Local Current Blog

Susannah Melvoin on the hidden tenderness of Prince and the story behind ‘Starfish and Coffee’

Susannah Melvoin (Portraits by Nate Ryan/MPR)

Like many of the people who worked closely with Prince, Susannah Melvoin has found herself gravitating toward Minneapolis in the months following his death. She was here in September to support her twin sister, Wendy Melvoin, and lifelong friend, Lisa Coleman, as they reunited with their Revolution bandmates to play three historic First Avenue shows. And she returned again just last month to promote her new line of “Starfish and Coffee” t-shirts at the Electric Fetus and reconnect with friends in town for the big Prince tribute at the Xcel.

I caught up with Susannah while she was in the Twin Cities to talk about the significance of the song “Starfish and Coffee,” which she helped Prince write, and to hear more about her relationship with Prince. In addition to becoming close to Prince in the mid-1980s/Revolution era (so close, in fact, that they were briefly engaged), Susannah also performed in his band the Family, which regrouped in recent years under the name fDeluxe.

Find a few highlights from our chat below, and listen to our full conversation here: (Flash player) (Download MP3)

Andrea Swensson: Do you remember the first time you met Prince?

Susannah Melvoin: Yes! I was just telling somebody about this. It ended up being quite a moment. When I got out of high school, I got a job working for David Geffen, at Geffen Records. I was the receptionist. I was 17 years old. And there was the Christmas party coming, and everybody had to go; it was a Warner Bros. party, because Warners was distributing Geffen. Lisa had gotten the job [playing in the Revolution] already — she was playing keyboards — and my sister was with Lisa, but I had never met him.

So I walk into this party — which, by the way, as a 17-year-old, it was just utter terror for me. Terror. Because I had to get dressed up, I didn’t know what to wear; I had this ridiculous dress I bought. I had to sit at this big table and be grown-up — very uncomfortable. But as I’m getting up to go to the restroom, I’m walking through the hallway, and in the foyer is Prince and Vanity.

I feel so ridiculous. Look at my dress! Couldn’t be worse. I feel so uncomfortable, I can’t believe I have to meet him tonight. But I did. I got the nerve, and I was like, “Hi! You probably recognize me, right? You see my face. I look like Wendy, right? I’m her twin sister.” And he’s just staring at me. And Vanity leans over, and she grabs my cheeks. “Oooh, you’re so cute! Look at those cheeks!”

I was like, “Thanks… I’m going to go now.” I just sort of squirmed off. Like, was that the best shade anyone’s ever given another girl? Or was she just like, You really have fat cheeks and I’ve just gotta squeeze em? I didn’t know what it was, but I got a little smile out of him, and he sort of giggled, and that was it. That was my first meeting. Then I got on the phone with Wendy and Lisa, like, “You can’t believe what just happened to me!”

Can you tell me more about getting to know him as a person?

When I first met him, there was a remoteness. He gave me a sweet smile, but he was with Vanity; it seemed very weird and disconnected. But I think it was probably within the year of meeting him, that I got the sense — and because my sister and Lisa, I was always with them, and hearing their experiences with him — somehow, what I discovered about him is that he was incredibly tender. When he was with me, and Wendy and Lisa — I use the word tender, I don’t want to say vulnerable, because he wasn’t — but he was relaxed in a way that seemed more familial. I just sensed that when he was with Wendy and Lisa and I, there was no awkwardness. There was no dead air. There was no self-consciousness. There was nothing self-conscious about it. So he presented himself much more tender than I think most people have ever known him to be. Very tender man. And that’s the part we know really well.

I mean, he was a layered and complicated man. There was many moments where it was not tender; it was like, overcooked. “Stick in a fork in it, it’s done!” But for the most part, really authentic. We had many, many moments that I felt he was as authentic as he could be.

It makes me think about how private he was, and how maybe that allowed him to be so tender in those moments. I’ve been thinking about how that applies to living in this world; you want to be sensitive, but you also have to have boundaries. And I think he was a master at that.

Yes, he was a master at that. He spent most of his time alone. And I don’t know about the later period of his life, but I know that during this period of time that I was very much involved, that he was discovering who he was going to become. And so my experience was seeing a man realizing his own potential; what his power was, or lack thereof, and how one uses power. Susan Rogers, his engineer, had said something brilliant. She said, “The machine behind the man” — you know, the Revolution, this group of people that were with him during this particular time [when] he became what he presented out in the world, for the first time — the wheels need to turn. The machine needs to work. It’s a well-oiled machine. And the mad professor has to tinker on that machine for a lot of time. He was in there, tinkering away.

So there was a lot of time with him, and he could be really private, even in the same space as you. You had to be involved in his work ethic. He spent so much time alone, he was so private, but at the same time he would demand that you become part of that privacy — but you’re not allowed to be the expresser; he is. So if there’s anything to be said about the work, or about that space in time, it was on his terms. And I think everybody respected that. But we got to see that all kind of play itself out. Sometimes it ran really smoothly, and sometimes it had a lot of bumps.

He wasn’t communicative about his inner life. He just wasn’t that man. He’s not going to talk to you about stuff and things, things and stuff. But when I talked about those tender moments with him; when you were with him and creating, or you were having personal moments, that tender part of him, even when he was quiet, you knew he was being very giving, very authentic. He didn’t have to have a lot of words.

You have written very beautifully about “Starfish and Coffee,” and you’re going to read that essay today, because it gets to the heart of how the song came to be.

I did. I wrote this essay before Prince passed away, and there was a lot of response. Prince really liked it. He said, “Not many people know how to write about me.”

Find Susannah’s essay on “Starfish and Coffee” on her website, and listen to her read it in the audio above.

  • Laura Reynolds

    Such a special song! Prince left a bit of himself, with almost everyone that he met…a true Visionary!

  • Thank you …

  • I wonder whatever happened to Cynthia Rose? I wonder if she or anyone in her family realize the song is about her?

  • LaCec Sainti

    The tenderness is everywhere to be felt in his songs, in his conversations, in his movies. He delivered it very quietly. Only cruel people couldn’t feel it. And it was meant that way.