The past few years have been rough for Tristan Prettyman. The model-turned-musician contemplated quitting music, had surgery to repair strained vocal chords and went through a rough breakup with fellow singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. But the surfer girl has bounced back with Cedar + Gold, a folk-pop album fueled by her failed relationship, which pushed Prettyman into a more honest and revealing place as a songwriter, and which has provided her with the best reviews of her career. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we talked to Prettyman in advance of her upcoming sold out show at the Triple Door on Jan. 27th, chatting about her four-year absence from music, her songwriting transformation and her favorite breakup records.
Though autobiographical, the songs don't reveal too many personal details. Were you intentionally a bit vague in your lyrics in hopes of giving the album a broader appeal? When I was writing this record I was really in the thick of what I was going through. These songs are sort of a byproduct of me sorting through feelings and emotions. I think there was a part of me that wanted to be personal but I also wanted to respect the relationship that I was in and I didn't want it to get annoying for people or be so specific that people couldn't relate to it or couldn't connect with it.
As you start to write songs again, do you think you'll be able to get to that same kind of emotional place without having to go through such a difficult experience? Before I made this record and went through this breakup, I was at this place with music where I was about as far not into it as you could be. I didn't want to have anything to do with it and I thought about quitting music altogether. I was in this space where I wasn't feeling anything. I would go to a scary movie and be like, "Well that wasn't very scary." Going through the breakup shook everything up and allowed me to feel again. I feel like my music did a lap around the track and I came back to square one of why I started playing music and writing songs in the first place. I was 14 or 15 and feeling all these crazy things and I was passionate and not jaded and I was truly emotionally worked up. I feel like the breakup allowed me to get back to that place again but I'm not really sure if I'll be able to get there on the next record. It reminds me of when I come back from tour and haven't done yoga for a long time and I go to the studio and I think, "Well last time I did yoga I was super flexible," but then I can barely get my hands to the ground. It's really important for me to keep a journal and try and blog and lately I notice myself slacking on just writing for the sake of writing so that I can access that place again. That's definitely one of my challenges. I have to remind myself to keep checking in.
What was it that pushed you away from music for those few years? After Hello came out, I toured for about a year and a half. The record did good but it didn't do great and I just felt down. I was wondering, "Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? Am I happy playing music anymore?" I promised myself when I first decided to do this as a career that I would only do it as long as I was happy and that it was coming from a genuine place. I reached this place in my life after Hello came out where I really wasn't sure anymore. I felt like I needed to take a break from music and go travel and come home and spend time with my parents and friends and live a little. I was 27 then and I felt like all I had been all over the planet and done all these amazing things, playing festivals and shows, but I felt like I was disconnected from what life is really about, which is friends and family and experiencing. I had just been go, go, go, go, go, so I took a break. And that was hard because you have everybody from management to the record label saying, "You're taking a break? For how long? We have to make another record." But taking the break ended up being a blessing because I got to do a lot of amazing traveling and I got to push myself to my limits and experience other relationships and then get myself back into this other relationship and I had vocal surgery and in the end I learned so much from all the things I went through that I feel like I've come back stronger than ever with this new record.
The breakup record is kind of a genre unto itself. Do you have a favorite breakup record? I love Adele's record. I think she really nailed it in that department. I also love the Drake album, Take Care, which is a pretty awesome record.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the album title? It's kind of a three-part story. I was trying to figure out titles and I originally wanted to name the record Say Anything, which, for a while was going to be the opening track but is now the second song. That song paved the way for the style of songs that came after it. But there's a band called Say Anything and a movie Say Anything so I felt like it was too easy to name it that. Then I was having lunch with a friend who I hadn't seen in a long time and he was telling me how he was studying alchemy, which is the process of turning lead into gold. He looked at me and said, "That's essentially what you're doing with your album. You're taking all these shitty things that happened to you and you've been turning them into something positive and productive and creative." And so that kind of stuck with me. Then I had this dream one night where my grandma came to me, which she often does. She was the matriarch of our family. She came to me like the genie in Pee Wee Herman. It was just her head, and she said, "Cedar and gold." And I remember waking up thinking, "Did that really just happen? That was so strange." I walked out into my living room, which is in this house that my mom was pregnant with me in that my dad bought in the '60s. The walls and the ceiling are all cedar wood and I was like, "That's so crazy." That's where I wrote most of the songs, so I decided to name it Cedar + Gold. I like to say that my grandma gave it to me and basically the cedar of my house helped me turn my songs into gold.
And how about the image of you on the cover? The shot on the record came from my best friend, who actually shot all the photos for the record. We shot in Topanga Canyon, which is a little bit north of L.A. I wanted the cover to be as bold and straightforward as the album is. And that was the shot that jumped out at us. I had noticed that on my past albums I was always looking down or looking away so it was really important for me to have a cover that was shot straight on and honest. And I feel like that picture nailed it. Then I saw this artist that I loved and I'd seen her art on a blog - Alexandra Valenti - she's a photographer in her own right, but she also watercolors over pictures, so we contacted her and asked her if she'd mind coloring over my friend's pictures and she agreed. She ended up adding all the triangles and swirls and things that are on the record.