Minneapolis singer-guitarist-luthier Jesse Larson probably thought his life couldn’t get much more remarkable when, in 2014, his band #MPLS were invited to play a show at Paisley Park. Then, early in 2015, he was invited to audition for Prince, ultimately joining the band of Prince’s protege Judith Hill. All very cool, but even those experiences didn’t prepare him for the instant national fame he achieved as a contestant on The Voice.
Larson is now among the eight finalists on NBC’s hit music competition show, and among the songs he’s wowed the audience with are numbers by some fellow Gopher Staters: Bob Dylan (“Make You Feel My Love”) and, of course, Prince (the Time’s “Jungle Love,” cowritten with Morris Day and Jesse Johnson). By phone, Larson told me all about his time with Prince and how it helped prepare him to take the musical leap of faith that ultimately landed him on The Voice.
Let’s start with “Jungle Love.” How did you go about choosing that song, and how do you feel about representing Minneapolis that way?
We played that song with my band #MPLS for a long time, but I’ve never sang it. I put a couple Time songs on my wishlist, and somehow [the Voice producers] cleared it and we just started working on it. For me, getting to represent the Minneapolis Sound and where I come from was massive to me.
I tried my absolute best to do all aspects of it — because it’s not just the singing part of it, it’s like what Alicia was saying and what Adam was saying, it’s about the attitude. Everything involved with that era and that style of music, it’s a persona in a way, so that was like very daunting to me. I was really scared to do it, and I wanted to do it justice because I know a lot of those guys from that scene. Like, I’m friends with Jellybean and Jellybean is huge in the Minneapolis local music scene, so I wanted to do everything that I could to represented the music that I come from accurately and do a good job.
It meant the world to be able to do it on national television. It’s never been done the show before, and I think they were a little nervous about it, but I think it worked out.
Did Adam or anyone offer to be the one who runs out with the mirror so you could groom yourself?
No, man — there’s not a whole lot of grooming involved, though, if you know what I mean.
Let’s go back to before the whole Paisley Park experience. What are some of your most meaningful experiences on the Minneapolis music scene?
You know, I think one of the biggest things is my band #MPLS. Brandon Commodore, the bandleader, is also the drummer from Mint Condition and now Stokley Williams. He’s definitely a seasoned professional. The whole time working with him and playing with him for the past six years ago is he’s really helped push me out of my comfort zone.
I really used to hide on stage. I’ve always just been a guitar player, and from what when I wake up to when I go to sleep at night, I think about guitar. It’s what I obsess about all day. It’s what I do with my hands during the day: if I’m not playing one, I’m building one from scratch. So he really helped kind of helped push me.
I think he saw something in me that I didn’t, and having that platform of that band and those amazing musicians gave me the comfort to push myself a little more then I had been at that point. Being that we have an album out and original music, a lot of the writing that was involved with that album pushed me to have more of a voice on stage as well. I think my singing developed dramatically over the last five or six years, I think based a lot on that scenario specifically. He challenged me with a lot of different music and stuff, and once or twice he tried to get me off the guitar and on a mic stand, which was difficult.
All the while, I was still working a full-time job and I didn’t have a ton of energy to put into those performances. I had some, but what I think of is not enough. After 15 years of working a full-time job, we got that call from Prince and auditioned for him. That was when he hired me to be Judith Hill’s guitar player. By him hiring me and having to quit my career and stability of the last 15 years — like, leave my 401k and not have a retirement fund for the rest of my life, or insurance and stuff like that.
Leave all of that stability of life for a dream and a possibility, because if Prince asks you to work for him…at least for me, there is nothing else I would leave my job for. I mean, I have family — my wife and my house and all that stuff, so that’s a scary thought. It was because Prince believed in me enough to hire me, it was like, okay maybe I am good enough to do this music thing full-time. Prince hiring me gave me a lot more confidence in myself to go out and do those things. That was February of 2015.
Was that your first experience at Paisley Park?
Well, in the summer of 2014 he was doing a once or twice a month thing where he would have a local band come in, and we did one of those. I think that’s where we got his attention, and what led to him hiring me.
What was that experience like — playing at Paisley with your band back in 2014?
It was amazing. I mean, we were on the main stage in the [soundstage], but those Paisley Park After Dark things didn’t end up being a lot of people. There were maybe between 40 and 100 there — but for me, I don’t care if it’s two people or 200,000 people, I have this thing where I have to give everything that I have when I perform. No matter if there’s no one in the room, I still hold myself up to a certain standard, and so I think that’s one of those things that keeps me pushing and trying to grow everyday and get better every day. I always hear something else that I can’t quite grasp.
Playing the Paisley Park After Dark series was amazing because the Prince fans are the most loyal, energetic, fascinated fans in the world. I’ve never been around a group of people who are so loving and supportive and happy to be around good music. So even though it was small in numbers, it was very mighty in energy and support and love when we were in there, so it was amazing. Plus, I mean, you’re playing in Prince’s house, so how can you get any cooler than that?
Did you sense or get any feedback that he was watching your performance back then?
No, you know unless you’re in the circle you don’t really hear anything, but I know he popped his head in a couple of times and I’m sure he knew what we were doing in there.
Then you got called back the following year to audition for Judith’s band.
Exactly, with the full band. Monday night around 9:30 p.m., like in the beginning of February of 2015, I get a call from my drummer Brandon and he’s like, “Yeah, I just got a call from Prince and he wants us to come down and do a private performance for him.”
I had goosebumps all over my body, and I was like, “You have to be kidding me.”
He was like, “No, get your stuff ready and get in your car.”
So I walked downstairs, and I still had my pants in my hands because I hadn’t put them on yet, and I was like, “We just got a call from Prince and he wants us to do a private performance.”
[My wife] was like, “Well then get the hell out of here!”
So we went down there and unfortunately it didn’t work out that night, so he called us and we were like, well let’s just do this tomorrow and we ended up going back the next day and played four or five songs and by the time we were done playing the songs…well, the crazy thing about it was right before we were going to start I saw Prince and a tall woman walk in, taller than Prince. They went upstairs in the club room and sat on a couch on the top of the stairs, and right before we were going to play, a couple of guitarists came up and handed me and my other guitar player, David Glen, one of Prince’s guitars, Vox guitars, and was like “He wants you to play these.”
I wasn’t so fascinated with the guitars, but in the moment I was like, I have no idea what this guitar is. It’s like getting into somebody else’s car and having five seconds to figure out how to get it in gear and start driving down the road. You know what I mean? It was a foreign experience, and plus the strap was down to my knees so I had a minute to figure out how to get this guitar up to where I could play it and figure out how to get the sound, and you know, play one of our songs, but we ended up doing that — so I played one of his guitars during our first audition.
As soon as the lights came on, Prince was gone and so was the lady — they just disappeared, like there was a trap door or something. So we left and then his people called us and said good job, tell your guitar players to come back, Prince wants to jam. So me and my other guitar player came back the next day and we found out that Prince was auditioning band members for Judith Hill’s band because he was going to go out on his Hit and Run Tour and she was going to be his opening act.
He was putting a band together for her, and at the same time he was having a meeting to set up dates and all that, so we learned a couple songs really quick on the spot and a few minutes later, Prince walked in with Judith, 3RDEYEGIRL, and some of the crew. Judith walks up and introduces herself, and she was super sweet and soft-spoken — and she gets up on stage and the song gets counted off, and as soon as she started singing I literally had to stop playing and started laughing, because of how powerful and how amazing she was.
I was like, you are in front of Prince right now, and 3RDEYEGIRL. Pull it together! And so I did, and we played that song, the next song, and then halfway through it Prince stood up and was like, we’re good, you guys can go home. And I was like, that was terrible…because I’m my worst critic. Then 3RDEYEGIRL gets up to play with Judith, and I was like if they play the song we just played, then I know I shouldn’t be there, and they ended up playing a different song, so that made me feel better.
But I remembered then that Judith said she hadn’t sang the song since she recorded it last fall, so maybe she was just uncomfortable, and Prince was like, let’s just end this now. Then a week later I got called back again, and it was just me this time and it was a completely different band — other than the drummer, who was Kirk Johnson, and at that point we recorded five songs and sent them to Prince, who I believe was in Turks and Caicos at the time.
I almost lost my job at the same time, because I had to take the day off too, and then that following Friday I went to a doctor’s appointment and I checked my phone and got a message that said, “Jesse, are you ready to quit your job? We wanna hire you.”
Then I started crying. I mean, I’m a tough dude, but these were happy tears, and the next day I went in and put my two weeks’ notice in and it’s been almost a little over two years now since I haven’t had a full time job and I’ve been playing music. I wouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t be here today on The Voice if it wasn’t for the opportunity to work with my music director, with my band, Brandon, and to have Prince believe in me enough to hire me.
Did you play on tour with Judith for a while?
Well, what happened was we did a bunch of performances at Paisley Park. We probably did between six and eight performances at Paisley Park, and we ended up going to Detroit and opening up for Prince at the Fox Theatre, and we were supposed to go to Toronto the following night, but Prince was unhappy with the sound guy so he fired the entire crew and the semi trucks turned around and went back home and we ended up on a plane to Toronto.
We spent five weeks working on our set and went through two other crews trying to get one that would work right for Prince. We ended up going to Brooklyn with Judith and doing a show, and we did a couple more performances at Paisley Park and at that point it was kind of the beginning of the end. It was the end of May in 2015, and I think Prince had a different vision. He wanted to do instead of a full band and an opening act tour, I think he instead got the idea for Piano & a Microphone, but he did only three shows with 3RDEYEGIRL and he just had Judith guest star on a couple of songs during the nights, but after those three performances he went off to Canada and did three or four shows.
After that is when he went right to Piano & a Microphone and stopped having a band with him. So we were the last project Prince worked on before his passing. I think he just had a different vision.
What other projects have you worked on before leading up to The Voice?
#MPLS would do a show every month or two, and we’ve had the good fortune of having a ton of amazing support from Minneapolis. We’ve set the attendance record twice at Bunkers. I think last time we where there it was 475 through the door at a capacity of 299, so it makes me feel really good to know that you have hometown support as a hometown band. I play in, like, a private event band to pay the bills, and then I play a church on Sundays…just kind of the same for musicians when you’re trying to make a living, just small things.
The week that I found out our contract was ending with Prince, I called a friend of mine who was a custom guitar luthier in Duluth who hired me to be a paid apprentice with him to build custom guitars from scratch. So as soon as I stopped working for Prince and our contracts were over, I literally, the next Monday, started the job learning how to build custom electric guitars from scratch.
I said to myself, if I go back to my old day job and go back to being unhappy all the time, I failed in trying to change my life for the better. So I said I have to keep trying to do what makes me happy and pull myself out of this slump I had been in for 15 years. I had been trying to support my life with a consistent paycheck when I was completely unhappy with it. So I went up and worked in Duluth as a custom guitar-builder and I would stay for a few days and then come back home and play gigs on the weekends.
I’ve always been a really hard worker. What’s that saying? Idle hands are the devil’s playground. I always try to keep myself preoccupied and busy, and then that ended last May, so I did it for a year and then they had to let me go because they couldn’t afford to pay me any more. So I went home, and the next week I went to the lumberyard and bought a bunch of wood and started building my own guitars in my garage with Fisher Price tools — you know, tools that were not even big enough or efficient enough to do what I was doing with them, but I made do and did a lot of hand work, and I made my first guitar, which is the one I played for my blind audition for The Voice.
That was the blue one, the first one I built in my garage, and once I was done with the blind [auditions], there was a two-month gap in the filming and I came home and spent 350 hours in my garage building the guitar that I’ve been playing since then. So between blinds and battles, I built that guitar with my hands — so that’s what I’ve been doing, playing music and building custom guitars from scratch.
Can you imagine what your life will be like after whatever happens in the coming weeks, when you come back to Minnesota?
No, honestly I’m one of those people that tries to live in the moment and be as present in the moment as I can. Like I said, the schedule here can be grueling at times, but I’m a worker, so it doesn’t throw me off my game. I have to be fully present. I can’t think about what’s going on in an hour or in a week or in a month — I literally have to worry about what’s going on in the moment and let my mind wander, even though sometimes you get that anxiety and it build up because you’re trying to do your best, and that’s what I try to do every time I perform.
Even in rehearsal I try to give everything I have in the moment, and sometimes that gets me into a negative headspace because I haven’t quite mastered the song yet, I haven’t quite mastered my feelings about the song yet, so it gets tough at times when I’m such a perfectionist…but like I said, it keeps me pushing and striving to become better. Not just better as an efficient and productive musician, I want to be as nice as a person as I can be, as loving as a person as I can be. I’m a helper by nature, so I want to help everybody feel better.
Being involved with something as amazing as The Voice is to [be able to] spread the gift of music to as many people as I can. I feel so strongly about it, and it’s such an important part of our lives. If I have a gift that people can feel and understand, I want to do it as much as I can. I’m not just doing it for me. I do get satisfaction from it, [and] I’m doing it because it makes people feel so good. Music is just a magical thing that way. It can make your day. [Whether] you’re having a good day or a horrible day, it can [make it better] and that’s magic. It can change people’s lives, and does.
Transcribed by Simone Cazares