There is a lot of great art that has been made in exile. From Victor Hugo to Pablo Neruda all the way up to the Rolling Stones, there are a litany of writers, visual artists, and musicians who have used the various circumstances of their respective separations from the norm to step back and attempt to reach the essence of inspiration and creativity. Living a solitary and isolated existence is surely a mentally taxing endeavor, but the tranquility (or freedom to delve into excess, as in the Stones’ case) can produce wonderful and exciting results that nearly always reflect the ideas and mindsets envisioned by its’ creators. Whether by force or by personal choice, there’s an honesty that seems to be found when artists find themselves outside of their comfort zones. And, these circumstances also often add an air of myth or perspective to the resulting works.
Such is the case with California singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt and her latest album, On Your Own Love Again, out this week on Drag City Records. Pratt’s fragile voice, classically-tinged acoustic rhythms, and nuanced lyrical sketches attracted loads of attention and a devoted following that culminated with the release of her self-titled debut album in 2012. As her work was largely tagged under the “freak folk” label that claims artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart as patron saints, Pratt also waded through the inevitable Joan Baez/Sandy Denny comparisons, associations that made her bristle and strive for a fresher perspective that reflected the growing ruminations that accompanied her artistic ascent. Unfortunately though, while her career was trending upward, her personal life suffered a series of devastating losses that forced upon her a period of upheaval and reflection, and eventually a self-imposed exile that would result in the creation of this latest album.
Armed with just a guitar, tape recorder, and a few bits of overdub and outside collaboration, Pratt literally ensconced herself in her apartment and set to fleshing out the resulting nine songs that appear here. While she doesn’t necessarily reinvent herself as a raucous, freewheeling troubadour, she does build upon her template with an aura of confidence and assured belief that guides the songs and lends authority to the narrative perspectives. She seems to be sure of her feelings and comfortable expressing what needs to be said. “If you just can’t find the words to tell / Let me say that I know you well,” she sings midway through the track “Jacquelyn in the Background”. Just as often though, as on “Moon Dude”, she’ll slide back into a dreamlike realm of mystery: “You’re on the outside, you’re looking in / To the escalators humming / They are pulling you from nothing.” It’s an interesting duality that keeps listeners locked in for lyrical content while staying swaddled within the lilting melodies that bake each song. Musically, she also packs little punches of lively surprise, like when she incorporates the “doo-doo-doo-doo” refrains of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” into her more haunting “Strange Melody”. And, in a parallel universe, “Back, Baby” could be gussied up into a potential pop radio single. Her DIY-aesthetic is endearing and adds to the beauty of the album. Soft crackles of tape hiss fill the gaps between songs, and a warbled or shaky note finds its’ way into the performances from time to time.
On Your Own Love Again is a poignant and melancholy listen; one filled with gentle warmth that rings just as appropriate for both a slowly rising morning or an unwinding evening with a glass or two of wine. While it is difficult to set aside the resemblance of her music to many of the aforementioned influences, Pratt’s music fills an important and necessary role in the contemporary scene. Her single-minded focus and relentless attention towards her song-craft pays off as this album serves as a unique testament to that ideal sought by those who devote themselves to achieving their vision. It’s doubtful her sounds would benefit from lavish studio additions or an accompaniment of guest musicians. With Jessica Pratt, it’s best to simply step away and let her create and perform.
This year is poised to potentially be her biggest year yet. With several feature length profiles already finding their way to print and a healthy international touring schedule ahead this spring, it’s likely that audiences will widen and bigger stages will be the settings for her songs. She’s bound to soon be a long way from her quietly nestled thoughts, her tape recorder, and her apartment in exile.