Natalie Prass on trying to stay hopeful in troubling times

Vancouver Weekly interview with Natalie Prass

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

In the music video for her latest single, “The Fire,” Natalie Prass is dressed in an all-pink outfit and dancing around a collection of giant, decaying statues of dead presidents. The statues in real life belong to a man in the mulch industry who offered to house them when the park that held them closed down, but they haven’t been maintained over the years.

“They’re all deteriorating because they’re on private property and crumbling and sun-bleached,” Prass told Vancouver Weekly in a phone interview from Columbus, Ohio. “Like, Woodrow Wilson looks like a zombie. I thought that was really funny.”

By the end of the video, a statue of herself is added to the crowd — but she quickly picks it up and takes it away.

“To me, personally, it just meant ‘no, I’d rather not be a part of this group,’ ” she said. “That’s not the kind of power that I would want.”

The video marks another step in Prass’ shift towards a politically conscious direction. Prass first gained recognition and critical attention in 2015 for her self-titled debut, a collection of intricate soul-pop songs that recalled the work of Dusty Springfield. She planned to record a follow-up in December 2016, but Donald Trump winning the American election that year led her to scrap that album and change directions.

“I didn’t think it was right for me to record that record. I thought there were more important things to talk about.”

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Having been left emotionally devastated by the election results, she began to find solace in gospel music, which she credits with easing her post-election malaise and helping her feel hope for the future. As a result, her sound began to move into a heavily groove-based direction, with the Bee Gees serving as another main reference point.

The record that came out instead, 2018’s The Future and the Past, was a stunning reinvention. Lyrically, it wrestles with the changing currents in American society and stands defiant in the face of injustice. Musically, it injects gospel, disco and R&B into Prass’ throwback formula and gives it a whole new vibrancy.

It’s a record that’s not always sure if everything will be okay, but its an uplifting listen nonetheless, thanks to its polished production and Prass’ bright melodies.

Although she said this uplifting spirit was intentional, her hopes for the future are only tenuously positive.

“It’s really hard to be hopeful in times like now, but I find it’s making me value all of the little things in life a lot more … I think I have to be hopeful that humans in the end will make all the right choices. [It’s a] really bumpy road to get there, but I really hope we’re gonna be okay.”

In particular, she expressed fear that positive societal developments — particularly the #MeToo movement — could be met with unexpected backfire.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

“Anytime something positive happens and it makes certain people feel isolated, even though it’s painful but it’s positive, I feel like it has the potential to divide us even more. But I think, as a woman that’s been in a very male-dominated industry my entire life, I’ve seen so many changes for the positive, and I just want to keep seeing it moving in that direction.”

It’s backlash in the face of positive development, she says, that put the United States in the situation it’s in now.

“Something really positive happened in our country” — the election of America’s first black president in 2008 — “and now it’s like whoa, whoa, whoa.

This shift into political consciousness is not the only way in which Prass has evolved as a musician.

“I’m definitely just a lot more confident in my choices, and that can change everything,” she says.

And like one of her idols, Janet Jackson, she hopes to continue evolving as an artist and exploring who she is into the future.

“After the election I made a vow — I will always strive to keep an open mind and listen and do my best to evolve with the times … I don’t ever want to be stuck with ‘this is what I look like,’ ‘this is how I dress,’ ‘this is the kind of music I listen to,’ even ‘this is what I eat,’ ‘this is what my house looks like.’  I never want to be stuck.”

Natalie Prass will perform at the Fox Cabaret on Sept. 25 in Vancouver.