Jessica Pratt is travelling once more.
Following the release of her 2015 album ‘On Your Own Love’ again it seems as though the California artist’s life was transformed into a blur, with the head-long velocity of touring taking her on a breathless itinerary of cities, countries, and continents. At some point, she simply had to stop.
“It was very fruitful but I also just was very spiritually and physically exhausted,” she admits. “It took a long time after doing that to do anything.” “I tried to make music, but I couldn’t really get there. So then by the time that I came back around to making music again, I felt like there was some sort of rehabilitation that was necessary to feel human again. And in the beginning it felt sometimes quite difficult. And it really… It was harrowing, sometimes.”
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We’re sat opposite each other in an East London bar, some 60s hits piping unobtrusively in the background. It’s an incongruous location for soul baring, but this is where it happens. She’s clearly not too enamoured with the interview process, either; polite but guarded, Jessica drifts off at times, pausing to gently play with the flowers at the edge of the table, as thoughts formulate, and answers gestate.
“It did eventually just overall become easier,” she says. “It definitely came in waves. I think the most difficult part from the beginning was trusting that what I was making was good. I was just over-analysing it.”
“I could see why I was doing it because… any time you’ve not been practicing whatever craft, you feel a little shaky coming into it. It took some practice to eradicate that from my mind as much as I could while I was writing. And that was the more difficult thing, and once I got that out of the way I could continue on this process.”
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It’s a process which has led to new album ‘Quiet Signs’, a superb release that retains the trademark minimalism of her previous work while adding subtle new elements. At times almost Baroque, that frosted feel clings to the organ on ‘Fare Thee Well’ or the skeletal percussion on ‘Aeroplane’.
Written on the West Coast, it was actually recorded in New York, at the studio owned by Mexican Summer. “It’s a really good deal for the artists to use it, and it’s a really good studio,” she says simply. “At the time I had stepped up my home recording situation. I went from a cassette four track to a reel to reel, and the reel to reel was… very problematic!”
“So I thought that it would maybe be alright to try a studio thing. I was very doubtful that it was really going to work out that well, but it ended up working out great. It wasn’t really planned.”
Co-produced by Al Carlson, some of the warming yet still austere backing comes from Matt McDermott. It’s a very precise record – ‘Quiet Signs’ only features nine songs, but it retains an uncanny intensity.
Jessica continues: “This was the first time that from start to finish I was thinking of an end product… and then also certain songs didn’t make the cut, based on developing the feel. Which I suppose I did unconsciously previously, but I was just much more aware of the process.”
“I feel like there’s… an atmosphere, a core essence to the music that I make, that it’s most important to maintain those things above all else,” she insists. “I mean, I definitely feel like I’ve evolved as a songwriter in certain ways, and even my singing has changed, after having toured for a really long time. Night after night, I feel like I’ve learned how to use my voice a little. More effectively, in some instances, but I just learned that I could do different things. There has been development, but my aim is always to maintain that original pure essence because I think that is what makes it stand out.”
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I’m just trying to go on my instincts...
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The precision of the songwriting didn’t obscure Jessica’s desire to pursue something almost beyond grasp, however. “I don’t think I’ve ever approached it in like a conceptual way. It’s just all feel, y’know?” she says with a slight shrug. “Something either works or it doesn’t. Something might on paper work, but feel unnecessary.”
“I think my music has always had a tendency to feel crowded by a lot of elements, which can sometimes be frustrating. It’s very careful and often there’s a lot left on the cutting room floor. I’m just trying to go on my instincts”.
Changing both musically and personally by her experiences of touring, ‘Quiet Signs’ operates within a larger, more confident palette than before. “I feel like it’s all inter-connected,” she insists. “The way I write music is… not pre-meditated in any way, it’s just whatever comes out, you just play until you find something that works. And I feel like when it’s going well I’m not really evaluating what’s happening, it just feels like a very intuitive process.”
“If you are using your voice differently the song is going to maybe go in a slightly different direction. And sometimes it can be difficult to separate all those things into their individual parts and understand what influences what. I definitely feel like the songs are a little different.”
Working within a tightly defined routine, Jessica Pratt was able to build the new album on her own terms, without the frustrations that her basic equipment could bring. That being said, the intense nature of her performances made the sessions an incredibly wearing experience.
“I think that it’s a very physically exhausting process,” she says. “You have to give it all of your energy, otherwise you’re not really hitting the mark. It’s very rewarding but it takes a lot of energy. There’s only so many times you can do that in one day and still be delivering something worthwhile.”
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I always keep the things that are real...
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There’s a strong narrative sense in Jessica Pratt’s work – even though her lyrics can be elliptic, the cut from scene to scene is steeped in a Hollywood tradition. We chat a little about cinema, and while she’s definitely a fan – ‘Opening Night’ is a nod to Gena Rowlands’ performance in the film of the same name – Jessica makes a divide between her inspiration points and her own work.
“It’s more about sound,” she explains. “Sound and feel, and those alone can pretty much dictate anything on your mind, just based on the person. That’s always the focus. I never go into writing with a preconceived idea. I just play. You have notions of something you might like to do, maybe, but none of that ever really manifests in any direct way.”
“I try to aim for trueness, and I always know if it’s real or not, and I always keep the things that are real. It’s this messy process of figuring out what that is.”
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'Quiet Signs' is out now on City Slang (or Mexican Summer in the United States).
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