As 2016 headed into the home stretch, Natalie Prass prepared herself for work on a follow-up to a critically lauded, self-titled album from the year prior.
The songs were ready to go, combining the attractive introspection that distinguished the first album with a growing fascination for assimilating pop, soul and funk sounds into music with a brighter feel. Then something happened — namely, a presidential election. More than a little dejected by the outcome and the treatment the country gave the first woman to run for the office at hand, the Richmond, Virginia-based musician scrapped the recording, rewrote the songs and let in a huge wave of personal and political empowerment.
But the pop-soul inspirations?
They weren’t going anywhere.
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“We were scheduled to cut the record in December of 2016,” recalled Prass, who performs Saturday at The Burl. “I was already moving in a groovier direction by getting into Steely Dan, disco music and funk. I’ve always loved that stuff, but I guess I was approaching it more in my adult life. I was finding this new appreciation for how joyful it was.
“So I was just going more in that direction anyway. Then the election happened and I was really affected by it. I think it’s important to spread positivity. I have records that are time capsules. So it was important to me as an artist to have something to look back on when I’m older and be proud of because I spoke up.”
Providing a social and personal investment to disarmingly sleek pop-soul sounds form the basis of Prass’ new “The Future and the Past” album. You hear it in abundance on “Hot for the Mountain,” a call to action with an unrelenting chorus lyric that’s repeated like a mantra (“We can take you on”) over a slow, lush and ultra inviting R&B sheen. The same holds true for “Sisters” and a similarly positive, anthemic chorus (“Gotta keep your sisters close”) bolstered by serenely cool beats that turn rockishly aggressive as the lyrics intensify.
The latter tune, Prass said, took its cue not from pop and soul, but from a mounting interest in gospel music.
“At the time, the only music that was really cutting through to me was gospel music,” Prass said. “There is actually a record store here that is all gospel. It’s the oldest record store in Richmond. It’s been open for almost 65 years and owned by the same guy, this guy Barky. I’ve gotten a lot of CDs and tapes and records from him. That music was the only thing that I felt was really healing me and making me feel joy in a time of confusion.
“‘Sisters’ was one of the first things written after I decided to rewrite the songs. I needed something like that gospel music that was reaching me. I needed something, a song, that made me feel like I wanted to be on a horse and take on the world and fuel hope again. I needed something that I felt like could bring me out of the confusion and sadness I was feeling.”
For Prass, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election wasn’t merely a disappointment. It was a jolt that shook her very being as a woman as well as an independent artist.
“I’m the only woman in my family working in an industry that’s male dominated,” Prass said. “A lot of the women in my family are teachers and nurses, which is a beautiful thing and I have so much respect for them. I value them and the work they do. But it’s a different story for me. In my experiences, most of the time, I’m outnumbered. So I felt a lot of hopelessness after the election, like people just hated women. There are these deep stereotypes that we have to overcome with women and men. I felt like, ‘Why do we even try. Why am I even trying to make a difference?’ A lot of people can relate to that. So it was important to me, because of who I am, to set an example for myself and for other people — not just for girls, for everybody. It was important for me to be honest and have a positive outlook in trying to bring joy to others.
“There is still this magic to music, you know? You’re still touched by some of kind of higher inspiration. There is some muse that comes to visit you and you either connect with it or you don’t.”
IF YOU GO
Opening: Joslyn and the Sweet Compression
When: 9 p.m. Aug. 18
Where: The Burl, 375 Thompson Road