Some pieces of music exist purely as self-contained, tangible pieces of media that don’t extend beyond the confines of their runtime. Some musicians live to invigorate for three minutes and nothing more, never leaving a profound or lasting impact.
Katie Pruitt doesn’t have that problem. The emotion of Pruitt’s music doesn’t fade away once the song is over. Sure, her beautifully rich voice brightens her every lyric and each track is laden with bluesy charm and crystalline production.
On the surface, the music is stunning, yes. But, beneath every track lies an air of honesty and vulnerability. It’s not just lip service, there really is a genuine message.
No subject is safe when Pruitt steps to the mic; everything is left on the line. From the traumatic strain of growing up as a lesbian in the uber-conservative Deep South to navigating toxic relationships in the 21st century, her prose is both incredibly comforting and candidly realistic. All of that came to divine fruition on her debut record, Expectations, which was released in February to widespread critical acclaim.
In the face of a raging national health crisis and rising tensions over systemic racial injustice, Pruitt has released a pair of Neil Young covers just weeks after penning a politically critical tune of her own, the pointed “Look The Other Way”.
The first of those new covers is “Ohio”, Young’s famously angry response to the Kent State shootings of May 1970 and one of rock’s everlasting protest songs. For Pruitt, the song—and its angst—has never rung truer.
“Protest songs encapsulate the resilience of the human spirit,” she told Northern Transmissions from her home in Nashville, Tenn. “No one is going to singlehandedly save the world,” she added later.
Though soft-spoken in her articulation, Pruitt clearly spoke with a tremendous amount of conviction and gravity. That’s because she wasn’t just speaking on any ordinary Tuesday; she was speaking on the afternoon of the 2020 United States presidential election. Without divulging partisan alliance, Pruitt, like many Americans, had a lot at stake when it came to the results of the election. That’s why it was no coincidence that her cover of “Ohio” was released just five days before the Nov. 3rd election.
“When people are dying, you can’t just think about your own creature comforts,” she noted just hours before polls closed in Tennesse. “This is about coming together and sticking up for people.”
Pruitt’s songs have always carried some weight and progressive activism, she said, especially with a country more divided than ever. Her decision to record the cover, though, was spurred by a particularly inspiring (and gut-wrenching) set of experiences from earlier in the year. In May, Pruitt and her girlfriend were living what she called a “nomadic lifestyle”—wandering from place to place and camping to unplug from their normal lives. After coming off the road due to the emerging threat of the coronavirus, she wanted time to recharge.
Looking back on it, she acknowledges how privileged the ability to disconnect from society is. Though she couldn’t have predicted it, that position of privilege would quickly be put to the test. Five days before they left home to get away from it all, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minn. by then-police officer Derek Chauvin, a catalyzing event that would prove formative to the renewed fight for racial equality.
As they stumbled into cities, they would search for Black Lives Matter protests and join in with enthusiasm and passion. It might not have started out as a trip spurred by activism, but it soon became one.
“This idea of complacency kept resurfacing in my brain,” she admitted. “I was confronting it in myself just as much as I was confronting it in society.”
At the same time, she was digging back into old records from the likes of Young and Leonard Cohen that highlighted social, racial, and economic tensions. As chaos was unfolding around her, she couldn’t help but recognize that we’ve been here before.
Shortly after returning home, she recorded her version of the Young classic. In fact, “Look The Other Way”, “Ohio” and “After the Gold Rush”—the second of her Neil Young covers released this week which was dedicated to her best friend’s father, who passed away last September—were all recorded on the same day.
Pruitt’s interpretation of “Ohio” is breathtaking. It’s a truly respectful homage to the original while also injecting just enough of her own character. At the same time, it’s also frustrating and bursting with anger, an emotion not common in Pruitt’s catalogue up to this point.
While she was in the booth recording vocals for the track, she turned to look at her close friend and frequent collaborator Jess Nolan, who contributed backing vocals both to the cover and toher debut record.
The song’s lyrics, particularly Young’s searing chorus (What if you knew her / And found her dead on the ground), struck her at that moment. What if, she wondered, the next person brutally killed in an act of police violence was her best friend or close family member? George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others were parents, spouses, siblings, and friends. What if, as Young asked, Pruitt knew the next victim?
“I wish I didn’t record it, I wish it wasn’t relevant,” Pruitt said strongly, almost as if professing that sentiment for the first time.
A self-described “student of good songs,” Pruitt sees “Ohio” as having a double-meaning in 2020, serving both as an anthem for the oppressed against police brutality while also acknowledging the some 230,000 Americans that died from coronavirus. Those deaths, she maintains, were completely preventable.
Secondary to all that, she’s also beginning to compose songs for what will eventually become her second full-length record. Since Expectations took the better part of four years to write and record, she’s not trying to force inspiration for songwriting. She doesn’t know how long a new record will take, but she’s been writing “by default” as a result of all that’s happened in the world since the release of her first album.
Still, her focus, at least at this moment in time, remains absolutely clear: to deliver messages in the form of music. A song, she said, is only three minutes, but can carry the weight of a three-hour conversation. With that in mind, there doesn’t seem to be any limit to how much power a song can hold.
With everything said and (mostly) done, Pruitt remains cautiously optimistic about the future, both for herself and for those she sings about.
“It’s sad to see the pendulum swing back that way,” Pruitt said. “But, if it can swing back in time, it’s also going to swing even further into the future in the right direction.”
order Katie Pruitt’s Expectations LP here