NASHVILLE — In the summer of 2020, four months into the pandemic, Priscilla Block was broke and forced out of the apartment she was renting in a moderately swanky complex near Music Row. She was cleaning Airbnbs for money and the job had dried up. His mother and sister came to town to help him move into a much darker shared house nearby.
“I was crying. I just felt like I had failed so much,” Block, 26, said one afternoon last month, parked outside the house in her white Jeep, a stopover during a visit from daunting places she had called home over the years.
The dilapidated little house had no air conditioning, and during this hot season came down with Covid-19 after a night out at a local bar. Quarantined and ill, Block nevertheless continued to write songs, including one about another misfortune of that same night: running into an ex.
She had been posting songs on TikTok for a few months at that point, including brassy, smart, and thunderous feminist country anthems like “Thick Thighs” and “PMS.” But this song, “Just About Over You,” was different, a steamy ballad that balanced resentment with determination. She uploaded a video singing it, and her fans reacted feverishly, raising money for her to record it professionally. Three weeks later, when she self-posted it on streaming services, she went live on TikTok to thank them.
“I thought my life had changed then, you know?” she said. “I thought it was this.”
The next day, “Just About Over You” unexpectedly topped the iTunes sales chart. For Block, who moved to Nashville in 2014 right after high school and sang in bars for tips between other jobs, the jolt was sudden. Before long, she had a record deal, a publishing deal, and on Friday she’ll release her first full-length album, “Welcome to the Block Party.”
It’s a refreshing and accomplished, and ambitious, pop-country debut album. At a time when female performers are still rare on country radio, it is full of songs that loudly announce their intentions. The scale of some of the album’s choruses – on “My Bar”, “Heels in Hand”, “Wish You Were the Whiskey” and others – is reminiscent of 1990s and early 2000s power country, when the genre took its cues from arena rock, and when its pop ambitions were unfettered. Nothing in this album is shy.
Earlier in the day, Block sat at a table in the listening room, cafe, and performance space where she worked. Her hair was up in a turquoise scrunchie that matched both her fingernails and her bubblegum. She wore a marble-dyed mesh shirt, tight jeans, high heels and an abundance of rings and necklaces. “Classic and trashy,” she joked, adding, “I like to wear clothes that fit my hourglass shape, owning the whole body.”
If Nashville has been inhospitable to female performers, it has been exponentially so to anyone who strays from its strictly proscribed beauty standards. As a young performer, Block found his role models away from country music; “I was watching Beyoncé get up on TV and like, she was a thicker girl, and that was cool.”
Block encountered resistance from his early days in Nashville: “I remember sitting down with someone and it was this conversation, ‘I’m saying this in a nice way, I don’t mean to hurt you, but you have to lose weight if this is the career path you really want to follow.
The thunderous “Thick Thighs,” which had been a smash hit on TikTok, was written in a fit of spite. “I’ve been hearing about ‘dad bods’ a little too long / So what about my muffin top?” she sings harshly, adding an implied eye roll to the chorus: “I can’t be the only one who likes / Extra fries rather than exercise.” When she first performed it at the bar where she sang Carrie Underwood and the Chicks covers for tips, the crowd sang along with the second chorus.
But when it came time to release her debut EP (released last April) after signing her contract, she settled on a series of heartbreaking love ballads. “I had this fear of being the ‘funny song’ girl,” Block said. “I can be the funny girl or I can be the crying girl. The crying girl or the girl who tries to beautify the crying girl.
But an insistence from the president of her label – “She said to me, ‘It’s new. It’s you. And it’s cheeky for someone to say that. I really want to make sure it doesn’t get lost.’ – made him realize how crucial both parts of his creative personality would be to his album.
The album’s final song, “Peaked in High School,” plays on its humorous side, with Block jubilantly dismissing the mean girls who made teenage life difficult: “I got a deal, you divorced/ You see my face on the billboards / I changed the number you always call But the smoke of his heartbreaking songs is powerful It’s often about an ex who still seems to linger – on the “My Bar,” resiliently insistently trying to introduce himself to his local watering hole (“You think you’re such a star but here’s the fun part / No one even knows who you are”), while on the kiss smooth “I Bet You Wanna Know”, it’s portrayed as a stubborn shadow that Block can’t quite shake.
Block’s blend of boldness and angst is powerful and far removed from the music she was making when she first came to Nashville – “Taylor Swift Meets Miranda Lambert” – and was building Pinterest boards describing what her style and its aesthetic should be. “I was basically trying to cover up everything cool about me, you know?”
Now she leans on the shine. In her Jeep, she sips water from a goblet sent by a fan, covered in glitter and inscribed with the names of several of her songs. She gives her album release concert in the Las Vegas branch of the bar she loves in Nashville. And she’s looking for soul mates: “My goal is to do a ‘CMT Crossroads’ with Lizzo, and have her play the flute on ‘Thick Thighs’!”