Singer-songwriter Natalie Prass is camped out at a friend’s warehouse space in Richmond, Virginia, enjoying some down time before she embarks on the next leg of her tour, and she’s going through her morning routine, which includes making coffee and throwing on Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principle” from the 1986 album, Control.
“Janet [Jackson] has always been an artist that I’ve looked up to,” says Prass. “The whole Jackson family was played a lot in my household growing up, which I’m very thankful for.”
Music has been a creative channel throughout Prass’ life. In 2016, she had her second album written and ready to go. And then came the presidential election. The collection of songs she had compiled no longer felt relevant, so she scrapped them and started anew, writing what would become The Future and the Past.
“It was my mission to try to make the most compelling music I can about what’s happening right now—something I feel so many emotions about,” she explains. “I’m sure that if I’m feeling this way, there has to be a ton of other people that feel the same and they probably need music, you know, and I needed it.”
Gospel music was another source of inspiration for The Future and the Past, as was the ever-present Jackson, whose revolutionary Rhythm Nation 1814 turns 30 this year.
“She balances the political message with femininity with danceability so effortlessly, and it’s very sexy and modern and it’s all her own,” Prass says. “She’s always been very political and outspoken about human rights and our country, but then doing it in this package where it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m gonna still be positive and I want to dance.’ It’s music that’s for everybody. It’s music that stands the test of time.”
Prass successfully struck the same balance, with songs like the feminist anthem “Sisters,” which reframes the phrase “nasty women.” It’s an album that oozes soul, groove, and even love (look no further than the catchy lead single, “Short Court Style”). To harness that signature sound, Prass once again teamed up with Spacebomb Studios founder Matthew E. White.
Prass and White both grew up in Virginia Beach, and initially crossed paths in high school at a Battle of the Bands competition, where Prass’ band covered—you guessed it—Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“I was in ninth grade and I was wearing fake leather orange-red pants and a Sid Vicious T-shirt and neon green shoes,” Prass recalls. “And I don’t even know if I really talked to [Matt] but I distinctly remember…being like, ‘Look at that hippie.’ I’m pretty sure he was wearing either a ratty T-shirt or a polo shirt and khaki pants and Birkenstocks…a puka shell necklace or a hemp necklace but he says he wasn’t.”
Years later, when Prass was trying to make it as a musician in Nashville, a friend suggested she reach out to White about recording an album. In founding Spacebomb, White’s influences were Stax, Motown, and The Wrecking Crew. Prass, meanwhile, was looking to make an “old-school, Dionne Warwick-style record.” Collaboration seemed like a no-brainer.
The result was Prass’ 2015 self-titled debut, on which she plays guitars, drums, and keys. But she has largely shedded those instruments on this tour.
“I wanted to experiment with being a frontwoman. Sometimes I feel constricted on stage by playing instruments—I feel like I can’t connect as much to the audience,” she explains. “I’ve been really enjoying playing with these monster jazz musicians that are in Richmond. They’re incredible and it’s just a fun ride getting to build the sound with so many skilled people at my side.”
It’s a musical ride that captures the present, owns the past, and will endure in the future.
Natalie Prass aimed to cut through the chaos with 2018’s The Past and The Future. “It’s a challenge writing catchy, danceable [tracks] about these deep, heavy subjects that are so nuanced, so multilayered,” she says.
Natalie Prass plays The Southern Café & Music Hall Wednesday, January 23.