Dick Prall: beautiful voice and instinctive songwriting
Dick Prall is 37, although his face and hands suggest someone a decade younger.. He sits across the table and focuses intently on what you have to say. His clear blue eyes hold yours. You like him instantly, in no small part because he communicates that he likes you. His demeanor is modest but confident. He is not insecure. He knows who he is, but he is not sure that he is, or will even become, anyone important. He never went to college and did not pick up music in a serious way until he was 25. His thoughts about himself and about music are mature.
Modesty is not how you would describe Dick Prall when you see him perform at Park West, on Chicago’s northside. He romps about on the stage, using his guitar as a sword-like prop, teasing the audience, who loves him and loves his emo-rock with a hint of country flavor. He radiates sincerity and connects personally with each member of the audience of nearly 1,000. The stage presence is, however, just a hint of his charisma.
To see that, you must go into the lobby after his performance, where members of the audience are lined up, snaked well past the bar, to meet him and to get him to autograph a CD or a tee shirt. It’s not the line that is remarkable; it’s how he relates to it. For everyone who comes up—everyone—Dick has a whispered intimacy, a hug, or both. Starry-eyed pretty female teenagers, older women, fat girls, dignified men, cute boys, couples of all kinds: they all get the same personalized treatment. Dick not only makes it seem that he values them for who they are; he means it. They bask in his respect and go away aglow. Many already have met him, and he remembers their names. Others, he will call by name when he sees them again.
A different Prall performs at Coyote Gallery a few weeks earlier. At that small Chicago venue, displaying visual art as well as hosting his performance on a wintry Sunday afternoon, Dick performed seated. His country-influenced, folk-like songs enthralled a group of about twenty seated on chairs within five feet of him. Other members of the public were milling about, talking, and looking at the art on the walls. Prall sang sweetly, as always, but softly, and his commentary between songs was directed to those close at hand. No boisterous showman here, he accommodated himself to the ambience.
Despite the charisma and success, Prall insists, “All I brought to the world of music were a good voice and a good ear.”
His genes and his mother made sure of that. Dick lost his natural father when he was four, and had limited contact with his mother thereafter, as she went to work to support Dick and his five siblings. Still, he remembers at an early age his mother singing in a beautiful voice and encouraging all of the kids to contribute harmonies. “You do not have to understand what you are doing,” she said; “you just have to hear whether it sounds nice.”
His older brothers and sisters introduced Dick, who was the youngest of the brood, to the Beatles. While their mother was working to support the family, the kids, pretty much on their own, milled around listening to music on the stereo. No one could agree on what should be played except the Beatles. Dick would go to sleep after one of these music days, vaguely dreaming that he would be a Beatle someday. When Dick’s cousin Joe, five years older, got into a college band, that “lit my fire,” Dick recalls. “I realized, ‘Maybe I can do this?!’”
Elementary, junior-high, and high school, however, were miserable experiences because the small classes had defined and closed their cliques before Dick got there. So aside from one year playing the saxophone in the fifth grade, Dick’s musical interests developed outside school. He and his friends drove around in their cars, listening to cassettes. After being frustrated about going to a regular college by a combination of an indifferent high school academic performance and lack of money, he attended North Iowa Area City Community College in nearby Mason City, but found it to be like high-school. He was not going to learn anything there.
Dick struck out on his own at age 19 by leaving Sheffield, Iowa and going to Colorado, where his brother, Kirk, had lived for eight years. He met Greg Carlson in his workplace. He and Greg, who played guitar, teamed up and played covers in Greg’s basement. Shortly thereafter, Dick joined a band that played a few covers and a few originals, but decided to leave the band after an unsatisfying open mic night performance.Even so, Dick discovered that he liked performing. He always had wanted to be an actor anyway.
Eventually, he ran out of money and couches to sleep on, and Dick, at 23, went back to Iowa, to Iowa City. By now, he thought of himself as a musician, and presented himself as “a musician from Denver” in hopes that this “pedigree” might raise more interest in him from the local musicians.He immediately started playing and performing in coffee houses and bars as the lead singer for various bands. They all welcomed him because of his voice. He would have ideas for new songs, but it was hard to communicate them to the other members of his group, because he none of them knew much music theory or terminology and Dick could not play the guitar. He could hear and sing his ideas, but it was difficult to talk about them or to demonstrate them.
In one of these bands, he befriended Quentin Duarte. Most of the other musicians found Quentin to be difficult. He had a bipolar personality, and tended to be withdrawn, with an angry edge. But he and Dick really hit it off. After many discussions about music, in which Dick expressed his frustrations about difficulty in communicating his musical ideas, Quentin said, “We have to get you a guitar,” and so they went to a local music store and bought a Sigma Martin Acoustic for $250 and a chord book.
Instead of learning to play someone else’s music Dick learned to play four basic chords and then wrote his own song. As he learned other chords, he wrote more songs. Even now, he often cannot tell fellow musicians what chord he is playing, and has to show them with his fingers on the frets of his guitar.
His mother, distracted by the need to earn a living and to raise a big family, was startled when she realized that Dick was a serious and talented musician. When he came home for a visit from Iowa City, she said, “Gee, son!I did not know you were doing all this!” That made Dick extremely proud as some of his earliest memories were those of singing along with his mother, and loving her voice.
He was a full-time musician for four years thereafter. During this first full-time period, he experienced considerable success, opening for major groups before audiences of 1,500 to 7,000, getting some 50 mostly favorable reviews, selling close to 4,000 copies of his first album and over 5,000 copies of a second. He did live performances 12-15 times a month as the lead in a band he called “Starch Martins.” He released his first album when he was 28. A vanity label called WhiteRose Recordings served as a conduit for investors and donors to defray recording-studio and touring expenses, in the aggregate sum of $40,000. Despite these apparent indicia of success, Prall only made about $50 per week—hardly enough to support himself and his daughter. His most enthusiastic supporter and manager, Fred Haumesser, had a full time job and had only limited amounts of time to provide management for the band. No one else in Prall’s base of friends and fans had the time to connect all the dots—to make sure that he captured the synergy that might have developed from the favorable reviews, the fan support, and the CD sales, which occurred at different times in different places.
For the last five years, he has worked full-time in various administrative and professional jobs while playing music part-time. Since he has been working fulltime outside the music industry, he continues to perform live four to six times per month, and has released “fizzlebuzzie,” his third album, through his label “White Rose Recording,” which has sold 2500 copies so far, His music, including this album, is available through Awarestore, Miles of Music, CDbaby, and iTunes. Dick is finishing up his fourth album, to be released this summer. He has a well constructed website, on which one can listen to samples of his music, see the upcoming calendar of performances, and order CDs. His music is available for sale on CDBaby, AwareStore, Miles of Music, Not Lame Recording Company, iTunes, and Amazon. He wrote ten new songs in 2006, .and he has 16,449 MySpace “friends” as of 12 June 2007.
He was so annoyed by early characterizations of him as “alternative country,” that he changed his moniker, so the “alternative country” guy would be someone else. His early diet of melodic lyricists, from Buddy Holly to John Lennon to Elvis Costello, mixed with his brilliant storytelling and his love for the guitar, helped define his own blend of songwriting. Shying away from critics’ placement into genres like “power-pop,” “rootsy” and “epic rock,” Dick Prall created of his own musical genre: porch pop evoking the sonic midway between Matthew Sweet and the Old 97’s, between Josh Rouse and Pete Yorn, between chocolate and potato chips
The Chicago Sun-Times calls Prall’s music “smart, introspective and filled with great hooks.” Time Out Chicago recognizes that "Prall excels at morphing the smallest of melodic chunks into grandiose statements of purpose.” Performing Songwriter notes: “Prall has captured the excitement of youth...he’s a real gem.” According to the Illinois Entertainer, Prall “effectively describes the frustrations of a musician trying to achieve fame when he notes, ‘All that glitters seems to be my sweat/But I ain’t going down just yet.’”
He does not separate completely his music world from his day-job world. A professional staff member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Dick pioneered the immensely successful “GOAt” project for the Council, which draws in hundreds of people to debates and discussions of foreign affairs issues to music venues, where the attendees are more comfortable than they would be at traditional Council jacket-and-tie elite venues.
Now, Prall plans to become a fulltime musician again. The clock is ticking, and that concerns him. When the setting requires it, he will arrange for others to join him, on a performance-by-performance basis, but the brand will always be “Dick Prall.” In 2007, Dick recruited Colonel Josh Shapera to play keyboards/vibraphone/ percussion and Chad Gifford to play violin/mandolin/keyboards. Josh and Chad join band members Derek Crawford on drums/vibraphone and Michael Sinclair on electric bass/upright bass. He has hired a professional manager, who intends to concentrate on expanding his public performances and disdains the usual record-label deal, which “leaves the artist with nothing but debt to the label.” He hopes to tour for two weeks, then have a week off, and then tour for two weeks, throughout the year, averaging 15 performances per month.
“I am a musician,” Prall says, “and I want to make a living pursuing my passion. I’m not going to give up. When people hear my music, they tend to react favorably to it and many continue to support me.”
“It’s different now,” he believes, “than when I was 30. You don’t have to print and assemble the press packets; they are already in an electronic bundle on your hard drive, and you just click the mouse button once to send it to a hundred promoters, venue owners or reviewers. You don’t have to recruit a network of people to give out CDs to draw people to the next performance; you just pull them to your MySpace site or webpage and they can sample your music and see what you look like and get acquainted and join your club from wherever they are. Nor does it matter where my manager is physically. She can reach out to promoters and venues all over the country from her home office. She can get my input on scheduling without our having to have a meeting.”
With the aid of new technologies for broadening awareness, building fan-artist attachment through virtual communication, Prall believes that he can gradually increase attendance at his live performances, producing enough income to survive and to live a modestly comfortable life, one in which he has quality time for his daughter and a reasonable social life.
Prall is undaunted by any concern that some music consumers prefer younger singers. “Occasionally, a 15-year old girl may lose interest when she discovers I am 37 rather than 25, but I think my music has a broader appeal than to15-year-old girls who fantasize about a romantic relationship.” Of course,” good-looking, charismatic Prall says with a smile, “I don’t mind that I look younger than I am.”