Features I by I 31.01.15

Automatic writing, hypnosis and loss: FACT meets Drag City’s LA dreamer Jessica Pratt

jessicapratt-1.27.2015

“I like how there’s room for people to make their own interpretations and for things to remain mysterious.

“That’s always been my experience with music. You colour in things in the same way as when you read a novel, you form your own facial features for each character and your imagination plays a substantial part in it.” Over the course of our interview, I notice that Jessica Pratt frequently uses the second-person form when discussing the experiences that informed her second album, On Your Own Love Again. This may just be her interview style, a means of expressing private views to a wider audience, or perhaps it’s how she normally tells stories. Either way, it makes for an apt reflection of the album’s appeal and its ability to grow on you in unexpectedly affecting ways. While its lyrics are fundamentally autobiographical, they’re also elusive, making space for anyone to map their own experiences onto the words.

On Your Own Love Again is her first album for what Pratt calls a “proper label” – Drag City – yet in many ways it’s a far more personal work than her self-titled 2007 debut, which came out in a tiny edition on Birth Records, a DIY label run by her friend Tim Presley of the band White Fence. Fittingly for a record whose prevailing atmosphere, even down to the title, is of isolation, it was born from a period of solitude for Pratt.

“I had just moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, and LA is a lot more of a closed-off city socially, in the sense that everyone is much further apart. At the time, I didn’t have a car, and you can’t just go out and wander around and meet people. So I was definitely isolated, both intentionally to write the record, and otherwise.” That isolation was partly Pratt’s reaction to a “transitional life shift”. “I had got out of a really long relationship, had lived in the same city for seven and a half years, and worked the same job for a lot of that time. So I uprooted myself in every possible sense. I wanted to do it but there were definitely some darker periods within that.”

 

 

Unlike her full-length debut, which she recorded in a studio Presley had set up, On Your Own Love Again was written and recorded almost entirely in Pratt’s bedroom. “As far as the actual sound goes, I wanted something very warm sounding,” she says. “Recording at home allows you to have complete control over the manner in which it’s created, and you’re able to produce the sounds that you like. Some songs on the first record feel a little empty to me, because maybe I am a bit of a control freak, and it wasn’t really done to the standard that I liked. But I like things to have that dreamy, layered sound, and I feel like I can achieve that at home.”

That dreaminess is subtle but potent, marking a significant step forward from the more straightforward sound of Pratt’s debut. It’s an atmosphere more evident in the finer details of lo-fi production and layered instrumental elements than in the song structures themselves. Wispy layers of harmonised lines regularly dissolve into wordless vocalisations, “ooh”s, “ah”s, and “da-da-da”s that are every bit as expressive as specific images.

Her near-seamless integration of lyrics with sounds for their own sake can probably be traced back to her love for bands such as the Beach Boys and Animal Collective, while her tendency to mix up vocal registers, often within the space of a single line, brings to mind the expressive shifts found in Grace Slick’s singing. An intuitive approach to writing lyrics no doubt also contributes to  the head-in-the-clouds tone of much of the record, a process Pratt describes as “based in the phonetic foundation – feeling the shapes of the words when you’re singing and then certain things come to you naturally. A phrase will slip in. It’s like an automatic writing thing, or being hypnotised. Things that are happening in the back of your mind will come out and reveal themselves in the words, like a word association game or something.”

 

“Writing lyrics is like an automatic writing thing, or being hypnotised”

 

Her experiences at the time of writing also informed what Pratt calls “a very psychic process”. “I was a little bit blindsided when I moved to LA. You know when you’re going through a slew of intense life events, you’re kind of functioning on autopilot a little bit? I think to some degree I was doing that. It was like stepping into a great white light, having all these major transitions that I didn’t know how to prepare for. These completely new environments were a shock to my system. In the end I think that benefited me because it propelled me into this work mode, and even though I was maybe a little bit depressed, and feeling a little bit weird, it was the perfect combination of having the emotional fodder to work with, and the nervous energy I needed to put it into something.”

While that nervous energy isn’t immediately palpable on listening to On Your Own Love Again, the sense of transition and of information overload certainly is. On ‘Game That I Play’, Pratt sings: “People’s faces blend together / Like a watercolour you can’t remember”. For anyone who’s experienced the anonymity of a new city, the words hit home, as does the powerlessness evoked by the line, “I see that you’re leaving / But what can I say?”

“There’s lots of specific things attached to each song,” she acknowledges. “These are somewhat abstracted, but even so they’re less veiled than a lot of the lyrical content on the first record, and to me it seems more evidently autobiographical, though not in a super concrete way with specific events alluded to. When it comes down to it, I think it’s just the same stuff that a lot of people write about – relationships and things happening in your life that make you sad or challenge you. It’s impossible for me to say because I wrote them, but when I listen back to them and look at the lyrics, it’s almost embarrassing how obvious some of it is.”

For all their lo-fi atmosphere and dreamy layers of instrumentation, the guitar-and-vocals setup of the first album having been expanded to include keyboards, clavinet and organ, many of the songs On Your Own Love Again are weighted by a bleak undertone born in part from Pratt’s own experiences. ‘Strange Melody’ in particular stands out for its overwhelming claustrophobia, heightened by a mournful fingerpicked motif and Pratt’s low register as she sings, “Run around, run around, run around / Say you ran from the shadows you cast / And the land of the one you knew.”

“That one is one of the very few older songs on the record,” she says. “I realised long after the fact that when I was going through the master tapes, getting ready to mix the record, that I recorded ‘Strange Melody’ 10 days after my mother had passed away. I was at home writing and recording, and it’s kind of a blur, because you’re fried from that experience, but it’s crazy to think of doing that 10 days later.”

 

 

Nick Drake is a clear reference point for Pratt’s playing style and the sombre tone of songs such as ‘Strange Melody’, but the album’s seriousness is shot through with a shimmer of colour, too.

“It’s amazing how extremely subliminal things can be,” Pratt says of the many artists whose influence she has subtly worked into her own sound over time. “The Beach Boys obviously had their very own dark personal history, and I think you can sense that in a lot of the music. It is really poppy and sunny and beautiful, but there’s a sinister undertone, with flashes of acid visuals or a demon or something, and I like that contrast a lot. I really like Van Dyke Parks, people that can be kind of wacky.”

While wackiness may not be the first characteristic that springs to mind, many of her songs have the idiosyncratic touch of the outsider. ‘Moon Dude’, one of the strongest songs on the album, was written in the same week 2001: A Space Odyssey was being shown at a cinema down the road from Pratt’s San Francisco house, and realises the album’s theme of isolation through the specific imagery of an astronaut looking at Earth: “Moon dude, you can try the weight of your body now / In outer space and time / You can cast the gaze on our planet lines / You’re on the outside, you’re looking in”.

“It’s very much like that with songwriting for me,” Pratt says. “It’s like you’re stepping outside of yourself, and getting to a different part of your brain.”

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