Nightfall is fast approaching at Paisley Park.
There are few lights on in the cavernous compound, and unseen doves (of course there would be doves) are cooing up a racket before twilight fades to darkness. But even their collective noise takes a back seat once Prince — sitting in the dimmest bit of light — goes to his Mac, cues up a track and hits play.
A melodious instrumental track floods the room, the lush orchestration compliments of the Minnesota Orchestra, whom Prince tapped to perform. Its inspiration has come from a little-heard Dionne Warwick song, “In Between the Heartaches,” which he also played moments earlier.
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The track remains a work in progress; Prince has written no lyrics yet. But it’s music like this that keeps him going– to still, after all these years, take music to the next level.
“If you don’t try, how will you get another `Insatiable?'” he says, referencing his classic bedroom groove.
Over the next few moments at Prince’s computer, he goes to YouTube to play an array clips that get his musical heart thrumming, dipping from old James Brown clips to the relatively new U.K. singer FKA Twigs.
Prince isn’t always pleased about what he hears from today’s crop of entertainers – “The quality of the music, everyone would agree is not the gold standard,” he muses about today’s mainstream pop universe.
But when it comes to his world, what he’s hearing ranks among the best that he’s heard in ages. On Tuesday, he will release his first album in four years, ART OFFICIAL AGE, along with music from his latest protege act, 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM.
“I’m completely surrounded by equal talent,” an energized Prince says. “To me it feels like heaven.”
It’s not just the music that’s taking his Royal Badness to new heights: For the first time, he is releasing his music with complete freedom. The man that once wrote “slave” on his face in protest of not being in control of his own music and famously battled and then departed his label, Warner Bros., is now back with the label — under his own terms.
“What’s happening now is the position that I’ve always wanted to be in,” says Prince. “I was just trying to get here.”
In the spring, Prince, 56, finally gained what he had sought for more than two decades – control of his musical masters, and, in a larger sense, his musical legacy. In the past, Warner Bros. held the rights to Prince’s music, even long after he left, as part of the contract he signed as a new artist.
But after savvy legal maneuvering, he owns the rights to all of his vast collections of hits, including archival music that Prince fans have been longing to hear for decades. Prince also gained control of the publishing rights to his compositions and has performance rights – which means he completely controls his own musical destiny.
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Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who works closely with Prince on legal, business and financial matters, calls it his “fight for justice” and an enormous game-changer for the industry.
“It’s magnificent, and what’s important for him, he wants all musicians to have (this),” she said. “This is just something that he feels incredibly passionate about.”
Long a trailblazer for artists’ rights, and for coming up with innovative approaches to break away from the label-structure that he’s viewed as unfair to artists, he sees the way the industry has unfolded as the ultimate “I told you so”: disappearing labels, a streaming system that some music acts say nets them even less profit for the music they made, and increasing challenge to make money just off of making music.
He scoffs at the image of him that had long been defined by others; a technology-phobe who resisted what was to come in the industry, like that persistent notion that he once declared the Internet dead.
“We were saying it was dead to us — dead energy,” he explains.
For Prince, the old Tribe Called Quest rhyme still rings true: “Industry rule number four thousand and eighty, record company people are shady.” He speaks passionately of his disdain for traditional record contracts and publishing agreements that he believes give most of the power — and profit — to other entities, not the creator of the music.
He considers it not only bad business, but also against God: “The Bible says you’re not supposed to sign your inheritance away.”
The entry of Apple as the major player in music hasn’t helped, in his view. When asked about U2’s much analyzed venture with Apple — in which the company paid them for their latest album, then released it in its customers’ iTunes libraries for free — Prince simply says. “That’s a designer deal. … Of course they got paid. But what about the others?”
Prince is hoping to show artists that there is an alternative to the standard way of doing business. Paisley Park is not just a place for Prince, but also a creative sandbox for other artists.
Liv Warfield is one: The boisterous soul singer with the big band and dynamic stage act worked under Prince’s tutelage for her latest album, and has opened for Prince on tour; The Voice contestant Judith Hill has come through. At one point, he plays a track by a powerful female voice that turns out to be Rita Ora. Jennifer Hudson will be making a Paisley Park pilgrimage soon, he says.
“How we make music is in a collective,” he says, with the motto: “Best idea wins.”
This spring, he launched NPG Publishing; besides administering his own music, it will do so for other acts.
But he’s quick to note that he doesn’t have artists signed to him. “We don’t do (record) deals,” says Prince. “I don’t want anything from anybody.”
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Joshua Welton, a young producer who is married to drummer Hanna Ford Welton of 3RDEYEGIRL (Donna Grantis and Ida Nielsen round out the trio), is one of the fresh new talents that Prince marvels at; he refers to him as a “Steve Jobs” and marvels not only at his musical might, but also his spiritual strength.
His faith in Welton is so strong that he shares productions with him on the album, and says for the first time, there are tracks where Prince doesn’t even play an instrument, leaving it to Welton.
“Who would have predicted that I would let a 22-, 23-year-old produce me?” says Prince (though he’s actually 24). “He’s supertalented.”
For Prince, success today is about audience impact and, as always, taking success to the next level.
He’s not looking for a repeat of 1984: “I don’t need another gold record,” he says matter of factly (though for the record, that was the year of many platinum records).
Nor does he care about charting No. 1 songs or hits. When he explains why he isn’t, he takes it back to Africa and says that’s not the community’s way of thinking: “You don’t quantify success by numbers.”
He’s working on a rerelease of the epic Purple Rain album for its 30th anniversary, but when asked if he’s excited about it, he flatly says no.
“Same album, just state-of-the-art sound,” he says. “It’s nice that it sounds better for the fans but I live in the now. I don’t have to go backwards to celebrate.”
He had no hesitation about working with Warner Bros again (after entering what Lamkins-Ellis called an “amazing deal”): “I don’t deal in history nor should they,” he says. “It’s not the entity that’s the problem.”
Prince isn’t stopping with the two new albums and the Purple Rain rerelease: His song “Funknroll” is being used by NFL network, and he’s excited about new avenues for his music.
You’ll find his new music on iTunes, and Spotify, but he doesn’t see anything contradictory in that. “It’s about the deal. Anything I’m doing now it’s equitable. I’m happy.”
He adds: “I just thank God that I’m here now.”