Jessica Pratt doesn't remember much about the two months she spent back in 2007 recording her self-titled debut album. The Bayview studio? "It was pretty nondescript, pretty barren-looking," she says. The sound engineer? "I didn't really know the guy too well. ... Maybe he records people sometimes, but it's not like an active thing for him." Her motivation? "I had a friend that knew someone who had a studio. It was kind of just a 'why not?' kind of thing."
Her current circumstances might be to blame for the hazy recall. At 5:15 p.m. on a rainy New Year's Eve, Pratt is lying on her couch, sailing through what she calls "the NyQuil Zone." An interview scheduled to take place over coffee has been downgraded to a crackly telephone conversation, and Pratt's voice sounds deeper and more impatient than usual. It's been two months since she finally released the LP that she started recording five years ago, at the studio she can't describe, with the sound guy whose name she doesn't recall. Since then, things have moved quickly for the 25-year-old songwriter: The album's initial pressing of 500 records sold out in less than two weeks. On Nov. 20, one Pitchfork reviewer lauded its "simplicity and affectlessness" and cheered its "plaintive, unadorned warmth" (compliments of the highest order in Pitchforkspeak). Later that day, her song "Night Faces" appeared on Rolling Stone's website. On Jan. 16, she will perform alongside folk legend Michael Hurley and Cass McCombs at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall.
"I didn't think either of us expected [the album] to do so well," Pratt says, referring to herself and Tim Presley, the creative force behind the band White Fence, who helped her put the record out. "I thought maybe a select group of people would like it."
Another cool transmission from Planet NyQuil. It's quite possible that all these conversation points — her creative process, her sharp ascent to mainstream recognition, the circumstances of her recording — are, at this point, just pinging off Pratt's consciousness like cartoon bullets. And yet a more likely explanation (and the reason why her album is so phenomenal) is that Pratt has never been one to deal in messy externalities. In fact, her record is an exercise in introspection from start to finish — a catalog of mourning, memories, and the occasional wink of Appalachian-tinged whimsy. When Pratt talks about creating a song, what she's really talking about is entering the self, poking around, and resurfacing with something pointed and beautiful. Her style isn't characterized by technical virtuosity (she cannot read music) or a capacity to strut through the world, cracking wise about her foibles and heartbreaks. Instead, her strength is a sort of retreat; she pulls a microscope over feelings and sensations that others habitually overlook.
This is also one reason why Pratt, when performing at new Mission venue The Chapel in early December, was able to bend the entire audience around her, creating an atmosphere of enraptured fascination. Wearing a black suit coat, red lipstick, and a bushel of mistletoe tucked into her breast pocket, she set about simultaneously performing and decoding her repertoire. Her delivery of "Half Twain the Jesse," a song whose abstruse lyrics include the line "Jesse, there's a curve in the road/ And it's shaped just like a toucan's nose," felt like an intimate confession. And "Hollywood," a tale of eroded showbiz dreams, carried the weight of Joni Mitchell's "Little Green."
On the brink of the biggest show she's ever played, Pratt is unsure of the shape her future will take. She has had discussions with U.K.-based booking agents, and talked of a West Coast tour with White Fence, but nothing is solidly in place. Though she admits that she's nervous about performing, she says that playing for large crowds is getting easier and more enjoyable. Still, she remains reticent at the thought of life on the road.
"It's kind of exhausting," she says. "To have that be your career, you have to play a show when maybe you don't want to, or you're sick, or you want to be home."
And indeed here she is, sick at home, forgetful, wanting only to remain prostrate on the couch. But there's one thing Pratt does remember with crystal clarity: In the middle of her recording session back in 2007, a plane buzzed by overhead. Because of her spare instrumentation and the sensitivity of the 1940s-era microphone she sang into ("Some rare, expensive thing that could pick up crazy sounds"), she was forced to scratch the song and start over. Despite being just 20, and having never taken a guitar lesson, and having never even been in a recording studio before, Pratt was undaunted.
"I've just always lived in my own head," she says. "Like, my whole life. It's pretty easy to go back there anytime."