Local Current Blog

Strings are in: Minnesota ensemble STRINGenius play proudly with Prince

STRINGenius musicians at a recording session. Photo courtesy STRINGenius.

Adi Yeshaya, arranger for the Minnesota group STRINGenius, worked hard to create an arrangement to complement “WAY BACK HOME,” a track on Prince’s new album ART OFFICIAL AGE. At Prince’s request, Yeshaya and STRINGenius wrote and recorded a string track designed to accompany the track, then sent it in to Paisley Park. The album came out, and Yeshaya discovered his arrangement didn’t appear on “WAY BACK HOME,” but Yeshaya wasn’t disappointed: Prince took the STRINGenius recording and made it the basis of an entirely different track.

“It’s very, very effective,” said Yeshaya, referring to “affirmation III,” the new track. “I was so pleased to hear that. It was almost like the [STRINGenius parts] have a life of their own in [‘affirmation III’]. They don’t serve a purpose like complementing a song, but it’s almost like an underscore—and it takes vision to come up with that, because I would never imagine using that [track] under dialogue.”

Yeshaya and cellist Rebecca Arons met 20 years ago, and founded STRINGenius when they realized they were often working together on projects that involved adding strings to pop, rock, and jazz performances. “At some point we realized, wow, we’re working together a lot and this is a really great collaboration. We should call this something and let people know what we provide.”

STRINGenius isn’t a fixed group of players, but the name for the service provided by Yeshaya and Arons. “Production, arranging, recording, and contracting—those would be the four parts of what we do,” said Arons. Depending on the project, Yeshaya and Arons enlist musicians from ensembles including the Minnesota Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Minnesota Opera Orchestra.

“Adi is the arranger,” explained Arons, “and then I put together the musicians. We have a specialty in strings, but we frequently hire up to orchestra size in different genres.”

While neither of STRINGenius’s leaders is originally from Minnesota—Yeshaya is from Israel, and Arons grew up in Boston—they’ve both happily lived here for many years. “There’s something really special being in Minneapolis,” said Yeshaya. “For one thing, the accessibility for both coasts from here…it might be an illusion, but it’s something that I feel like I’m more centered here.”

The STRINGeniuses have worked with artists both national—Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Roberta Flack—and local. “I’ve really enjoyed working with Dessa, And the Professors, the Cloak Ox, the Melismatics, the New Standards—each of those has been a different experience, but very satisfying,” said Arons.

Still, STRINGenius had never worked with Prince—until now. “Mike Nelson is a trombone player in town,” explained Yeshaya. “He’s been associated as a Prince horn arranger for more than two decades now. Mike and I go way back; he played trombone in my big band in the 90s, and we collaborated on several projects together. I got an e-mail from him a year and a half ago, basically expressing that Prince is looking for someone who is willing to study the approach that Clare Fischer took in his arrangements, because [Prince] really liked that sound. While it was a pretty tall order, I felt pretty natural with this because I’m a huge Clare Fischer fan.”

Fischer, added Yeshaya, was “a composer and arranger that actually passed a couple of years ago. He was known for collaborating with Antonio Carlos Jobim and many, many artists—was really part of defining that sound of strings in old bossa novas. He had several Latin-oriented vocal groups and a jazz big band, and his work has been admired by so many musicians—classical and jazz alike. He did a lot of string writing on Prince’s albums over the years, and I guess that’s the sound that Prince liked.”

Working at first with Mike Nelson, STRINGenius recorded the tracks that would appear on ART OFFICIAL AGE—in addition to “affirmation III,” the group contributed to “affirmation I & II.” They also contributed strings to the Zooey Deschanel duet “FALLINLOVE2NITE,” which Yeshaya and Arons were delighted to hear on the post-Super-Bowl episode of New Girl.

Those tracks were created remotely, but the group did visit Paisley Park to record a still-unreleased track (leading to an erroneous AP report that Prince had recorded with the Minnesota Orchestra). “What I took from that experience,” said Yeshaya, “is how devoted he is to working with live musicians and not only that but local talent—Minneapolis talent.”

“He, throughout his career,” added Arons, “has been able to play with anyone in the world that he wants to, and he repeatedly chooses to play in his band and in his recordings with local musicians.”

The casual listener might hear strings on a track and experience them as though they’d been painted on with a brush, but different artists have very different expectations for how their strings will sound; one of the challenges for Yeshaya and Arons is meeting those expectations.

Aretha Franklin, for example, “didn’t always accept everything I did,” remembers Yeshaya. “She rejected a couple of arrangements. But she also was receptive to try again. I know that some artists will just move on—okay, that’s not what I was looking for. But she called two months later, gave me another opportunity, flew me to Toronto with the same song, and everything was great.”

While we all wait to find out what happens with their unreleased Prince track, STRINGenius are keeping busy: strings are in. “Over the years there was a trend going from horns to strings,” said Yeshaya. “If you look at pop music in the 80s and 90s, horns were a little more predominant. At some point, strings became more utilized in pop music.”

The classically-trained Arons said she really enjoys working, as part of STRINGenius, with musicians from many genres. “Being a producer—or a person who basically brings other people together—is incredibly satisfying, so sometimes you’ll have a project where you’ll bring musicians together who have never worked together before and something very special happens and everyone’s very excited. For me, that’s one of the most satisfying things about STRINGenius: the musicians that we bring together in one room, and sometimes something great happens.”