Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jessica Pratt dipped into the primordial ooze, emerged with an album

The cover from Jessica Pratt's upcoming album, "Here in the Pitch."
Jessica Pratt
The cover from Jessica Pratt's upcoming album, "Here in the Pitch."

San Francisco singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt’s early albums were softly centered around finger-picked guitar and her understated-yet-cavernous voice — reinvigorated and recombobulated particles of folk music initially set into motion decades ago. More recently, she’s added bolded elements of dramatic and orchestral ’60s pop, with inspiration coming directly from, as she says, “the dark side of the Californian dream.”

Sounds of the Mamas & The Papas and The Beach Boys echo on “Life Is,” the lead single from her contemplatively-dark pop album, Here In the Pitch. Pratt sings cryptically but assuredly, “Time is time and time and time again, ”looking to see more clearly even as the light gets dimmer.

Sitting down with Pratt is a pleasure. She’s an agile conversationalist, ready to consider any question large or small. She glides from stories about growing up with a “music head” mom who homeschooled her in “the Napster era” in northern California into explaining how that led her to have a more expansive lifestyle and worldview that eventually nudged her into the full-time life of a musician.

Her new album arrives May 3, and a fresh single called “World on a String” just dropped today. But, before both of those, Pratt took the time to answer the large and small questions, as well as the alchemy of recording spaces and techniques, and using surfaces to maximize your sound as a lone wolf artist who prefers it that way, thank you very much.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I was just talking with you about how album-release times are always so busy. So you've been in a flurry of activity recently, getting ready for the release of your album in May?

That's an accurate description of what's been happening. Absolutely.

I've been following your work for a little while, but I want to introduce you a little bit to our listeners who might not know about you. Have you always lived in California?

More or less. I was actually born in Seattle but, from a very young age, lived in California. I moved around a little bit when I was a kid but never stayed anywhere outside of the state for long. So, essentially, a native Californian for all intents and purposes.

You’ve got that California sound down, I feel like. This question might be kind of hard to answer, but: If you were born in Buffalo, New York, do you feel like you'd be writing the same style of music? What would your output be if you weren't “Jessica Pratt from California”?

It’s an excellent question, and I think it's very difficult to say. I will say that a lot of the artists that I love — and maybe this is projecting onto them — but it seems that people absorb something of the place that they're from and they develop.

So, yeah, I do think something might be different, even just down to the weather where you live. It affects your mood and your perspective on things. I'm sure it would be different in some ways. Also, all the other butterfly effect stuff, like the music scene that you're around when you're coming of age and all that. I think environment is important.

Jessica Pratt; Instagram

When you were coming of age, what kind of music scene was prevalent in your neighborhood or your environs? What were the main jams, so to speak?

Well, the hometown that I grew up in — Redding, Calif. — it's way up north. It's just below Oregon. It’s a “smaller-bigger city,” I guess? It's sort of like a sprawling place, and I was lucky enough to be a pre-adolescent and teenager at a time when there was kind of like a semi-thriving music scene.

It’s a good stop-off in between San Francisco and Portland for touring bands. So, in this chunk of time, a lot of bands came through. I also didn't go to public high school, so I was kind of homeschooled and was able to kind of stay out late; I didn't have to wake up early for school.

I had one slightly older friend who introduced me to some people, and they were all interested in music and introduced me to a lot of stuff that I wasn't familiar with — more new music, actually, music of the time. I think I was really fortunate to have that. I wonder how things would have gone if I had just been in total isolation.

I’ve often wondered what it was like to have been a homeschooled person. How does that change your view on the world, how you move and what you choose to do with your life? And it kind of leads up to my next question: When did you know you wanted to be a musician full time? Did that occur to you at an early age, or was it something you just kind of fell into? 

It took me quite a while to sort of embrace that idea, not because I wouldn't have been interested in it, but just because it just didn't really occur to me that it would be a possibility. From like 15 on, I played guitar and I wrote songs and stuff, but I never had the sort of ambition or idea to play shows or try to create a career out of it.

It was really just many years of me recording songs to tape and showing them to friends and being encouraged by them that inevitably ended up years later in a record coming out because, you know, somebody that heard it became my friend and they decided to release it. So, yeah, it really took a lot of people telling me that I should do that for it to actually click for me.

Sometimes when you're in your own head, you don't see the things that your peers will notice about you. You need someone to tell you these things. I'm curious to know, since you're a musician full time, are there other passions you devote your time to when you're not playing music and writing music? Or are you pretty much all music, all the time?

I mean “passions” … it's a tricky word. But I love to read, and I'm interested in history, and I like nature. It's usually like learning about things, I guess. I'm pretty curious about a lot of things. Like those memes about “get adequate sleep” or Google “how tall Jesus was” … like that kind of thing. Anything that comes into your head you want to sort of research it, you know?

Are you one of those folks that likes to watch Jeopardy! a lot, too?

I do like Jeopardy!, but I don't have a TV with a cable setup or local channels. I guess you can probably watch it online. I get excited when it's on at a business somewhere, which happens not infrequently. Yeah! I love Jeopardy!.

The whole lifelong learning thing and programs like that … I don't know, it’s just so satisfying to watch Jeopardy! sometimes.

Do you have a regular writing practice, or are you very “go with the flow” when it comes to writing music?

I'm pretty regimented but in sort of an “I write when I need to be writing” way.

Say, for instance, when I'm done with an album and I'm moving on to the next stage of promotion and getting ready to tour and stuff; (when) I feel like it's like shifting into a completely different mode, it becomes difficult for me to engage with that part of my brain again. I unfortunately feel like it becomes this black-and-white thing where I'm either in this very dedicated period of writing or I'm on the other side of the coin.

I should probably try to change that. I have friends that will write songs on tour and stuff, and I really admire that, but really it's not my strong suit. I feel like I have to really pull up and make it sort of my sole purpose, you know?

A little more focus and whatnot.


So the songs I've been listening to on your new record — called Here in the Pitch — it reminds me of ’60s sounds, and that’s something I really, really love. Pop songs. And the thing about ’60s pop songs, even the folky ones, is that there's like this little tinge of darkness. There’s like a quiet desperation in them. Did you grow up listening to that music, or did you find ’60s pop stuff a little bit later?

I heard a lot of it growing up. I mean, my mother was a real music head. She always had music playing and had a large collection of stuff on cassette, CD, vinyl, and I guess my pre-adolescence was kind of the Napster era, so it was sort of this free-for-all of just, like, this random album I remember from when I was young … 1967 or something like that.

My mom would download anything she could think of, and so as a result we had this huge music library. I was exposed to a lot, and then inevitably I became interested in it and sort of did my own digging. It's been sort of like a mainstay, I guess; not necessarily pop, specifically, but it wasn't like a new discovery or anything listening to the songs.

I hear elements of The Mamas & The Papas, maybe Nick Drake, The Carpenters. … Obviously, they might not be direct influences, but I was just wondering if any of those artists held any influence on your current sound. Or are there other influences that are directly more strong and notable to you?

Yeah, those three are all things that I have held close to my heart at various times, especially The Mamas & The Papas, a lot of those melodies. I mean, the harmonies, obviously, but yeah.

There’s also a Tropicalia element to your music. It's been in there for a while, too. It's such a beautiful complement to your vocal style. When did you first become attracted to Tropicalia sounds?

I think it's kind of one of those things where it's like Tropicalia and bossanova, I think that they informed a lot of that ’60s pop music. There was sort of like a crossbreeding going on.

So it's not only the influence of that stuff in its own right, like Os Mutantes or even like on the more bossa nova side Caetano Veloso and [Antônio Carlos] Jobim. I think Burt Bacharach was very influenced by those sounds, and I feel like even just as an American, you hear Bacharach's music a lot in film and television and the radio. It's kind of like this ever-present thing. Those songs are just standards.

Even something like the Beach Boys album, Friends, there's sort of some bossa nova stuff on there. And I think some of that has to do also with the jazz chords that are present in all of those genres, both jazz and bossa nova. It kind of bleeds into a lot of stuff. So if you use those chords and those syncopated rhythms, yeah, it sort of evokes all that, you know?

Are you predominantly a solo writer? ’Cause it seems so. And if so, is it by design or have you ever considered filling your sound out with other musicians’ insights and contributions?

I have pondered it a little bit. I think that I really work best alone, at least in the writing part of it. I've actually never tried to write with anyone else. I've collaborated with people on the production side of things, and that’s gone pretty well, but I almost can't imagine writing with someone else. I would like to try it sometime because I think it would be really fun and interesting. I'm also a little bit of a control freak, so I can see it being difficult.

I think when you're writing your own music, having to describe to someone how you want something to sound instead of just knowing and trying to execute it yourself, there’s endless frustrations that pop up, I'm sure. 

What was the first song that you wrote for this new record? And what called it into being?

The first song was the second song on the record [“Better Hate”], which kind of ties into a lot of the stuff we were just talking about — sort of the easy-breezy California thing with sort of like a tinge of darkness.

I don't know where it came from. It was the summertime, so I feel like maybe some of that bled in. It's a very sunny-sounding song. My process is really just, like, throwing darts at the wall until something feels right. And it was that process over three years, essentially, and recording along the way.

This album feels really reflective as a whole, but it also holds those feelings of subdued anxiety, I feel like. Where were you mentally when you started writing this particular batch of songs?

Ugh. It was 2020, summer of 2020. So this isn't true for everyone, but in my instance the experience was a combination of absorbing a simmering dread and fear, and also feeling isolated and then having this false sense of calm at the same time, I guess.

If you didn't have to go be an essential worker somewhere or something, you know, a lot of us were staying home. So it was a lot of mental quiet coupled with mental unrest, I guess. I think the music was an outlet for that. But, I don't know, those three years from 2020 felt much longer than three years — maybe like five or six years. It felt really, really long.

I don't know if I can sum up my mental perspective over that entire time, other than to say that it shifted a lot. But there was probably a lot of … maybe not even anxiety or dread due to the situation per se — although, yes, that is true — but also just like anytime you're left alone with your own thoughts for an extended period of time, you can sort of spiral, you know?

You drive yourself mad a little bit.

Yeah. It's like The Lighthouse. You ever see that movie?

No, I haven't seen that one.

It's kind of scary, but it speaks to the sort of “Desert Island Syndrome,” I guess, where you just kind of tweak out, you know?

You mentioned this false sense of security, this whole vibe that derived from the pandemic. It kind of leaks out into these songs. You also mentioned recently that the single we've been playing, “Life Is,” also has feelings of … I don't know, panic perhaps? Because you were quoted as saying, “It's in the third act, and you're trying to climb back on the horse before it gets dark.” Do these feelings of desperation ever resolve or are they kind of always ever-present in these songs?

You mean, do they resolve in the songs themselves?


I think that I like to leave things open-ended. I don't like to draw any super-concrete lines. I think that it's good for people to be able to sort of draw their own conclusions, and you can allow the music to be a vessel for somebody else's experiences. I also think that abstractness and leaving things unsaid with art and music can be just as intriguing in its own right, you know?

Likewise, what were you trying to convey with the title of your record, Here in the Pitch? I can draw some conclusions on what that might mean, but what exactly does “Here in the Pitch” mean to you in this case?

Well, I guess going back to the previous answer, I do like titles that feel a little obscure and maybe slightly ominous. I feel like there are some things that I attach it to. It actually was a line that came from a poem that I wrote.

But the “pitch” itself refers to kind of just like the general darkness, and then also the sort of natural tar-like substance that comes from beneath the Earth's surface, like a tar pit. I thought that it was an interesting symbol, you know? Like this primordial ooze that comes from the center of the Earth. It's like the most ancient thing that exists.

I haven't heard that phrase in a while: “primordial ooze.”  We're all stuck in it, right? [laughs]

I want to talk a little bit about the sounds of the record. The way you record and present your singing voice is really delightful. It's just got this classic AM radio appeal. And part of it is your singing style, but also part of it is clearly the production. Can you disclose if there are any effects that are your go-to's for getting that sweet, classic AM pop radio sound?

I think it's a combination of a number of things, and some of it I don't even quite fully understand. The person that I co-produced the record with who is also the engineer, Al Carlson, is really very talented with figuring out how to get very specific sounds. I think it was a combination of recording to tape and the sort of reverb that we used was this very large reverb plate. The size is, like, bigger than a door. It's huge. It lives in this room at the studio. It's like its own little closet, which is really crazy when you think about it. It's just this giant piece of metal.

And I wouldn't want to give away Al's secrets, but yeah, I guess just like really sitting down together and tweaking things until you feel like it's the right texture, you know? And just trying to sing in a way that feels like you're accessing that. Also, the live room in the studio that we recorded it in is quite large and quite tall — like very, very tall ceilings, kind of in the old-school way. Those studios had really big live rooms.

You were saying you could play a little bit with some of the surfaces, even though most studios do have softer coverings and higher studio walls that could lend just to the sonics and the changes of your vocals, like a plate reverb could …

Yeah. And also using room microphones — like not just the mic in front of you, but placing mics around you at various heights, higher up. It kind of blends this large atmosphere, local sound, which was really fun to experiment with.

I think not all artists remember mic placement. Sometimes it's just like the nose on your face, the mic in front of your mouth, accessing those more dimensional sounds that are around you, too.


Let's talk a bit more about going into the studio. How did you approach things this time? Were moods and sounds planned out in advance, or did you approach things in more of a soft, kind of fluid way?

It was probably a combination of both, to be honest. I would try to bring in two to five songs per session. There were a few sessions over the course of that time. I tend to be somebody that if I bring five songs, two of them will probably make it out alive. So I try to be very selective about it.

I tried to be a little more open about maybe the final sound. Like sometimes I'd bring in a song, and it always sounds one way in your head, and then through the process of adding instrumentation and subtle production changes it can sort of morph into something else. I think maybe I was a little freer with that part of the process. Not to say that I was close-minded with the previous album or anything, but I think it just felt like there was a little more experimentation involved this time.

What are some surprises or sonic elements that kind of came out of left field that ended up making it into the final cut of the album?

With “Life Is,” we did our typical approach, which was recording to the sort of big tape machine that we have there, which is pretty clean-sounding. You wouldn't even necessarily know that it's tape. It has a warm sound, but it's very crystal-clear.

We kind of experimented — like I sang the song again to a smaller tape machine, a quarter-inch tape that was on the verge of breaking the entire time we were using it. It felt very unsteady. Just sort of layering things like that, layering the vocals together to see what sort of texture would come out of that.

Also just stuff lying around the studio. There was an electric 12-string guitar that I played unamplified on one song. Little things like that, that you don't go in planning to use but they just kind of bubble up out of nowhere, you know?

All those little magic touches where once they're in the song, you can't unhear them anymore.


We’re playing “Life Is” right now. My final question to you is: How did you come up with the line “time is time and time and time again.” It's such a thoughtfully eloquent idea to share. And I really love that line.

Oh, thank you. You know, a lot of my lyrics just come from singing. Once I have a melody and I feel like I'm honing in on something, I'll be singing and sometimes lines just come out. Yeah, I like the kind of circular nature of that line too.

The album officially comes out in May. Is that correct?

That is correct. May 3 on Mexican Summer in the States and City Slang in Europe.

Well, I'm very excited for the album to officially come out. There is another single coming out real soon at the end of March, “World on a String,” so I look forward to hearing that one next and sharing that with our listeners. Thank you so much for your time today. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Thank you. It was really fun. Lovely to chat. Happy to be here, so thanks!

88Nine Music Director / On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee