Natalie Prass is exacting and does not suffer fools. I mean, she will, because she was raised right in Virginia Beach and Nashville, but it takes very little for her to slide into shit-talking territory. Thank god and finally. Hers is of the clear-eyed variety, the sucker free kind, and she isn’t trying to persuade you of anything. There’s a lot of bad music in Nashville, she says. Some of those rare soul records should stay in the garage. Natalie reveres Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Stevie Wonder, Missy. She's not looking at you dudes; she's looking past you.
“I have such a high standard in my head, and I know it could be really great, and I’m scared that I won't be able to make it as great as I want it to be," she says, sitting right outside the vocal booth she used during the recording of her self-titled album and next to Matt White, who produced it. "That happens to me a lot. Like, I'll just come up with these melodies, and I’ll be like, 'Oh my god I'm so excited about that.’ And I’m so excited that it makes me freeze. I have a ton of stuff like that. Everybody has their own insecurities, and mine is maybe I'm not good enough for this melody, or something. Cause a lot of times when melodies come to me I feel like it’s a gift from—whatever. Just kind of hits me sometimes. Doesn't even feel like it came from my brain. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to make it great. Cause all these—the people that I look up to have these songs that I think are so good. I'm like, ‘I want to be like that.’ But it's so silly, because those people didn't just wake up and be that good. They worked really hard.”
I asked her what the songs she loves the most are. It's the kind of question a lay person would punt on. It’s the kind of question that irritates musicians because it’s like, how can you not know? It’s a little preverbal. But we are all on the job today, and she hangs tough. "I like songs that are concrete," she says. "I guess I gravitate toward songs that can be done in various styles, they're so good. I really connect to songs that are really complex but you can't tell." She's talking about the triple black diamond songs, the Cadillacs of melody, the ones they don't teach you in school but they make your grandma smile and jazzbos lean on them for decades.
I ask Matt if that makes sense to him. “I always bring up ‘Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ because that’s a song that’s just sort of in our consciousness. And it seems so easy and so simple. The production is so good, and the performance is so good. It just seems easy; it seems like a folk song. But it’s not. It’s not a folk song. It’s people that sat down and—or like ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love,’ the Burt Bacharach song. That seems, again, like a folk song—it seems like it came from a tradition. But it didn't. Someone sat down and wrote it and someone produced it.” He's almost heated, no stranger to defending songs that make people feel good and in possession of a good nose for hypocrisy. “That kind of value system really jumps genres. It’s not all '60s, '70s pop, but that is sort of a sweet spot for craft meeting tradition meeting ambitious production meeting very ambitious songwriting.”
That’s the thing. There are these songs that we don’t take seriously because we take them for granted. Because they were in a latter day Julia Roberts movie. Or because we’ve known all the words since we were little. Natalie and Matt wrestle with the miracle and the legacy of songs like this differently. Natalie’s fight is with the intimidation that her awe can twist into. Matt doesn’t have beef with them per se, but critics and listeners don’t seem to see their roots in what he does and he feels badly about that.
“Everybody has their own insecurities, and mine is maybe I'm not good enough for this melody, or something. Cause a lot of times when melodies come to me I feel like it’s a gift from—whatever.”
“That’s the thing. There are these songs that we don’t take seriously because we take them for granted. Because they were in a latter day Julia Roberts movie. Or because we’ve known all the words since we were little.”
These two know each other from a couple overlapping high school years in Virginia Beach, a time when Natalie, a little younger, was checking for Matt all over town and Matt didn’t notice.
“You guys played my art show senior year. Do you even remember doing that?”
“Yeah, he doesn’t remember doing it. I was so excited though.”
“I do, vaguely.”
Natalie was living in Nashville, going to school in Murfreesboro, writing songs in the car on her two-hour commute, and Matt was in Richmond, running a studio called Spacebomb out of the top half of his house, a two-story with a really large yard, neighbored only by one psychedelic DJ guy who loves it when they play music, for which he pays $300 a month in rent, when a mutual friend reconnected them.
Over the next couple months, between the requisite “I haven’t forgotten about you! Things have just started to get craaaaaazy” exchanges, she emailed Matt songs in their infancy. Plans to hang out together in some form of studio were made and fell apart for financial reasons.
Matt’s emails became more and more enthusiastic. And then he spent a couple days in Nashville.
By the fall they were in pre-production. I posit to Matt that people are slutty about the word “producer.”
"It's a confusing word because it can mean different things.” He gets me. “It's accurate to use it in a lot of contexts. It can go from anything to being extremely hands-on sort of like a engineer/producer, micro-managing all the sound aspects of it—all the way to Bob Dylan's producers, who are just making sure he has enough weed and the light's right and it's vibey. And the budgets are being used correctly and that time schedules are being used correctly. Anything in that spectrum I think is accurate to call a producer.”
He puts himself somewhere in the middle. For Natalie’s album, he made sure that recording started and ended on time. He played guitar. He arranged the horns. He delegated string arrangements and vocal comping to Trey Pollard: “That’s y’all’s thing.” Everything began in Natalie’s melodies, her gifts, the ones she thought maybe she didn’t deserve.
“It was a slow build,” says Natalie. “Everything was really planned out.”
“I was very involved in picking the songs with Natalie and sort of going through her material that she sent, and developing a road map for how we were going to tackle those in terms of what are the reference points, what are the grooves, what is the big picture of the song gonna look like: how is it gonna feel, where does it fit within the vocabulary of the album and what are the goals for the songs. Getting really specific at some times, but generally just laying out a path and a vision for the rest of the Spacebomb rhythm section and arrangers.”
Want to see it?
If you read close, this PDF, entitled Text Scores and Brainstorms, is a memoir and a to-do list and a shout into the abyss. It is rife with elisions and signifiers. It’s Matt talking to himself, in language that Natalie and his team at Spacebomb can understand. If you’ve never heard “Waterfalls,” or you can’t guess why he put a winking emoticon next to it, you’re at sea.
“That’s what it all comes down to. Is when you’re making records, there’s nobody there to say this is good or this is not good. You just have to kind of look at each other, look inside, and say alright, ‘What do I think?’”
“Taste is a funny thing,” says Matt. “Because it is both so subjective and, in a lot of ways, not as subjective as it seems. And I think you’re constantly navigating that internally. The best song isn’t always the song that—there’s other reasons besides personal story or stuff like that, that make a song good, or make a production good. It’s a craft. And some people are much better at it than other people,” he says. “That’s what it all comes down to. Is when you’re making records, there’s nobody there to say this is good or this is not good. You just have to kind of look at each other, look inside, and say alright, ‘What do I think?’”
Natalie feels terrible for saying the following: “There’s a lot of people that are out there and that are trained in many ways—you know, maybe went to school for composition or something—but you can just kind of tell, like, ‘Oh, wait, they should probably relax a little bit. And just listen. Just try to make something that’s good.’” Truer words were never spoken.
“I think we both wanted to do it,” says Matt. “You know, really wanted to make this our life. And the farther you get away from being 18, the less people from home are trying to make this their life. I think it sort of became clear -- it’s like, ‘Oh, Natalie’s really trying to do this? I’m really trying to do this.’” So he did notice her after all.
“It’s cool to know someone that you knew when they were younger are really keeping at it. Cause that’s so much about what getting better is about – but also about ‘making it work'—is just staying there. And so there was that connection of ‘Nat’s still trying, Nat’s still trying, Nat’s still trying.’”
Bird of Prey Music Video Directed By Malia James
Natalie Prass And Matt White, ‘Why Don't You Believe In Me’
In the course of our jobs we've come to find out that musicians use their phones differently than non-musicians. They're using voice memos, or voice notes, or whatever app, to record the barest bones of their next song. To us, those of us who don't play an instrument, who don't move through the world being pelted by melodies all day, it seems miraculous—first that there are so many and second how much they transform as they move from daydream to iTunes. So we're asking—just asking—singers and songwriters and producers to let us hear the often very modest beginnings of the music we love. This song, like every song, even the best ones, the ones that sound like they fell fully formed from the sky, had a modest beginning. And though it caused Natalie some pain, she let us hear the first gawky iteration of what became "Why Don't You Believe In Me."