I Am Not What I Expected: The Unknowable Sounds of Jessica Pratt

“You have to feel uncomfortable occasionally,” Jessica Pratt tells me when I call about a week before the release of her second album, On Your Own Love Again. When she starts telling me about the circumstances under which she recorded the album, it becomes clear that the 27-year-old folk singer-songwriter has just gone through an extensive bout of feeling uncomfortable. But based on the stunning surrealism characterizing her latest work — one of 2015’s strongest slow-burners so far — Pratt may want to take up permanent residence in that state of being.

In the fall of 2013, Pratt moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where she had become a fixture in the local psych scene after Tim Presley — the prolific musician and Ty Segall collaborator known best as White Fence — created Birth Records specifically to release her self-titled 2012 debut. Within three months of moving into a craftsman-style house in Silver Lake, Pratt had written and recorded the bulk of On Your Own Love Again on an acoustic guitar and analog four-track machine, alone in a room “that looked out onto nothing.” On top of that, Pratt had no car, and she didn’t really know anyone in the city.

“It was a weird house with two normal-sized bedrooms and one small one,” she says. “My friends moved in when I was on tour, so I was the last one to show up, and of course, that meant I got the small bedroom. I was not anticipating moving to L.A., the land where everyone has lots of space, and living in a Brooklyn-style shit box. That contributed to some of the weird headspace I was in.”

“Some” may be an understatement. Several months before Pratt headed down the West Coast, her seven-year relationship deteriorated and her mother passed away suddenly. Despite being comfortable in San Francisco, she required a change.

“My life had been stable in a lot of ways, and I just kind of dropped everything,” she says. “I think any time you go through any sort of major trauma or huge life transition, it just opens up a ton of shit you didn’t know was hiding in there, and you’re sort of starting from ground zero again. I’ve always been pretty stubborn, and really felt like I knew myself very thoroughly, and that I couldn’t really surprise myself. I’m happy I went through that because personal discovery is really important. Sometimes you need to have other things rip the lid off.”

Pratt’s existential crisis and isolation spawned an album that embodies those ideas without directly pointing to them. These songs aren’t about anything specifically, but the sideways feelings conjured by Pratt’s dream states are tangible.

“If your natural inclination is towards writing about your own experiences in a fairly autobiographical way, I think you have a delicate line to walk,” Pratt says. “When people do that, a lot of times, it’s very harshly literal. I do like that style for a lot of people, but for myself, I like to be in the clouds to some degree. Dreaminess is pretty important to me. If you maintain some level of that abstraction [in the lyrics], the words are not as distracting as they could be.”

Pratt’s constantly evolving lilt, nimble finger picking, and fondness for minor tonality create a sound that is unsettled yet delicately at peace with that fact. Listening to On Your Own Love Again is like staring into a mirror that’s survived decades without cracking but hasn’t escaped its fair share of warping.

“The way people connect to music is by being able to temporarily take something and use it as their own. I don’t know if it was such a premeditated thing on my part, but I’m happy that people can project their own psychic experience onto my music. That has been my experience with a lot of important music, especially things about sadness that people want to be comforted by. Even though I am kind of a control freak — territorial too, and paranoid — I think it’s such an honor to know that anyone can, in a very basic human way, access a piece of art that you made. That is the most legitimizing thing that can happen with your art, I think: people truly connecting with it. Because if they don’t, it’s pretty much just meaningless.”

Most of these songs sound as if they could have originated anytime in the last half-century, with only one track — “Game That I Play” — feeling distinctly tied to the mid-sixties sounds of Van Dyke Parks on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. (Pratt’s engineer, Will Canzoneri, adds a touch of instrumentation on a couple of songs, including “Game That I Play.”) When I tell Pratt that she’s a little unplaceable in terms of place and time, she revels in the idea. Likewise, she delights in the fact that I call her voice — girlishy tart at times, Nico at her most troubadour at others — “unusual.”

“I feel like I have a decent range, but it sort of takes a while of singing and playing songs to realize how far you can go,” she says. “I’m just accessing parts of myself that I didn’t know were coming. It’s funny because I didn’t realize how unusual my voice would seem to people. It’s a compliment to me — I like a lot of singers whose voices are considered different.”

While Pratt’s subtle debut drew comparisons to folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan, her vocal inflections transport On Your Own Love Again to another, altogether otherworldly, level. On Gainsbourgian single “Back, Baby,” Pratt sounds Australian for a line or two, then Irish, and back again. It’s this part that makes me laugh every time. In the face of her music’s quiet beauty, Pratt’s vocal mutations represent her dark humor, which peaks through in the subtlest of ways. In conversation (and likewise on social media), her humor spills out easily.

“I’ve always used comedy as a healing thing, or a defense mechanism,” Pratt says. “You know how comedians, in a backwards way, can be surprisingly dark humans in their everyday lives? My shit does tend to sound kind of sad, but humor’s always been an inexplicable part of my personality. I had a really funny older brother, and I always wanted to be funny like him.”