Sometime during the spring of 1983, just months after a paralyzing Minnesota winter, Prince sat down at his home studio in Chanhassen, MN, and recorded a 35-minute session of seven originals and two covers on a cassette. One of those tunes, “Purple Rain,” became the defining hit of his career. Several others would languish in obscurity, however, appearing on bootlegs over the years and spurring speculation as to why they went unrecorded despite being fully-formed, remarkable compositions.
More than two years after his death, questions still abound when it comes to Prince. And while we may never know why he chose to leave so many songs that put his ‘80s pop compatriots to shame on the cutting room floor, we can at least revel in Piano & A Microphone 1983 (out Sept. 21), the official release of that cassette recording which before 2018 was the stuff of superfan salivation.
The release is partially thanks to Michael Howe, who worked with Prince as a Warner Bros A&R during the last few years of his life and currently serves as the archivist of the Purple One’s vault. Aware of the 1983 recording via bootlegs, Howe, upon gaining access to Prince’s archives, foraged through a jumble of tapes to uncover the cassette master of what became Piano & A Microphone 1983. It’s a gorgeous, intimate session, alternately emotional — you can hear Prince sniffle on the African American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” — and goofy (“Cold Coffee and Cocaine” finds him adopting a ridiculous vocal affectation known as his Jamie Starr voice).
Here, Howe provides insight into Piano & A Microphone — which follows hot on the heels of 23 Prince catalog titles hitting streaming services — came together, and what’s next from the storied vault.
Considering there are full albums Prince shelved and so many different versions of classic songs in the vault, why did you choose this for release?
I had been aware of this recording, which has circulated among bootleggers for a number of years, albeit in substandard condition. So I was particularly interested in finding the master. It’s such an incredibly emotive, committed performance that people are somewhat familiar with, but some of the stuff is probably entirely new to a broad section of Prince fans. And the last work he did before he passed away was the Piano & A Microphone Tour, so there was some notion of addressing people’s most recent memory of him as a bookend. This is a very different phase of his career: he’s on his way from being a star to becoming a globe-trotting, arena-devouring superstar. It’s right at the inception of that process.
What’s the state of the archive — fairly organized or a complete jumble?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s more organized now than when it was at Paisley Park. Most of it, or at least the audiovisual elements, have been moved to Hollywood. In my opinion, it’s in much better care and better organized than it was. But Prince was a fickle guy. Large portions of the stuff is not labeled or organized in conventional ways. It’s a bit of a jigsaw, but it’s immensely satisfying. It’s an intellectual and emotional exercise — but with enormous payoff.
A number of these songs are stunning, but he never made studio recordings of them. I know you can’t definitively answer this question, but why do you think that was?
That’s a question that might never be answered. Many of Prince’s castaways or things he gave away to others are orders of magnitude better than a lot of other artists’ very best work. It’s a head scratcher. But he’s the exception to pretty much every rule. He was a guy with titanic creativity. Once he locked onto an idea, if he got distracted by something else he thought was superior or more important to pursue, he went in that direction. He didn’t listen to anyone’s direction but his own.
When you knew him, did you ever ask about the vault?
Indirectly. At Warner we had discussions of what he was comfortable with. He seemed to be open to constructive dialogue.
He was not one to look back.
He was not. That was a lot of his rationale in keeping the stuff that was superb but unreleased. I know there was one occasion, maybe two, where he mused when the stuff in the vault might be released and it would be after his passing. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general spirit of the message. Look, we weren’t tight, I didn’t know how he thought, but he certainly seemed to be in a place in his life where he was more open to that than 10 years before.
He recorded this session on cassette in Chanhassen. We hear him speaking to someone on tape — who is that?
We have some idea. My suspicion is it was an engineer called Don Batts, who was Prince’s right hand person in that period. He built and wired the studios in Prince’s home until mid 1983, at least through this recording. In speaking to Don he didn’t have a specific recollection of this experience, but he was around for similar exercises. The other person I suspect, and she seems to remember being there, was Jill Jones. And both of them contributed to the liner notes.
His song “Wednesday” was supposed to be hers, right?
Yes, it was shot on camera for Purple Rain and excised from the film.
What’s next from the vault?
We’re aware of the perceived demand for a lot of things that have not seen the light of day and doing our best to advance some of those conversations. We’re in the throes of the final conversations about what might emerge in the foreseeable future; there are a few things that will make both superfans and the most casual new fan very happy.