On a snowy Sunday night when most Minnesotans were glad for the excuse to snuggle up and stay off the roads, Prince invited a handful of journalists and a few dozen die-hard fans out to Paisley Park to dance, watch a screening of Oz the Great and Powerful set to funk music, and eventually take in a short set from his new collaborator, Judith Hill.
Doors opened promptly at 10 p.m. for the invite-only event, but it wasn’t until the credits rolled on Oz around midnight that the members of the press—which included longtime Star Tribune music critic and Prince expert Jon Bream, departing City Pages music editor Reed Fischer, Fox 9 News digital producer Rachel Chazin, and several staff members from the Current—were led into Paisley Park’s Studio A and seated behind its enormous console.
The first clue as to why we were summoned to the Park came in the form of an album cover that was displayed on the monitors in the studio—with a title that simply read Judith Hill, the cover depicted a five-year-old girl with a heap of black, bountiful curly hair seated at a toy piano. Moments later, Prince entered the room with 31-year-old artist at his side. “This is Judith Hill,” he said. “And I’m Prince.”
Dressed in a flowing, kimono-like silk wrap and lace-up stilettos, Hill sat demurely in a swivel chair in front of the console while producer Joshua Welton cued up a track list on a MacBook Pro. As soon as Welton tapped the space bar, Hill’s new album blasted to life at full volume. It was hard not to smile as funky horn parts gave way to Prince’s signature guitar wails, but the music sounded nothing like Prince’s recent work in the studio with 3RDEYEGIRL, who were also bopping their heads to the music in the studio. The real star here was clearly Ms. Hill, whose wrenching, soulful voice filled every inch of the room as she sang, “Cry, cry, cry / A change is going to come.”
“Her voice sounds analog to me,” Prince observed, sitting on a bench near the studio’s door dressed in a white stretchy pantsuit emblazoned with his own face and a pair of light-up sneakers. He casually suggested that his guests start asking Hill some questions (“Better ask now, because she’s about to become a superstar,” he promised), and coaxed the quiet artist to talk about her music and her backstory.
For the uninitiated, Hill has already pieced together a compelling and high-profile string of gigs in the music industry. She’s performed back-up vocals for Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Josh Groban, and the time spent she spent on stage with Michael Jackson during his final tour earned her prominent roles in his posthumous This Is It documentary and a popular film about the music industry’s overlooked back-up singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. She was also a finalist on the fourth season of NBC’s The Voice.
Prince didn’t discover her through any of those appearances, though. He came across her in an interview she had conducted with a European magazine; when asked who she’d like to work with, she had answered Prince. When they met in person last April, she told him that she wanted to make an album that sounded like Sly and the Family Stone. “You don’t need to say any more,” Prince replied. As soon as he heard her sing, he was hooked.
The pair recorded Hill’s new album, Back in Time, over the course of two or three weeks, which Prince says is “the fastest album he’s ever made.” Now he’s trying to figure out how to release it.
So what was with the gathering on Sunday night? It wasn’t exactly a press junket. That would have required that the members of the press be supplied with some kind of concrete information. Direct questions about the timing of the new release (“Sooner than you’d think”), who played on the record (“Lots of folks”), and whether it’s coming out on any particular label (“We’re figuring that out”) were met with vague, unilluminating answers, and Prince seemed more eager to turn the tables and ask his guests the big questions.
It’s common knowledge that the music industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades, and Prince started the conversation by pointing out the challenge of releasing music in the current market and asking the room for advice. “Hip-hop has really changed the game,” he noted. “Those guys put out 10 albums a year, just to put them out there. Lil Wayne almost has as many albums as I do.”
He pointed up to the studio’s speakers. “How do you get an album like this out quickly, while also recognizing its inherent value? Because this album is expensive. What you’re hearing is money.”
The typical routes were suggested by the room: Music videos. iTunes. TV appearances. Spotify. Fox 9’s Rachel Chazin was especially insistent about Spotify’s potential, explaining that as a 23-year-old, her generation listens almost exclusively to streaming music.
“And then what do you do when you find something on Spotify that you like?” Prince asked, studying her inquisitively.
“Listen to more tracks by that person on Spotify.”
Turning to his right-hand-man, Trevor Guy, Prince asked how quickly they could get Hill’s album onto the service. Though it’s hard to believe Prince was totally unaware of Spotify before last night—his own catalog, including his two most recent albums, is available via the service—he seemed to latch onto the idea as one that seemed especially promising.
The Current’s program director Jim McGuinn suggested that maybe the success Prince is hoping for doesn’t happen overnight. McGuinn brought up Adele as an example of someone who went from playing the Current’s studios one year to selling copies of her record to people’s grandmothers the next.
“Would you play the Current?” Prince asked, turning to Judith.
After a long pause, she said, “I’d play Bunkers.”
“I suppose I should have told you it’s a radio station,” Prince replied, smirking.
“Oh,” she said.
Watching Prince lead this midnight focus group, it occurred to me that he is not only perplexed by these challenges, but seems intent on analyzing the situation from every angle and figuring out how to crack the music industry’s code. For an artist as fiercely independent and hands-on as Prince, it seems like he’d have an advantage navigating the newly leveled playing field. But is he really the one calling up Spotify and asking for new albums to be added? Has his distrust with the industry dissuaded him from hiring people who could help perform these tasks?
Prince seemed eager to get Hill’s album out into the world and move on to creating more new music with her, but also discouraged by the possibility that it could end up being just a small wave in a sea of streaming songs. After a while, it became apparent that we weren’t really about Judith Hill’s album anymore; we were being asked to consider whether it was still possible for a gifted and visionary artist to cut through the din and find mainstream success. If Prince truly believes in someone, does he have enough sway to turn them into a pop star?
These were unanswerable questions. With his curiosity only partly satiated, Prince quietly turned to Judith and asked, “So, do you want to jam?”
And with that, we were led back out of the studio and into Paisley Park’s smaller performance space, where Hill and her band performed a fiery, funky four-song set for the crowd. Enough people had gathered that it made it hard for Prince to see the stage, so he spent the first two songs jumping up and down from the back of the room in his light-up shoes and climbing up the room’s staircase to get a better view.
One thing’s for sure: His Purpleness has impeccable taste. Between Judith Hill, FKA Twigs, and Kendrick Lamar, Prince has hosted and championed some incredible and forward-thinking artists at his Chanhassen compound this past year. Although Paisley Park may not be at the center of the pop universe like it once was in the mid-’80s, it has re-emerged as a sort of petri dish for some of the most intriguing soul-infused pop artists of the future.
UPDATE: Prince used Live Nation’s email list to send out a note on Monday afternoon introducing Judith Hill to their followers—and it included a link to download her new album Back in Time for free.
— bArON3121 (@Baron3121) March 23, 2015