Delivering on a Notable Promise

Last year, in this space, I mentioned one of Rebecca Pronsky's upcoming shows. It wasn't much of an endorsement. Just a couple of sentences, an afterthought, really, to note a young artist who might be worth watching.

Here's what I wrote in June 2006:

"The arrangements on her 2004 EP, 'The Early Hours,' are too tentative, but she's had a few years to break them in, and a few promising moments — the self-aware indignation of 'Empty,' the warm longing of 'Waterways'– hint at better things to come."

I'm happy to report that she's making good on that promise.

I happened to catch the Brooklyn native a few months later, playing a World Café Live show in the round with Philly singer-songwriters Nora Whittaker and John Conahan. All three performers were talented, good-humored and engaging, clearly thriving off of each other's energy and the experience of opening their songs to outsiders, but I was most taken with Pronsky's voice.

The beauty and longing were still there, but she also possessed a conviction that had been missing on her six-song CD.

Her new full-length album, "Departures & Arrivals," which comes out this week, is yet another sure-footed step in the right direction. My favorite track is the nervy "Pensacola," but the shimmery mid-tempo rocker "Gone" sounds like it'll sizzle on stage.

The Time Off Paid Off
Other strong songs are "Birds" and "Digging Graves," in which the singer displays the same remarkable mix of grace and grit as Neko Case. Pronsky herself is particularly fond of the slow, wistful "Big City Lights," which ends the disc with a Patsy Cline vibe and is, incidentally, her most recent composition.

Now 27, she used the three years between releases to sharpen her skills. She's turned away from the fussier jazz influences on her early work and toward a "roots"-ier sound she can fully inhabit. Pronsky credits her collaborators, especially guitarist and co-producer Rich Bennett, with helping her figure things out.

"While my earlier music sounds more like the music I grew up on, the songs on 'Departures & Arrivals' sound like the music I listen to now, and the music I'm trying to make is more stylized, twangy, subtle," Pronsky writes via e-mail.

" 'The Early Hours' was recorded during my first real attempt to play with a band, and the whole thing was completed in a few days. I hadn't really explored how my songs could be approached compositionally by me or by other instrumentalists."

There's no secret to her success. Playing live — often and in different combinations — pushed her to flesh out arrangements for older songs. She kept those dynamics in mind when writing new material.

"It's definitely an eye-opener to any solo performer to see how other musicians interpret your music, and it's not something I really understood when I was playing alone," she explains.

"I've been through five drummers. They were all good drummers, but it was sort of trial and error, seeing what fit and what didn't until my style started to solidify."

Pronsky began recording "Departures & Arrivals" in December, first capturing Brian Czach's drums and Mike Lavalle's bass in a professional studio, then using a home setup to lay down guitar, keyboards and vocals with Bennett. The whole process took about six months.

"Because everyone I worked with is busy with other projects, paying gigs, etc., I basically borrowed whatever time I could from them," she says.

She, too, keeps busy: She works part-time for a nonprofit arts organization, organizes a weekly showcase for local and touring songwriters, and teaches kids to sing. They're all nourishing endeavors, and their flexibility allows her to travel frequently along the Northeast corridor and further out.

"I've played out so much this year, and in so many cities I'd never been to before," she adds.

A summer tour took her all the way out to the West Coast and to venues throughout the South, where she learned something about her relationship with the music that inspires her.

"I was really excited about going to Nashville, as I guess I thought I'd sort of be heading to the homeland of what I've been doing lately," she says. "I think of myself as an artist with a country influence, but I realized in Nashville that my influence is more musical than lyrical.

"Topical songwriting is not something I'm interested in, and it's huge down there: 'I grew up in a small town and I'll die here too … ,' 'Don't leave me, I'll never be the same,' 'My papa was a factory man … .' "

Pronsky, who grew up in Brooklyn and studied music at Brown University, doesn't get quite so specific in her lyrics, or nearly so dire. Sure, life's fragile. We all need people too much. We all need to get away sometimes. We all lose the ones we love.

Pronsky's songs provide the framework; her clear, supple voice is a natural vehicle for empathy. And she trusts her listeners to use their imaginations to fill in the details.

Definitely one to watch. Check her out at Philadelphia's Tin Angel on Oct. 20 or visit: u



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here