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If you had been wandering around Mount Pleasant in early July, you might have stumbled upon Back Porch Sundays, a neighborhood event where for $10, you would have gotten to hear the charismatic singing of Priska Neely, a 24-year-old Silver Spring native whose tender voice, simple guitar strumming, witty lyrics, and silly vocal sound effects make her ascent in D.C.’s singer/songwriter scene seem inevitable.
Inevitable to everyone but Neely, that is. Funny and unpretentious, Neely has a full-time job is as producer of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and doesn’t plan on prioritizing singing anytime soon. Sitting down with Washington City Paper, Neely frames her music as more of a side project to satisfy her quirky personality. She opens up about how music connects to her family, what inspires her to write, and what sounds she’d like to tackle next.
Washington City Paper: You seem like someone who is not actively promoting herself as a singer…
Priska Neely: I knew you were going to ask me how I got started, and I was debating whether I should tell the full story or not, but I guess I will. I started playing the guitar after my brother died, when I was 13. He was 16 years older than I am. He had the guitar. I would go visit him and I would end up playing the guitar more than he did, and after he died, I got it.
WCP: Do you still play his guitar?
PN: Yeah. That’s my one and only guitar.
WCP: What kind is it?
PN: It’s a classical guitar actually, and that’s the other thing—-I don’t really know anything about guitars. I taught myself.
WCP: What’s one of the first songs you ever wrote?
PN: “Crazy.” It was inspired by my dog. I was singing something to him one day and he looked at me like I was insane. He’s a cocker spaniel and sort of cocked his head to one side and gave me this very judgmental look. And there was this guy in my high school who I really liked, but he was not paying me any attention, and I, like, opened up to him and told him my feelings and then he was like, “Oh… that’s nice.” So I fused those two themes together into that song. Most of the songs that I write are small moments that trigger extreme periods of emotionality and then I make it about something a bit bigger.
WCP: What is your songwriting process? What do you like to write about?
PN: I don’t know how often I’ve been in love really, but my songs are not about that. Not “Why am I alone” or that type thing. I used to write in my journal all the time; I don’t as much anymore, but that’s when I would start doing it. The songs I wrote recently, it’s been harder to force myself to sit down.
WCP: How did the faux-dramatic song “Ode to Condiments” come to you?
PN: I have Celiac Disease, so I can’t eat gluten, so I went home and my mom made me these gluten-free chicken tenders, which was really exciting, because that’s not something that I regularly have. So she’d made this fried food, and then there was just nothing to put on them. And I was like, “Mother—-you’ve met me before… what? I mean, thank you but also, what am I supposed to do with this?” And I went to Giant, which is close by. I’m in the Giant and I’m looking at the condiment aisle and I’m thinking, “I just love all this stuff,” so I went home and I ate and I was like, “OK mother, I have to go to my room and write now,” and I just spent three hours with Garage Band, just doing that, and then I got really excited about it.
WCP: What about the music video for that song? How did it come together?
PN: One of my friends who I know from high school was like, “Oh my goodness, Priska, I’m so passionate about ketchup, I want to be involved in this project.” So we spent like three days doing this shoot and it was three and a half hours of footage for three minutes of a song. I watched a lot of Mary J. Blige music videos; that’s kind of what we studied when we were storyboarding it.
WCP: Why do you think this song resonates with audiences?
PN: You hear your favorite one and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s mine! I love honey mustard.” My brother-in-law just hates condiments, like doesn’t put salad dressing on his salad. But he still supports the song.
WCP: What’s your favorite condiment?
PN: I don’t do favorites really. That would mean that I have a favorite food, and I don’t. I could tell you my favorite pairs. With chicken tenders, I would prefer honey mustard over any other option. But I would like to have honey mustard and BBQ sauce. And I would like to have ketchup with the fries. And I’d like all of those to kind of interact with each other in my mouth.
WCP: How did you get into journalism?
PN: I’ve been told that as a child, I used to interview people with an imaginary microphone. In high school (at Blake in Silver Spring), I was editor of the paper… Then I went to NYU for undergrad.
WCP: Did you expect to end up back where you grew up?
PN: Everyone loves New York, but they love it because of the stuff that’s really expensive. And I didn’t want to be like struggling there; so I moved home, had a lot of random internships. I was working at a nursing home for awhile doing life-enrichment activities. Then I got an internship at NPR and got hired and probably will never leave.
WCP: Who are some people you listened to growing up?
PN: I have this very weird sense of the world because of how much younger I was than my siblings. I also didn’t know how to talk to people my own age when I was little. And so I was just in my room, listening to a lot of classical music as a child. I played the violin when I was growing up… My brother gave me a lot of my first music that I listened to, which was The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour, which isn’t even a normal Beatles album. I was listening to that and Wyclef, Alanis [Morissette], The Cranberries.
WCP: What’s your first memory of being on stage and singing?
PN: My dad was a pastor when I was growing up, and that’s where I started singing, but I wasn’t into solos. Even now, I sing with my guitar and I feel like I’m not singing alone. My sister writes music, too, she writes more choral gospel music. And she gave me a solo. We were singing at this state fair and I was so nervous and my voice was shaking. Right when I started singing, there was this lamb that started bleating and I just remember being like, “I sound exactly like that lamb—-I’m never singing again.”
WCP: At the Back Porch Sundays performance, you did a great “trumpet solo” with your voice, and shared your impression of a baby crying. How did you learn to make those noises?
PN: That also stems from a lot of time spent alone as a child, just making weird noises at home and no one caring. I have this memory of me and my sister having this roaring competition. Then I was like, maybe I should just work on some stuff, so she suggested the baby, which is my infamous sound. I worked on that for awhile. I tried listening to different things, using different parts of my throat. First she would give me feedback like, “It sounds too much like a cat.” Then someone suggested I do a cricket…
WCP: Yeah, we didn’t get to hear that one at Back Porch.
PN: That one is super temperamental. It’s like, the time of day. I used to be able to do it pretty much on call, but now it doesn’t want to come out. The trumpet I just started doing recently. Christylez Bacon [the local progressive hip-hop artist] talked to me one week after BloomBars and said I should put it in a song, and that was when I was working on “Holding Pattern.”
WCP: What else is in your repertoire?
PN: I do some goats. I do accents, but I don’t advertise those as much. The seagull. I do a turkey…I can do a civilian warning siren, like the tornado warning sound. Those are my highlights. I can also never remember what they are. When I have a performance I write them down on a Post-It. I really just make a lot of weird noises, like as a person.
WCP: So you’re not working on any new ones?
PN: I was thinking about a didgeridoo. I don’t know if I have the capacity to do that. I would like to do an elephant. Also some birds, chirping birds in a tree.
Priska Neely can be seen at Monday open-mic nights at BloomBars. Saturday she performs at 3 p.m. at the 16th Street Heights Summer of the Arts Festival on 14th Street between Webster and Decatur streets NW.
Photo courtesy Jeff Krentel