'Quiet Signs' Establishes Jessica Pratt as a Contemporary Folk Luminary

With her new album 'Quiet Signs,' Jessica Pratt clears new ground in a lane that's all her own. (Jessica Pratt)

Jessica Pratt makes a fiercely interior kind of folk music that works from the belief that one's heart and mind are as vast as the world beyond them.

It's a way of thinking that's brought to life on the cover of her latest album, Quiet Signs, released Feb. 8 on Mexican Summer. In a photograph taken by Saamuel Richard, the singer stands defiantly atop a bed in a cavernous looking honeymoon suite. The photo looks like a still from a lost movie, but without a plot, all we’re left is a hazy sense of place and time: this is where she stands, here and now. 

With Quiet Signs, Pratt navigates the deep waters of love, hope and happiness in ways that are both familiar and uncanny. In doing so, she’s created the most realized body of her work in her career, firmly placing herself in the league of standout contemporary folk artists like Angel Olsen, Julie Byrne and Weyes Blood while clearing new ground in a lane that is all her own. It is both a far cry and perfect continuation of Pratt’s earliest work—the former bedroom singer claiming the stage with the full force of her talent and unique ability to inspire others to dream.

Pratt’s work first gained attention thanks to the evangelical promotion of San Francisco rock musician Tim Presley (White Fence, DRINKS), who founded Birth Records to release Pratt's self-titled debut in 2012. "I was captivated by how blue and wise [her work] sounded," says Presley, who came upon Pratt's music via MySpace. "I thought it would be a crime for it not to be heard."


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By some accounts (including the artist's own), Pratt's music going unheard seemed like a real possibility. "By the time I was actually writing anything resembling songs and recording them crudely in my bedroom, I didn't consider music as a possible profession at all," says the artist, who recently relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Even among friends, Pratt's musicianship seemed like something of a secret. "She rarely played her music in front of us, but I would always listen to her practice up in our bathroom," remembers friend and former roommate Moses Rios. "I would lay in my room, listening to her play up there, sounding so ghostly through the stairwell." 

The initial pressing of Jessica Pratt's debut sold out almost immediately and drew a cult following for its distinct sound, a fully-formed collection of sparse, crystalline folk songs that sound genuinely timeless rather than simply retro. Wielding her high, scruffy voice and nylon-string guitar, Pratt can collapse styles and decades unlike any other artist.

Her 2015 track, "Strange Melody" exemplifies this. A psychic excavation of a failing relationship, Pratt summoned the spirit of Leonard Cohen in her searing fingerpicked guitar while interpolating Duran Duran’s "Hungry Like the Wolf" in the song’s refrain—a strange little melody that seems to try to rise and break free from Pratt’s song.

Quiet Signs builds on these stylistic strides with the inclusion of new instruments, adding gorgeous and thrilling layers to her sound. The sun-kissed warmth of Pratt’s guitar explodes into a flurry of cherub-like flutes on "Poly Blue." Meanwhile, the melancholic synth that accents "This Time Around" feels like a sympathetic hand on a crumpled shoulder.

For a musician that so often sings in the first person, the "I" in Pratt’s lyrics never asserts itself over her listeners. The generosity of Pratt’s music lies in its obscurity, in the rich language and gorgeously simple musical architecture she crafts for her audience to hang their imaginations upon. Part of what makes Pratt such an evocative songwriter is the way that she conjures ideas and leaves them to trace their own paths through her listener's minds, picking up new resonance and associations over time.


"Often when I'm writing, words or lyrics come half-formed, or sometimes completely unformed beyond a phonetic shape," Pratt says of the track "Crossing," which embodies this generosity to a T. Taking its cue from the deeply emotional, wordless songs on the album Young Prayer by Panda Bear, "Crossing" is a feat of melody and feeling. Glowing in reverb over a simple but evocative guitar, Pratt's voice soars and then falls into hope and despair, leaping beyond the static meaning in words.

It's in moments like this that Pratt’s music takes on a psychedelic quality, opening up a window when the doors of possibility seem hopelessly shut. In this way, the cover with the lone, self-possessed woman is deceptive.

In addition to taking on collaborators, Pratt recorded Quiet Signs in the wake of meeting her partner. For the generosity of her solo work, Pratt reveals the only thing more vast than looking deep within one's heart is sharing it with another person.

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