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Not Just a Pretty Girl

Singer-songwriter Tristan Prettyman digs deep on Cedar + Gold

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Northern San Diego is a beautiful beachside community bereft of the kind of dive bars and dingy concert clubs that breed good rock 'n' roll. So when singer-songwriter Tristan Prettyman, who was born in raised in what the locals call North County, was trying to get gigs in her hometown, she had to look to some rather unconventional venues.

"This skateboarder Bob Burnquist had a Brazilian restaurant and at night I would play a half-hour set there," she recalls when asked about the places she played in the early part of her career. "There was this other restaurant called Calypso and Jack Tempchin who wrote a lot of songs for the Eagles would play sometimes. I would go on before him. I really just started playing at restaurants. I didn't know what I was doing. I just knew I had to play in front of people to get that experience."

An accomplished surfer, Prettyman got her first big break when she was just hanging out with some fellow surfers who were putting together a film. The guys heard her playing at a party and decided her low-key music would be a good fit.

"They didn't want anyone who was too well known," she says. "They wanted to record people on mini disc players and have the tracks be pretty raw and organic. People heard the song I did for the soundtrack and wanted to know who I was. If it wasn't for all those people encouraging me, I'm not sure I would have chosen this path. Originally, I was going to school for business communication. I was working as an intern for the Volcom surf rep and I wanted to be a rep for the clothing company."

Prettyman just as easily could have become a model. Her girl-next-door good looks and athletic build got her a gig modeling clothes for Roxy, the sister company to the surf clothing company Quiksilver. But inspired by an Ani DiFranco mixtape her brother had given her ("when I heard her being so blunt and honest, that really resonated with me," she says), she decided to devote all her time and energy to music. And with last year's Cedar + Gold, a moving collection of songs that document a tumultuous period of her life, she's established herself as a singer-songwriter who, like DiFranco, brings a quiet intensity to the genre.

Prettyman says not sure how all of her musical influences affect her songwriting. She's a fan of a wide range of music, and that's been the case ever since she was young.

"My mom was an aerobics teacher so I grew up on a lot of C&C Music Factory and Debbie Gibson and Janet Jackson," she says "My dad listened to classic rock. I also love hip-hop. I was obsessed with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre when I was younger. I loved pop music. I loved Mariah Carey and Vanessa Williams. I went through a phase when I was listening to my parents' old Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor and Rush albums."

And yet songs like Cedar + Gold's "Say Anything" have a bit of country in them.

"I don't know where that comes from," she admits. "My grandpa played a lot of Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn when I was a kid. My mom tells me that I've music around me since I was a baby. But when I write, I never say, 'I like that song and I want to write a song like that.' Whatever comes out on the guitar and in melodies is totally detached from any influence."

Initially, Prettyman self-released a series of demos and EPs before making her major label debut in 2005 with Twentythree, an album that featured a duet with then-boyfriend Jason Mraz, and followed it with 2008's Hello...x. After that album's release, Prettyman developed polyps on her vocal chords and had to have surgery. She and Mraz split up, only to reunite, become engaged and then split up again. Cedar + Gold attempts to document some of the trials and tribulations she experienced. In "You Were Gonna Marry Me," she directly addresses the break-up.

"For me, the album is really about how everyone at some point can recall a time when they wonder if they're really living up to what they should be doing with their life," she says. "I had hit a point when I didn't know if I wanted to keep playing music. I kept thinking I should be further along. The records are great and I'm proud of them but I was still grinding it out in a van and playing for 200 people. I felt disconnected from the music and from my friends, my family and what I wanted in my personal life."

Those feelings of frustration fuel songs such as "Bad Drug," a dirge that distorts her pretty vocals and gives her a chance to even break into a bit of rap as she sings "you hang around me like a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad drug."

"It was one thing after another but it was exactly what I needed," she says of the events that inspired the album. "It was like a smack in the face and notice to wake up and get connected with why I play music. The music was asking me to give a shit. The music was going, 'It's here if you want it. You have to cry and bleed. You have to feel. Right now, you don't want to do anything. You just want everything given to you.' It was a big reality check and I'm so grateful for it. It really did wake me up. It put me back into that place of innocence and being vulnerable and feeling so thankful that I get to do this and can inspire and help someone who is going through something similar. I realized music is not something to be taken for granted. It's an awesome opportunity."

And yes, Mraz, who also lives in San Diego, has heard the album. Prettyman says they have recently reconciled and adds that Mraz even complimented her on the album.

While some critics have decreed Cedar + Gold to be a big step away from the surf-y singer-songwriter genre with which she's been associated, Prettyman maintains she never set out to play that style of music.

"It's weird because everyone grouped me as the female Jack Johnson," she says. "I don't think my music ever was surf-y to begin with. It's like they think that because I surf and play guitar, I must play surf music. It is like someone saying, 'You play tennis, so how does your tennis affect your music?' They're two totally different things. I felt like the first two records were lighter and brighter and bouncier and this one is darker and more reflective and rich. It's not like everything is sunshine and 70 degrees out and we're going surfing. It's more like, 'Let's take a look at some real shit that's going on that's not the easiest stuff to go through.'"

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