, to where you forget yourself a little bit and a melody will pop up, with word sounds that come along with that. It becomes a game of figuring out what those words are or should be. It always feels like it happens without effort. It’s about making yourself available to catch whatever melody is floating around. The more you make yourself available, the greater likelihood you’ll get something good.

What was the biggest change between Quiet Signs and On Your Own Love Again?
As instinctual as the process is for me to make music, there was some consideration for this album; it was more contemplative. The last record was a cathartic blast of material, so that I don’t even remember making it. It happened really fast, 80 percent of that album came out in two months. It’s usually months between songs — I’m a slow writer — so that’s a short time frame. That was a major difference.

Quiet Signs marked your first time in a proper studio, so how did you make the intimate atmosphere of bedroom or home recordings manifest elsewhere?
It goes back to something I said earlier, being able to play anywhere. If I have one gift, it’s to leave my body when necessary. That comes in handy for transitioning to the studio. It was a fairly private affair, as the engineer is in another room behind a pane of glass. It was pretty easy to pretend he wasn’t there and feel comfortable. I went into it a little nervous, but it was easier than I thought. I practiced on focusing and spaced out accordingly.

Is it like that onstage in front of big crowds? Like when you toured with Kurt Vile?
If I’m not looking at people it’s easy for me to pretend they’re not there. Which is necessary to focus and channel correctly. But I also need to know I’m there to give me purpose, so I need to balance those two mental states. It becomes a game weighing exposure and having an ideal setting. Kurt Vile’s origins aren’t wildly different from my own. He’s a strange-sounding person who manipulates subtle sounds.

What was the hardest song to realize on the album?
Two come to mind. One being “This Time Around,” because I really wanted a certain vocal take, and on the first session I ran out of time. So I came back a second time a few months later, which is odd. Songs are these fleeting things, and I get anxious about letting too much time pass. It’s just a stark song of vocals and guitar, and I had this itch to add something else in there, but everything I tried failed. I asked many friends to try their hand at it. It fought everything we tried to use.

The other song was “Crossing,” and it’s ethereal. I worried it wouldn’t survive the traveling across the country and being delivered in the studio. It was very wispy, comprised of all these shapes that I didn’t think would withstand a lot of time passing. But that’s the difference between home and studio. At home, you can just move on to the next thing. In the studio, there’s this pressure in flying across the country, it’s very weighted to do it then. You have gut instincts for a good song that can withstand anything. Those are lucky moments when you feel that way. I was just trying to find as many of those as I could.

How Jessica Pratt Made the Calmest Album of Her Career