Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Jessica Pratt April 2024 Brennan Bucannan NEW 06 Option 1

The constructive ambiguity of Jessica Pratt

29 April 2024, 09:00

For Jessica Pratt, serving her intuition is what keeps her music so distinctive even as it moves into a more assertive space. Elise Soutar dives into her elliptical new world.

When you’ve never lived further than 25 miles outside of Midtown Manhattan, you tend to invent your own imaginary version of California.

Even when I finally visited the opposite American coast for the first time, I knew I would always picture it the way it appeared in my head. For me, Los Angeles will forever look like the artificially candy-coloured nightclubs in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, or an arid hell lit up by ambulance lights outside the Viper Room. It will always be glimpses of women with long golden hair and guitars hiding in Laurel Canyon’s leafy hills, as afraid of being recognised as they are of the strange, bearded man approaching their house barefoot with young girls on his trail. Eternally sun-faded portraits of Hollywood starlets collaged around a mirror, or a bleach-blonde Jeffrey Lee Pierce insisting that your love never survived the heat of his heart.

Everything I believe I need to know about California is pressed into 60-year-old vinyl, in the atmospheric silence between the bombastic arrangements of Pet Sounds. There, in the warm analogue texture of the air that you can hear. No myth about my home city of New York could ever amaze and confound me the way that sound could.

At the end of March, I find myself seated in a Brooklyn coffee shop, meditating on this idea of my own private California – helpfully accompanied by the singles from Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark blasting over the sound system – and waiting to speak to one of the most prominent figures in my invented version of that very real state. In a twist, it’s the soaring chorus of “You’re So Vain”, a song by a born-and-bred New Yorker, that soundtracks the moment Jessica Pratt walks in the door to speak to me about Here in the Pitch, her first new album in five years.


In many ways, Pratt does fit my idea of someone on the golden coast – gracious and easygoing, with a shock of blond hair set off by a mostly black outfit and a pentagram pendant hanging around her neck. She takes a second to grab a coffee she admits she desperately needs, before we grab a seat at the very back of the packed shop. Though the loud music and boisterous chatter provided the perfect cinematic moment for her entrance, it doesn’t take long for us to agree that it's too loud to chat comfortably so we walk down the main drag and settle on a slightly less busy, much less cool Dunkin’ Donuts two blocks away. As someone who grew up with the chain, I’m instantly charmed when Pratt notes she understands it’s “well-respected” by East Coasters – a truth I affirm, as if we’re trading secrets about ancient customs.

Characteristically, New York forces itself into our conversation over the next hour or so, whether it’s by one of us pointing out the chaos on the street or Pratt recounting her experience recording Here in the Pitch at Gary’s Electric Studio in Greenpoint, a neighbourhood about a ten-minute subway ride from Bushwick, where we sit – the same place she recorded 2019’s Quiet Signs, the first album she made in a professional studio rather than at home.

“New York is a place, like Los Angeles, that has an incomprehensibly vast history,” she says, “but it’s also a place where you're, day-to-day, aware of humanity in a way that you wouldn’t be elsewhere. Los Angeles is a huge city, but you interact with people differently. You can be in your car and go to a place, and you're aware of people peripherally, but it's not the same as New York, where you can't really avoid it. You can just get thrust into the energy of it and get used to the routine of keeping your head above water. I think it's actually quite good for me when I’m here.”

Jessica Pratt April 2024 Brennan Bucannan NEW 07 Option 1

She looks up at the giant in-store advertisement next to us, touting a new flavour of frozen hot chocolate, and the tacky wall art made up of adjectives one might use to describe the drinks – ‘rich’, ‘freshly-brewed’, ‘steaming hot’ – as if mirroring the constant stimuli bombarding your system in the city. “I definitely acclimate to it. It’s like you’re in a casino or something and we’re locked in,” she says, laughing. “But when I'm in Los Angeles, it's very good creatively, because there's so much mental quiet. On a personal level, it can be so quiet and still that your own mind starts, like… filling in the gaps a little bit, you know?”

A good deal of what we’re here to dissect is that very mythology and ambiguity – the “filling in the gaps” – that define the world of Here in the Pitch. Following a move into an old house surrounded by the hills of Elysian Park, an L.A. neighbourhood which gained a reputation as a bohemian enclave back in the late 1920s and ‘30s, Pratt found herself meditating on the contradictions of the city she’s called home for a decade and diving into its seedy history.

In the gradual evolution from her stark, critically adored self-titled debut to the more intricate songwriting turns of 2015’s On Your Own Love Again and its follow-up Quiet Signs, there’s been a collective urge to classify Pratt as a traditionalist folk artist. Maybe this derives from the deceptive simplicity of those early recordings, or the way they evoke both a very specific musical past and no particular time at all – as if she’d unearthed missing American Songbook classics that feel as though they’ve never not existed. As I tell Pratt during our meeting, I recently described her work to a friend as “musical transmissions from a ghost”: there’s pathos and comfort to what she does, but she’s more like the voice in your head that fills in the blanks that the silence leaves.


Maybe more so than anything she’s released before, Here in the Pitch feels as if it dispels the straightforward folkie myth for good, employing a broader sonic palette that never swallows up Pratt’s distinct voice or knack for melody. In the context of exhibiting that natural artistic progression, no song but album opener “Life Is” could have served as the record’s lead single and mission statement, creating her own version of Wrecking Crew-played symphony, complete with glockenspiel, mellotron tracks emulating horns and strings and, as Pratt is proud to note, “a whole drum kit.”

“To me, it felt like we were making these huge, expansive changes with instrumentation, but in actuality, it's not worlds apart from the previous record,” she concedes when reflecting on the process with co-producer Al Carlson, with assistance from her husband Matt McDermott and Peter Mudge at Gary’s Electric. “My songs are easily overwhelmed, I think, and there are plenty of albums that have been destroyed by total excess production. We've tried to just go by what feels right. A lot of stuff was laid down that was then taken off, so it feels like a new world and colour, going in a slightly different direction, but maybe still holding true to the same foundational approach I’m always using with my music.”

Pratt is more than open to talking through her creative process but can only do so much to decode the often ephemeral practice of songcraft: “My one weird idea about art, and the world in general, is that it always comes back to ambiguity,” she says. “It seems to be at the heart of a lot of what I say about why I do things, how I do things. What I like about music is the part of it that you can't quite explain or see or know – that mysterious element.”

She references moments in the studio where she and her collaborators were simply throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick, stripping things off and starting from scratch if they hadn’t created the correct atmosphere. While recording the track “Get Your Head Out”, Pratt remembers the arduous process of Carlson trying to get a certain organ sound, which they only achieved once she instructed him to “think about a haunted Victorian house in San Francisco” while he was playing. “Even for something as pragmatic as laying overdubs down, it's still sort of a mystical process,” she says. “You're manipulating sound in order to achieve a certain emotional effect. When you think about it, it’s a wild process.”

Jessica Pratt April 2024 Brennan Bucannan NEW 01

That same mystery is integral to the task of lyric writing as well, as Pratt still can’t quite pin down the place she’s channelling from. “I've always enjoyed lyrics and songwriting that feel a little more ambiguous or like a semi-fictionalised version of a story,” she notes. “I've been answering a lot of questions on this press tour, so I've been reflecting on this a little bit. I guess if I think back to my second record, On Your Own Love Again, and the last record… to me, it feels a little murkier. The subject matter and the lyrical content feels less assertive and more sort of ethereal. If I had to make a judgement, I feel like the new record – the whole stance and the lyrical presence – is much more assertive and grounded and present, even though it still maintains some of those abstract qualities.” She shrugs a bit. “And I don't know where that comes from.”

Though it’s true that there’s a more assertive voice in this latest set of lyrics, they almost feel more disembodied or fractured than anything Pratt’s done before. You could argue these songs almost completely eschew straightforward tales of love and loss, instead feeling like you’re dropped in the middle of a conversation – the narrative ghost expressing itself in a way that feels more malevolent than before.

The subject it’s searching to communicate with is not necessarily a romantic interest, but a force to be controlled or guided. The place Pratt writes from, in her own estimation, is “a combination of my own personal perspective, what you would call autobiographical songwriting.” “I guess that's a certain percentage of it, probably a smaller one,” she adds. “I would say the larger half of the ratio is sort of using characters as a vessel for your emotions, and maybe that sort of refreshes those emotions or magnifies them in some way.”

It feels important, then, to refer back not only to the Los Angeles history in which she found herself deeply entrenched during the making of the record, but a number of repertory film screenings she attended around the same time. She specifically remembers seeing several movies by director Paul Thomas Anderson – including 2007’s There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread released ten years later – whose work tends to revolve around a powerful, “fairly villainous protagonist” whose energy can be “addictive” in Pratt’s view. In a more overt, sinister tie to California mythology, she began reading extensively about Charles Manson during the early days of the pandemic “when everybody was over- and under-stimulated simultaneously,” as she remembers. Infamously, the cult leader was briefly involved with one of Pratt’s biggest musical touchpoints for the record: The Beach Boys.

Here in the Pitch is particularly inspired by the band’s 1968 album Friends, recorded during Brian Wilson’s effective nervous breakdown and featuring more intimate, low-stakes, delightfully bizarre songs contributed by members who had been sidelined when the eldest Wilson brother had taken control of the group to realise his ambitious pop symphonies. Though it still boasts the warm, sunshine pop staples of The Beach Boys’ earlier records, there’s an eerie quality to the more minimal work – some of which can be attributed to the starkly different production, which Pratt shrewdly compares to “the sound in an aeroplane bathroom,” adding “it's such an airless environment and so pressurised that it almost feels like you can't even hear your own voice.”

While Pratt is still able to capture the atmosphere so present on Pet Sounds – that audible California air I’d been so enamoured by — Here in the Pitch is able to match it with the sensibility of Friends by flirting with similar instrumentation, genre-specific touches (the bossa nova inspiration comes through clearly) and yes, the occasional feeling that something powerful is peering over your shoulder as you listen. Recent single “World on a String” feels like a great example of this, blending gorgeous melodies and airy vocals with lyrics that feel like a divine manifesto: “I want to be the sunlight of the century / I want to be a vestige of our senses free.”

“It’s like an omniscient voice,” Pratt notes of the multiple, unclear viewpoints she sings from on each track. “That's how it always seems to me. Sometimes, there are even a few different perspectives where it's like there's an all-seeing eye. Then there are certain phrases or comments coming from individual characters within the song. It's not very clear what that is, but I don't think the effect is confusing. That can definitely be the case with writing like that: you're too distracted or there's nothing to hold onto. But, for whatever reason, it’s always my inclination to write this way and it seems to feel intuitively correct.”

"I've always been interested in the conflict of light and dark existing within the same thing."


Further inspiration arrived from the work of horror writer Stephen King, which Pratt dived into during peak lockdown, starting with The Shining. At this point, she refers back to what I’d told my friend about the perspective in her songwriting – the ghosts that emerge when she puts pen to paper to sing through her. “The power of ghosts is in the fact that they're unseen, but observing you,” she says. “In those Stephen King books, there's usually a psychic element where someone has access to knowledge in a way the average character does not. There's just a knowingness. They know information and that opens a lot of doors, and also gives the character a lot of control. There's something vaguely threatening about that as well. It kind of connects to some of the ideas people have about what aliens could be like, where they’re always portrayed as all-knowing.”

The most thrilling element of the guises Pratt takes on over the course of Here in the Pitch’s runtime is that same sense of all-knowingness, and the way her listeners are left in suspense as long as answers are withheld. Yet, there’s a sense that this scattered perspective and the sound accompanying it evolve across the tracks, letting us watch Pratt gradually attempt to grab hold of the storybook world she’s building as her characters interact in the frequently gorgeous soundscapes she and her collaborators set out for us.

“It's like building a house out of material that you aren't familiar with beforehand,” Pratt notes about the fairly organic sequencing process. “As each song is completed, you're sort of filling in the blanks in a piecemeal way, and there was just this natural order that started to form.” It’s fitting, then, that the album’s first two singles exist in the first “movement” – the opening three songs which Pratt characterises as feeling “a little manic, super aggressive and competent, maybe a little overbearing.”

This then transitions into the less pronounced, more muted approach of the following two tracks, “Get Your Head Out” and “By Hook or By Crook”, which she describes as feeling like “a block, sort of scheming.” Both use jazz pop guitar and light textural touches of percussion, featuring the aforementioned haunted house organ lines, feeling hollow even as they add colour to the relatively sparse instrumentation. “Sunk in the middle / Our crimes are just a rhythm on the west and you / Argue on my life,” Pratt sings on the latter track, almost teasing in the way her narration seems intent on drawing the song’s subject in after the broad declarations of the album’s earlier section: “Some evil innocence, wild century can't express / A gesture left in summer's mind / Autumn's come to find / And it's the end of the dreams again”. In its soft, inviting instrumentation, it feels like a transition into a place where we lose grip with whatever lucidity the opening run holds tightly to.

Jessica Pratt April 2024 Brennan Bucannan NEW 03

The three-track run of “Nowhere It Was”, “Empires Never Fall” and instrumental “Glances” serves as a moment where the sonic palette seems to shift further, as if a darkness or shadows overtake what before was doused in synthetic sunlight – revealing what hides when your mind fills in the gaps, what comes forth in isolation – before resolving with the album’s gorgeous closing track, “The Last Year”.

With “Nowhere It Was” foreboding, organ-signalled opening, it’s the track run that finally brings voices you thought you might be imagining to the fore – the studio atmosphere now so thick you feel like you’re wading in the fog as Pratt sings about not having anyone to trust anymore, seemingly stuck with the person she’s singing to. “Empires Never Fall”, the only track to be mainly based around piano, feels like the singular moment where the line between reality and the strange omniscient perspective fully blurs: “Get yourself onto God, my love / Or to whom you may claim / Get your coat from the wall, my love / I soon should know what remains / I never was what they called me in the dark.” By the time the comparatively warm “The Last Year” comes around, there’s not a complete resolve or sense of contentment. Still, the reassuring refrain of “I think it's gonna be fine, I think we're gonna be together” feels like a sliver of hope, light pouring through the cracks in a roof, letting smatterings of snare drums feel like we’ve broken through into a new day.

“It’s certainly a descent into something,” Pratt says elliptically about the end of the record, as if she’s not sure how much of the magic she should try to articulate, in fear of spoiling the mythic, wizard-behind-the-curtain magic we’d already discussed. “When I wrote ‘The Last Year’, it felt very much to me like it would be the credits rolling. There’s a complicated optimism to it. It's not so bleak, but it doesn't feel like a full rebound either. It's sort of this grey area.” And so, the ambiguity returns, letting us concoct our own meaning or story out of that grey area Pratt leaves for us – the silence serving as space to fill in the gaps, projecting our own hopes or fears onto what she presents us.

“I think I've always been interested in the conflict of light and dark existing within the same thing, especially musically or in film,” she says, watching as a Dunkin’ barista fiddles with a machine behind the counter and leaning into the wobbly table. “I think that's true for most of the culture we find interesting. You can't really have a story without the conflict. It might have just been somewhat circumstantial when I was writing, or maybe it shows inclinations that I already had, magnified during a certain time period.”

Whether it’s the psychically attuned world of Stephen King novels or the occult-indebted imagery of experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger she’s pulling from, Pratt’s artistry has proven so singular that backstory isn’t required in order to plumb the depths of the work she creates. Maybe some of us just go looking for the dark side in whatever we hear. Thankfully, Here in the Pitch weaves a rich and complex tapestry that will serve whatever shade of light you project onto it.

Jessica Pratt April 2024 Brennan Bucannan NEW 02

For Pratt, everything ties back to intuition and having trust in people’s imagination, going with her gut and hoping people will follow. “If you're just talking about a song or production with someone,” she says, “you can think that you're talking about the same thing, but you might be using vague language, which means you can actually have very different ideas about what it sounds like. That’s something I learned the more I've collaborated with people. You can think you have the same idea, but it's very different, because sound is so subjective. I think it's really just a feel thing. Sometimes, it is just this ineffable quality that a song has that just works, and you’re trying to serve that.”

“Lyrically, I was thinking about characters that are wielding a certain kind of power,” she continues, her speaking voice containing the same spellbinding warmth it carries on record. “It’s not even a conscious thing. Maybe it’s that a certain feeling gets its hooks in you, and you're sort of just running with it.” She smiles a bit, watching the wind blow people all over the sidewalk, enjoying the sight of people forced to deal with humanity around them in the process. “You know, I’m still sort of examining it myself.”

With that, we weave through the tables at the store’s very front window to meet Pratt’s husband before going our separate ways, and I head back out into blinding sunlight with thoughts of humanity’s capacity for both care and cruelty still buzzing through me. I don’t know what song is playing over the speakers as I pass the people chugging iced coffee near the door, because I can only hear the opening drum beat of “Life Is” resounding in my head. I change the direction I’m walking in a few times before opting to follow the parade flags to the park instead of heading straight home. The beat of the drum leads me to explore my city again, and I let it.

Here in the Pitch is released on 3 May via Mexican Summer/City Slang

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next