A few years ago, Jessica Pratt attended a screening of Opening Night, the 1977 cult classic film from director John Cassavetes. A gut-wrenching portrayal of the psychological nightmares that can go into sharing art with the world, the movie went on to become a source of inspiration as she wrote her upcoming third record, Quiet Signs (out February 8th via Mexican Summer/City Slang). “Sometimes when you see a film, especially an emotional, anguishing film like that, it can just simmer in your subconscious for a while,” Pratt says. “It definitely did that for me.”
The Los Angeles folk singer is chatting over a glass of wine at an old-fashioned, out-of-place bar in Queens, New York, when the topic comes up. Pratt describes herself as a “very anxious person,” and in conversation, she can be both self-deprecating and elusive. Opening for Kurt Vile in Brooklyn last month, she delivered a breathtaking set, featuring songs from her new album as well as her 2012 self-titled debut and her 2015 breakthrough, On Your Own Love Again. Among her only banter was a nod to the lighting crew, asking them to maybe chill out a little. “Can we keep the lights just one color,” she said dryly. “My brain can only handle so much.” They settled in response on a greenish hue.
Keeping things simple, or at least maintaining the illusion of simplicity, is crucial to Pratt’s work. Each of her records features little more than her fingerpicked nylon-string guitar and her spectral, often indecipherable vocals. On any track, her melodies can recall Neil Young or Brian Wilson, Brazilian pop music or British folk. There’s an indefinable quality to her songwriting that makes each of her brief albums primed for replaying. A fleeting, wordless refrain from her 2015 song “Strange Melody” might stick in your head for weeks before you realize what it reminds you of. (It’s Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.”) “That’s one of the best parts of making music,” she says. “Witnessing the staggered way your subconscious processes what you hear, and how it comes out in mutated ways.”
Discussing her songwriting, Pratt refers repeatedly to her intuition, a certain click when everything just feels right. “I associate it with my own headspace,” she says of her imagistic lyrics and her smoky melodies. “I’m prone to daydreaming.” On Quiet Signs, her writing feels closer to the heart than ever. The jazzy, swooning “Here My Love” could be described as her first love song, while early single “This Time Around” features one of her most immediately gorgeous melodies yet. But that doesn’t mean it came easily.
After playing shows throughout 2015 for On Your Own Love Again — the first time she toured for a living — Pratt found herself back in California just before Christmas, feeling completely isolated and spent, a period she remembers as being as close as she’s ever come to a nervous breakdown. “I just wasn’t there mentally,” she says. “It was honestly kind of scary.” Some of that displacement she attributes to being back in her hometown of Los Angeles, where, she says, “Time just passes differently.” Before she knew it, she had gone through the winter, spring and summer of 2016 without writing songs or seeing much of anyone.
The writing of Quiet Signs began in earnest after a fortuitous meeting with multi-instrumentalist Matthew McDermott, just before she was about to skip town for San Francisco. “That was a concrete plan,” she says. “I packed up my apartment. I paid the first month’s rent for a room.” Instead, she and McDermott moved in together. “It was a very whirlwind romance kind of thing,” she says. “Pretty much from then on, it was just constant work on the record.”
In the past, Pratt had made albums at home with a vintage tape machine, tying her writing and recording processes together and capturing songs while the spark of creation was still present. She chose another approach for Quiet Signs, writing songs at home in California and flying to New York City for sessions that stretched over 18 months. Working at Gary’s Electric Studio in Brooklyn with McDermott and producer Al Carlson, the experience marked her first time in a recording studio. She was intent on cleaning up her sound, but careful not to lose something less tangible.
“My greatest fear was that it was going to be one of those things where you like somebody’s lo-fi stuff, and then the next record is some super-polished thing that’s maybe likable on some level, but devoid of the vibe,” she says. After playing Carlson some of her early recordings (“I like this sort of sound,” she instructed him), they recreated the warm, subtle tape hiss of those records while allowing for new textures to emerge.
So while Quiet Signs is Pratt’s softest album yet, it’s also her most expansive and labored-over. By most standards, the sunny, open-hearted “Poly Blue” is almost alarmingly simple. But within her catalog, it’s a symphony. Behind her beatific vocals, a flute flutters like birds, a synth echoes in Morse code. These elements are part of what distinguished the new work for Pratt, taking her to unexpected territory. “There was a lot of throwing stuff at the wall,” she says. “So much of the color of the record is me communicating ideas and someone trying to articulate them with an instrument. It was a really eye-opening experience.”
She remains reluctant of traditional recording methods, of turning something private and mysterious like music into something professional. “Not being fully aware of what you’re doing as you’re doing it allows a certain magic to come out,” she says, comparing recording in a studio to repeating a story at a party immediately after you just told it to somebody else.
Make no mistake, that magic is present on Quiet Signs. Take for instance the first track, the gorgeous piano piece “Opening Night.” Acting as a kind of overture and sharing a melody with the following song, it marks the first wordless composition to appear on one of Pratt’s albums. The idea originated during rehearsals for a comeback show in summer 2017, almost a full year before the record was finished. Testing out arrangements of her new music with McDermott, Pratt mediated on his piano motif and sang along quietly. “I immediately loved the way it sounded,” she says. The studio version captures that initial burst of inspiration — it still feels like an improvisation.
While On Your Own Love Again was recorded during a process she remembers as “a blur… this awful blast,” the new record represents a new phase in her life. “When I hear those songs now, it just sounds like a very uptight person with a lot of intense, revved up energy,” she says. “A lot of nervous energy.” Comparatively, she says Quiet Signs feels “more tranquil and seductive.” When she performed the songs live, you could sense that comfort. Many of them center on melodies that alternate between just two chords, an almost conversational sound, the equivalent of two strangers making sudden, welcome eye contact.
“I think the record has to do with connection,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but there’s an inner awakening. That’s what I felt like.” Coming from an impressionistic songwriter like Pratt, that feeling can sound equally psychedelic and melancholy, spiritual or whimsical. “It isn’t all serious,” she says. “Even just down to the way that I sing.” Listening to her melt her lyrics together and stretch out each syllable (In her hands, the word “cry” becomes almost onomatopoeic), it’s clear what she means.
“Whatever place my music comes from, it is definitely divorced from reality, which I think is a positive thing,” she says. At just nine songs — with many others left on the cutting room floor — the new album seems like her fullest work yet, a world-away-from-the-world that’s startlingly colorful and complete. Though she’s hesitant to scour her work for meaning, she seems as content as possible for now. “You have to trust your intuition,” she adds. “I thought the record was something I could be proud of eventually. What else can you go off?”