You will struggle to find an American musician that was not rocked in some way by their country’s 2016 Presidential Election. Declarative social media statements of pain and outrage were de rigueur in the months-long aftermath of Trump’s victory, with some even choosing to commit their reactions to record. Very few, though, were so deeply affected by the result that they chose to abandon their entire agenda in order to make a timely album-long statement of what this seismic moment means to them.
That was the situation in which Natalie Prass found herself. On Election Day, she was all set to enter the studio to record her second album. It was to be, as she describes, something of a breakup record. But events rocked her so greatly that she threw out those plans overnight and set about writing an entirely new set of material in reaction. The result is The Future And The Past, a brilliantly defiant, forceful and ultimately hopeful album that is as complete a statement on its times as we have heard so far.
We spoke to Natalie about her radical decision to pivot away from her original second album plans, how she has learned to deal with the reality of Trump as president, whether she feels cursed as an artist, and how Stevie Wonder and Karen Carpenter have helped to inspire her.
DiS: The Future And The Past is out now. I read that you had a set of songs all ready to record, and then the Trump election happened and plans changed. Could you talk me through what happened exactly?
Natalie Prass: Sure. I wrote so many songs and then I finally decided on a record, and it was turning out to be another heartbreak record. I was ready to record in June 2016, but then it got pushed to September, and then to December, and I was so frustrated, it was awful. I felt such a sense of urgency to put my new music out there, I didn’t want another three years to pass by, like on the first record. But, ironically, and it kind of feels like fate, when the election happened, it affected me so deeply and I was in a very dark place, I was bursting out into tears for months. I would have been very upset with myself if I had released that record that I was planning on recording, because it had nothing to do with social issues, and I felt I needed to say something. It was so important to me and it was deeply affecting me and my friends and my community and a lot of people in my country, so I just thought I needed to talk about it. That’s what music is for. So I went to the label and ironically said that I want to push this recording even further. I booked time in March 2017, gave myself a couple of months to try to rewrite it, and I wrote a ton of songs, but it’s probably a little more than half [of The Future And The Past] that are the brand new songs and the rest are from the other album.
Did it cross your mind that you could still put the original album out, and then have your third album be the Trump-inspired one?
Haha yeah, but I just feel like I needed to say something now. It was urgent.
What happened to the rest of the old songs, if only half of them are on this album?
They’re on my computer. I think you’ll hear them, some of them are really good and I think deserve to be released, it’s just that now’s not their time yet.
We’re close to eighteen months on from the election now. That feeling that drove you to write these songs in the immediate aftermath of Trump winning, is it still as raw now?
Oh definitely. I mean, I’m not bursting into tears anymore, I had to step away from all the craziness, it was starting to exhaust me. I was getting really depressed, it just wasn’t worth it. I’m still very much involved with the social issues that I stand by – going to marches, reading, everything that I can do. But I’m not glued to my phone and my television like I was, it’s exhausting.
It feels like Trump has been there forever, but it’s only really been a year and a bit. Has the world responded to a President Trump in the way that you thought it was going to?
[Sighs]. I thought he wouldn’t make it this far. It’s still so frustrating, how is he getting away with all this stuff. If it was anybody else, they would be gone, they wouldn’t have ever been our president. I mean, I know why he’s getting away with it, because he’s a rich white man. I don’t understand why people give a pass to him. It’s really embarrassing. Now I have the mindset that he might have another four years after this term, it’s very likely. Because I just can’t predict anything anymore. I was hoping somebody would kick him out.
Do you find things to be hopeful about?
Yeah, there are things to be hopeful about. For instance, I feel like more people are talking about politics, especially in our country, where that really wasn’t part of our culture. It’s forced people to engage a bit, and that’s a bit of a silver lining. All these young people that are going to vote soon in the mid-terms. The whole feminist movement is becoming more embraced too, because for a long time being a feminist in our country was a dirty word. Now it’s kind of normal.
Did you feel it was incumbent on you to speak out because you have a certain platform or because you’re an artist?
Yeah, I think so. Especially as a woman, I felt like I had more of a responsibility on me. Especially as 52% of white women voted for Trump, which is so freaky. I don’t understand that at all – actually I do, my mother voted for him, but my mother also does whatever my dad does, they’re from that generation, and that’s still very much a thing. I have even more of a responsibility to express my opinions and put myself out on the line for what I believe in.
Your song ‘Sisters’ feels very much like a post-#MeToo call to arms song. It also sounds like it could be on the new Janelle Monae album. A lot of women in the music industry have been talking this year about the obstacles that they’ve had to overcome because of their gender. Do you have similar experiences?
Yeah. First of all, I love Janelle Monae. But of course, like in any industry, the music world has its problems. But that song was written before it all became highly publicised. I know the #MeToo movement has been going on for a very long time, but it was before the mass media caught onto it. There is just so much coming to a head now with this issue, it’s exhausting and it’s painful, but it’s really important. I’m really happy that progress is being made and there’s an awareness of that stuff now. It’s always been exhausting having to explain it – you say what’s happening to your peers, but there are so many deep stereotypes against women that it’s not taken seriously, or the blame is put back on you. Guys have totally abused their power over me. When I was a kid, I was totally the only girl that wanted to be in bands and to write songs. I had to morph into a guy so I could hang and be accepted. If I was girly, or anything like that, it wouldn’t have been ‘cool’. I think little things about me – I dress really conservatively, I don’t really wear makeup, I try to be plain and myself - are because I don’t want to be looked at for anything other than who I am. The Trump bullshit really brought back a lot of those things that I thought were normal and that I had buried, having to cater to guys’ emotional freakouts and the power dynamics, thinking that as a woman I had to navigate all that. Now I don’t have time for that anymore; if you don’t respect me, I’m moving on, bye. That goes with any working relationship. It’s good that these things that have been normal are being called out.
The new album is pretty different from the first. Is that because of the spirit that the songs were written in, or that you wanted to take control, or another reason?
It’s a mixture of a bunch of things, but I like to experiment and express myself, so that’s a big part of it. As far as the political stuff goes, I didn’t want to sing political songs that were heavy or dark or sad, I wanted to sing political songs that would help me to get out of my state of depression and to make me feel hopeful and that I can take anything on. And the first record was recorded in 2012 and this one in 2017, so that’s a lot of years to have passed. I do feel like this record is more ‘me’ than the last record, in terms of I had a way heavier hand as far as production goes. On the last one, I was more in awe of the whole Spacebomb production process, I’d never worked with a band like that before. That was more of a Matthew E. White production and I was just saying yes to everything. And on this one, I was like no, I want this and I want that and these are the key sounds that I want and I want this kind of vibe and this tempo. There were a few songs where we would start to record it, and I would say, “No, Matt, this is not how it goes”. It’s just a change in confidence.
Didn’t you go to school with Matthew E. White?
We did, there is so much love and respect between the two of us. We went to school together, but we weren’t really friends until we worked together on that first album. We knew who each other were and aware of what the other was doing, because we were the two kids from Virginia Beach, Virginia who were still playing and trying to make it our professional lives. So we always had a keen eye on each other from a distance. But over the years we’ve gotten really, really close. I feel like it’s fate.
And he is still involved in the new album.
Oh my gosh, yeah. He’s the producer, he put everything together as far as the budget and putting the band together. All the producer roles that I didn’t really want, he organised everything. He made sure the ship was going to get from point A to point B.
Were there other artists that were able to incorporate politics into their music in a way that you admire that you were using as a touchstone?
Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life is one of my favourite albums of all time, it has songs about everything – love songs, ballads, super funky songs, rock ‘n’ roll songs, Latin-influenced songs, and then his real politics ones, and you’ll be dancing to them. That was one of the first records I ever bought for myself when I was in middle school. I’d never really heard songs about civil rights before.
We talked about how this album was delayed for a while. And your first album was delayed for quite a while. Were you starting to think you were cursed?
Totally. I thought it was so funny, a sad kind of funny. Now, I’m never going to tell anybody what’s going to happen, because after my last one, I thought that something like that would never happen again. But here I am, three years later!
‘Hot for the Mountain’ is my favourite of the new songs. I love the jazz bass and piano. I assume that’s one of the post-Trump ones? It definitely feels like a ‘you’ve got to let your voice be heard’ song.
For sure. That’s my favourite one on the record. I keep telling all the industry people that that’s the one! Nobody believes me. I don’t think it’s even going to be a single, I couldn’t win that battle. They didn’t believe me on the last one either. I told them, ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ is the second single, and everybody said no. And that’s always the crowd favourite. I guess that’s why I do what I do and they do what they do.
‘Ship Go Down’ ends basically with an extended freakout. Was that a way of getting the anger out?
That was so fun. It was totally that. I tried not to record an angry record but that was the one where I could channel that energy. I was saying to Matt and Adrian the engineer that, “ok, I’m going to scream now, for like five minutes.” And we chopped it down a bit, but it was a lot of fun.
‘Far From You’ is the one track that really seems to hark back to the first album. Is it deliberately linked to ‘Close to You’?
Yes. Very obviously so! It’s a tribute to Karen Carpenter, who I’ve been compared to ever since I was a kid, and I love her. She’s just the best. I think it’s unfortunate that she’s remembered for the way that she died. I also think it’s such a tragic tale, we are as humans fascinated by tragic stories. She was such a bright light of a human, especially in the music industry during that time when it was not favourable to women, and she had to put up with a lot of shit. She wasn’t allowed to play drums on stage anymore and she had to deal with everyone judging her. I just think she’s amazing, her voice is so kind and rich.
The album cover feels like a comment of expectations of the female image?
I originally wanted this photo where my face was kind of distorted – I was blinking and my face was kind of like [she pulls a gurning face]. I thought it was awesome. I thought, “That’s the photo!” But again, people thought it was going to scare people away. So we compromised and there is going to be a limited run with that photo on them. As for the main photo, I wanted to be masculine and feminine, modern and retro, all in one.
Because that’s how you see yourself?
Yeah and I just feel like it’s tied into the album title. It was a woman’s suit that I saw modelled on a man. We sewed yellow rose buttons onto the shirt to symbolise the women’s suffragette movement.
The Future And The Past is out now via ATO Records. For more information on Natalie Prass, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit her official website.