San Francisco-based vocalist Jessica Pratt’s well-worn croon may lend her debut LP an earthy, ’60s folk sheen, but her intention is not at all about making retro freak-folk. We caught up with her over the phone about her unwittingly instigating a label project from White Fence’s Tim Presley, the local SF music scene and what’s next. Stream Jessica Pratt's "Night Faces" below and read on for our full interview.
It seems like the buzz came pretty quickly after you released the first single off your debut? Yeah, it was really sudden. I think neither Tim Presley or I thought it would be this quick. We thought we’d have to kind of work for the press and we really didn’t have to very much. It was just kind of like one thing happened, and everything else fell [into place] after that. It’s a pretty steady train going right now.
You’ve been making music independently for quite a while. Has putting a record out always been the end goal? I’ve lived here for five-and-a-half years and have been playing music the whole time. I didn’t necessarily think that I was actually going to pursue [music] to its end and actually put a record out. The first couple years, I took it kind of half-seriously and didn’t really put all my effort into it, and then I kind of realized that that was stupid, and I should, so now I’ve been focusing really hard on it. Meeting Tim was a really serendipitous thing because he’s just really experienced in that way, so he just kind of figured it all out for me.
How did you two get linked up? Well, I actually lived with his brother, Sean Paul Presley. He was dating my friend, and I moved into this house he was living in. One day, when I was cleaning the kitchen or something, he was playing Tim’s first record—I think maybe before it came out, when he just had all the recordings for it—and I was just really struck by it because it sounded so timeless. I was like, Is this from the ’60s? [Because I’d] never heard it. I’m pretty good on the radar. I was like, It kind of sounds new? And then I was just like, "Sean, what the hell is this," and he was like, "Oh it’s my brothers music." Then I think I met him a couple months later, but that was it. We might have just shaken hands, and then I think maybe a year ago, my boyfriend sent him—for some reason, even though they don’t really know each other—my songs, which [had been] recored on a four-track. It was like three in the morning and they were drunk. [Tim] really liked it, and he emailed me and [said he wanted to put it out], and we just did. I think all and all, [it took] maybe a little less than a year.
Did you ever play in other bands? No, I’ve only just ever played by myself. I’m kind of reclusive. I've only played a couple shows a year and all of the music I've played has been just me recording stuff at home. Like on the four track. It’s just been me by myself.
From the outside, it seems the San Francisco music scene is having a moment. Does it feel that way to you? I think it’s a little deceptive. I mean, there’s a solid core of people who play music here, like the Thee Oh Sees, but they’re kind of in a different category. They just tour all the time and put out records and everyone’s seen them for so long—they are really awesome. But I don’t really feel like there’s that much new, exciting stuff happening here. People get stuff going, and then they develop [it], and then they leave. Girls, for instance—I think San Francisco was really proud to be a part of [their success], then they just kind of all left and did their own things. And the Fresh and Onlys, they’re cool—[but] those guys are in like 20 bands a piece. I guess that’s also part of the reason why it’s taken me so long to get going with this. I don’t really feel like there’s a competitive music scene here. It’s like the people that do it regularly seem like they’re older and kind of—it’s like it’s all they know now, and it’s a way to make money and it’s a way to not have a job. You know? I totally respect that, of course; I mean, I’d like to not have to do anything else other than play music. I just feel like San Francisco is a weird void, where if you stay here too long you kind of just get frozen in time and never really progress past a certain point. It’s like a small town and a big city at the same time, in the worst of ways. I do like a lot of the aspects of the city, but again, it just seems like everywhere else everybody’s got their shit together and everyone has like five projects. This is the only big city I’ve lived in, and maybe if I moved somewhere else... I don’t know I just feel like every time I come back to SF, that it’s going to be like the same kinds of dudes in the same bar like six years later.
How do you feel about supporting this record live? I’m excited. I’ve become a lot more comfortable with it. Initially, there were only a few songs that I felt really confident about playing in front of people, but now that I’ve been in the habit of doing it for the past couple of years, I feel a lot more confident. I’m happier with my songs, and I’ve been throwing some ideas around with people—not a band, but I have a friend who plays in a symphony as a stand-up bass player. It’s cool to be thinking about playing with someone on stage with you.
How did become interested in music? Well, I grew up—my mother raised me, and she was really into music her whole life—with a really broad range of music. She listened to a lot of Tim Buckley, X, and Gun Club, just a weird collection of things. My older brother—he’s 4 years older than me—started playing electric guitar. He got a Stratocaster, and I think he learned how to play it for like six months, and he kind of just gave up, and then I took his guitar and started playing; I was 15, maybe a little bit younger. I think I started with Electric Warrior, the T-Rex album. That whole album is really simple—just like C and D—so I learned how to play that whole record, and then just kind of did it forever after that. I started writing songs pretty soon after.
Did you also have an inclination toward writing? Well, I think I had some embarrassing poetry that I liked to write. I think when I was that age, I got really into Ginsberg and I read, like, Tarantula by Bob Dylan, started getting into all that surreal stuff and I really liked it a lot—like Rimbaud. Super pretentious, teenage poet stuff. I kind of forget about that. I think having the form of a song can sometimes make it easier.
Do you have a bunch of new material? Yes and no. I have a bunch of new stuff that I’ve written and recorded within the past year. It’s funny because that’s really the stuff, ideally, I would have wanted to put out, but you kind of have to do the old stuff first. To me, all those songs are really old. I recorded them in 2007 and at this point, that was like six years ago. I mean, there’s like three songs that are relatively new on the record.
Still, the response has been great. Tim basically started Birth Records so he could put this out, which is cool. He’s been quoted as saying many times on the internet that he never planned on starting a label, like ever. It was not something he wanted to do, and I don’t know, he just decided to do it and he likes it a lot. We’ve sold out of the first 500 [copies], and I think Tim is already having it repressed. He’s running 1000 now. So that’s really exciting. Tim has been kind of fielding all the emails. I think he’s unintentionally been appointed as PR guy, you know? We are kind of just flying by the seam of our pants here. I don’t think he expected to be inundated to any degree with people being curious about it. Like I think he thought we’d sell most of the records, but…
Many people say your sound is old or retro-sounding? I like that judgement call. I mean, I’ve always recorded myself on analog tape. I really don’t like digital recordings, at least for [my own music]. I really like that old kind of muddy sound—I mean not to the point where it messes up the music. Like I don’t want to sound like Ariel Pink, even though I love Ariel Pink. I grew up listening to a lot of cassette tapes— you know, listening to the The Best of Leonard Cohen. Just [stuff with] that real dreamy, cloudy sound to it, and that’s kind of always what I wanted to go for. So I’m happy that’s what people are taking away from it. That’s kind of what I want.
Which comparisons have you liked most/least? I don’t like the comparison of Joan Baez just because I don’t really like Joan Baez. I think she’s an incredible guitar player, and I understand her place in music history, but I don’t think [my music is a] purely folky thing. There was one man who was talking about it almost as if it was purely traditional old-school folk, like just Joni and Joan Baez, which is really not what I’m going for. I’ve gotten a couple comparisons to David Crosby, which is really awesome. I love him. It’s pretty much all been flattering. I was really afraid of some freak-folk comparisons because I’m from San Francisco, and I play electric guitar, and it’s kind of weird, folky stuff. That hasn’t happened just yet, so that’s good. I’m happy that no one would associate it with that necessarily.
Did you experience any of that freak-folk explosion? I only moved here in 2007, so I was here for the tail end of it. I think Devendra Banhart had already moved at that point. He was already rich and living somewhere else.