With her first three recordings, 2003’s The Love EP, 2005’s breezy ‘twentythree’ and 2008’s ‘Hello,’ Tristan Prettyman parlayed her smoky alto voice and laid-back surfer-girl-from-San-Diego charm into an eight-year career studded with highlights that included Hello’s No. 2 position on the iTunes Digital Albums chart and headlining tours across the United States, as well as overseas. It was an impressive start to a very promising career, a career that Prettyman almost walked away from. instead of capitalizing on the attention and immediately making plans to record a third album after wrapping two years of touring in support of ‘Hello,’ she took an extended break during which she traveled the globe, had surgery to remove polyps on her vocal cords, got engaged to her long-term boyfriend, dealt with the pain of his ending the engagement, and eventually questioned whether she even wanted to be a musician at all. Luckily for music fans, this amazing artist was able to channel the power of her experiences, both good and bad, to stoke her creative fire once more. Prettyman chronicles these experiences on her new album, the raw, emotionally charged ‘Cedar + Gold,’ which finds her sifting through the wreckage of her relationship and emerging stronger on the other side. With an artistry that lies in her finely etched lyrical details and intimate vocal performances, Prettyman spares no one, including herself, on songs like “SayAnything,” “I Was Gonna Marry You,” “Come Clean,” “Glass Jar,” and “Never Say Never.” Cedar + Gold is an album that manages to be both deeply personal, but highly relatable to anyone who’s had the ground collapse under them and fought their way back to healing. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Tristan Prettyman to discuss her journey so far as an artist, the process of creating ‘Cedar + Gold,’ her inspirations, touring and much more!
What are your first memories of music?
The very first memory I have is my kindergarten teacher playing “Puff The Magic Dragon” to us after lunch. She used to play classical guitar for us and sing all of these different songs for us. That is something I have never forgotten. I have the vision in my head of sitting cross legged, kumbaya style in class with her playing. From there, my mom was an aerobics instructor and always had music playing on Saturdays. She was rehearsing her routines and would have on all the latest pop hits. My dad loved listening to Jackson Browne, Dire Straits, Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell. The music early in my life was all over the place. It was definitely an eclectic and broad range of music I was exposed to.
Who do you cite as your biggest influences musically?
When I was 13 years old, my brother gave me an Ani DiFranco mix tape. At that time, I was listening to Debbie Gibson and Jon Secada. It was in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, weird music time! [laughs] For my brother to give me this tape, it totally floored me. I grew up listening to the radio and there wasn’t a lot of singer/songwriter stuff on the radio during that time. He gave me that tape and when I listened to it I thought, “What is this? This is a girl and a guitar. She is singing about stuff we are not supposed to be talking about!” It was awesome because it was right around the time you are a teenager and it was kinda awkward and you are hitting puberty and thinking that boys are cute! It blew my mind! I became obsessed with her. I bought every record and she was one of the first concerts I ever went to. I would get her newsletter. I loved that she was just doing her thing and it was so different from what anyone else was doing. She played guitar like a badass and she tapped her fingers! At the same time, it was this complex thing where she was saying so much but at the same time it was so simple. I think that is what inspired me to pick up the guitar and teach myself how to play it. As I got older and started playing music, I continued to follow her career. I have always really admired her for the fact she just follows her path. In her early days it was singing more about relationship stuff and as she has gotten older she has really gotten a little more political. Whatever she chooses to do, she does it so well. She researches and really knows her shit. She knows it inside and out. I think it is amazing! She has this thing where if you are going to do it, do it all the way and know everything about it. I love that, ya know! I don’t listen to her music today as much as I did when I was a kid but every time one of her songs comes on, it takes me back to that place. It has always been a reminder of “Do your own thing. Do what you are drawn to and the rest will follow.”
What was it about music that made you choose it as a career path?
Pretty much the fact my parents came to a show and said, “We think you should take a break from college and go play music.” I was like, “OK! Perfect because I have no idea what I am doing going to college anyway, so this sounds like something I might be able to figure out and pull off!” [laughs] It really started with them, pretty much! I thought, “I am pretty creative. I am never one to read directions, I just figure it out.” It was fun and not what everyone else was doing in my town, so I decided that if I could pull this off, I would be like the underdog pulling it off. I just went for it and it worked out. It is still bizarre to me! [laughs] I am on stage and I think, “This is so weird! How did I get here?!” It is so much fun!
You recently released “Cedar + Gold.” What can you tell us about the songwriting process for the album and how you put it together?
After the last record, I took three or four years off. I kinda did my “Eat, Pray, Love” thing. I just sorta needed to go travel and figure out what I was doing. I had become disenchanted with playing music and I didn’t feel like it was coming from a genuine place. I took some time off and I traveled. Then I felt guilty for traveling, so I kinda started writing again. I was in the studio and that is when I started noticing I was having problems with my voice. I went and got my voice looked at and it turned out I had two polyps on my vocal chords. I ended up getting vocal surgery. During that time, I had gotten back together with an ex-boyfriend. We were together for about a year and then we got engaged but then four months later we broke up. It was all of those things combined, it was like a dam broke and I just started writing again. I feel “Cedar + Gold” started from the minute I stopped and took some time for myself. This album is really that journey. I just needed to check out for a minute because there was too much stuff going on. I needed to get back to me. This record is that and the process of figuring it out. When it rains it pours and everything comes in threes! [laughs] It is a lot about finding myself and also finding my voice again. It is also about finding the strength to stand up again after you have experienced heartbreak. I had never really had bad breakup before, at least not one that left me feeling so much. All of those things were a blessing. The breakup was such a blessing because it knocked me sideways but I felt again! I was feeling all these things and all I wanted to do was write about them! Everything came full circle and then I was writing music. I immediately went for the guitar, the notebook and the songs as my safety blanket. I found myself writing all of these songs from a genuine place again. It felt like I was writing the way I did when I was 15 years old and didn’t have a care in the world or any expectations about trying to write a catchy hook or a pop single. I was solely writing for my soul and I needed to write for it to get these things out. It is a really special album to me because it comes from such a deeper place then the rest of my records. It comes from so much experience. I mean, I am only 30, so I haven’t gone through everything but it is certainly written from experience. Choosing to play music, making a first album, touring, making a second record and going to all those things for the first time and the changes they bring made this a very special album.
How did you choose the title for the album and what does it mean?
After my breakup, I moved into a house my dad had as a rental. It was a house he had bought back in the ‘70s and kept it as a rental. It is a little beach cabin that was built in the ‘40s. Him and I remodeled it by putting in new floors and redoing the backyard. I moved in there right around the time I was coming out of my breakup. It was the same house my mom was pregnant with me in and the house I was born in. It was crazy and almost like a homecoming in a way. Inside of the living room, the walls and ceiling are cedar wood. I like to say that the cedar of the house held space for me to take all of my experiences and turn them into something positive, do something creative with them and come out on the other end alright.
You worked with producer Greg Wells on this album. What was it like working alongside him and what did he bring to the table for this project?
He kicked my ass! [laughs] On the other two records I have done, I felt like the other producers had sorta held my hand and been cheerleaders. When I am self-doubting, they have been like, “Wow! This is a good idea! We are going in a good direction. Hang in there and trust me!” I would say, “OK” and let them lead the process. With Greg, he was like, “If you aren’t feeling it, go home and come back tomorrow. If you are not feeling this, then I don’t want to do it. You have to choose to want to be here and believe in the songs and yourself. I am not going to hold your hand through it. I am bringing my A-game, so come back when you are bringing yours!” In the very beginning he would say these things to me and I was like, “OK, coach! I will be back tomorrow!” [laughs] But it was amazing! I was coming from this place where so many things had gone wrong in the past couple of years. I was really fragile, a little self-doubting, a little unsure but also had that feeling I was doing the right thing. He really got me to step up and own it as an artist, to believe my voice was strong enough to sing these songs and believe my voice was powerful enough to move somebody who was listening to it. He made me believe that I was an artist and I should own it. Everybody else does! It is really true! I feel like for a very long time, I always had this attitude of “I just came to San Diego and sorta fell into this! This is what I do!” [in a happy go lucky tone] but I never really owned it. I never really stepped into it like, “Yeah, this IS what I do! I am about to rock your world right now!” It was awesome working with him. Once I got to the place where I was like, “Alright, Tristan. You have to do this. You have to believe in this and you are capable of making this album and not just hope it will be great.” When him and I were on the same page and I rose to his level of badassness, it was almost like the record recorded itself! It was great! I would have these ideas and say things like, “Let’s play the guitar part backwards and run it through this amp!” He would look at me like I was nuts and say, “What are you talking about! A week ago you didn’t even know what we were doing and now you are the total opposite! Who is the confident girl with all the suggestions?!” We would do it and it would be this brilliant thing that totally changed the song. Him and I were like mad scientists in the studio. It was just him and I and between the two of us we played everything. In the studio, it was him, an engineer and myself. It was totally cool. We just got on the same level and rocked out! We would go back and forth trying different things until we found something we loved. The other rad thing about it was the label just left us alone. Once we finished a song, they would hear a rough cut of it and would say, “Great! Just keep going!” That was my first experience of not really having a label or a whole bunch of people involved with their opinions and inputs. It was really just an artist and a producer making a record to create a vision. The whole experience completely changed my life and how I view being an artist and musician. I take everything more seriously and like coming to the table prepared.
Are you an artist who is always writing and working on new material?
I am not always writing, actually. I had this epiphany a couple years ago. When I am recording, I am not touring and when I am touring, I like to focus solely on that. I like to focus on what is at hand and not intermingle any of them. If I am trying to write or thinking I should be writing because I hear another artist writes all of the time and I start thinking if I don’t write my creativity will run out, that’s bullshit. I have my process and they have theirs. I shouldn’t try to force myself to do things because I feel like I should be. Right now, I am focusing on the tour and putting together a great show. I am connecting with my bandmates. I think once we get through the touring cycle and album cycle, things will settle down and I will start to write again. Of course, there have been instances where I am on a plane or in a hotel room and something comes to me. I always have a journal around. I always try to keep writing in a journal to keep that concentration going between myself and my thoughts but generally I like to keep all of the elements separate.
You are getting ready to hit the road for a new tour. What is life on the road like for you these days and do you prepare in any special way for a tour?
Not really. We just did a run up the coast of California. The way we set up my touring nowadays is I am out for a week, home for a week, out for three weeks, home for two weeks, out for three more weeks and home for a month. It is great because we all get some time to come home and recharge. That way I can come home eat super healthy, go to yoga, get a surf in, get everything squared away at home and then I can get back out on the road and focus. Road life for me is a lot of driving. We are in a van right now, so there are a lot of long drives. My band guys are great! I am traveling with two guitar players right now. They play guitar, a little bit of percussion, pedal steel and lap steel. They are always buying gear and everyone is coming up with ways to make the show more dynamic and more interesting. When I am on the road it is more like sleep as much as you can, try not to drink too much and try to find a green juice every once and awhile. I really just try to stay healthy enough and get enough rest so that after the show I can come out afterwards and do a meet and greet. That is my favorite part of the show. Getting to talk to fans and hear people’s stories. I especially love it during all ages shows where so many kids come. There are little girls who want to be singers and it is the cutest thing ever! That is where I feel I connect the most, talking to people face to face. I have realized about myself I am not a perfectionist. I am not afraid to make mistakes on stage or forget lyrics. We don’t have some crazy backdrop or crazy lighting or anything. We are just there to sing the songs and connect with everyone who is there.
With that said, have you ever had a “Spinal Tap Moment” on stage, where something totally unexpected happened?
One thing that comes to mind is that I stomp on the floor when I play, so we have mic’d the floor where I stomp and it creates this bass drum like effect. I play the tambourine also. It has been pretty humbling to be playing, singing, trying to stomp the floor and play the tambourine at the same time! We have had some disastrous moments where I just have to stop and crack up because my hand and foot do not cooperate! [laughs] Then it is like, “OK! Let’s start again from the chorus!” It turns into band practice on stage! [laughs] The crowd loves it. I love watching people mess up and know they are not afraid to make a mistake on stage. I think that is what makes a show fun. If you want a perfect thing, you get the record. That has happened a couple of times where I have completely stopped and give it another try. We also had some crazy homeless veteran type of guy come in off the street at one show. He came in off the street and just started, well, I don’t know what he was doing but he came right up to the stage. I was like, “Sir! You are interrupting the show right now!” [laughs] Eventually they called the police or kicked him out or something. But for the most part, we haven’t had anything too crazy happen.
You mentioned young people coming to your shows and having the chance to meet with them face to face. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to someone who wants to pursue a career in music?
The thing I always say is to go for it in the way you take out everything you ever thought you needed to do to make it happen. By that I mean, if an artist has flyers and now he is playing at the coffee shop or I need a record deal, take out all of the “I need this before I can get to there.” Just think about what is the most natural way you would approach it as yourself and go from there. Honestly, for me, I would have never in a million years dreamed of doing this and it was a very natural evolution for me. I just started by playing anywhere and everywhere. I would play restaurants where people were eating and being loud, open up a show at a club, go play at the local coffee shop or I would sell my four song demo at the counter of the pizza restaurant I worked at. Everything was kinda backwards and off but it was very me at the same time. I never lost that. If you want to play music and are thinking you need to move somewhere, go for it. If you think you need a residence in a coffee shop and it would be really cool, then that is what you should do. As with anything creative, I think it is really important to tune-in and see where you want to go and what you want to do. Make it you! Don’t copy other people and just remain true to yourself. I think that is always the right move.
We really appreciate you giving a look at your creative process on this album. Is there anything you would like to say to your fans before I let you go?
I just want to say that I love them! I have the best fans in the world. They are just so cheery and awesome. They are always sharing with me and I love that. I can’t wait to get back out on the road to see them all!
Thanks for your time, Tristan!
Awesome! Thanks so much, Jason!
Tristan Prettyman on Tour:
Feb 22 – The Bluebird – Denver, CO
Feb 24 – Ore House at Milagro – Santa Fe, NM
Feb 26 – The Cambridge Room – Dallas, TX
Feb 27 – The Parish – Austin, TX
Mar 1 – The Parish – New Orleans, LA
Mar 2 – Workplay – Birmingham, AL
Mar 3 – The Mercury Lounge – Nashville, TN
Mar 8 – Stage Door – Charlotte, NC
Mar 9 – Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC
Mar 10 – The Hamilton – Washington, DC
Mar 12 – The Bowery Ballroom – New York, NY
Mar 13 – World Café Live – Philadelphia, PA
Mar 15 – Brighton Music Hall – Boston, MA