Prince is funny. That may sound like too basic a descriptor for one of the most iconic, eccentric, and enigmatic pop artists of our time, but after spending several hours with him last night at Paisley Park I was left thinking that he is really, really funny. It’s rare that more than five minutes goes by without Prince cracking a joke, and there was something contagious about observing the sheer joy and bemusement with which he experiences everything around him.
I got the call to visit Paisley Park last minute, as is Prince’s style. The drummer for Prince’s early ‘80s band the Revolution, Bobby Z, emailed around dinnertime to invite me out to Paisley Park to hear new music from 3RDEYEGIRL’s forthcoming album, Plectrum Electrum. I RSVP’d yes.
It was approximately 10:59 p.m. when I pulled up to the front of Paisley Park, which was lit up with purple lights. Bobby Z himself was talking at that moment on the Current, setting up the song “Let’s Go Crazy” with an anecdote I had just recorded with him in the studio last week, and then there he was in the parking lot, waiting for me outside Prince’s glowing purple complex as the squealing opening guitars of that song filled my car. I parked, walked over to Bobby, held my breath, and did everything in my power to stay calm as he and I walked inside. It became quickly apparent that we had driven two of the only cars in the parking lot and might be the only guests for whatever was about to unfold.
Bobby and I were ushered into the smaller of Paisley Park’s two live performance rooms, a narrow little space with a stage on one end, a row of oversized plush purple chairs and tables along one side, and a commercial kitchen in the back. The three members of Prince’s band 3RDEYEGIRL–drummer Hannah Ford, guitarist Donna Grantis, and bassist Ida Nielsen—were already in the room, along with a few members of Paisley’s house band and the facilities manager. As 3RDEYEGIRL poured glasses of wine we were also joined by Taja Sevelle, an artist and songwriter who was signed to Paisley Park Records back in the ‘80s, and her husband, who happened to be in town visiting family.
Not long after the small group started mingling, Prince himself appeared with his new protégé, who was introduced simply as Marissa. He was casually dressed in a stretchy black pantsuit, ornate necklace, and black platform sandals, and he took a moment to shake hands with each person and insist that we “make ourselves at home.” Everyone had gigantic smiles across their faces.
We went over and sat at one of the tables for a moment—a long, dark oval table with these comically gigantic plush purple chairs that seemed straight out of Alice in Wonderland. I felt like a little kid pulling the tall chair out away from the table so I could sit down. A DJ blasted music overhead—a sparse solo Prince track I hadn’t heard before followed by Earth, Wind & Fire—while the movie Finding Nemo played on two gigantic screens in the room. After a few minutes Prince popped around to the side of my chair and said, “Let’s all go to Studio B.”
As soon as we got up to start walking Prince fell into step alongside me.
“I saw what you and Bobby did today,” he said. I knew he must be referring to the 30th anniversary Purple Rain blog post that I had published earlier that day, which contained quotes from Bobby about each of the album’s tracks.
“Oh?” I said. “What did you think about that?”
He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why people need to do that. To look back on the 30th year of something. When else would we talk like that?”
“You don’t like anniversaries?” I asked, immediately realizing what a dumb question that was given his thoughts on birthdays.
“Why would anyone want to talk like that? Unless you’re married, I guess, or have a high school reunion.” He turned behind him and teased Bobby in a playful, high-pitched tone. “Bobby, do you remember when we went to high school together?” He turned back to me. “Why do people do that? I guess they don’t have anything interesting happening in their lives. I’m not interested in looking back. I’m too busy doing this.”
And with that he ushered me into Studio B. “Sit anywhere you’d like,” he said, and I chose one of the more inconspicuous spots on a plush red couch with perfect little tasseled purple pillows that sat along the back wall. The whole studio was immaculate: purple carpeting, a state-of-the-art soundboard, beautifully designed wooden soundproofing elements coming out of the ceiling, and my favorite feature, a door that simply had the letter “P” inscribed on its glass. The door led into the live recording room, and as the other people settled into the chairs around the studio Prince disappeared behind the glass. Once everyone took their places he came back and sat in a swivel chair right next to Bobby.
With his engineer (and Hannah Ford’s husband), Joshua Welton, sitting at the controls, Prince sat back and dictated which songs to play us and for how long. The first song was the opening track of the new 3RDEYEGIRL album, Plectrum Electrum, a punchy, Prince-led track that also appears on Liv Warfield’s new album under the title “The Unexpected.”
Having heard quite a few songs from Prince’s new 3RDEYEGIRL project in the past, the track wasn’t far from what I was expecting, although the music sounded richer and more complex on those studio speakers than anything I’d ever heard before. The song strutted with a classic Prince funk groove and featured stacks of tightly recorded vocal harmonies. Everyone in the studio was bobbing their heads to the beat.
After the song ended he looked around and asked us, “Is that too loud?” and everyone yelled “NO!” “No!” he echoed back, falling into a fit of laughter.
Next up was “Ain’t Turnin’ Round,” a far poppier song that featured drummer Hannah Ford on lead vocals and a ripping guitar solo by Donna Grantis. Then we heard part of “Stop This Train,” a duet between Hannah and Josh that almost had an Owl City vibe. By this point Prince was getting impatient and he started cutting off the songs before they could finish so we could move on to the next one.
“This next one is an instrumental, guitar band jam,” Prince said, and Josh cued up the title track of the new album, “Plectrum Electrum.” It was grimy and swampy and heavy and satisfying, reminiscent of the Led Zeppelin song “The Ocean” in its opening riff and then wandering off into a feedback-laden freakout. When the guitar squalor ended Prince leapt out of his chair and pretended like he was going to storm right out the door. “Donna, you owe us an apology,” he joked, sitting back down. “That was rude,” he added, laughing.
Next he said he was going to play a song that he wrote for Rita Ora, who is “the biggest thing in UK fashion” at the moment, and who he described as “really rough… she’s one of those ruffians. Like they’re just putting some fancy clothes on her, but she’s rough.” The song was easily the freshest and most forward-thinking track he played for us, with a crazy breakneck beat and some quick-paced sing/rapping that reminded me a bit of Lizzo’s work with Lazerbeak and Ryan Olson.
“She’s 22 going on 49,” he cracked. Later, I would ask him if he discovered her on his latest tour to Europe (where he played just last month) and he said that it was the first time he had connected with her, though they had known of her for a while. “Like a lot of artists, she came to a show, paid her respects,” he said.
And then we had the chance to sample all of the new song “Gold Standard,” a frenetic, funky, fun single that had a jittery guitar hook reminiscent of “Kiss” and some fast-talking lyrics. (“Did he just sing ‘hashtag put your fun in your bag?’” I scribbled into my notebook. It turns out it was “hashtag put ur phone in ur bag.”) The chorus was “Gold standard, crazy amazing,” once again sung in those trademark tight vocal harmonies stacked up all the way to the ceiling. The song built into an amazing horn-heavy funk breakdown and then ended with some bizarre bubbling noises and Prince speaking slowly and suggestively. When I looked over at him he was almost falling off of his chair laughing. Remember what I said about his sense of humor?
When I asked him about the bubbling noises in the song he said, “If I told you, I’d have to…you know,” then added, “Let’s just say we were watching Finding Nemo in the studio.”
The final song he played was from his protégé, Marissa, who is working with Welton on some new recordings. The beat was AWESOME, a fast-paced, dizzying drum roll, and the vocals were poppy, similar to the work that Hannah Ford has been doing with 3RDEYEGIRL.
As soon as we started walking out of the studio Prince caught up with me and asked, “Will you pay for that?”
“Maybe,” I said. “What’s the price?”
He shrugged and smiled. “Get your checkbook.”
Once we got into the hall I started marveling over all of the awards displayed in little cases along the wall and all the photos that I had been too distracted to take in before. There is a timeline running in chronological order along one wall that has photos of Prince from every stage in his career, and he paused and pointed to a blown up version of a 1985 issue of Rolling Stone. “See that?” he said. “They wanted me to pose for a photo shoot but I was too busy, so they took a screen grab of my video and blew it up for the cover.” He scoffed.
Bobby Z pointed out how pixelated it was, and how he had never noticed that before.
“Look at my teeth, see these gaps?” Prince said.
“Did the distortion do that?” Bobby asked.
“No,” Prince said, “but c’mon. They were obviously like, ‘Fine, you don’t want to pose for a photo? Here!’ Brother ain’t got no teeth!”
(I almost lost it here. I couldn’t help but giggle uncontrollably. Did I mention Prince is hilarious?)
We started walking again. “I wanted to ask you about something, since you say you don’t look back,” I said. “How do you feel about the MNHS photo exhibit, with all the Charles Chamblis photos? They have a very early photo of you on display right now.”
“Oh, that’s ok,” he said. “I don’t mind that. You know, I’d like to see that!”
By this point we had gotten back into the room with the stage, and Prince lingered near the back of the room to continue our conversation. He was sure to mention Jon Bream’s recent writeup of his visit to Paisley several times, oftentimes quoting what he had written about the new music word for word. He also criticized the way his conversation about radio stations was represented in the piece, scoffing at how simplistically the conversation had been reprinted for the paper.
“What I’m saying is really basic,” he said. “I don’t know how you could misunderstand it. Clear Channel owns all the radio. Someone is making the playlist for all the stations across the country, and it’s all corporately owned. You know iHeartRadio? They don’t sell records… If I’m going to play, I get paid a million dollars. How are they going to make that if they don’t sell any records? That’s why you see the same few artists playing all of their festivals; they own the publishing, they own the songs, they own everything.”
“When I was with Warners, the album I sold that year would make more money than anything else on the label,” he continued. “I was earning all the money for them. That’s why we had to put out a new record every year; to make money for the label.”
“The 1% was making the profits for the other 99%,” Bobby added.
“It was me and Madonna,” Prince said, nodding. “Basically. That’s why I had to get out. I was releasing albums once a year, which felt too slow for me, but too fast for them because they had to figure out how to promote it.”
He paused, adding, “You get the music you deserve.”
Bobby nodded, repeating it. “You get the music you deserve.”
By this time a band had started up—a young guitarist named Darren Harts, plus three of Prince’s session players, who had formed something of a house band behind him. “He’s from Australia,” Prince said, pointing to Darren. “He doesn’t have any real musicians he can play with back home. Isn’t that weird? So I invited him here.”
“That’s nice of you,” I said.
“He reminds me of how I was at that age,” he said, obviously impressed with Darren’s guitar abilities. “I want him to have the opportunity to play with real musicians.”
After a few minutes of listening Prince seemed like he was going to wander away, but he turned back and looked at me again. “Do you want to dance?” he asked me, extending his hand. Before I had time to react, he pulled his arm back and said, “Just kidding!” He walked away again, then turned back and said, “No really, do you want to dance?” and “Just kidding!” again.
Not long after that, Prince disappeared. It must have been roughly 1:30 a.m., and just as producer Joshua Welton started shaking hands with all of us to bid us adieu, I looked up and noticed that Finding Nemo had just finished playing for the second time and the credits had started to roll. It was time to go home.