by Greg Lacour
The singer-songwriter, a Beach kid, has toured the world to critics’ praise.
Natalie Prass was a Governor’s School senior, still a little shy, still a little rebellious, still trying to figure out what to do with an artistic drive that had led her to experiment with painting, singing, dancing and songwriting, when the school’s choral director, Robert Brown Jr., passed along a simple piece of advice that remains one of her lodestars.
“To the whole class, he said, ‘Don’t be afraid to be good,’ ” the Richmond-based singer-songwriter said this winter after she’d returned from a string of European engagements. “I’m shy; I really am. I’ve had to work through that my whole life, and I still do. But that made me feel so free. Because it’s scary as a kid, thinking, ‘I want to be this writer and singer and performer. But that means people are going to look at me.’ But that was a really important thing for me to hear, because sometimes I just get nervous to stand out. But no. Own your spot. Be good.”
You can guess what happened. Richmond’s Spacebomb Records released Prass’ critically praised, self-titled first album in 2015. Pitchfork dubbed it “a warm, intimate debut album that leaves space for darker contemplation” and one of the year’s best.
Prass, 32, is preparing to release another album in June. She has been splitting her time between that and playing live dates stateside and in Europe. She performed at a Tom Petty tribute in Glasgow in January, closing the show with two of her own songs and Petty’s Don’t Come Around Here No More.
She thought of her late teacher’s admonition before she took the stage. “I just said, ‘OK. Don’t be afraid to be good. Just get up there and crush it,’ ” she said. “And I did.”
Prass auditioned for the Governor’s School at the insistence of her older sister, who’d noticed young Natalie’s artistic drive and talent during some family difficulties that darkened her upbringing in Virginia Beach.
She admits she was a bit of an odd duckling – shifting concentrations, performing her own compositions in class instead of the assigned standards – but said she made a circle of lifelong friends and collaborators by the time she graduated in 2002. (Those include her close friend Erica Prince, Class of 2003, who’s created all of Prass’ record covers, posters and T-shirt designs.)
More important, Prass said, she learned about the discipline and self-criticism necessary to turn passion into a career.
“I really look at that time in my life as pivotal. I was struggling at that time with a lot of anger. I was not a happy kid at that point,” she said. “The Governor’s School just made me feel safe to be myself. … It made me feel really confident that, yes, I’m going to be an artist in some capacity. It made that feel possible.”