More than three decades into his career, Prince is still selling out arenas, recording amazing music -- and fighting as hard as he can for the ownership of his songs.
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"I was reluctant to let you come," says the man sitting in front of me, "until I heard that you're planning to do a story about ownership."
Photo Credit: Justine Walpole
I have flown out from Los Angeles to the ice fields of Minneapolis ("Well, it's back to the tundra," says one of my fellow passengers as we touch down on a crisp 12-degree day) on 24 hours' notice. I am hoping I will get a chance to discuss the spontaneous touring strategy Prince has raised to an innovative art in the last few years, as well as what plans he may have for his storehouse of unreleased material (his last album was 2010's 20Ten). And I'm planning to talk with him about his being chosen as Billboard's 2013 Icon honoree at the Billboard Music Awards in May.
But I begin wondering how much of that we'll get to when I get word from Prince's manager, Julia Ramadan, that I should spend what little time I have to prepare by watching "The Adjustment Bureau" (more on this later), reading the Twitter feed of an apparent (and mysterious) Prince bootlegger and watching an online video discussion between a Prince superfan and the blogger Dr. Funkenberry. And now I'm worried that the interview I've come here for may not happen at all.
One thing you learn quickly about Prince: He doesn't suffer fools or folks who don't know what they're talking about. For the next three hours, we ricochet back and forth on a variety of topics. Later, back at my hotel, I'll be re-creating our conversation from memory. This is how Prince interviews have unfolded for many years. He remains adamant about not allowing reporters to record their conversations with him. ("Some in the past have taken my voice and sold it," he says. "I can't remember the incident that triggered it and it's probably best that I don't.") And he still frowns at the idea of a reporter taking notes. ("That would be just like texting.")
Later on, I will watch Prince audition a drummer. Right now, I'm involved in an audition of my own. "Let's talk a little," Prince says as I follow him into a second-floor conference room, "and see if we vibe first." Without missing a beat and keeping steady eye contact, he makes a few comments about media ownership and control, then shoots out a question. How would I get the word out about, and then monetize a lyric video for, one of his new songs, "Screw Driver," that I'd been shown a few minutes earlier? I tell him an online post will generate enough interest to get us to monetization-given the fan clamor for new Prince music, there's a community ready to pay a nominal price to get their hands on said track. Nothing revolutionary, but Prince pauses and thinks it over. I think I may have passed the audition.
It's a 40-minute drive from the airport to the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Minn. As the driver makes a left turn, two stark white buildings materialize seemingly out of nowhere. Other than a small gray sign at the foot of the driveway noting the address and where trucks should make deliveries, there is no signage or any other vehicles, let alone human activity. The cabbie, hesitant as to whether we've found the right place, keeps the meter running for the three minutes it takes for someone to come outside and let me in. But there's no denying the aura: This is Paisley Park.
Ramadan-a tall, svelte recent USC graduate who met Prince during his run of 21 shows at the L.A. Forum (see story, page 31) and quickly ascended to management status-welcomes me and ushers me down a hallway with a light-blue carpet accented with stars and crescent moons. Album plaques line the walls. We arrive at the doorway of a cavernous soundstage, with an oddly elongated piano just outside. On it is the Love Symbol, first introduced on the 1992 album that marked his Artist Formerly Known As period.
The Love Symbol is emblazoned all around Paisley Park. Once inside the soundstage, you can't miss it hanging on the wall facing the stage. And that's when I first see the man himself, onstage, guitar in hand, rehearsing with a female backing trio: Donna Grantis on guitar, Ida Nielsen on bass, Hannah Ford Welton on drums. The foursome is jamming tight and hard on "What If," from contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Nichole Nordeman's 2005 album "Brave." (It's about Jesus and non-believers-what if you're right and he's just another nice guy? But what if you're wrong and there's more than you ever dreamed of?) Motioning Ramadan and I to come forward as he continues to play, Prince directs us to come onstage. Lining the perimeter are assorted instruments, microphones, stereo equipment and-atop one mic stand-a cinnamon-colored wig.
Prince is rehearsing with this trio for performances that he cryptically says will begin in two days. (Two days after we speak, he announces six last-minute shows at Minneapolis' Dakota Jazz Club. Tickets for all six, ranging from $70 to $250, sell out in one morning.) The ever-slender Prince-a strikingly ever-youthful advertisement for the maxim "black don't crack"-is garbed in yellow pants and a long, oversized button-front white-and-yellow jersey emblazoned with "MPLS" on the front. His Afro is covered by an incongruous hat in the shape of a lion. His other eye-catching accessory: wedged silver shoes adorned with periodically flashing red lights. A full-fledged rock star, even in rehearsal.
Prince alternates between guitar and keyboards, and the songs they play spark to life with every touch he adds. "What If" is followed by new arrangements of two Prince songs-the springy funk-rocker "Cause and Effect" from 2010 and the vintage "Around the World in a Day" B-side "She's Always in My Hair"-and all three songs provide a bird's-eye view of Prince's skills as an artist and multitasker. There's the singer/songwriter for whom music remains a deep-rooted passion-and above all, fun. There's the mesmerizing instrumentalist on guitar and keyboard, sounding just as improvisational, energetic and fresh as he did when he hit the scene in 1978. Then there's also the teacher/mentor who gets off on finding and molding new talent.
He suggests the drummer take a solo on the end of the last song and has the trio go back and practice the last four bars with that in mind. Despite the cavernous feeling of the room, a camaraderie and warmth permeate the premises as he and the ladies go through their paces. Signaling the end of the practice session ("We work for 15 minutes and then take a break," he says with a chuckle), he offers his hand to help me down the stairs and I'm spirited away to another office in the Paisley Park maze.
Here I meet a young man named Jason Franzen working on a computer, putting the finishing touches on a lyric video for the previously mentioned double-entendre rocker "Screw Driver." Then it's on to the second floor of the complex. As we're walking down the hall to a conference room where we can sit and talk, Prince throws me for a loop: "I hear you may be writing about the 'O' word," he says. It takes me a few minutes to understand what he's referring to. There was a time in Prince's career when "the 'O' word" might have had a more lascivious connotation. But the O word he's referring to now is "ownership."
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