As reviews and coverage of Jessica Pratt’s eponymous debut album quickly unravel, the enigmatic San Franciscan’s story seems characterized by a series of firsts. It’s the first release on Tim Presley’s fledgling Birth Records (which he repeatedly claims to have founded strictly to release Pratt’s album,) Pratt’s first release and certainly her first time at the center of a digital coverage frenzy. Paradoxically, Pratt is the opposite of an exhibitionist. Critical fawning has arrived without her attempting the slightest self- promotion. Her album cover doesn’t even display her name. She has hardly performed live in the last few years.
Even a brief listen to Pratt’s debut clearly reveals what the fuss is about. It is an album of introspective, unadorned folk with idiosyncratic flourishes. It doesn’t beg for attention. Instead, its lofty ambiance and supple melodies endear themselves to listeners with unimposing, insidious grace. Or, as Tim Presley describes the record, it’s like “Stevie Nicks singing over David Crosby demos, with the intimacy of a Sibylle Baier.”
Reviewers generally peg you as this backwards-looking neo-folkie. Do you deliberately hearken to the past with your music?
I think if you listen to music from a certain period of time more than another period of time it’s probably going to influence you more. I have a pretty broad interest in different kinds of music but there is a lot of folk music I like. I don’t make an intentional effort to sound like those people but I think it moves me the most.
Are there modern artists you find as inspiring as old ones?
Yeah. I really love Ariel Pink. I’ve been kind of obsessed with him over the last couple of years. Tim Presley’s music is really great. I’ve been a fan of White Fence since before we met.
Well, that must have been particularly flattering for you as a fan of Presley’s to have him offer to release your album.
It was very flattering. It’s weird to have these relationships with musical contemporaries. It’s very fun and inspiring. I feel like I always want to outdo him, he makes me want to be more creative.
Home recording, rarely performing – how important is isolation to your creative process?
I haven’t played a ton of shows over the last couple years because I haven’t been putting as much effort into making music and performing, but now it seems like it could be the main thing I do as a living and I didn’t even really know that was possible. I think any artist needs isolation at some point to be able to be creative and work things out.
Who is the male vocalist on your album’s final track, “Dreams?”
That’s actually two of my vocals with the pitch slowed down. It does sound considerably deeper but it’s just me.
Oh, I see. It seems like such a solo effort that I was surprised to hear this other voice.
Yeah there have been a few reviews that mention this phantom man at the end of the record. I sort of like having weird rumors around.
Well, is there a reason you abstained from collaboration on the album?
Not particularly. The songs that comprise that record were recorded in 2007. A lot of it was just for posterity, really. I wasn’t planning on putting a record out. I happened to have a friend who had a friend with a really crazy studio with all of this strange equipment and he just encouraged me to record everything I ever wrote. Looking back, I liked the way it sounded but I didn’t have an album in mind.
Despite that, it seems like a very cohesive album.
Those were a lot of the first songs I wrote when I moved here. I lived in the Tenderloin and I wrote most of them in pretty close succession so they have some sort of continuity.
That’s interesting you wrote many of the songs in the Tenderloin. It’s about as far from an “urban” album as possible. I’m wondering whether it’s at all a reaction against the city around you?
At the time, I was into a lot of British folk like John Martin, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Marianne Faithfull especially. I really liked their gothic feeling and the Tenderloin has the same darkness to it. I was actually really excited by the energy of the city at that point, although it may not come across in the music. It was all very new to me.
You’ve expressed that you don’t consider yourself a traditional folk singer, but you also don’t wish to be associated with the so-called “freak folk” scene of recent memory either.
It’s not that I don’t want to be associated with it — I think anybody has an opposition to being pigeonholed into semi-trendy music genres. I definitely love a lot of those artists. There have been comparisons to people like Joan Baez [who] plays very straight-forward folk music, almost academic folk music. I’ve written so much new material that I’m almost ready for a next record. I guess it’s just my fear of sounding one-dimensional, or being classified as strictly a folk artist.
I’ve read in multiple places that you’re an “old soul,” which seems a little presumptuous of people who don’t know you personally. I’m wondering whether your friends would describe you that way.
I’ve been described as that by people before. That sounds big-headed, but my mother used to say that. Maybe all mothers say that. I hope I’m a mature person.
You mentioned Ariel Pink as a modern artist you admire. He is also committed to analog recording. When you began recording on 4-track was it out of practicality or because you’re committed to the sound of tape?
It definitely wasn’t out of practicality I think I was 16. My mom had a fender guitar amp and a microphone. I would set up the microphone through the amp and then play the guitar, sing into the microphone and it would have this weird, ethereal sound. I liked the muddy dreaminess of it. I definitely think that analog suits my music the best. I tend to shy away from a really harsh digital sound. I don’t think digital is suited for me.
Why do you think that that dreamy, ethereal ambiance suits your music the best?
A lot of them are dream-like songs. I like the idea of my songs having a more fantastical leans to them. That’s what I’m interested in, not reality.
Tim Presley has repeatedly stated that he founded Birth strictly to release your album. How did he first present the idea to you and what was your reaction?
He heard the music from my boyfriend. They didn’t really know each other. They had met a few times because my boyfriend and I lived with Tim Presley’s brother, John Paul Presley. I had never met Tim but he heard the song and wrote me that night saying that he was really into it and might want to put it out.
After so many years of honing your craft as a relatively unknown artist, how are you grappling with the sudden interest?
It hasn’t really become super real yet. It mostly just exists on the internet, which is definitely a viable entity. I’m just going with it.
Can we expect a Tim Presley and Jessica Pratt collaboration at any point?
We were talking about maybe recording a few things, maybe, for fun. I’ve actually never played music with anybody, even in a room. It would be exciting but we would have to see exactly how it would work. I really respect him as an artist I think we have a similar approach.
You’ve never played out live with accompaniment before?
No, generally I don’t play music with anyone. Considering that the record is getting attention, I will have to tour. Realistically, it would ne nice to have people to play with. One person I’ve got lined up is a classically trained stand-up bassist. I’m considering some keyboards [and] maybe some light jazz drumming. I definitely want to play with people who have similar musical interests. No disrespect intended, but realistically I’m looking for a backing band. I don’t think my songs could handle too many layers of instruments.