An Evening With Natalie Prass
Last Saturday night, a couple of us trekked all of a mile down the road to a bar with a stage, paying $10 ($12.50 with service fees) to see three artists perform. One of those artists, one Natalie Prass, took the collective breath out of Snug Harbor in Charlotte, North Carolina, inspiring such admiration that we had to get on G-Chat and gab about it Monday afternoon. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for grammar, clarity and unnecessary buffoonery.
James Vasiliou: so, what shall we talk about first? setting the scene with the venue?
Rory Masterson: That seems as good a place as any. Snug Harbor is such a strange little box to have hosted this thing.
JV: Yeah, it is! The place reminds me of a set from a John Waters pirate movie.
RM: It wouldn’t be out of place in a Twin Peaks dream sequence.
JV: There are chandeliers, many a pirate flag, a foolishly constructed AK47 above the bar, and is that the Banana Splits on the projector screen behind the stage?
RM: It seems like they have a greater array of tallboy beers available than at any other establishment in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Like, anything you order can be ordered tall or short. I want to see the supply and demand charts on this.
JV: It probably skews heavily towards tall given the hit-or-miss line-ups that Snug Harbor proudly hoards. Rory, how many times can you say you walked into this place and said, ‘Man, I could go for more of that’?
RM: The gentleman playing solo, arrhythmic electric guitar while screaming comes to mind as an example of something I did not need in my life. It’s something like that which makes me all the more surprised that Snug Harbor hosted this particular event on Saturday night. Three shows, $10 – even Cook-Out is blushing at the value involved in this caper. Sorry; $12.50 with service charges.
JV: The few times I have wandered in and walked out with a generally good experience was during DJ sets. The best involving a healthy dose of Destiny’s Child and K-Ci and JoJo. More often than not though, I’ve walked in to find a “serious rock band” with a “serious fan base”. Nah. But the reason why this place is interesting is because when they do have something good, it’s often fantastic. This can be said for Natalie Prass, who opened for Son Lux last Saturday.
RM: We’d be remiss not to mention Shadowgraphs, who also performed admirably.
JV: Yes – Shadowgraphs had a great set, complete with a surf film playing behind them while they flooded the venue with psychedelic pop. But, we didn’t come here for the headliner or the opener for the opener. We came here for a specific person, and it was Natalie Prass.
RM: It was funny seeing Natalie walk around in the crowd before she played. You pointed her out to me. You had to, because she was barely a slip of a thing. It’s tough to resist cliche here, but when she then took the stage, she became the 50 foot woman, attacking us with her sensuality and nonchalant force.
JV: Which is kinda funny because when I looked up her tour dates after writing the Spacebomb piece for TwH, she was unassuming underneath the screaming font for the headliner, SON LUX. But, there she was in the tiniest font: Natalie Prass.
RM: That’s how it was on the posters inside Snug as well, so understated.
JV: What were your expectations before the show? You’ve listened to her album with me and seemed to enjoy it.
RM: I was really curious as to how she would arrange the songs live. There is a lot of string instrumentation on the album, and some horns, and so much of it seems so integral to the songs. That’s sort of Spacebomb’s M.O. I’d seen an interview last week in which she said she hopes to bring an orchestra on tour eventually, so I knew it wasn’t happening here. That left me with sort of a forced open mind, not sure exactly what to expect. What about you? Were you worried about that transference, or did I overthink it because I play instruments myself? The instrumentation, by the way, will probably come up a bit later when I talk about the guest guitarist, Colin Killalea, who is the man. But we’ll get to that.
JV: At first, I was. Her album is really lush and straddles this perfect line between soul and classical that was perfected by guys like Gamble and Huff. I had seen early performances on YouTube that just seemed to be missing something. I’d say to myself, “That’s where the strings come in” or “The horns should blow here.” But I think, since those early performances, she and her band have been able to find a mode where they don’t need the added Spacebomb touches. With this, the songs, when performed with just guitar, bass and drums, shake the incredible production arrangements and function very well. This is a huge credit to Prass and, as you mentioned Rory, her band.
RM: That’s the benefit of playing smaller venues like Snug Harbor, even just a week after a sort of coming-out party at SXSW. You get to work out the kinks involved in moving from the studio to the stage. I just had a sort of weird thought, because obviously she garners a lot of comparisons to Disney soundtracks and people like Dusty Springfield. I think I told our friends Brady and Cory to expect something along the lines of “Disney plus Otis Redding.” But what now strikes me, when we’re talking about getting an adequate live sound out of a not-necessarily-suitable-for-live record, is how The Who managed that when they played Tommy live. The key, as Pete Townshend would tell you, was John Entwistle’s bass. And Natalie’s bassist,
JV: Michael Libramento, who was a member of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals.
RM: Right – I think he did sort of the same thing for her in terms of filling huge amounts of space. Special note: he was playing a right-handed bass flipped upside down, and I’m pretty sure the strings were flipped too. He’s left-handed.
JV: I think the Disney comparisons are a little harsh but it’s hard not to think of that when you hear songs like “Christy” and “It Is You”, which are both string-only numbers that accentuate that. Yet, during her performance, I didn’t get that vibe at all. The daintiness of her physical prescence and of her voice on record were both kinda forgotten as soon as she opened with “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.”
RM: It was quite the juxtaposition, right out of the gate.
JV: That song is arguably the trickiest since there are these moments on the record when there are pauses, and then the strings, horns, and house band collide into this exclamation point. I was starting to get anxious as to what this would sound like until it hit that moment. Bum bum bum bum ba da dum [pause] WHAM. Guitars, bass and drums clashed. I just let out an audible, Verne Lundquist-like “WOW.” It was magic.
RM: Yeah, that immediately alleviated any concern for me too. You mentioned “It Is You,” and that, for me, was really the moment I felt like I’d gotten walloped over the head. If I hadn’t bought in already, that would’ve been the time.
JV: I’ve seen that song performed for Vogue and that’s where I saw the first comparison to a Disney princess. It’s a twee song and her performance of it with just a guitar in that Vogue video was twee. Yet, her performance on Saturday was incredibly sensual.
RM: Was that when she got on the floor and sang from the base of the stage? And then got up and sat on the piano?
JV: That was later during her cover of Janet Jackson’s “Anytime, Any Place.”
This moment was when she slinked stage left, ascended the piano, then the DJ booth then sat at the edge of the booth and ran her fingers through her hair.
RM: Ah yeah, you’re right. (A blank entry in which I sigh and remember that moment fondly)
JV: She was on a higher plane, feeling herself and just oozing with confidence. ‘Cause when you’re trying to sell to everyone in the crowd that she picked you among all the natural wonders of this Earth, you have to have the confidence to ascend rather sketchy equipment and remain there. Excuse me – the KIND of confidence that ascends sketchy, unstable equipment.
RM: It was a masterstroke in connecting with the audience. By getting off the stage and essentially joining us in the pit while simultaneously staying separate, above us – it had certain elements of a cabaret performance.
JV: It was after “It Is You” when she performed “Anytime, Any Place” that she descended the equipment and went into the pit. After telling all of us that she picked us (here, Snug Harbor, Charlotte, NC), she gracefully descended into the crowd. Her band swayed and swooped as she playfully danced with a crowdgoer. It was a very sultry moment that was incredibly palpable.
RM: Yeah. You always hear about a crowd’s “energy” with regard to a performer, such that it’s become another cliche, but it felt like Natalie Prass really engaged with everyone in the crowd. And then actually engaged us in conversation afterward, which was delightful.
JV: There was a moment when she talked to us about how surreal it was for her to be playing to, what felt like, a maximum capacity crowd compared to the 13 people who showed up about 2 or 3 years ago in the same room. Someone then screamed, “WE’RE SORRY.” Charlotte, as a city, should be. What were we thinking to deny our presence to someone who is so gifted. Ms. Prass, the humble performer she is, said, “No, no, no. It’s cool.” She then moved onto “Bird of Prey,” a song dominated more by horns on the recording then strings. I think this is a good time to talk about the tightness of the band.
RM:It’s true. I probably wasn’t in town the last time she came through – New York, I love you, don’t please don’t change a thing – but our whole city owes her an apology anyway. Yeah, so I touched upon Libramento, who was an excellent foundation. The kicker for me as a guitar player was, of course, the other guitarist in Natalie’s band, Colin Killalea. That gentleman was brilliant, and it was made all the more impressive when Natalie told us she’d picked him up at SXSW and invited him for just this bit of the tour. His fills made up for a lot of the ground lost by not having strings and horns. There was a point during one song, I forget which, when he made his guitar sound like it had a tremolo effect, but it didn’t (Editor’s Note: Yes it did, and I choose to be oblivious to reality). That melted my brain all over the dance floor.
JV: The last member of the crew was the drummer, Scott Clark, who I got to talk with after the show. He, along with Natalie, were the two Virginia natives that have melted into the Richmond-based Spacebomb collective. He had a great way of either laying down funky thuds for the songs that needed it (like “Bird of Prey”) or skittering along the hi-hats and snares as if the song would later include a sax.
RM: Yeah, Scott Clark was as integral as a drummer gets. He knew when to unleash a throbbing beat, but it’s just as important to recognize when to hang back and show restraint. This is where he and Russell Westbrook diverge – Clark was great at leaving certain spaces unfilled.
JV: This kinda speaks to my earlier piece about Spacebomb and how the people around it recognize the strengths of their talent as well as those of others. Maybe that comes from the academic approach of learning a specific instrument for so long paired with an uncanny ability to recognize your limitations.
They also seem like they have an ear for great talent outside of their realm (e.g., Colin and Michael’s addition to the band).
RM: Indeed, such is the magic of Spacebomb and the scene around Richmond right now.
JV: After the show, we were able to talk with Natalie, who, despite her incredible performance, said that they couldn’t really hear anything in the monitors. She seemed kinda worried that parts were off in their performance. If she was worried on stage, you couldn’t tell. And if anyone was off, it didn’t come through in the performance.
RM: I think it’s natural as an artist to sort of expect the worst and hope for the best. There’s such a neurosis involved in putting out creative work, particularly if you aren’t sure how the audience is receiving it materially (i.e., monitor discrepancies and the like).
JV: What did you think of the final result, Rory?
RM: I was very impressed, needless to say. From the opening, through each song, right up to helping Colin pack his equipment into the back of a van in front of Snug Harbor. Natalie Prass runs a tight ship, and anyone would be remiss to skip an opportunity to see her live.
JV: The reason I wanted to see Natalie Prass was so I could cross it off a list of performers on the Friday line-up at this year’s upcoming Pitchfork Music Festival. That way, if I wanted to see more of Chicago (it’s my first visit), I could do so without having to sacrifice an experience. Yet, after the performance, I think I can sacrifice seeing some part of Chicago I can Google Maps search in order to watch Natalie Prass captivate once again.
RM: (Side note: Son Lux, debuting a three-piece live arrangement along with a few songs from its forthcoming album, was also incredible, and you, James, ought to be put on trial for having left early).
JV: (Side Note: In lieu of watching Son Lux, I ate the last bit of a gallon Breyer’s ice cream. Throw the book at me.)
RM: So thrown. See you in court, Blog Serf.
JV: Take that shit to trial, Blog Lord.