Natalie Prass is surviving and thriving
On a recent Monday evening, Natalie Prass was folding clothes in her East Nashville home as her Boston terrier cross chewed a toy nearby. She’d spent the rare day off thrift shopping, preparing for guests, and — because why not? — private messaging with Gloria Gaynor.
“We’re becoming friends,” the 32-year-old says, laughing that bewildered laugh reserved for the moment when the woman who recorded one of pop music history’s biggest hits speaks to you as if it were regular as rain. “She messaged me about pictures of my nieces.”
The two began corresponding after Gaynor tweeted a video of Prass and the country star Kacey Musgraves dueting “I Will Survive” on a recent tour together.
“What a thrill it was to see Natalie and Kacey perform my anthem, giving hope and inspiration to their fans as I have done all these years,” Gaynor gushed in an e-mail to the Globe. “I cannot wait to join these girls onstage to do a marathon version of ‘I Will Survive.’ ”
This marquee support — from the winner of the 2019 Grammy for Album of the Year (Musgraves) and an icon whose biggest hit is included in the National Recording Registry (Gaynor) — comes ahead of Prass launching one of the final tours behind “The Future and the Past.” After a show Thursday at the Sinclair in Cambridge, she’ll be on the road for a few more weeks before taking a breath and plotting her next record.
“I have so much fear built up because we’ve been touring so hard,” Prass says, when asked about what’s to come. It’s true: She’s taken few breaks from playing since 2015, when her self-titled debut — a breakout that landed on many year-end best-of lists — was released. Before that, Prass spent a year on tour as a member of Jenny Lewis’s band.
“It’s like, OK: Time to settle down and be open to whatever starts coming out,” Prass continues. “It’s scary when you haven’t started that process yet. But it’ll be all right. I just have to rip the Band-Aid off.”
Prass started playing piano and singing at an early age, in Virginia Beach, Va., and she attended Berklee College of Music on a scholarship for one year. That time, in one sense, was quintessential freshman-year material: She worked at Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street and made friends with other singers and musicians who were tackling an enormous life shift together.
“It was amazing for me to see, first-hand, young women shredding on all kinds of instruments,” she recalls.
In another sense, though, her experience was very Berklee-specific: intimidating, and cost prohibitive, even with a scholarship. Prass, who has perfect pitch, recalls testing into an advanced ear training course and “feeling like she was going to die” every time she attended it. Many of her peers had their eyes on Carnegie Hall, while Prass felt pulled to focus on songwriting and touring. She moved back to Virginia, took a year off from college, and performed on the East Coast with a friend.
Prass eventually landed at Middle Tennessee State University, which also counts of-the-moment songwriters Julien Baker and Sharon Van Etten as alums. She kept writing songs, landed a publishing deal, and fell in with a cohort of performers that were among Nashville’s most promising. But Prass, a classics-minded songwriter raised on Burt Bacharach, struggled to find a label that understood where she was coming from. So she moved back to Virginia (Richmond, this time), where she and her childhood friend, the feverishly talented Matthew E. White, made “Natalie Prass,” a gorgeous nine-song set of soul-smoldered baroque pop that made heads spin at the New Yorker, NPR, Vogue, and the Guardian.
“The Future and the Past” followed last year, as did more critical praise, high-profile tours, and appearances on “Conan” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden.” Unlike her ornate, Motown-spiced debut, which centered on a devastating romantic dissolution, this record showcased an innervated Prass exploring #MeToo era power abuses. The personal became political as Prass leveraged her lilting and acrobatic voice in the service of righteous anger and communal uplift. The record’s musical ancestry was Janet Jackson and D’Angelo, among others, and, on the album cover, Prass’s blouse featured gold-yellow buttons to echo colors that were historically worn to trumpet the women’s suffrage movement.
The album’s blend of hope and defiance is key to its power. Discussing its spiritual heritage with GQ, Prass cited Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and the Impressions’ “This Is My Country” for how those records navigated difficult political climates with compassion. And it’s clear that she’s not interested in burying her head in the sand.
“I’m tired of feeling angry and sad and scared,” she says now. “I still feel those things all the time, but I would rather make sure I’m always open-hearted, and listen, and react in a way that could actually help.
“I just want to be myself and to have the freedom to feel like myself,” she continues. “I love dancing, and I love smiling, and I love being around people who make me laugh.”
Prass hasn’t conceptualized her next record, but she’s recently been drawn to her family’s history. The second show on this tour — the one just after Cambridge — is in Holyoke, where her great-grandmother settled after walking on foot from Montreal.
“My mother says that I’m a direct reincarnate of that woman,” Prass says. “She made clothes, she was a painter, she played piano, she always wore heels, she had curly hair. No one else in my family has curly hair. I think about what she went through so that I could be here.”
After making a record that was specifically for its time, Prass has been drawing inspiration from things that ground her: stories of survival, friends and family, classic clothes, classic design, classic Bacharach, the life she’s planning with her fiance, the songwriter and drummer Eric Slick.
A few melodies are stirring in her, and she’ll soon see what they’re about. The First Lady of Disco will be waiting to sing along.
At the Sinclair, Cambridge, April 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $15-$18, 617-547-5200, www.axs.com