Natalie Prass wasn’t sure how you’d respond to her new record. Jenny Lewis did.
It’s impossible to say whether Jenny knew just how big of a year Natalie would have — that she would be named on most year-end lists, that she’d be exhausted by year’s end because of a relentless tour schedule both domestic and international. That said, she had enough of an inkling to kick Natalie out of her band.
We recently spoke with Natalie about signing up to play keys for Jenny Lewis, what she learned in the process and how she needed someone else’s confidence to turn the corner into a career-defining year.
Stereo Subversion: We’re at the end of the year, and looking at the calendar for you from January until now, it feels like this is one for the books. How are you taking it all in?
Natalie Prass: This has definitely been my life-changing year. I’m a very go-with-the-flow, everthing’s cool kind of person in terms of my relationships. That’s really beneficial when you’re on the road so much. It’s really hard to explain in words what you go through mentally and physically when you’re on the road that much. But I’ve also been very go-with-the-flow sometimes that it was hard for me to take charge in my life. But now I’ve had to learn to step up and be in charge of everything. [Laughs] That’s not a bad thing, you know? But when you’re in charge of people on the road, it can be a funny thing. It’s interesting.
I was just trying to not have too high of expectations. I wasn't sure how people would react to the record, you know? I mean, the record is really extreme.
SSv: Is there anything that’s blindsided you?
Natalie: Well, you know what, nothing’s taken me completely by surprise. I owe that to Jenny Lewis. I just learned so much touring with her band. That was so perfect. I am so happy that I did that. You know, I’d been touring forever and doing that for years and years. I’d billed myself as a solo artist, and it’s so funny because when I took the job with Jenny, a lot of my support system was asking, ‘What are you doing? Why are you putting your music on the back burner?’
I’ve always been super down to play for other people; you always learn so much no matter the gig, especially if I love their music. I’m always down to give my time then. But on this one I really felt I should do this. Of course it was really scary. I’d had those thoughts anyway, that maybe it was time for me to move on from my solo stuff. But then the more I was playing with Jenny, the more I realized that I needed to do this and make sure my record came out.
I learned so much from her because I was with her for her album cycle. I got to see what she did and how she handled everything — all of us, her teams, her management, the people backstage. I saw her deal with things I’ve never had to do, especially like every single night, you had to manage her energy. She did it with ease. She’s been doing it a long time, so it was good for me to watch that.
I felt like when it came time for me to do my thing, I was mentally prepared for all that went along with it that you don’t know comes with it until you experience it.
SSv: If you’d moved on to something else, what would that have been?
Natalie: I know, right? That’s the question. [Laughs] Well, I’m really good at being a band member. I’m really good at doing this, at going with the flow, like I said. So I could be a sideman or supporter. Then I also had my dog clothing company—
SSv: Wait, what?
Natalie: Yeah, maybe I should elaborate on that. [Laughs] I rescued a dog and he doesn’t have much hair. He gets cold and I’ve made clothes in the past — I used to make all of my own clothes — and I didn’t like the clothing available for dogs. So I made him a sweatshirts, and then I started making them for my friends. Then I thought that people might want to buy these, so I posted it on Facebook. From there, it kind of took off. I was making a ton of dog clothes out of my house. [Laughs] I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe I should really do this.’ So I was on that kick also when I got hired for Jenny’s band.
Even if I had all of the money in the world and didn’t really have to do anything, I would still write music and make music all of the time. Even if I was a sideman or had my own dog clothing company and I was doing okay, I would still want to record my own music and write it and have my own shows.
SSv: You had this great line earlier about knowing that you had to go for this while you were with Jenny. Do you remember that point or realization of the calling or the drive or the purpose, whatever you want to call it?
Natalie: I can remember the moment. It was one of our headlining shows. What was great about my position as the keyboard player was that I was in the back on a riser, which means I could see everything. I got to watch everybody. I could watch the band from behind and then the audience’s reaction every single night. There was definitely a moment when we were several shows in. I don’t remember where we were, but we’d done enough shows where I didn’t really have to think anymore. I was going through the motions and then I just thought, ‘Okay, this is amazing, but I can do this my own way. Certainly not better, but I can do this my way.’
I knew I owed it to myself, given all of the hard work and time I’ve put into this and how this has been my dream forever — at least as long as I can remember. In the band, I was always the one to check out early, to go to my bunk early or go to the hotel early. I would start working and thinking out ways to put my record out in January. I loved the band, but I knew I had to give this a shot.
I still wasn’t completely confident that it would work out. I had a conversation with Jenny a year ago where I knew I was going to release the record and had some tour dates, but I only had two weeks of tour dates at that point. So I told Jenny I could still play in her band and then do my own stuff on the side. At that point, that’s all I saw for myself. I was just trying to not have too high of expectations. I wasn’t sure how people would react to the record, you know? I mean, the record is really extreme. [Laughs] I think it’s a good record. We did a good job, but you just never know. No one had ever heard of me at that point, so I just wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever reaction I’d get. I wanted to make sure I had a job.
The thing is, I’d sent it to Jenny early and she sent me a heartfelt text message saying, ‘I’ve been listening to your record in my house. It’s so beautiful.’ She was really digging it. I thought it was so nice and maybe she was just saying that, but then she told me, ‘No, a lot of people are going to love this record. You’re going to be really busy next year. That’s great, but I’m really sad and need to find someone who can fully commit to the band.’ I am so happy she said that. It’s so bittersweet, because it was really scary.
SSv: So she removed your safety net while simultaneously forecasting your success.
Natalie: Yeah, I guess so. [Laughs] But I’m so glad she said it.
Photo: Ryan Patterson