A Delicate Balance: Jessica Pratt on Quiet Signs

After the success of third album Quiet Signs, Jessica Pratt talks about feeling emboldened by the praise, and translating the privacy and intimacy of her music to the stage

Feature by Tony Inglis | 14 Mar 2019
  • Jessica Pratt

"I used to play music privately, for my own purposes, when I was younger, and the idea of making music that people would have any connection to, let alone music that might act as a kind of emotional support for others, was just never something that I envisioned for myself."

It’s been a couple of weeks since Quiet Signs was released into the world to immediate widespread acclaim, registering nary a dissenting voice, when its architect Jessica Pratt speaks to The Skinny. It would be understandable – certainly deserved – if she was found basking in the glow that this early 2019 gift of a record has created. But the now Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter is relaxed, disarmingly modest and self-deprecating.

"It feels even more momentous to have any kind of success at all, just because it’s been a few years since I put something out," she says, reacting to the praise, on an early morning call from the US west coast. "There was definitely a serious period of what felt like stagnation to me. And when anyone is struggling to create, you can sort of get carried away and imagine that you might not make anything ever again. It did take a lot of work because I was starting from scratch and I was somewhat out of practice.

"It feels like a lot of really hard work paying off in some way. For people to be moved by the record, it makes me feel like a worthwhile person. It’s been really... I don’t want to use the word therapeutic, but it’s really bolstered my spirits. I feel accomplished and more connected with people."

Quiet Signs is a work of immense craft and tranquillity, its ambience of calm conjured seemingly effortlessly; entire worlds, histories and mysteries drift in and out, as songs begin and end, throughout its brief runtime. It's an even more astounding achievement considering the emotional intensity that spawned it, drawing out from the period after finishing her last record, On Your Own Love Again, and amid a move to the sprawling cityscape of LA from San Francisco in late 2013, something that Pratt is eager only to allude to.

"That was just one big blast of creativity. And then, I didn’t really have any money. I worked a job for a while, and was just kind of living my life, trying to acclimate to LA," she says of that period. "Once that record came out, I went on tour for a really long time with no breaks in between. When I came home, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was really out of sorts. Living in LA particularly exacerbates feelings of loneliness."

Just one of the countless, often difficult to verbalise, magical elements of Quiet Signs is that blanket of comfort it bestows upon the listener, despite being borne out of discontent. It's something Pratt is acutely aware of. "That’s just the nature of my music sonically. It happens to be in a dimension that is very soothing and plays on these quiet tones. I don’t really understand it myself. Even if you’re writing something that feels frenetic in some sense, and emotionally charged, for me it doesn’t typically come out as something abrasive, fractured or harsh. There is a contrast there I guess, but sometimes people sing about very serious, difficult things in a beautiful way."

That restless period of unease is now in the past, Pratt explains: "I love LA – but it is challenging. You have work to engage with people, otherwise it’s very easy to just drift away. You could die in your apartment and no one would know for like three weeks. People aren’t hitting you up every day. Now, I have a number of things keeping me here that are all positive."

Pratt’s previous work has been characterised by its homemade quality, mainly because it was, with Pratt recording directly to tape. Quiet Signs is her first collection of songs put together in a professional studio. With that development, she hasn’t compromised her timeless sound. But it has led to what is perhaps Pratt’s first fully realised work, a vision that finally has the resources to keep up. This Time Around, arguably the album’s best song, exemplifies this, consisting of Pratt’s pliable voice, which sounds like it’s emanating from on high (at one point in our conversation she describes herself as "a funny talker and an idiosyncratic singer"); her gently strummed nylon-stringed guitar and the silence between notes; and loungey keys that seem to be coming from a daydreamed department store tannoy. It’s evident that any studio bells and whistles have been cast aside in favour of retaining her trademark intimacy, a remarkable achievement of artistic prowess and dedication.

Now, Pratt is bringing these songs on the road, including to Glasgow’s The Blue Arrow on 23 March, a fitting venue considering the jazzier, meandering melodies found on the album, especially the introductory instrumental Opening Night. Recreating that intimacy in a live setting, contending with potentially noisy crowds and unpredictable atmospheres, is Pratt’s next challenge.

"I’ve been able to test out a thing here and there," she explains. "It took some effort to figure it out exactly. When you’re in a studio and it’s dead quiet and you can hear yourself really well, you’re able to experiment with the subtlest textures of your voice and I was worried that would be difficult to translate to shows, but I’ve found that’s not really the case. Obviously, when you’re in a situation where you’re opening for a show in a giant rock venue or something, it’s not ideal, but when I play a show, and headline, it’s usually a smaller place and it’s quiet.

"It’s a work in progress, but as much as I’d like to be thoroughly prepared and know every inch of every move I’m going to make, I think that in order for the show to feel vital, there needs to be a little tension, and some nervousness, which is unfortunate because, you know, who likes to feel uncomfortable all of the time? But I think when I feel that way, that’s when the best stuff happens. It’s a delicate balance."

All the successes of Quiet Signs amount to a work that resonates a certain vintage, but without ever being retrograde, derivative, formulaic or pastiche. "I mean it would be fraudulent to say that I don’t intentionally go for that sound, because I’m sure I do make decisions on what I’m playing, and what to keep and what not to keep, that are influenced by something. But it’s not as if I’m putting it up against some super formulaic criteria when I’m writing. For the most part, honestly, it’s just something that’s done by feel. I’m trying to write things that sound simply good to me."

Pratt’s music, and Quiet Signs in particular, doesn’t demand comparison to a bygone era. It feels actualised from, and entirely of, that bygone era, and as if it always was – a classic album found in some dusty record collection, like an alternate history of an alternate universe.

Quiet Signs is out now via City Slang and Mexican Summer

Jessica Pratt plays The Blue Arrow, Glasgow, 23 Mar