words and interview by tom johnson
photography by samuel richard
This interview first appeared in our new publication
‘A Music Journal’ – on sale now
Jessica Pratt’s third album is a reflection of suffering created from a space of contentment – and it might well be her masterpiece.
Musicophilia, Oliver Sack’s beautiful exploration of human relationship with recorded sound, investigates the reasons why so many of us are uniquely moved by particular pieces of music, why these odd little melodies, collections of notes and noises, can have such a profound effect on our lives. “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” he says. “It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
Each of us will find different things to love within the same work. Even between the best of friends, the closest of allies, some will love what we hate, and hate what we love. There are no rules to what happens, no real way of explaining why we’re gripped. If I had to define the kind of music I cherish the most, however, I would probably find myself leaning towards Jessica Pratt. Blessed with one of those voices that can switch between poignant, pretty, and implacably eerie in one fluttering second, and able to channel this into and within melodies that tenderly pass by but l i n g e r long after. It’s both haunting and exquisite, as meaningful in the atmosphere it creates as much as the structural form it takes.
Released at the start of 2019, Pratt’s third album, Quiet Signs, is a gentle but immediately striking progression, another entry into a discography that is quietly and contemplatively building towards genuine greatness. Her first foray into a real working studio, a break away from the four-track recording style that had left such a unique impression upon her work, it already feels likely that it will become one of the year’s most cherished long-players. Most importantly, it’s a record that welcomes back a songwriter who spent some four years in the personal void between releases.
“The gap between the first and second record didn’t feel like that long to me because so much happened in that period,” Jessica tells us, ahead of the album’s release, commenting on the time she tends to take away between her work. “Every foundational aspect of my life changed in that first period. I moved, I got out of a really long relationship, I quit the job I’d had for six years. It was a huge shift. But I do think time is important for me,” she continues. “You can get a little tapped out. Some people regenerate quicker but I think I’m learning that I tend to take a little longer – especially with this new record.”
Thankfully we’ve started moving away from the idealisation of the suffering artist, the dangerous notion that we can’t make anything true unless we give ourselves over to the darkness. Finding herself thrown into the unguarded and somewhat relentless touring cycle, it’s no surprise that Jessica needed this time to regather, especially as her personal life was also in a state of imbalance. “I basically toured for all of 2015 straight,” she reflects. “It was the first time I’d ever done that and I think I was experimenting with my own sanity and energy levels. It was a really rewarding experience, and it changed my life, but also when it was over I was completely exhausted to the point where I just didn’t really have anything left to give,” she continues. “I think I thought I’d recuperate for a couple of months and then get back to
We’re often told that in those troublesome times, it’s either fight or flight, but in this post-tour slump Jessica found the strength to do both, summoning up the courage to move cities, to go in search of something else, to find a way of moving onwards and upwards. “Touring for that long had kind of degraded my willpower a little bit and I took longer recuperating than I thought I was going to,” she admits. “So I decided to move from LA to San Francisco at some point during that convalescence, and I spent some time figuring my life out. Then, in and around August of 2017, I met my now boyfriend and it sort of ignited something in me again. I felt really inspired, felt like I had more energy, and it brought me back to life a bit. That’s when I really started writing in earnest,” she says. “I think I was just really happy. And, consequently, it gave me the energy to write again while I was sorting through a lot of personal stuff that had transpired during those three years, since the last record. I think I needed that; to be in an optimistic state of mind while sifting through a lot of the darker stuff.”
Oliver Sacks and Musicophilia, once again: “Perception is never purely in the present – it has to draw on experience of the past… We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admired with every new perception.”
Leaning on the weight of what had been, but from a place of new-found contentment, the resulting album is arrestingly beautiful. Like the intense quiet after a storm, it’s wrapped up in the kind of atmosphere you can’t quite pinpoint, can’t quite understand; like sneaking a glimpse inside a life that isn’t your own, daring not to make a sound.
Where her previous work was fleetingly recorded in various spaces, on a four-track recorder, the new record was her first venture into a polished, professional studio, and while such information often harks to the idea of playing it safe, the result is anything but. Under spotlights, under close scrutiny, Pratt’s music glows supremely, coming alive and growing into something altogether more compelling than it’s ever been.
“After the first session I knew that would be the place I recorded everything,” she recalls, speaking of the studio that became the record’s home. “Even with the last record, there are slight sonic differences from song to song, based on where I recorded it, or what the conditions were, so going into a more controlled atmosphere changed that blueprint. I was working in a very concerted way, so I was able to view it as a project with a beginning and an end. Previously the way that I wrote and recorded was whenever it happened,” she continues. “I may have had the idea of an album in mind but it was still mostly recording for myself and I didn’t know where those songs would end up. This time I knew I was writing for a specific record. More than ever I was weeding out songs that I thought detracted from a certain vibe. That was, largely, unconscious; an intuitive thing, but I was thinking about the end product more than I ever had, or maybe for the first time.
That process, the weeding out of songs, has left a record that is slight and skeletal; just half an hour of music, but a space that feels absolutely inhabited, a tale unto itself. “I do think I’m very selective,” she admits. “I think that I aim to be succinct and I try to remove anything extraneous. There were definitely songs that I wrote and recorded that were pretty decent that I could have thrown on but I just tried to weed out anything that I didn’t feel, ultimately, served the record. In the end I went with what felt right. I think I tend to favour brevity a bit more than whatever’s deemed to be the standard length!”
Perhaps the record’s strongest characteristic is the space that’s been left; small expanses of silence when we’re so used to blanketed sound. “I think that every aspect of how I make music is pretty unconscious,” Jessica says, when asked about this. “Of course I’m going off the feel of it the whole time but, going into it, I didn’t anticipate an incredibly spacious record. I think that there’s an atmosphere of silence on the record that was also not anticipated – part of that is due to the clarity of the studio recordings. It was so deadly quiet there and really gave me a lot of freedom to play with that. I think silence is a very valuable quality in music. But I didn’t foresee it in the beginning.”
“ I think
s i l e n c e
is a very valuable quality in music.”
“It’s funny because a lot of the songs are layered,” she continues, working through her own reflections on the record in real-time. “In fact I think there’s more instrumentation than the last record – but it does feel different. There are songs with lots of open space. When I think of the last record now, it does seem extremely frenetic; wound up and anxious. I was in a very hyper, frightened state of mind when I was making it and I think you can really hear it, like a frequency whirring at a really fast rate. Quiet Signs is a lot more earthy; a slow-wave.”
Certainly a marked step forwards, Quiet Signs also comes with an attached piece of writing, telling us that the record finds an “artist stepping out of the darkened wings, growing comfortable as a solitary figure on a sprawling stage”, something she’s happy to expand upon in finer detail. “I think it’s an accurate statement if I go back to the intention behind the record, and how it was me making a concerted effort to do one thing; to make a statement. This is what I have to say and here it is. The way I’ve approached my career, for better or worse, has always been very non-statement orientated. If someone’s interested in my music then it’s always a surprise to me – I’ve always made things for myself, and it’s been very hands-off to me. But now I’ve begun to accept that this is actually my profession,” she continues. “I’ve found that my approach has changed a little bit in how much I consider an audience, which can be both good and bad. But by considering them I feel more validated and legitimate. There is a performance aspect to Quiet Signs; of being aware of the space it needs to fill.”
With all of these new outlooks and processes, Jessica admits that there were some surprises along the way, things that blossomed unexpectedly, as new horizons so often seem to manufacture. “Aeroplane, the last song on the record, has these two completely different organ parts, one played by me and one by the engineer Al, who plays a lot on the record. They’re spliced together, back and forth, almost like a patchwork quilt. On paper, it doesn’t really make any sense at all but it just happened to work out. Also there’s a sort of coda at the end of that song that was improvised in the studio. I really wasn’t sure it was going to work, because it’s also on electric guitar, which I’d never really tried to record before. All of a sudden all of these unforeseen elements popped up and turned it into something I could never have predicted.”
“There is a performance aspect to Quiet Signs;
of being aware of the space
it needs to fill.”
Taken as a stand-alone sentiment, that last sentence could well be talking about life as a whole, not just the time that Pratt spent in a studio. Try as we might to find balance, some semblance of inner peace, there will always be unimagined events that leap out of the void, sending the world into a spin just as we felt settled. The best we can do is try to ride it out, to keep just enough of ourselves above water until we find our way to dry land once more. Quiet Signs, above all else, above all the beauty of its construction and personality, is a testament to such a thing; the idea that great worth can be found in dark places, not as some romanticised version of reality but as a considered declaration that we can always find a way to carry on.
The things we love, the things we’re inspired by, also have a way of finding their way back to us, often when we least expect it, when we believe that the well has finally run dry. “The power of music,” Sacks tells us, finally, “whether joyous or cathartic, must steal on one unawares, come spontaneously as a blessing or a grace.”
And so it has here; a quiet sign in a world full of noise.
Quiet Signs is out now on City Slang