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Interview: Katie Pruitt

22 April 2024

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Nashville singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt returns with a powerful sophomore album, Mantras, a follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2020 debut, Expectations. Released just before the pandemic, Expectations garnered praise for its genre-bending sound and raw honesty. Now, with a full promotional cycle planned for Mantras, something she didn’t have for her debut, Pruitt is poised for a breakout.

Mantras showcases Pruitt’s growth as an artist. Where Expectations featured meticulously crafted songs, Mantras finds Pruitt embracing a freer, more experimental approach. The album delves even deeper into her personal narrative, chronicling struggles and triumphs with unflinching honesty. Having toured extensively alongside artists like Brandi Carlile and My Morning Jacket, Pruitt’s captivating voice is primed to connect with a wider audience.

Catching up with Pruitt at her Nashville home, we chatted about her music’s genre-hopping magic, writing and recording Mantras, the power of songwriting as therapy, and musical artists she turns to when trying to drown out the business side of her music.

I reviewed your last album for Big Takeover and I said, “If loving Katie Pruitt’s Expectations makes me a country music fan, then I’m going to start shopping for a cowboy hat and boots.”

KATIE: That’s funny. The genre of country is just expanding rapidly. What is classified or considered country now is really just songwriters and the sonic landscape can almost be anything you want to decorate the song with but what makes a good country song is the message and the lyrics.

When looking to buy your albums at a local record store, I wasn’t sure if I should look in the “Country” section or the “Rock” section. I ended up finding your album in the “Rock” section.

KATIE: That’s fine. I’m not bothered by genres. I’ve gotten called Americana, I gotten called indie, I gotten called country. I’m just out here writing songs. Production style is always going to match what the mood of the song is, what a song wants to be decorated with, is what I’m going to color the record with.

When did you know you had a voice?

KATIE: I did a lot of musicals in middle school. My voice went hand-in-hand with me gaining confidence with performing because I sort of always sang around the house and my mom grew up playing guitar and taught me the cowboy chords when I was little. But I didn’t really find the confidence to sing and write songs until high school. I had this group of really tight friends that I would just make songs up and they would be like, “You wrote that?” and I’d be like, “Yeah.” They were my little cheerleader fan club. They would call me Pruitt. They never called me by my first name. It’s such a high school thing. “We want to hear this song” and they would shout requests at me and there’d always be songs I wrote. It was cool to feel that encouragement from that community and my voice grew out of the confidence of having that circle of support.

Was it a big shift from playing to your cheerleader fan club to playing on a stage for the first time in front of people you didn’t know or did it feel natural?

KATIE: It did feel natural. I was awkward and anxious in other social situations, but it felt like being on stage was something I could control. When you’re up there as a kid and you’re playing a role or a part or singing a song and you feel that reaction from the crowd, that is what keeps you going. I still feel that at my shows. You hit a big note and the crowd screams. It’s a nice energy exchange. That’s always what I’m looking for, that interaction with an audience.

Expectations came out just before the world shut down. How much of a bummer was that that you were getting ready to introduce yourself to the bigger world and then everything shuts down?

KATIE: It was a bummer, but it was also, in a lot of ways, a blessing. I’m not saying the pandemic was the blessing. It’s weird to have people come up to you and be like “Your record got me through the pandemic,” but it’s also like what a feat because that was a hard time for a lot of people and to know people had a relationship with my music during such a dark time was actually a big reassuring pillar for me for why I do this in the first place. It’s not for like, “Oh, I get to go to this award ceremony.” And it was a bummer not to get to do a lot of those things in person, but it was kind of good because it kept my priorities in check. I was hanging out with my friends and was remembering what’s really important in life, which is not really the accolades. It’s about human relationships and making people feel less alone.

Was there a spark that was lit that made you think it was time to write a new record?

KATIE: After I got about three or four songs in, I was like, “Okay.” And I thought I knew what it was about, but it wasn’t until I got in the studio and was really working on the record, and then I finished the record, that I could see the full picture. And, honestly, this was a different experience than the first time because the first record I went in with a live band. We knew the arrangements, we knew the songs. We’d been playing them live for a couple of years at that point and it was kind of a no brainer. It was like, “Cut these songs live that we all know and love.” And then me and my producer worked it all out in post. But, this time, I was coming in with songs I wasn’t a hundred percent sure about, and then trying them out with my two producers, Collin Pastore and Jake Finch. It would start to take shape. And then every time I would hear a rough mix back from the day, it would inspire me to be like, “I’m going to write a response to this song.”

I worked on it all the way through to the end, up until the week I was supposed to turn it in. I texted my rep at Rounder and was like, “I wrote another song. We’re tracking another song” and he’s like, “Okay, I’m not gonna stop you.” Once I got the ball rolling, it was a speed train but in the beginning it was a really slow process. I lacked confidence. I felt like I had to follow up my first one. Once I got that pressure out of my head, I was like, “I’m just writing songs about my life and about my experience. And as long as they’re honest, as long as it means something to me, I’m hoping it resonates with others.”

That obstacle of self-confidence and negative self-talk was a big theme on the record, this internal battle with myself to not be able to write, to not be able to do the thing I love, I felt very frozen. Getting over that obstacle became a major theme on the record because I was in therapy, not just about songwriting, but about other stuff in my life. It was a true process to really love myself through that.

When you said you were writing responses to songs you had written, do you consider any songs on the album to be siblings?

KATIE: Yeah, I think so. There’s a song called “Self-Sabotage” and then there’s another song called “Stand Still.” Those are polar opposites for me. There’s this inner turmoil and chaos in your head and you think the answer is to run around and to talk to friends and to reach for alcohol, reach for vices, reach anything. A lot of the time, you just need to pause and breathe and drink a glass of water. The problem is not as complicated as we make it so many times. “Self-Sabotage” is on the beginning of the record and then the record ends with “Standstill.”

My therapist recommended that I try to write every day, to get things out of my head and onto paper. Once it’s out of my head, I can do whatever I want with it – keep it, throw it away, burn it, share it.

KATIE: I’ve got journals and journals of thoughts. And it’s interesting now to go look back on exactly what day I wrote what song or what day I was going through a specific thing that ended up manifesting into a song. I remember struggling with that and getting through that. It’s a nice mile marker for life and feelings and friendships.

There are parts of myself that I want to share with people, but then there are parts that I’m trying to work through. Maybe that’ll manifest into something that is shared. I am an open book, but I don’t have to share every single thought that comes through my head.

I’m glad you said you’re an open book because as I listen to the lyrics you’re singing on the album, it seems to me like everything you sing is factual and from your life, you haven’t made anything up. It sounds like you’re just singing from things you’ve written in those journals.

KATIE: There is one song on the record that I have to credit this poem that is called “All My Friends”. It’s the first song on the record. It was one of the first songs I wrote because sometimes it is important to get inspiration from other people, especially when you feel stuck. This poem by Christian Wiman inspired that song. Pretty much everything else is absolutely based on a journal entry or conversation or a situation.

Is it difficult to relive some of the stuff you’ve gone through every night when you perform songs live that were written at difficult times of your life?

KATIE: When you’re going through it, that’s when it’s the hardest. And that’s when you’re writing it. That’s when you’re feeling it. Everything is about six months delayed of what you were feeling and going through and what you’re sharing because by the time you record it, you might have already moved past it. It’s a cathartic thing for artists to go through something really difficult and be able to write about it. The first step is to record it. The second step, another form of catharsis, is to share it for the first time. Once you’ve shared it for the first, second, third time, it’s still raw and it’s still totally meaningful and you can tap into how that felt, but you don’t have to be deep down in the emotion. You can be hovering above it and remembering it and reflecting on it almost like you’re an objective party.

You released a few songs before the album came out, “White Lies, White Jesus and You” and “Blood Related.” Whose idea was it to release those songs and were those songs chosen because they represent what you wanted listeners to hear when they experienced the album?

KATIE: “White Lies” was the first song I tracked with Collin and Jake where I was like, “This is what I want the record to sound like.” It was this North Star for the sonic template.

But then there’s another side of the record that’s soft-spoken acoustic, lyrical-driven Americana songs like “Blood Related.” I felt those two songs showcased that one half of the record sounds like rock music and has over-driven guitars and the other half is this introspective side. The choice to release those songs was to let people know there was going to be both on this record.

I love how ”All My Friends” opens the album, it’s what you mentioned as being one of those rock songs. And then I love the sleepiness of “Leading Actress.” It reminds me of this band I love called The Damnwells in that it’s got this “golden hour” sound where it sounds like you’re driving on a highway as the sun is setting through a rural stretch of road but with the lights of the big city visible as you approach.

KATIE: I love a song that feels like a trance or a meditation. The sonic feel of “Leading Actress” is very reflective and meant to be a little sleepy, like a slow burn kind of song.

While I don’t always pay careful attention to lyrics, I have to say the lyrics of “Jealous of the Boys” are really great. I appreciate your openness about your sexuality.

KATIE: I think the world is opening up and expanding its mind in a lot of ways but there’s definitely people that still are closed off to people using different pronouns or being trans. I think that’s the next step in this social hurdle people are getting over. The language around gender and identity and sexuality is expanding and I attribute that to the younger generation. They are teaching me more about myself, like I can present masculine and be a lesbian. There are all these ways I can describe myself now that make me feel more like me.

Is there anything this time around that made you feel like you were taking a left turn from the road you traveled on the first album?

KATIE: I think that every time I tried to make this record the same way I made the last one, I kept hitting dead ends. And I was like, “I have to try something different here.” The way that I was talking about my relationship with myself, I’m way different in my late 20s than I was when I was 20 to 25. I wrote this record from the age of 26 to 29 so I’m a different person now. I think trying to keep anything the same is just going to keep you stuck.

Were there any challenges or things that you wanted to try on this record that for either timing or budgetary reasons or complexity that you weren’t able to do?

KATIE: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I tried towards the end to not put such tight constraints on myself because I think that was holding me back. It was really just about being proud of the album and I really wanted to push the sonic envelope. We did that. I also want to be able to have a discography where I can put on a rock show but then have this intimate section of the show where I spill out all my deepest, darkest secrets. I want it to be a balance of both and I feel like we accomplished that.

For so long, I felt like this next record has to be THE record. But, it’s like, “No. I’m going to make this record and then I’m going to make another record and then I’m going to make another record.” You can’t do it all every time. You just have to do what feels right and feels honest.

I’m guessing that the stuff that you listen to falls into the same stuff where your music fits. If you were to turn on a radio station, you’d hear your songs fit comfortably among others on a playlist. But, I’m also guessing there is something you like that doesn’t sound anything like what you do.

KATIE: Absolutely. Wilco is not that far off from what I do but I definitely get some sonic inspiration from them. Sometimes I listen to Kendrick Lamar when I work out. I’ll listen to Doja Cat. I listen to shit that’s way out there when I want to have fun. It’s just good. It’s nice to listen to music without thinking about, “I want to tour with this artist” or thinking about the business part of it. It’s nice to tune out and detach from that sometime and just be a fan.

2024 Tour Dates

April 22 — Victoria, BC — Capital Ballroom*
April 24 — Seattle, WA — Neumos*
April 26 — San Francisco, CA — Bimbo’s 365 Club*
April 28 — Indio, CA — Stagecoach
May 7 — Boston, MA — Brighton Music Hall*
May 10 — New York, NY — Bowery Ballroom*
May 11 — Philadelphia, PA — World Café Live*
May 12 — Washington, D.C. — The Atlantis* (SOLD OUT)
May 14 — Toronto, ON — The Great Hall*
May 16 — Ann Arbor, MI — The Ark*
May 17 — Chicago, IL — Thalia Hall*
May 18 — Milwaukee, WI — Vivarium*
May 19 — St. Paul, MN — Amsterdam Bar & Hall*
May 23 — Nashville, TN — Brooklyn Bowl*
June 1 — Lexington, KY — Railbird Festival
June 21 — East Troy, WI — Alpine Valley Music Theatre^
July 7 — Calgary, Alberta — Calgary Stampede
July 19 — Redmond, OR — Fairwell Festival

*with special guest Jack Van Cleaf
^supporting Dave Matthews Band