Research suggests that throughout the course of human evolution, we learned that the chirping of birds is a signal that our immediate environment is devoid of predators, allowing us to relax and let our guard down. This is a leading theory tied to a growing body of investigation demonstrating the calming, restorative effect birdsongs have on the human psyche, mentally and physically. It’s not so unreasonable to suggest that a similar physiological response occurs while sitting with Jessica Pratt’s eponymous 2012 LP. While comparisons of Pratt’s vocal performance to Vashti Bunyan and Joanna Newsom are abundant, they don’t quite hit the mark. Jessica’s voice is something entirely her own, no artistic analogy quite suits the epithet. Perhaps its most fitting to relate her voice to a birdsong, warbling and delicate, speaking a language ineffably carved by nature, and employing sparse phrases to communicate a colossal lexicon of experience.
In the early 2010s, Jessica Pratt was boarding with Tim Presley’s brother in San Francisco, casually writing and recording songs on an analog four-track tape recorder. Funny enough, it wasn’t her living arrangement that led to her introduction to the White Fence and Darker My Love frontman, but a chance run-in between Tim and Pratt’s then boyfriend, who eagerly shared her recordings with Presley at a party. Tim’s instant fascination with her songs led to him launching his own label, Birth Records, with the lone ambition of putting out her record. Then in 2012, eleven tracks recorded between 2007-2011 were pressed onto 500 LPs and almost just as quickly ripped from record store shelves.
And while no one involved with the making of the record anticipated such immediate critical celebration, for those who’ve listened, it’s a no-brainer. Released the same year as Mumford & Son’s Babel, Dirty Projector’s Swing Lo Magellan, and Father John Misty’s Fear Fun, JP stands as a staunch outlier among the indie-folk revival in full swing at the dawn of the Teens. Past the peak of the Bon Ivers and Fleet Foxes of the era, folk acts by this point were generally branching into two camps – either take your folk, and make it pop (as Mumford did), or make it weird (as Dirty Projectors did). There were few who were bold enough to take the genre and strip it down to its absolute bones, and even fewer who did so with the quiet magnitude of Jessica Pratt.
To give it a name, the record is expositional folk. Always setting a stage, never quite revealing where you are. That’s part of the intrigue of her records. They feel instantly familiar, taking you on a journey of sonic deja-vu, recognizable, but disoriented. A portrait out of focus. It’s up to the listener to meet her half way, filling in the blanks of her impressionistic language, making the music whole. These are songs about change, and place, and disappointment about how places change. Admissions of the inevitable ruts that sprout from a prolonged dullness of spirit, but with an earnestness that is anything but dull. From the haunting ode “Bushel Hyde,”
“I am calling out to you
From another place
Words mean more than they did before
In that other place”
Where is that other place? Without knowing her backstory, you could be convinced she came from anywhere; Appalachia in 1920, Los Angeles in 1990, Oklahoma in 1960, the past or the future, maybe even the moon… all you know is she sounds simultaneously immediate and far off in the distance, like the warm sun on your skin radiating from 93 million miles away.
Melodically, the record keeps you on your toes. Just when you think you know where a song is going, it takes another turn. Pratt’s vocals and finger-picking invoke an enchanting quality with their wabi-sabi blemishes. It brings you closer to the sound, making sure you’re listening, as if somehow hearing a string buzz or a flat note could make you feel more connected to your own humanity.
It is said that there are people, cultures, who are more in tune with the earth. And when I think of this record, I think of the Earth… both the cold, crumbling, late November dirt that houses the most durable vegetation, and also the third fragile marble of the milky way. Some place where life in all its incomprehensible, messy, experientialism is lived and breathed.
Jessica Pratt’s debut always finds itself back on my turntable, like the comfort of revisiting a romantic, if heartworn memory. Maybe it’s something about the record’s mystique that keeps me coming back – a far away forest of palm trees, a fading sepia still life, or maybe it’s more about how it reminds me of the strange melody of the sparrows outside my window.
– Stephanie Glass, April 2022