"I was the biggest dork in high school."
Not again. Not another attractive young musician blessed with killer pipes and painfully perfect cheekbones complaining about her uncool past. The girl trying to sell the ugly duckling storyline is Tristan Prettyman, fledgling buzz artist and former tour mate of Jason Mraz; object of fawning attention from Atlantic Records; subject of a recent Surfer magazine article; favorite of sensitive college coeds from the East Coast to Canada to Leucadia; and the topic of a fan-operated Internet message board, named "Softly Before I Scream" after one of her songs.
A "dork" who modeled for Roxy, the overly cool surfer-chick clothing line? Please.
"That's when I started getting cool," the 21-year old surfer-songwriter laughs over Hawaiian-style deep dish and Pacificos at an Encinitas pizza joint. Modeling for Roxy was a proactive attempt to remedy her admittedly "boy-crazy" but date-deficient high school years.
"I wanted to learn how to surf," she explains. "I thought, 'If I learn how to surf, then I'll be cool, and then I'll get a date.'"
Finally, some truth slips out. Prettyman admits to something we've suspected all along: that while self-expression may be the biggest inspiration, another reason people start playing music is to get a little love from the opposite sex.
"I thought that it would," she deadpans. "But it hasn't. Not one. I think it intimidates guys more than anything else. I even say it on stage: 'This is the number one reason not to date someone who plays guitar, 'cause I'll write this about you.'"
She pauses, adding with a sly smile, "I have to write about something."
Prettyman's short but already storied odyssey as singer-songwriter began as a 12-year-old Del Mar kid stealing plucks on her dad's Yamaha while he was out surfing local breaks like Pipes and Swami's. Seven years later, she was writing songs and recording demos on a home set-up. Before too long, gigs at the Belly Up were leading to exactly the kind of attention Prettyman says she still can't get enough of-both musical and romantic, the line between which she still blurs.
Regarding rumors of a romance with Mraz, with whom she toured earlier this year and co-wrote the song "Shy That Way," Prettyman will only go on the record with a purposefully cryptic, diplomatic quip:
"I adore him, he rocks my socks, and if making love had a voice, it would be his... but we're just really good friends. We've decided to have our relationship through songwriting."
Prettyman has had her female mentors as well, however.
"My first gigs were with [singer-songwriter and 94/9FM DJ] Anya Marina, who I just adore. She's one of my heroes," she says. "Her and Ani Difranco. If I could be like anyone in music, it would be Ani."
Prettyman's polished-yet-earthy guitar playing and her stark, throaty vocals do indeed evoke an Ani Difranco-meets-Jack Johnson vibe. Filtered through her obsession with Mraz' jazz-pop aesthetic, her debut, The Love EP, is surprisingly sophisticated and still somehow indie-sounding.
Consisting of seven new songs and older demos updated with stripped-down arrangements, The Love EP's mature confection of pop poetry and school-girl heartbreak often borders on journal-entry confessional, but never quite falls into cliché. Though Prettyman says she "missed the whole coffeehouse circuit thing," she's obviously imbibed the rich, literate storytelling strengths of local songwriters like Gregory Page and molded it around her simmering, funky-folk ape of Jack Johnson-who, along with his wife, was instrumental to Prettyman's development as a performer.
After giving personal performances for major label reps in Los Angeles, she explains that The Love EP could have easily become the next Avril Lavigne-ish assault on bubblegum rock from one of the major labels. But that sort of scenario just wasn't in her songbook.
"They were basically, like, 'We love it so much,'" she explains. "But they said, 'Here's the deal: you can do the singer-songwriter thing, and you'll only be so popular. Or, we pair you with someone like [songwriting/producing duo] The Matrix, and you can be the next Avril Lavigne.'
"I was like, 'Can't I just sell records as the girl in corduroy?'" she asks rhetorically, stressing that while she thinks the coffeeshop-to-pop-star transformations of Liz Phair and Jewel and even Jason Mraz is "fine for them, it just isn't me or who I am. I never want to have to do that with my music. It just wouldn't work."
Then she satirically reconsiders with another coy grin:
"I know, you'll probably push the quote back in my face one day in five years when I've sold out and I'm making videos in my juicy suit!"