Tristan Prettyman, 2006

 

Written & Photos by: Jason Perlman

 

So, let's start the interview off about the first time I even heard Tristan Prettyman, which was opening for Howie Day at the Newport here in Columbus.
That was a fun show.

 

It was a fun show. I remember reading about your music, and even now, so many critics want to liken you to Jack Johnson. And to be honest, except for an acoustic guitar and maybe some mellowness, you are not anything like Jack. Does that frustrate you that your music is put in that box because you both surf versus you actually do sound alike?
Well, I mean, to be honest, to me that is just lazy. Just because we both have an acoustic guitar and both surf doesn't mean we both play the same music. It doesn't really bother me. Jack and I are friends, and a lot of the simplicity of my music comes from listening to his music and being influenced by his music. But I don't think my music is nearly as laid-back as his is. I mean, my music is mellow, too, but it is more of a sad, hopefully vibe where his is much more surfy, let's go to the beach and jam out kinda thing.

 

Someone once described their bands music as aggressively listenable, and I think that is a good way to explain Jack's music. It is almost impossible not to have a good time to his songs, where yours are a bit more emotionally challenging and maybe have a sharper edge to them. Both are very personal, but are there times when you are done writing a song you read the lyrics and think, wow, I didn't know I felt that way?
I would say yea, it is probably half-and-half. I love it when the songs just come. I like to sit down and record something at the computer and play the chords over and over and the verses just keep coming and coming, that's when you know you are onto something. But when I look back at the song, most of them are slightly challenging. They have a little more conflict to them and are a little more in your face, and I really like them that way. I like to point my finger at the subject, and that is the cool thing about songs, is you can totally do that and still remain anonymous.

 

I think of Shy That Way as a song like that. One that has conflict has the finger pointing, but it is also a song that anyone can put themselves in and feel as if the song was, in some part, written about them. For you, was that a personal experience song or was that something to point your finger at on the outside?
That was a real thing, actually. Me and Jason (Mraz) barely knew each other, didn't ever really talk on our first couple of tours, it was just that we were both really shy. Then, when we wrote that song, it was like whoa, we really have a lot to say to each other, but for some reason, we can't say it outside of the song. But other songs like Please and Breathe, those songs just kind of came out and I never really figured out what they were about until after they were written. Something happened to me later, and that was when I was like, oh, that is what that song was about or that's whom that song is about or why I wrote that song. It is songs like those that I think are directly relatable to other people, the ones not necessarily directly written about me or someone I know. These are just songs about situations that could happen in life.

You like to cover Brittany Spear's Toxic every now and again, which you did at the Newport show with Howie Day. I was talking with Kate Earl, and she told me as she was trying to get signed, most labels wanted to try and turn her into a pop star, since Brittany and Christina Aguilera were the big names in female music. Did you run into any of that as you shopped for labels?
I will say that I did get a little of that, but it only happened really once where I was in a label meeting and somebody said, "if we put you in a mini-skirt that would be really hot." I was like, are you kidding me? Maybe it was more of a joke, I don't know. Anytime I ever met with labels, and I only met with a couple of them, I was very strong and stood my ground, so I never really got too much pressure to do anything, because from the moment I walked in the door, I was like, this is it. I am putting it on the table; it's all I got. If they wanted to try and change me, they couldn't, because this kind of music is all I really know how to do. But Kate is like so beautiful and totally gorgeous, so I can totally see them wanting to do something like that. She is a good friend of mine. I would tour the rest of my life with her just to hang out with her because she is so fun.

 

In this day of music, there really hasn't been a ton of really good female, folk-style singers. Or I should say, there hasn't been much mainstream push to accept them. It really is about T&A for the most part with female music artists. So when you decided to make music your profession, did you have any thoughts of how the hell you can make it work?
I'd go back and forth, to be honest. There were always two sides to everything. When I first decided to start this, I did think I don't even know how in the heck I am going to do this. I don't know how I am going to be strong enough to do this. But in the back of my head and still to this day, I think something will happen. I have always had a feeling that something has to happen. I think with anything if you keep plugging away with it something good will happen. Like, the more you give to your music the more it will give back to you. I think it is just a matter of dedicating the time to something that you love and hopefully it will come back around and something positive will happen. At least, I hope that something will happen. And if it doesn't, then I am going to be a chef.

 

Because you are an acoustic songwriter, how was the experience in the studio for you? Did you have an idea going in on what you thought each song would become or was the sound of the record, twenty three, a surprise for you?
It was weird. First, I recorded in New York for the first half of the process of making the album, and that was just bizarre because I have only been to new York a couple of times, and it was freezing, and I would just show up in jeans and a sweatshirt. The guys were like, "Girl, go get yourself a coat!" And it was weird to here all these instruments and people were saying because I had a major label it had to be great because I had this big budget. But in the end, that can make things more complicated than they need to be. I mean, you have the surplus of everything you ever wanted, and it just becomes too much. There is a big chance you will overdo it if you are not careful. So I had to do my best to keep it minimal and keep everyone else from being too excited to add so many elements to each song. But it was really cool, because we would do it little by little and when you could listen to the playback, I could hear my songs blooming. I realized all the different directions I could go. The one thing my Love EP had, my record before twenty three, was steel pedal guitar and I actually hunted down the guy who played steel pedal on it and he came to New York to record on this new album. I think that is really cool, because that is the one instrument that really connected this album to that EP; that catchy vibe. Everyone in the studio actually fell in love with him so much, that they decided to take everything else off that we had put on, and just use those other elements minimally. So was the pedal steel with just a little bit of drums and a little bit of bass.

Less is more a lot of the time.
Definitely, I totally agree. And this time around I am coming with a percussion player, Jen Lowe. She is awesome. She's from Atlanta and really mellow. We just went to Japan, actually, and Jesse Harris, he is a guitarist, he played guitar and banjo with us, so that was really cool, too. It was awesome to play each night with these two very great players and listening to the songs come alive in another way. But this time, it will just be myself and her, and I think just adding that one other element can really open up the songs so much more.

 

Now that you had that experience of coming to grips with not overdoing it, but also adding elements, do you think about songwriting in a different way or do you still just want to sit and write acoustically or at the piano?
I look at it differently now. Before when I wrote songs, I tended to play the bass and they rhythm and the hammering on the guitar, the slap. And now I think I can get away with writing a song on the piano with just like four notes. I don't have to have anything because now, when we put the band around it, they can help fill in the spaces. So I have been looking at things a little bit differently. I don't have to put all the weight on myself. I don't have to play all the parts. I can just let the song come out, and its okay if it is really, really basic and stripped down. And I know I can add other instruments to it to fill it out later.

 

This time around, you are playing an intimate club called The Basement. I think it is the perfect sized club to hear your music. How big do you think you can take it before you lose that personal contact with the audience? It seems so much of your performance is the connection you make with the audience. Are you afraid to lose that personal relationship you have with an audience?
Wow, I haven't even thought that far ahead, yet. Can I even fill 1,000-seat room? That is a good question. I mean, definitely you would lose that intimacy if you were playing arenas or amphitheaters, I suppose. I think if you don't want to lose it, you don't have to lose it. I think you can find a way to banter back in forth with 10,000 people in front of you. But I definitely love the smaller venues. I love the 1,500 to 2,000. Those are the most fun, because you have so much energy. But I don't know if I want to think about too big of a venue. I think you can definitely feel a disconnect from the audience. I haven't experienced that yet. I saw G. Love play a couple of weeks ago before I left for Japan, and his music, if you haven't seen it, is ... well, I don't think he has ever reached past the 2,000 mark of places that he has played. I think that is so great because his music is so much better in a smaller venue, where people are packed in and are jamming and dancing and singing along. I think when you play that kind of music, you should shoot for a smaller club, and I think that is fine. I don't think you really need to grow. There are always options you can do, like three nights in a row at a smaller club, rather than a bigger arena. I just love the small, intimate clubs.