Tristan Prettyman: Not taking anything for granted
People magazine has called Cedar + Gold, the latest album from San Diego-based singer-songwriter Tristan Prettyman a “soulful, shimmering songs about love and loss.” Songs like the opener, “Second Chance,” are surprisingly moving accounts of a bitter break-up (coincidentally enough, Prettyman split with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz shortly before recording the songs). Prettyman recently phoned in from a tour stop to talk about music and a little about that well-publicized split.
I think you’ve been on the road for the past year. What has it been like?
It’s been good. I took a long break after the last record came out. I had four years off but it’s good to come back. With this record, I wanted to tour as much as I could and get the songs out there and out to people. I’m stoked. We set these tours up so we have three weeks on and three weeks at home; there’s a good balance. We’re fried at this point but it’s a good way to see the country and visit our towns. The more you tour, the more you get familiar with places to eat and you start to make friends. It’s like a little family vacation.
You were first inspired to play after hearing Ani DiFranco?
My brother gave me a mixtape when I was about 13 and that’s what sparked my curiosity for learning how to play the guitar. I always loved English class and writing and that kind of stuff. I always wrote a lot of poetry and kept a journal but I didn’t put it together that real people made music. My mom was an aerobics teacher so I grew up on a lot of C&C Music Factory and Debbie Gibson and Janet Jackson. My dad listened to classic rock. When I heard Ani DiFranco being so blunt and honest, it resonated with me. She’s also really an influence when it comes to my guitar style because I do a lot of finger picking and plucking and strumming kind of stuff. It took off into a world of its own after that.
My taste in music is all over the place. I love hip-hop. I was obsessed with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre when I was younger. I loved pop music. I loved Mariah Carey and Vanessa Williams. I went through a phase when I was listening to my parents’ old Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor and RUSH albums. Within my own music, I gravitate toward country. I don’t know where that comes from. My grandpa played a lot of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn when I was a kid. My mom tells me that I’ve music around me since I was a baby. But when I write, I never say, “I like that song and I want to write a song like that.” Whatever comes out on the guitar and in melodies is totally detached from any influence.
Where did you first play in San Diego?
I spent a lot of time in Solana Beach and Encinitas. This skateboarder Bob Burnquist had a Brazilian restaurant and at night I would play a half-hour set there. This was this other restaurant called Calypso and Jack Tempchin who wrote a lot of songs for the Eagles would play sometimes. I would go on before him. I really just started playing at restaurants. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew I had to play in front of people to get that experience.
At that point, had Jewel moved out of town?
Yeah. I didn’t know her then but we’re friends now.
Do you still feel connected to the surfing community?
I do. I’ve surfed since I was 11. My music career started when I was at a friend’s house who was a pro surfer . . . My friend would have barbeques and we would hang out and party. I was playing music. His roommate was working on the music for a surf movie. They didn’t want anyone who was too well known. They wanted to record people on mini disc players and have the tracks be pretty raw and organic. They asked me to be on the soundtrack. I told them I didn’t do it for real, but I went down and recorded a bunch of songs and that’s how this whole thing started. People heard the song and wanted to know who I was. If it wasn’t for all those people encouraging me, I’m not sure I would have chosen this path. Originally, I was going to school for business communication. I was working as an intern for the Volcom surf rep and I wanted to be a rep for the clothing company.
One critic said that you have moved away from the surfer chick sound of your previous albums. Is that accurate to say about the new release?
It’s weird because everyone grouped me as the female Jack Johnson. I don’t think my music ever was surfy to begin with. It’s like they think that because I surf and play guitar, I must play surf music. It is like someone saying, “You play tennis, so how does your tennis affect your music?” They’re two totally different things. I felt like the first two records were lighter and brighter and bouncier and this one is darker and more reflective and rich. It’s not like everything is sunshine and 70 degrees out and we’re going surfing. It’s more like, “Let’s take a look at some real shit that’s going on that’s not the easiest stuff to go through.”
Is it a break-up album?
Yeah, more so than the other two. For me, it’s really about how everyone at some point can recall a time when they wonder if they’re really living up to what they should be doing with their life. I had hit a point when I didn’t know if I wanted to keep playing music. I kept thinking I should be further along. The records are great and I’m proud of them but I was still grinding it out in a van and playing for 200 people. I felt disconnected from the music and from my friends, my family and what I wanted in my personal life.
For me, the record starts there and then goes on the journey of my finding that I had polyps on my vocal chords and that I needed to get surgery. All of a sudden my voice was gone when I didn’t even know if I wanted to sing. Then, after getting back together with my ex and thinking this would be the man I’d be with for the rest of my life he changes his mind and it’s as if someone pulled the rug out from under my feet. It was one thing after another but it was exactly what I needed. It was like a smack in the face telling me to wake up and get connected with why I play music. The music was asking me to give a shit . . . the music was going, “It’s here if you want it. You have to cry and bleed. You have to feel. Right now, you don’t want to do anything. You just want everything given to you.” It was a big reality check and I’m so grateful for it. It really did wake me up. It put me back into that place of innocence and being vulnerable and feeling so thankful that I get to do this and can inspire and help someone who is going through something similar. I realized music is not something to be taken for granted. It’s an awesome opportunity.
Has Jason [Mraz] heard it?
It’s funny because we just reconciled. Hanging on to it was taking up more energy than just letting it be fine. I had asked him if he heard the record but I thought it was necessary that we went through all that. He was like, “I’ve heard most of the record and it’s really beautiful and the most important thing is that it sounds honest and truthful while you’re singing it.” My inner me was definitely like, “Haha! Yeah!” We don’t run into each other in San Diego but I’m happy to know that if we did we could give each other a hug and it wouldn’t be weird or anything.
Have you started thinking about the next record?
No. I’m really excited and I can’t wait to make the next record and I want to know what it will sound like. I like to keep the road for the road and save that energy for the show. When I’m at home and in writing mode, I don’t like to do anything tour related. I keep the two separate. I think the next record will be sassy and flirty and get the fire back. I think it will be happy.
Ferndale, MI, Magic Bag
Cleveland, OH, Beachland Ballroom
Millvale, PA, Mr. Small’s Theatre
Columbus, OH, The Basement
Indianapolis, IN, Radio Radio
Chicago, IL, Lincoln Hall
Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame
Milwaukee, WI, Shank Hall
Minneapolis, MN, Fine Line Music Café
Ames, IA, Iowa State University
St. Louis, MO, Old Rock House
Columbia, MO, Mojo’s