NASHVILLE — In the summer of 2020, four months into the pandemic, Priscilla Block was broke and forced to move out of the apartment she was renting in a medium-fancy complex near Music Row. She’d been cleaning Airbnbs for money, and the work had dried up. Her mother and sister came into town to help move her into a far grimmer shared house nearby.
“I was crying. I just felt like I failed so bad,” Block, 26, said one afternoon last month, parked outside the house in her white Jeep, one stop on a tour of dispiriting places she’d called home over the years.
The small, ramshackle house had no air conditioning, and during that hot season, she came down with Covid-19 following a night out at a local bar. Quarantined and sick, Block nevertheless kept writing songs, including one about another misfortune from that same night: bumping into an ex.
She’d been posting songs to TikTok for a few months at that point, including brassy, clever, uproarious feminist country anthems like “Thick Thighs” and “PMS.” But this song, “Just About Over You,” was different, a smoldering 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-released it to streaming services, she went live on TikTok to thank them.
“I thought that my life was changed then, you know?” she said. “I thought that was it.”
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 who sang at bars for tips in between other make-ends-meet jobs, the jolt was sudden. Before long, she had a record deal, a publishing contract and on Friday, she’ll release her full-length debut album, “Welcome to the Block Party.”
It’s a refreshing and accomplished pop-country debut album, and an ambitious one, too. In a moment in which female performers are still scant on country radio, it is full of songs that announce their intentions loudly. The sheer scale of some of the album’s choruses — on “My Bar,” “Heels in Hand,” “Wish You Were the Whiskey” and others — recalls the power country of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the genre was taking its cues from arena rock, and when its pop ambitions were unfettered. Nothing about this album is shy.
Earlier in the day, Block was sitting at a table at the Listening Room, a cafe and performance space where she used to work. Her hair was pulled up in a turquoise scrunchie that matched both her fingernails and her chewing gum. She wore a marble-dyed mesh shirt, tight jeans, clodhopper heels and a bounty of rings and necklaces. “Classy and trashy,” she joked, adding, “I like to wear clothes that fit my like hourglass shape, owning the whole body thing.”
If Nashville has been inhospitable to female performers, it has been exponentially more so to anyone who deviates from its strictly proscribed beauty standards. As a young performer, Block found her role models far from country music; “I would watch Beyoncé get up on TV and like, she was a thicker girl, and that was cool.”
Block encountered resistance from her earliest days in Nashville: “I remember sitting down with somebody and it was that conversation, ‘I’m saying this in a nice way, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you need to lose weight if this is the career path that you really want to go down.’”
The uproarious “Thick Thighs,” which had been a breakout success on TikTok, was written in a fit of pique. “I’ve been hearing ’bout ‘dad bods’ a little too long/So what about my muffin top is wrong?” she sings tartly, adding an implied eye-roll at the chorus: “I can’t be the only one who likes/Extra fries over exercise.” When she performed it for the first time at the bar where she sang covers of Carrie Underwood and the Chicks for tips, the crowd was singing along by the second chorus.
But when it came time to put out her first EP (released last April) after signing her deal, she opted for a set of lovelorn heartbreak ballads. “I did have that fear of being the ‘funny song’ girl,” Block said. “I can be the funny girl or I could be the girl crying her eyes out. The girl crying her eyes out or the girl trying to hype up the girl that’s crying her eyes out.”
But an urging from the president of her label — “She told me, ‘That is new. That is you. And that is ballsy for somebody to say that. I really want to make sure that doesn’t get lost.’” — made her realize how crucial both parts of her creative personality would be for her album.
The album’s final song, “Peaked in High School,” plays to to her humorous side, with Block jubilantly dismissing the mean girls who made teenage life hard: “I got a deal, you got divorced/You see my face on billboards/I changed the number you’re still calling.” But the smokiness of her heartbreak songs is potent. They’re often pointedly about an ex who appears to still be lingering — on the insistently resilient “My Bar,” he tries to showing up at her local watering hole (“You think you’re such a star but here’s the funny part/ No one even knows who you are”), while on the slick kiss-off “I Bet You Wanna Know,” he’s painted as a stubborn shadow that Block can’t quite shake.
Block’s blend of sass and angst is powerful, and a far cry from the music she was making when she first came to Nashville — “Taylor Swift meets Miranda Lambert” — and was building Pinterest boards charting what her style and aesthetic should be. “I basically was trying to cover up everything cool about me, you know?”
Now, she leans into sparkle. In her Jeep, she sips water from a tumbler sent by a fan, covered in glitter and inscribed with the names of several of her songs. She’s having her album release concert at the Las Vegas branch of the bar she favors in Nashville. And she’s seeking out kindred spirits: “My goal is to do a ‘CMT Crossroads’ with Lizzo, and have her playing a frickin’ flute to ‘Thick Thighs’!”