No one can find Tristan Prettyman. Phone calls are flying back and forth from management, publicists, assistants and the assistants to the assistants. Some are confirming our interview. Others are un-confirming our interview. Panic is afoot in the carpeted hallways of Virgin Records in New York City.
After three days of traded phone calls, Prettyman turns up with one direct, nonchalant phone call to schedule her own interview.
"I've been right here the whole time," she says. "Sometimes things at a record label can be a little more complicated than they should be."
Prettyman is now a hotly handled commodity, with G.Love tours under her belt, a duet with her paramour Jason Mraz on her new album and publicity tours by the dozen ahead of her. In the middle of all this hustle bustle is a girl who is trying to balance willful obliviousness with self-preservation.
She's the quintessential surfer chick: laid-back, breezy and pleasant with unforced clothing-catalog sexiness. She doesn't sweat the details. If she has to expend energy on anything, it's going to be her music.
Prettyman has already sold more than 10,000 units of her self-released Love EP, even though her "fulfillment center" consisted only of her mom, Sally, who would mail off CDs to fans while Prettyman was on the road.
With the Aug. 2 release of twentythree-her full-length debut-things are different. Someone is being paid to market her to radio. Someone is paid to manage her tours. Someone is paid to say nice things about her to the press. And Mom has been replaced by a distribution company.
"The record is so simple-it's nothing you would expect from a major label," Prettyman says. "I couldn't believe they wanted to put it out. I think the record industry is coming around. People are figuring out that if you just let people do what they do and stop trying to change them, these artists are going to make more money because they are more natural. It's not like they're going to run out of songs because they were manufactured."
For twentythree, Prettyman wrote her own tunes and then assembled a personal dream team to play them. Mraz suggested A&R man-cum-producer Josh Deutsch, who co-wrote and produced the debut by pop group Vitamin C and also worked on Mraz' latest, Mr. A to Z. Bassist Lee Alexander (Norah Jones), drummer Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley) and percussionist Leon Mobley (Ben Harper) all signed on after hearing Prettyman's early work. When she finally unveiled the raw beginnings of twentythree, Virgin was supportive.
"They could have asked for strings or beats or more guest spots or more production, but they didn't," Prettyman says. "I was so happy to work with a label that let me create my own path and make my record my own way."
The absence of cameos on twentythree is a big shocker. With a brand new artist, major labels need to do everything they can to attract attention. One proven method is to enlist high-profile pals (or just pay off big-name strangers) to sing on the album as a sort of aural endorsement. And Prettyman's not short on pals. She's been mentored by Jack Johnson, co-written songs with G. Love and undoubtedly made many more high-profile friends over the past few years.
So twentythree easily could have been an album whose song titles were all footnoted with "featuring (enter big star here)." Yet besides the duet with Mraz on the real-life love song "Shy That Way," it's all Prettyman, a testament to her desire not to be a copilot on her own ride.
For similar reasons, she turned down a major-label offer a few years ago (they wanted to mold her into a pop star, which she's not). Even after agreeing to a deal with Virgin last year, she wasn't so confident.
"Of course they're going to tell me that they're going to be good for me and I'm going to love it. Then they're going to screw me when I sign the paper," she recalls thinking.
But things seem to have fallen into place. Prettyman visits the Virgin offices in New York City as frequently as possible and walks through the halls barefoot to meet and greet the people that work behind the scenes.
The day Virgin sent out advance pressings of twentythree to select media types who might get word-of-mouth rolling, she was there, bugging her publicist into letting her write personal notes. The copy sent to CityBeat had a full paragraph of well-wishings and sloppy valentine hearts drawn in peppy silver-glitter ink.
That sort of personal involvement and optimism is part of Prettyman's charm; her success will at least partially depend on staying that way.
It won't be easy. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and people's careers now hinge on her songs.
For now, she's doing what she can-the music, the small things. And when reality slaps her in the face, she seems to shrug and adjust.
"When I signed the deal, I told my half-brother that I would buy him a car with my advance," she says. "Then I realized I had to pay the lawyers, the manager and the taxes. I learned about everything that goes into an advance. I had to tell my brother to hang in there until the record sells a million copies.
"But I'm learning more about myself, about what I'm doing, why I'm doing it and who I am... as time goes on. I have a better grasp on all this than I did a year ago."