In one photo, the door to Studio A is about to swing shut, its main occupant just out of view as cords and candles and a bass guitar are strewn about the live sound room.
In another, a door to a white limousine opens in front of Paisley Park, mere seconds before its passenger exits the recording complex, performance space, and creative sanctuary he called home and swings his high-heeled boots off the pavement and into the car.
In yet another, a pool table is set with clear glass billiard balls, waiting for its owner to come and play. Guitars are poised in a rack, tuned up and ready to be plugged in. Merchandise is laid out for a concert, the NPG Music Club room standing empty as doors are not yet open for the night’s show. And the stickers still appear on new windows installed in Paisley Park’s mysterious egg-shaped west wing, its purpose never fully realized.
These are photographs that capture Paisley Park in rare quiet moments at a time when the building was still very much active and alive. They were taken over a period of two years, from the summer of 2004, when Prince was touring the country in support of his new album, Musicology, to mid-2006. During this time, when he wasn’t on the road he was back home in Chanhassen, recording new music at Paisley Park and releasing it to an online community he had cultivated called the NPG Music Club.
Which is how Prince first came into contact with the owner of these photographs, Dr. Ginnie Love. Ginnie recalls joining the NPG Music Club in late 2003, beginning to interact with Prince in the website’s message boards as early as Feburary 2004, and being invited to attend shows and visit Paisley Park by the summer of that year.
She has sat on these photographs for a long time, unsure what it would mean if she shared them with the world. But after Prince passed away, Ginnie began to wonder if she was doing more damage than good holding these memories so close. She started to think about all the other folks who had their own memories of interacting with Prince, and whether those people understood the significance of their experiences, and how they all added up to tell a deeper story about Prince’s humanity, generosity, and tenderness.
And so for the past many months, like so many who loved Prince, Ginnie has been in the process of letting go. She is donating her Paisley Park photographs to the Carver County Historical Society, where they will be preserved just a few miles down Highway 5 from Paisley Park. And she’s opening up about her story publicly for the first time, in hopes that others who crossed paths with Prince will know that they are not alone in their loss.
Which is how I ended up on the phone with Ginnie this winter, when she first called me up out of the blue from her home in Orlando, Florida – and how she and I have ended up laughing, crying (sometimes simultaneously), and connecting over the bizarrely alienating experience of witnessing a skyscraper like Prince from the ground floor and looking up one day to realize it had disappeared.
The more we talked, the more we each realized just how many people there must be out there who are like us — who had these fleeting moments of glimpsing Prince’s world, and who regard him sweetly and protectively like a friend, even though few could accurately say they “knew” him well. Prince was aggressively protective of his privacy, to be certain, but there were also thousands of little moments when he invited people in; where he sought out connection, and could be incredibly disarming, direct, and candid.
“I can guarantee you that the guy who pumped Prince’s gas thought they were friends,” Ginnie says. “I’ve seen Prince call people friend, or say they’re friends. And I watched this man who was five feet tall talk to these people who were six feet tall, and they just turned to 10 feet tall when he called them his friend. Something in them instantly shifted. It was almost as if you could see the light that went through them. Because Prince called me his friend.”
And so the map of people touched by Prince spreads out like a million bicycle spokes, each no longer tethered to the ground or the ones alongside them since losing their wheel’s central hub. The grief hangs like a thick fog, clouding memories, leading to so many questions. Did we really experience that? Were we really interacting in such a tender way with one of the biggest and greatest artists of our generation? Did that actually happen?
The NPG Music Club website launched on Valentine’s Day, 2001, as a way for Prince’s followers — his “fams,” as he called them, disliking the word “fan” for its proximity to “fanatic” – to keep up with his prolific output in an era when he had recently been emancipated from his tumultuous career-long contract with Warner Bros. In exchange for a membership fee, Club members could stream of-the-minute recordings from Prince’s studios, a concept that was far ahead of its time; it would be at least a decade before any other subscription-based streaming services would be embraced by the music industry.
“The NPG Music Club was almost like this large inner circle of people who had committed to saying, yeah, we want to be part of what you’re doing. We want to support you. We’re into it,” recalls Sam Jennings, who worked as Prince’s webmaster in the late ‘90s and early 2000s and helped build the site. “So he definitely looked at the members of the Music Club as a special group of fans that he really appreciated.”
As membership for the club grew, Jennings and Prince decided to add a message board where members could discuss Prince’s latest music, plus heavy topics like spirituality (Prince had recently converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith), philosophy, and the constrictive inner-workings of the music business.
The message boards opened in 2003, and almost instantly Prince himself was in the chatrooms, going head-to-head with participants from around the world.
“It was a way for him to be anonymous, so he could talk to people and have real conversations without them being caught up in, ‘Oh, I’m talking to Prince!’ I know he really loved that,” Jennings says. “Even way back in the early days he was on AOL, you know, he just really enjoyed being able to talk to people in a way that he wasn’t able to — because he’d been Prince his whole life, and that would get in the way.”
To keep up the mystique, Prince and his staff at Paisley Park would rotate through a series of numbered accounts, from PaisleyPark1 to PaisleyPark9. “The fans knew that if a PaisleyPark handle was in there, that it was someone legit. But they didn’t know if it could be Prince, or could just be me,” Jennings says, chuckling.
And all the while the list of participants grew and regular posters started recognizing one another and developing a sense of community.
“On Valentine’s Day this past year I put a little post up about the anniversary of the club, it being 16 years, and someone tweeted me saying, ‘Hey, I met my husband on the NPG Music Club, and we’re still married!’ Wow, that’s amazing,” Jennings says. “I love hearing stories like that.”
By the time Ginnie Love joined the NPG Music Club in late 2003, the message boards were hopping. She recalls feeling “so green,” both in terms of her Prince knowledge and her general internet use. “I remember sitting on the couch in my living room, I had belonged to no forum, I didn’t instant message anyone, I didn’t do any of that stuff,” she says. “I was in graduate school at the time, and just raising my daughters. I would have never imagined that what was about to happen, could happen.”
Immediately, one of the most frequent posters greeted her and welcomed her to the club. After she revealed that she had never seen Prince live, NPG members were offering her concert tickets and places to stay. She made friends who she would remain in touch with for the next 13 years, like the NYU professor Zaheer Ali, who has created an accredited class about Prince. And three months into joining the NPG Music Club, she was chatting directly with Prince himself.
“I knew it was him,” she says. “Prince knew who the members were. He knew. He was on that site all the time. He was communicating. He was reading.” One night, while engaging in a heated discussion with the PaisleyPark account she believed to be Prince, she had a friend call a staffer at Paisley Park and ask what Prince was up to at that moment. Her friend called back and laughed: “He’s telling you off.”
Ginnie encourages me to ask Sam Jennings about it, and he is quick to confirm that Prince was very active in the message boards. “There were definitely regulars in the Music Club, people who were in the message boards all the time and very active members, and he would definitely know who some of these people were. We’d have conversations and he’d know who I was talking about.”
Ginnie doesn’t know why Prince sought her out, but she suspects it has something to do with the fact that she was far from a Prince obsessive — she was simply looking to have an interesting conversation with other smart folks.
“I went into that forum, and here’s all these people who are walking Prince encyclopedias, and I come in all green with my heart on my sleeve,” she recalls. “And he literally comes and picks me up. I didn’t get a ‘Hi, I’m Prince,’ or, ‘Prince wants to talk to you.’ Our communication started off as if we were old friends who hadn’t talked in years and just picked back up. It literally felt like – remember when you were on the playground, and out of nowhere one of your friends appears and they’re running and pulling you along with them? Like ‘Come here, come here, I’ve got something to show you!’ That was our relationship.”
Prince started asking Ginnie about her poetry, which she was hesitant to share with anyone, and pushing her to finish her graduate degree and publish her writing. Eventually he invited her to come see his concerts and visit him in Minnesota at Paisley Park, where he continued to encourage her to nurture her talent and follow her passion in person.
Ginnie doesn’t think she’ll ever return to Paisley Park now that it’s become a museum. But she’ll never forget how palpable Prince’s presence was when he was in that building, or how safe and special it felt to visit him there.
“It was a sanctuary,” she remembers. “And it was like he was the heartbeat of Paisley Park; when he was there, and you were in those halls, it seemed like the world was gone. Everything had a life and a rhythm. You were free, you weren’t going to be judged. The energy that was there, when no one else was, and he was there – just thinking of it now, it’s just like a heartbeat. Boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Since she encountered Prince, Ginnie went on to pursue a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, co-owned and managed the Prince-inspired streaming radio station EmancipationRadio.com, and hosted her own show, “Lyrical Rhapsody,” for six years. At the end of each episode, she would sign off with the same phrase: “The only love we have is the love we make, so let’s make a lot of love. Until next time, this is Ginnie Love. Love, light and peace,” fading into the Emancipation-era Prince song “The Love We Make.”
As she parts with her photographs and moves forward with her life, Ginnie wants the other people touched by Prince to know that they are not alone. These connections matter, and she wants everyone to feel validated in loss, regardless of how they interacted with Prince and his music.
“Paisley Park felt like home to so many people,” she says. “When I visited the first time, there was a public event and I got more joy out of watching them react to him and be at Paisley Park than I could have gotten from anything else. I want them to know that he loved them. And there is one in particular that I know he loved. Her name is Shawna Faith Thompson, she had been a fan of his for years. She never met him, she never tried to meet him. She was in Paisley Park countless times – he knew her by name. Because she never tried to get close to him, she just admired him from afar. And she was a true friend to him. Those type of fams are the ones that he was so touched by.”
As more tributes to Prince continue to roll in and the one-year anniversary of his passing nears, Ginnie encourages those touched by Prince to do something more personal to honor his spirit.
“There’s all of these people out there floating around in the world right now that don’t have answers,” she says. “That don’t have the inside scoop. They’re like, what do I do? You know what Prince would want you to do? Put an instrument in a child’s hand. Do a fundraiser, do a GoFundMe, and buy an instrument for a child and pay for them to get lessons. Volunteer your time at a local charity. The tributes are fabulous, that’s great – but you don’t need to come to any. You don’t need to talk to anyone, or read anyone’s book, or go to any store to find out who Prince was.
“Prince gave you who he was. Go back to the beginning of his music. He reveals his highest self. He reveals his heart,” she continues. “Even having the experiences that I’ve had with him, and having the opportunity to have the connection that I had with him, I first came to know Prince through his music. I came to know Prince through his spirit. We watched him evolve. He’s a master at evolution. And so if you want to learn from him, look at where he started, and look at where he left us. He was constantly in a state of evolution. And he gave us a framework to do that in our own lives.”
All photographs published courtesy Dr. Ginnie Love.