“It’s like that dream you had where you’re at your high school dance but it’s not your high school, your ex is there but it’s not really your ex, your mom’s in the corner…”
This isn’t a retelling of a long-winded and elaborate joke, but a description of folk group Prairie Empire‘s dreamy new music video for their song “Circles,” off their impressive new record The Salt. In it, Prairie Empire’s leader Brittain Ashford finds herself quite literally dancing circles around and with people of all sorts as the innocent goings-on of a dance hall unfold in slow motion around her and Ashford’s melancholy vocals soar.
Even though the video has a sort of high school-esque setting, it’s not exactly Grease, where the actors claim to be teenagers despite the whisper of crow’s feet on their faces. “It is a high school scene but obviously we’re not in high school, we’re not pretending to be in high school,” Ashford adds. “[It has] a little bit of the glamour of things people don’t really do anymore.”
Prairie Empire began about four years ago, when Ashford decided to go from playing her music under her own name to giving her musical entity a new name, “to get a little more leverage when booking and touring. It seemed easier to say, ‘My band Prairie Empire’ versus ‘Me and my band.’ It seemed a little easier to get attention of certain venues.”
When Prairie Empire was recording their first self-titled album, it was initially supposed to be released under Ashford’s own name, but the recording process changed her mind. “When we were finishing it, I was like, this doesn’t really feel like just me. There were other people that made it happen. So that was another reason to be like, why not have a band name?”
“Circles” was shot at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on South 5th Street in Williamsburg. “The space was really important to us,” said Ashford. “It’s where you would have a weird dance, a social hall.” In a odd bit of parallelism, that very church has a performance space inside it that was recently restored in an effort spearheaded by the church’s pastor so that local artists could put on shows there.
Though her past self wouldn’t have seen it coming, Ashford is no stranger to theater. She’s spent much of the last four years performing in musical works by the composer Dave Malloy—when we talked, she was in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival there with Malloy’s show Ghost Quartet. That particular show premiered at the Bushwick Starr and went on to play A.R.T. in Boston, the McKittrick Hotel (home of Sleep No More), and even a night out under the stars in Maria Hernandez Park. It’s a highly music-driven storytelling piece with a small cast of musicians, who also play instruments throughout the show.
She’s headed for even bigger stages in the fall: Malloy’s Obie award-winning show Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is an electro-pop opera based on a portion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace directed by Rachel Chavkin, where audience members sit at tables and sip vodka while the action unfolds all around them. The show premiered in 2012 at Ars Nova and has since traveled around to various pop-up venues in Manhattan—I’ve seen Comet multiple times and personally often cite it as a show that has changed the way I view what is possible in the genre of musicals. Ashford’s been a key player in the show since the beginning, and in the fall it will go to Broadway, marking her (and many other Comet performers’s) Broadway debut.
“I’m nervous, I’m also excited, [but] even though I’ve been doing the show for the past four years it still doesn’t feel like my world. I still feel like a little bit of an outsider,” explains Ashford, who has no formal music or theatrical training and joined the Comet company at composer and friend Dave Malloy’s request. “Even at the [beginning of Comet], I was very apprehensive, I was like, I am not an actor. I still feel a little bit of that, and a lot of the friends I’ve made in the theater community are like, well, you better get over that. You’re an actor now. You’re on Broadway.”
But to Ashford, who still identifies more as musician than actor, there is a key difference between performing in theater like this and partaking in more intimate projects like Ghost Quartet, or playing her own music. “Great Comet is like, you get up there and you’re connecting with the audience mostly, you’re never going to see the guy in the back playing cello, because he’s 40 feet away from you or in a lot of shows he’s under the stage. There’s something to me that’s really magical about connecting with your fellow musicians.”
After spending July and some of June on the road, Prairie Empire has concluded touring for the time being. Ashford says they’re probably done for the next year, as she’s about to embark on a schedule of doing eight shows a week. Knowing this, Ashford said, is “a bummer, because I love touring. Even in its most thankless moments, I really enjoy it.”
She’s still planning on squeezing in some shows in the city when she can. “People are like, how can you do eight shows a week? Sunday you’ll do a matinee and Sunday night you’ll do your own music? It’s a lot, but I like playing music, I really love being part of a band and connecting with people that way,” she said. “Tedious as it is, there’s something important to me about continuing, even if it’s once a month or once every two months. Doing something of my own to remind myself that it’s still something I can do.”
(Disclosure: the video’s co-director, Charles Quittner, is a friend of mine. We met, coincidentally, at a queer art opening in Williamsburg I covered for B+B last year.)