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Prince’s band 3RDEYEGIRL on Paisley Park: ‘It’s like a musician’s wonderland’

Photo courtesy Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL

Prince has always had a thing for numbers. To create his first recorded output in four years, Prince tapped a trio of musicians he found through social media to form his new band 3RDEYEGIRL. And after nearly two years of marathon jam sessions, rehearsals, and rounds of ping pong with his new bandmates and new producer, Prince ended up with not one, but two shiny new albums to unleash onto the world.

Those two albums will be co-released by two labels, thanks to a new and improved relationship between Prince’s old label Warner Bros. and his own NPG Publishing. But no matter how you slice and dice the numbers, it all comes down to just one: Prince, who is a more energized and present force in the music world these days than he’s been in years.

Collaboration has always been an essential part of Prince’s creative process, but lately his list of co-conspirators seems to grow longer every day. In the past few years he’s opened the doors of his Chanhassen studios to rising and inventive young artists like Janelle Monae, Lianne La Havas, Rita Ora, Liv Warfield, and The Voice contestant Judith Hill. Jennifer Hudson is rumored to have a visit planned, and Kendrick Lamar is supposedly en route to Paisley Park this week.

And then there’s Paisley Park regulars 3RDEYEGIRL—Kentucky-born drummer Hannah Ford Welton, Canadian axe-slinger Donna Grantis, and Danish bassist Ida Nielsen—plus Hannah’s husband, the producer Josh Welton, who is credited for not just engineering but also playing many of the instruments on Prince’s solo effort ART OFFICIAL AGE. The band and Welton have logged so many hours at the Chanhassen compound over the past two years that they’re practically honorary Minnesota residents, and Prince is clearly inspired enough by their talent and energy to keep them around on a semi-permanent basis.

To find out more about what’s been going down out in the Twin Cities suburbs to the west, I caught up with the three women who comprise 3RDEYEGIRL on a beautiful, hot fall day for an interview on the front patio of Paisley Park.

The pair of new albums, Prince’s ART OFFICIAL AGE and his collaboration with 3RDEYEGIRL, PLECTRUMELECTRUM, will be celebrated with an online release party and livestream from Paisley Park tomorrow night at 9:30 p.m. (that’s 9:30 on 9/30, for those keeping score).

Andrea Swensson: The last time we sat down for an interview you were just starting this journey together—I don’t think you were even called 3RDEYEGIRL yet. Looking back, how would you describe the way the band has come together and grown over the last year and a half?

Hannah Ford Welton: It’s been a whirlwind of excitement and rock ‘n’ roll and lots and lots of jamming, and just countless hours here at Paisley working on music, learning it, recording it, doing videos and photos. And when you spend so much time with a core group of people, it’s just so much fun to get to know each other, and get to know each other musically as well. I think it came together quite naturally and organically, and it’s been amazing.

Donna Grantis: It’s just an exciting time right now, to reflect back to a year and a half ago when we first met and we first jammed in the soundstage, and both albums are just a couple days away from being released in the U.S. and Canada, and they’re out in certain parts of the world, and it’s just amazing to have people hear what we’ve been doing here.

Tell me about a typical rehearsal with Prince. What happens when you get together to jam?

Ford Welton: Well, typically we’ll come in and it just kind of depends on the task or what’s at hand, if we have to learn new music that Prince sends us to jam, then we’ll all get together, we’ll listen to it in headphones and we’ll learn all of our parts and jam the song. Or if we’re putting the set list together for a show, then we’ll work on a set list and perfect that and make sure the transitions are tight. It really just kind of depends on what our next big thing is.

How long does a rehearsal session typically last?

Ida Nielsen: It can be lasting very long. Normally we go in in the afternoon and rehearse until dinnertime, and then we come in again after dinner and who knows when we stop. We’ve been stopping at 10, 11, midnight, and sometimes jamming all night. There is no endpoint of rehearsal. Ever.

I’m curious about the process of refining 3RDEYEGIRL’s sound. How much do you think was Prince’s vision for the band, and how much of it depended on what each of you were bringing to the table?

Nielsen: Well, it’s a combination I think. Because Prince absolutely wrote these songs for us and this unit, so that’s the first part of the sound, and the next is whatever we personally have brought to the sound together. I think apart from him writing those songs, we also have our own sound when we play.

Grantis: As Ida mentioned, the songs were written with us in mind, and we had a lot of room to help in the arrangement process of that, so coming up with our own individual parts, he gave us a lot of freedom to really add our own musical personalities, and draw from each of our musical influences, and also coloring the sound with tones that we’re naturally drawn to, whether it’s pedals or choice of drums, the size of the drums, stuff like that.

How would you describe Paisley Park, as a creative space? 

Grantis: It’s like a musician’s wonderland. It’s incredible. It’s a very creatively inspiring space. Most of the rehearsing that we do is in a big soundstage, and there are a number of studios. There’s a lot of color inside the building, a lot of purple, and it’s just very liberating and inspiring, creative and fun to be here.

Neilsen: I don’t think, actually, if we had ended up starting the band in a studio somewhere in L.A., we probably wouldn’t have sounded like this.

Ford Welton: That’s true. It’s just something natural that happens when you come together in Paisley Park. It’s magic.

I noticed when I visited that as you walk down the hallway, there’s this chronology of all of Prince’s career highlights and awards. Does that history ever enter your mind or influence you as you’re here? 

Ford Welton: Absolutely. I always say, walking down the hallways, there’s always one thing that I see that I didn’t notice before. And when you see all of his accomplishments and you think about all that he’s experienced in the industry, I mean this is not something to take lightly. We have a serious job and his expectations are high, but completely justified and reasonable. So we all step each other’s game up, and we all try to inspire and motivate and encourage each other and challenge each other to be the best that we can be, because we’re all working with the best. And we have a good time doing it.

How’s the ping pong game coming along?

Ford Welton: [laughs] It is being perfected, just as the music is, on a daily basis. You know, the ping pong—I think Donna said in an interview just recently, the ping pong breaks that are usually meant to allow us to kick back and chill, usually just add more intensity to the day. Because it gets pretty crazy in the ping pong room.

We’ve heard a few tracks off the album already, but how would you describe PLECTRUMELECTRUM overall?

Grantis: It’s live, it’s real, it captures the magic of the band as you would hear it in a live performance. And I think there’s something so special about that. We were recording this album all together in one room, playing at the same time, so we had to nail a take collectively. And I think that approach really translates well in the recordings and people can hear the human element and the real element that can really move people.

Did that help to inform the live show, too, that you had to be that on?

Grantis: Definitely. It’s one and the same, I think. We have to give it all and nail it both in the studio and in the live shows.

One thing that’s been really interesting to watch with this band is that Prince has started to re-embrace the internet—3RDEYEGIRL, the Twitter account, has offered fans this glimpse of Prince that they weren’t getting before, and some of the music has been available through YouTube, and now iTunes. What are your thoughts as you’ve watched Prince rejoin the online world, and how does it affect the process of putting out music?

Ford Welton: Well there’s definitely pros to using social media and the internet, especially in today’s world that’s so digitally driven. The cool thing about Prince is that he’s not one to rely on it, and he’s not dependent on it. He thinks out of the box in ways, to where he’s not completely relying on social media in promotion. It’s been fun to see him use Twitter and interact with the fans. We’re all really enjoying the interaction between the fans online. But yeah, I mean he’s not dumb—he’s going to use what he can to promote the music and the band, and the way he’s doing it is really smart, I think.

You mentioned that there are pros, but is there a negative side?

Ford Welton: Well, I mean with the internet everything is accessible in the snap of a finger. And something I’ve seen—maybe not so much with the music, because we’re in control of the music and putting it out. But with interviews, sometimes things get lost in translation when they’re reading it on the internet, rather than hearing it or seeing it or really being there to understand what the artist is trying to put across in the interview. So I think that’s one way that the internet sometimes can have a downfall, is just words and statements getting lost in translation because you’re not there and experiencing the conversation in person.

One of the most surprising aspects of this release is that Prince has developed a new and different relationship with Warner Bros. What has it been like to work with a major label? Have they been involved?

Grantis: We take care of the music, and then Warner is taking care of the business side of things. So in terms of them being involved in the recording process, that never happened. And I think that’s a really important point to make, that artists are in control of their art, and artists can execute their vision the way they believe it should be delivered or be seen or be heard. So I think the partnership with Warner is great. We’re all really excited about it, and we’re excited to see how things progress. But I think, moving forward, with any label, the idea is always for the artist to keep their artistic vision accessible in their own terms, and then work with a label to distribute it.

Ford Welton: She basically covered it. The relationship between an artist and the label is that the artist does their job and the label does their job, and it should be more of a partnership rather than the label owning everything and having their hand in every aspect of it. Because a lot of times these CEOs and A&Rs don’t really know how to record or how to sing or how to play an instrument, but they want to throw in what they think should be in the music, and they really almost don’t know anything about it, for the most part. So like Donna said, the artist should be in control of the music, and the label should do the business side of things, because they are the machine and they’re good at that. They’re great at what they do. But it should be an equal partnership, and then when everyone does what they’re supposed to do and there’s that balance, that’s when the magic happens.

And we should note, too, that although Warner is helping to put out the album there is also the involvement of NPG Publishing. Have you been part of that decision making?

Ford Welton: I mean Prince is involved with everything. There’s not a decision made that goes without going through him. So NPG Publishing is completely in charge of the music, owns the music, everything goes through NPG Publishing first and then is handed over to Warner. So that’s all absolutely hand in hand.

Any other thoughts as the album release approaches?

Ford Welton: There’s a global release party on the 30th, when the albums drop. We’re planning to shut Twitter down. Everyone be prepared to join us on the 30th for something awesome.

Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL will celebrate the release of their two new albums with a live broadcast from Paisley Park tomorrow night, Tuesday, September 30, at 9:30 p.m. CST on Yahoo’s Live Nation channel. Fans around the world can watch the free live stream on mobile via the Yahoo Screen app or online at www.yahoo.com/live.