Singer-songwriter Rebecca Pronsky recently returned from a tour of country music’s homeland, where her music received mixed reactions. Her experience in Nashville — a city the country-lovin’ Brooklynite had long romanticized — was most disappointing for her.
“I was really surprised at how little I felt I fit in there,” she says. “It actually taught me a lot about my music. I think of myself as an artist with a country influence, but my influence is more musical than lyrical. … So much of what seemed to be received positively there was very topic-based: ‘I grew up in a small town; my daddy works at the factory; when you left, I cried.’ That sort of thing. It wasn’t my bag.”
Pronsky, one of the rising stars of Brooklyn’s indie music scene, makes her East Bay debut this month with a show at Mama Buzz Cafe. With slicker, ballsier vocals and jazzier progressions than your average folksinger, she bridges the gaps between folk, Americana, jazz, and indie pop. She’s been compared countless times to Joni Mitchell, and while just about every female musician with an acoustic guitar and intelligent lyrics gets that at some point in her career, the 26-year-old earns the distinction more than most. She cites the legendary songwriter as a major influence. “I own every album of hers, songbooks, LPs, etc.,” she says. “She did so much in the span of one career, it’s just amazing. Her use of altered guitar tunings and forays into jazz really got me interested in writing songs.”
Pronsky’s new record, Departures and Arrivals, is her third release and her first on Nine Mile Records, a small indie label from Northampton, Massachusetts. She says the album, which comes out in October, is “much more compositional” than her earlier work: “My other albums were similar to live shows, more like ‘recordings,’ but this record has much higher-quality production and instrumentation.”
It’s also her most polished effort yet, with a distinct country-pop flavor compared to the folkier, more acoustic albums she released in the past — partially thanks to coproduction by her boyfriend and guitarist, Rich Bennett. “There were a whole lot more people involved and a whole lot more time spent to make everything sound the way we wanted it,” she recalls. “Rich brought in so many good ideas about instrumentation and style. I really needed someone with perspective — I often get stuck inside my songs and I needed him to look at them in a fresh way.”
Now Pronsky finds herself thinking about the birthplace of country music in a similarly fresh way. And while she admits the cities in the South are diverse, all the time she spent touring in Jesus country began to make her feel “like a big crazy Jew” wandering among the never-ending highway evangelism. “There’s so much Jesus-freak-slash-creationism propaganda on the highway,” she laughs. “My favorite was a billboard with a picture of a man de-evolving into a chimpanzee with the words ‘Don’t make an ape out of me.'”
And so it’s onward and upward to the Jew-friendlier Bay Area. Although Pronsky played a few shows in San Francisco last summer, this is her first full West Coast tour, with dates in Seattle, Eugene, and Portland, and all down the California coast, ending with a show in San Diego. She says she’s especially excited to bring her music to the East Bay. “Oakland seems like Brooklyn to me, which is a good thing, a very good thing, since that’s where I live,” she says. “[It’s] like San Francisco’s underrated neighbor, more real and more funky.” Beyond the show, she’s looking forward to Bay Area burritos and sushi, and shopping at Amoeba. “These are three things that we lack in New York City. Of course we have sushi and burritos, but it’s no comparison, and Amoeba is just so awesome.”