Singer/songwriter Jessica Pratt talks Paddy Kinsella through the songs that soundtracked her triumphant third record Quiet Signs.
Jessica Pratt’s albums have always sounded like the work of someone with an incredible attention to detail.
Yet her latest record - the succinct, 28-minute long Quiet Signs - is the songwriter’s most sophisticated sounding record yet. It’s the first album Pratt has recorded in a proper studio and sonically it’s on a much bigger-scale than her previous records, 2012s’ eponymously- titled debut and 2015’s On Your Own Love Again.
It’s clear that Pratt - who produced the record alongside her friend Al Carson, with her partner Matt McDermott adding synths and piano - established a clear sonic palette for Quiet Signs. The entire album feels incredibly light, where songs thread in and out of each other, producing a sensation not unlike the fresh feeling of the sun on your face on a cool winter’s day. Despite Pratt’s newly affluent studio surroundings, Quiet Signs retains the transcendental haze that’s been a signature sound of her previous work.
It’ll be no surprise to discover that Pratt says she ‘beat the album into my brain’ during the mixing and mastering process, listening to it over and over again and analysing each and every part until she was happy that the songs reached the very high bar she set. She recounts that “The amount of times I listened to the record was truly staggering.”
Tired of listening to herself, Pratt sought solace in the songs that had accompanied her for most of her life. “I think a lot of the time, when I’m going through an emotionally strenuous period it can feel good to dip into familiar territory again.”
Pratt’s describes these songs as acting as a ‘palette cleanser’ as she navigated the painstaking final throes of recording. “Other music was a real solace in that process. It’s kind of a strange theme, but when you’re in that final stage you just want to listen to something that isn’t you.”
Inherent to her nature, Pratt couldn’t simply listen to songs just to beat her own music out of her brain, so she also listened Nina Simone and Dionne Warwick with the next part of the process in mind, namely the live performance. “As I was in a studio I had more time to examine what I was singing and it resulted in a more subtle vocal performance. Trying to translate that into a live environment can be challenging, so I wanted to listen to people who were able to do that really well and then formulate my own approach.”
The songs Pratt has chosen were her soundtrack as she put the finishing touches to what is set to be one of 2019s’ finest records. Pratt doesn’t have a favourite way of listening to music, she simply ‘likes it to be loud’. So, however you’re listening, sit back, turn the volume up to 11 and beat these songs into your brain.
“I think my singing has evolved on the new record but some of the songs are a bit more challenging to sing accurately every time, so I went through a phase of listening to my favourite singers. I revisited Nina Simone’s Live At Carnegie Hall album during the last five months I was making it, especially in the last half of the record when I was doing the more tedious stuff like the mixing. I was going through the phase of finishing the recording and preparing for the live shows pretty quickly after completing the record.
“I got this record when I was 15 or something. I grew up in a town called Redding and my family used to go to thrift stores a lot and I found this for like 25 cents. I knew who Nina Simone was - I hadn’t gone crazy into her discography - but I grew up in a house where I was exposed to a lot of cool things, so I was aware of her.
“I listened to that record obsessively and it’s such a brilliant performance the whole way through, it was her first solo performance at Carnegie Hall and it’s so crazy to imagine that. It was a bit of a personal sacrifice for the man who promoted it, because people thought she wasn’t going to be able to carry the show on her own, but she definitely does.
“‘Plain Gold Ring’ in particular is just really heavy and beautiful. I think the lyrics are amazing and her ability to translate sorrow is so adept. There’s also a lot of non-verbal singing - the whole beginning of the song is just a mournful vocal riff - and that style of singing has always resonated with me.
"There’s a joke that Nina Simone always performs the best version of any song she covers and that’s definitely true with this song.”
“There was a period last year where my boyfriend and I listened to the record this comes from, Get Up With It, a lot. I wasn’t really familiar with the record at all, I know it’s experiencing a bit of a renaissance and it’s not something that pops up in people’s mind as one of his best works, but I was really blown away when I heard this record. It’s incredibly murky, dark and super diverse sounding.
“This song is a bit of a lighter track from the record, because some of it is like quicksand you know? It’s such a good groove and I would listen to this song on extended repeat while getting around the city on public transport, just looking out the window. I feel like I could listen to it for 24 hours straight.”
“Todd Rundgren’s from Philadelphia and he’s an amazing songwriter and producer, I’m a long-time fan and he’s got a very impressive body of work. I’ve always been very drawn to his classic era and his melodic inclination, there’s always these signature sounds in his songs and even in his later music you can tell it’s ‘a Todd song’.
“It was an interesting way that I came to him, because prior to me ever hearing Todd I was very into Laura Nyro. When I was 15 I got her album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession at the thrift store and I was obsessed with it. Years later I got into Todd and I was very struck by the melodic similarities between his work and Laura’s - it seemed too close to be a coincidence - so I did some research and it turned out that he was a huge Laura Nyro fan and it obviously influenced the way he wrote. That was interesting to me because I wouldn’t have assumed that, but it made sense why I liked both of their outputs so much.
“He’s made a lot of classic records and ‘Real Man’ is one of his later tunes that’s really fun. He’s great at writing songs that you want to singalong with, he’s such a great singer and writes such great parts.
“I always think about the lyrics to this song, because he was with the model Bebe Buell in the ‘70s and she had Steven Tyler’s child, which was Liv Tyler, and she was basically raised by Todd and Bebe. Liv considered Todd to be her father and she didn’t know about Steven Tyler until way later, so I think about Todd as a stand-up guy for doing that, it just makes me have respect for him.
“In this song he talks about forgetting about his body and being a real man, which is cool. It’s a song about not being selfish and doing what’s right. With ‘Real Man’, it’s one of those things where you come back to a song when you’re older and it resonates with you in a different way. I didn’t really know it super well until a couple of years ago, but it’s such a big banger. There’s a lot of nice instrumental touches in it too, Todd was a total studio wizard.”
“I love Destroyer’s album Kaputt, it’s an all-time fucking great record and this song has always been a favourite of mine.
“Dan Bejar is such an incredible lyricist. He has such a great command of language in a kind of Dylan-esque way, where you can say something so surreal and abstract and it can still feel hard-hitting, kind of humorous, kind of snotty or kind of interesting. I’ve always been a fan of songwriting like that. It’s difficult to use words with lots of syllables and pair them with music that’s also compelling, but he’s a master of that fusion.
“This song is so interesting. I listened to it a lot before I read that it was, at least lyrically, co-written with the artist Kara Walker and I guess that kind of makes sense because there are references to things that are lyrically outside of his wheelhouse, like some racial things.
“It’s a really epic song, it has such a strange intro, it hits so hard out of nowhere and the band are so amazing. It’s a song that makes me think of the impact of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ in a similar way that it’s long and rambling, but a little dramatic and very satisfying.
“I saw him last summer, me and Matt went to see him in L.A., he was amazing and his band was great and I’d never seen him before. No, that’s not true actually! I saw him when I was 17 in my hometown, which was a little crazy. I was very obsessed with his record Your Blues from back then and it was staggering to me that he was coming to my little home town of Redding. I saw him unexpectedly at an art opening a couple of days ago, he played songs from his whole discography for around half an hour, just him on guitar and it was really, really great.”
“It’s funny, because I realised part way through compiling these songs that for some reason I was picking really long songs. It’s also one of those things where I’ve listened to this Robert Wyatt song so many times without maybe realising how long it was.
“Robert Wyatt is another favourite of mine, he’s a musical genius and he’s also a great poet and a very good lyricist. His voice is so interesting, I’m often fond of people with strange or weird voices and his voice is kind of androgynous, which I really like a lot. With English musicians there’s often a kind of a grappling with class issues, religion and oppression and I feel that comes through in his songs. In ‘Team Spirit’ he’s dealing with macho elements, where he’s sort of being rejected and coming to terms with that.
“I heard Robert Wyatt just by rabbit-holing my way through stuff. When I was a teenager I got into Kevin Ayres and I then learned about the Soft Machine and the Canterbury scene stuff, which Wyatt was a massive part of. That’s very interesting to me, because a lot of the music was very dreamlike and the melodies are very pleasant but they also make you feel uncomfortable, and that’s also a space I like to dwell in.”
“I picked ‘Walk On By’ because it’s a Burt Bacharach song and I love Bacharach so much. Also, Dionne Warwick is one of my favourite singers and they had a great symbiotic relationship, Bacharach would often write songs with her in mind.
“I guess this is the most standard tune here but I never get tired of hearing this song. There’s also a really amazing Stranglers cover of it, I’ve always been really attracted to great pop melodies and this song just has that. I feel like Bacharach and Dionne are a perennial thing for me, I can listen to them at any time.
“Like Nina Simone, Dionne is another example of me listening to great singers and studying their voices ahead of touring, and Dionne was one of the best. Singing this stuff live was on my mind a lot when I finished this album and I wanted to listen to people that sang really well. The more you know about how they did it, the more you’re able to formulate your own approach.”
“I met Jackson MacIntosh at a friend’s wedding in Joshua Tree in March of last year, he’s Canadian and we met through some other Canadian friends who live in Los Angeles. He plays in TOPS and Drugdealer and he’s a very active guy.
“He made this record My Dark Side last year and when we met him at the wedding he was like ‘Yeah, you know, I’ve made this stuff…’ and how many times have you met people who give you their stuff and you listen to it, but you just kind of get on with your life?
“I really liked the first track I heard, which was called ‘Lulu’ and I got into the whole album. He’s a fan of Todd Rundgren and you can hear that, similarly to Todd he’s great in the studio and he plays a lot of instruments, it’s a very classy, sophisticated sounding record.
“This song ‘Quotation’ is a favourite off the record and it’s such a succinct, memorable song. He’s super diverse and that’s one of the great things about the record, it’s also a short record which I appreciate, because I’m a fan of brevity. He kind of goes all over the place and he obviously listens to a lot of music.
“I contacted him after the wedding and said we’d been enjoying the record. I try and keep up with new things and there are people doing cool stuff for sure, but I can kind of slack on it sometimes and not keep up to date with it. There isn’t an endless list of new stuff I really like a lot, so I get really excited when I do hear something current that I really, really like.”
“I was familiar with The Left Banke’s debut album from way back when but I actually hadn’t heard The Left Banke Too, the record that ‘My Friend Today’ is from, until a few years ago.
“This song really stood out to me, it’s so listless and beautiful. I don’t know how you’d interpret the lyrics unaided but I when I was listening to this song I looked it up on YouTube and the top comment is from Tom Finn - who was one of the founding members of the band - and he said he wrote it about his childhood.
“He was a foster child and he was very badly mistreated, and I think it provides a very dark lens to see the lyrics through, because in the song he sings “Who is going to be my friend today?” I think that line is a reference to being in a family where people are emotionally manipulative or abusive, where you don’t know what side of someone you’re going to see each day and it’s really heavy to think about, especially when it’s such a regal sounding, beautiful song.
“It’s so sad. He ran away from his foster parents at 15 and went to Greenwich Village. It’s really hard for people who grow up in an environment like that, to then try to escape that world and function like a normal person.”
“This song is an interesting choice for this list, but I felt that sonically ‘Win’ somehow fit in with this mix of songs. It’s one of my favourite tracks on Young Americans, but it always seemed like a little bit of a sleeper track.
“I guess the lyrics are kind of cheesy and the whole album has been criticised as being a little hollow. I think it was a period of heavy drug use and it feels a little…, I don’t want to say soulless, because I don’t think Bowie is capable of that, but there’s a little bit of a disconnect and I don’t think he was in the best place.
“At the same time though, Young Americans was obviously a genius record and ‘Win’ is super sexy and strange. I’ve always liked the instrumentation and I used to stand in front of the stereo and sing along to it when I was a teenager.
“Young Americans wasn’t my favourite Bowie album, but it’s definitely great. I think at a certain point when you’re really deep into Bowie when you’re coming of age, you think about his albums less as individual records. You’re more absorbed in the whole thing - the person’s persona and their history.”