Meet Lauren Pratt: Winner of the 2018 No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award

Lauren Pratt wins the 2018 No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award at the FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Mass. Photo by Jason Reinhold.

A “traveling guitar” passed along from family to family had a hand in setting Boston-based singer-songwriter Lauren Pratt on the path to music. So did Alison Krauss. We asked Lauren, the winner of the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award at last month’s FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Mass., to fill us in on those tidbits and the rest of her musical story, which includes a new album in the works as well as studying for a master's degree in mental health counseling. Be sure to scroll all the way down for a video of Lauren's performance at FreshGrass!

What were the names of the two songs you performed for the No Depression Singer-Songwriter Award, and why did you pick those?

The first song I played was “In the Valley,” which is on my forthcoming album. I picked it because it’s deceptively easy to be vaguely impressive with that song; it uses bass walkdowns and fretboard slides, which makes me look a lot more adept at guitar than I actually am. It also showcases my vocal range and timbre, which is my most recognizable musical trait, so I wanted to capitalize on that. It’s one of the songs that’s closest to bluegrass in my collection, so it’s fun to play.

The second song, “One by One,” is one of my oldest — it was written after I began volunteering at the Hope Center in Nashville, which is a rehabilitation clinic for women. The purpose of songwriting is to shine a light into darkness and tell the truth, creating empathy for the listener and a connection between people who recognize a truth and relate to it. I wanted to write from the perspective of someone struggling with substance abuse because I kept hearing the desperate desire of these women to get better, to recover from trauma, and to heal the broken relationships in their lives. When I played it for them, I asked them to name it, so I always say it’s their song, but I like to think it’s applicable to everyone.

Your bio on your website says your musical life kicked off “when a guitar arrived at (your) door unexpectedly.” Can you tell us more about that?

I gravitated towards the arts when I was younger rather than to sports, and found a particularly understanding friend in the form of music. I scratched through the violin, struggled to practice piano, and was second chair clarinet the whole time I was in band. When I was about 10 years old, I spent the better part of a summer in California at my aunt and uncle’s house and there were several acoustic guitars lying about the place like lazy house guests. Music had a nonchalant presence in the form of the guitar so when I went home that image stayed with me. I must have pestered my uncle (as only a child shamelessly can) to send me one of his many guitars, and sometime later this oddly shaped box arrived from UPS for me. When my dad opened it and saw it was a Baby Taylor guitar, his first reaction was to ask if I had been on his eBay account! After doing some digging (because there was no note), we found out it was a “traveling guitar” – my uncle’s daughters learned to play on it, and they sent it to friends in New Hampshire whose daughters wanted to play, and they sent it to me. A few years later, when I had my own adult-sized guitar, my uncle called and told me to send it to Bozeman, Montana, to a family with two little girls who wanted to learn to play. We sent it off with a short letter and a picture of me with the guitar; I believe it’s still there. I like the idea that I’ve contributed to this roots music tradition of passing on the music.

How does your interest and training in classical music inform your approach to folk?

Originally, I wanted to study songwriting and commercial voice at a school like Berklee, but I ended up attending a small liberal arts school, Belhaven University, in Mississippi. Personally, I do better in lower stress environments where I have more one-on-one time with instructors, and Belhaven provided that. The training was classical and based on the idea that once you know all the rules you can break them. I learned the power and range of my voice and how to use it to sing the works of Puccini, Wolf, and Schumann, among others.

I learned very quickly to get over stagefright; it’s hard to embody fear when you’re standing on stage in a gown, unable to hide behind a guitar or a microphone. You’re responsible for communicating a character’s story in a non-English language and translating it via emotion and vocal representation. It’s the best training I’ve ever received, and it definitely prepared me to step onto any stage and know I can survive, but I definitely still get the adrenaline rush!

Can you tell us a little about your songwriting process?

I’m not a person who does well without structure or routine, but that’s how I’ve lived much of my life, so maybe I’m in denial. My songwriting is more lightning-strike inspiration than the product of writing every day, but I’m learning to be better about giving my creative voice space every day to write and play. Spending time with both Patty Griffin and Mary Gauthier this summer in separate workshops really inspired me to create a songwriting routine.

This umbrella genre of roots music is a weaving together rather than a tearing apart, and is very much needed in this time of divisiveness. As Mary Gauthier says, good songs create empathy; I strive to always approach songwriting with empathy in mind.

What songwriters do you most admire, and why?

Out of all the influencers in my life, two stand out in my mind: Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin.

My dad played Alison’s music all the time in the car on the way to and from school – actually it’s the only music we listened to. When Alison went on tour with Union Station, we drove hours to see her and I remember thinking, at the tender age of seven, that she had the voice of an angel and I wanted to sing like that. It was a lightning-fast formative moment in my tiny brain that has informed my life for more than 20 years. In response to my little-girl fan letter, Alison sent me a signed black and white photo that said, “Lauren, I’m glad you liked the concert. I’d love to hear you sing! Alison.” It’s been framed on my wall for over 20 years, and when my Nashville apartment burned down, I pestered the insurance adjuster until he went back in and grabbed it for me. One of my bucket list dreams is to sing with Alison on stage; I mostly want to meet her and say thank you for the initial spark of inspiration.

If Alison Krauss sparked the inspiration, Patty Griffin fanned the flame. Her lyrics peppered my college years. I could point to “Useless Desires” and “Making Pies” and say, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel. Thank you.” I had the immense pleasure of participating in a songwriting workshop with Patty this summer at Richard Thompson’s Frets and Refrains camp, and she paid me the most incredible compliment. She said, “You have a voice that resonates in a deep place of a person’s soul.” It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had and I am so thankful for her encouragement.

Tell us about studying expressive arts as therapy. What are you learning, and why did you want to delve into that?

People are funny creatures. As kids, we are expected to be creative and artistic, then we get to high school and are funneled into categories (jock, nerd, artist, etc.), then we get training in something to make money, and then the expectation is that you have left behind your participation in the arts and play time because they are seen as “childish.” “Childish” and “childlike” are not the same, and to be creative is not mutually exclusive to childhood. As a result, we internalize a lot of anxieties and emotions without expressing them, and we see that in the sky-high national rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Mental health counseling uses the traditional talk therapy model, which utilizes the pragmatic “left side” of the brain, and expressive arts therapy uses the “right side” of the brain to express how a person is feeling, even subconsciously, through various art mediums (dance/movement, music, visual art, drama, play, etc.) and sometimes to bring them back to talk therapy to connect those emotions or past traumas to reality and move beyond them. I’m sure I’ll get some feedback from my professors on this crude definition, but that’s why I’m a student!

I care about my musician family and I want to promote mental health awareness and be a voice for healthy living on and off tour. If those mental health statistics are nationally high – how much higher then are they for the nation’s career artists and musicians? If my life does not move in the direction of full-time music writing and performance, I would like to have my own counseling practice. Either way, I feel this is educational for me as a person, not just as a career; it’s linked to my understanding of the human condition and the consequences of action and reaction on society as a whole.

What does it mean for you to win a contest like this?

Alison Brown asked me that backstage, and I’m pretty sure I blacked out. I remember saying something about being in a happy fog and then there were lots of hand gestures. FreshGrass (Festival and Foundation), and No Depression are some of the best supporters of independent voices and artists in the music world today. To win a contest like this, especially when the other finalists are your extremely talented friends, is a great honor. As a ‘90s kid with a hefty participation ribbon collection, I am over the moon to be the recipient of this award, and I cannot wait to get into the studio with Alison Brown at Compass Records! I just finished recording my next album, so I don’t know what I’ll be recording, but I like the idea of laying down some traditional folk songs and gospel hymns. Perhaps The Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven” …

What’s next for you?

I just finished recording my second studio album (third project overall) last month with Don Bates in Nashville. Don is one of those all-in-one shampoo bottle talents – he’s producer, sound engineer, studio owner, mixer, etc. We’ve been friends for years and have been talking about this album’s aesthetic aim for as many years, so I’m thrilled that we finally made it happen. It’s unnamed as of yet, but it’s coming out in 2019. I’m about to launch a Kickstarter in November and am applying for grants to fund it – I really believe in this album of collected fictional stories based on truth.

My perfect near-future would be getting the album fully funded, doing a press campaign, getting picked up by a label and sent out by a booking agent and keep on keepin’ on.

I'm not sure if I've ever read a more articulate response to questions put to an artist and performer, much less one who is so young and relatively new to the scene.  

Impressive interview...congratulations Lauren!