Interview with The Artist

Jeff Lorez

He is one of the most innovative and creative performers on the contemporary  music scene with an enviable track record. He’s The Artist, formerly Prince,  aka TAFKAP, and, for a time,  simply a symbol. He's unique and he's ​back in the mainstream with a new record company major but retaining that old familiar creative urge and desire tread new musical paths.

”Know what this is?” he asks, catching me off guard.

“No, what?” I reply. He plays the riff again.

Oh, yeah, that’s Parliament.” He nods and continues to play. Banked up to his left, NPG drummer Kirk, is playing around the thumping,P-Funk groove  that he’s just  triggered from his on stage computer.

Banked to the right is keyboard player Morris, and on stage with The Artist is legendary bassist Larry Graham, cool as you want in a natty black and white Adidas outfit and space age-looking Air Jordans keeping the groove bubbling over.  And yes , quite unbelievably, I’m there too, on stage, between Larry and The Artist; in fact, for much of the time at The Artist’s shoulder doing much of nothing really, except enjoying my chance to pick his brains about music and give him my personal requests, which he willingly plays.

The stage in question is the huge rehearsal/sound stage at Paisley Park. It’s 8 o'clock on a chilly Minneapolis evening and I've just spent a couple of hours chewing the fat with a very down to earth, talkative and funny mega star known for most of his natural born as Prince, whose music for me, as with many others, served as the soundtrack to much of my life.

He tickles the Fender Rhodes to the tune of the Staple Singers’ “I'll Take You There” and the band falls into line. His fingers casually run riot over the keyboard, improvising jazzy, bluesy lines to ear-pleasing effect.

"Do you know “Pretty Man"?” I ask him. It’s a vintage slice of James Brown inspired Minneapolian funk, featuring Maceo

Parker from The Artist’s new album, “Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic”. Originally penned for Morris Day, it's the type of song you'd crave to see The Time tear up on stage.

"Yeah. sure” he replies, telling Kirk to fire up the beat.

"Maceo came in here and played for eight minutes. Cut it in one take” the Artist explains “Then he said (effects a Maceo accent and quick ’places to go, people to see strut') 'lf you wanna jam, call me at the hotel!”

When the call came in that The Artist was willing to talk to the media and Blues & Soul was included it seemed too good then again perhaps one of the most challenging assignments I’ve ever been given.  There is, afterall, so much to ask him. Twenty years worth, in fact. So much music, so many questions. I was sure he'd regret they'd ever let me in the building.

And what a building it is. Paisley Park, set in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, as I’d seen and read so much about, is a songwriter/producer's wet dream. The interior decor is uniquely The Artist. Clouds and doves are painted on the walls, real doves coo gently from a large cage on the second floor. Crushed velvet-covered furniture, candles and the Artist's symbol are everywhere. Although many of the fully equipped admin offices are empty, techs and engineers are forever bustling about the place. Next to The Artist's own private SSL Studio is a kitchen, TV area with video tapes such as Richard Pryor Live, Jimi Hendrix, C. Khan/NPG rehearsal, MTV Music Awards, VH1 Divas piled high. There's a dance rehearsal room, two huge soundstages whilst liberally scattered around the place are Grammys, American Music Awards, and the like. The corridors are adorned with gold and platinum albums from Prince/The Artist's long and illustrious career, not just on himself but from those halcyon days in the early-mid 'BO's by The Time and Sheila E. The Artist is what he may call himself now, but Paisley Park is proof indeed that the spirit of Prince is very much alive and kicking. And that's just the ground floor. All I saw of the upper floor is the spacious conference room where myself, The Artist and Larry Graham kicked it for nearly two hours.

Interviewing the Artist, as it turns out, despite my armoury of questions isn’t the easiest thing to do. For one he refuses any type of recording device to be used which means journalists are reduced to pen and pad. The Artist is a lot funnier than most would imagine and with Larry Graham in the room, to bounce his numerous impersonations and comic asides off,  things can tend to veer off the beaten track somewhat I found myself not knowing whether to join in or scribble madly and in the  end of course I attempted both...with the note-taking coming off the worse.  Also The Artist has specific things he want to talk about - his agenda - and he cut short my historical probes with “I don't really want to talk about that stuff so  much because I really believe in "Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic” and want to concentrate on that.” Fair enough. But surely the new album is intrinsically linked to the past because its producer is (as credited) Prince and quite frankly it harks back to some of his greater works from a decade or more ago. Hell, the title track was recorded in 1987.

”I didn’t want people to say to me 'Why don't you sound like your old stuff any more?' I think in a lot of ways i still sounds like I did before, so by having Prince produce it, it helps make that connection.”

Does he fear the creative freedom an artist was afforded in the ’80's has been

diminished by narrow-minded radio programming that may refuse to play him because he doesn’t fit conveniently into their format in, ironically 1999?

”The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” is gonna cut through everything on radio” he says sucking on a straw from his can of Pepsi. “Programmers won’t be afraid to play it"

Having made music for so long I wondered if The Artist worried about repeating himself, if not melodically then musically, playing the same chords, particularity with the new album.

”No I think it’s alright to use the same chords and copy yourself sometimes. It's when you copy someone else you've got a problem! I do guage my shows against past shows, though. I've always said that for me concerts are the spiritual form of sex and you're always wondering Is it as good as it was before?'

To my ears, there’s little disputing that the new album is his best in years and if, as he puts it, it's filled with “nothin' but straight hits” it will indeed be music to the ears of Arista Records' head, Olive Davis. who must feel quietly smug at pulling off the coup of getting The Artist to join forces. It's basically a marketing and distribution deal which sees the master tapes belonging to NPG Records available through Arista and, of course. having the kudos of having The Artist on their roster. The celebratory theme of much of the album (it is after all time to party like it's 1999) is further enhanced with the slew of guest artists lending their support such a Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco. Gwen Stefani of No Doubt,
Public Enemy’s Chuck D and of course, Maceo Parker.

”By working with different people it brings different things out of you and out of the music” says The Artist. “That’s  what happened .with Ani DiFranco (an alternative artist that has who has successfully released records on her own label independently, who appears on the haunting “I Love You But I Don’t Trust You Anymore") . She was able to use silence as an instrument. All I did was tell her the chord changes and she recorded it as she heard it for the first time and it really worked well. Her spirit was really influential to me. She has an open channel and it's unadulterated.”

The idea of recording music without being contracted to a major label is a theme that is very near and dear to The Artist’s heart. As well as being directly influenced by working with friend and somewhat spiritual mentor, Larry Graham, The Artist revealed that his new found return to commercial form, evidenced on the new album is because of the freedom he feels he now has in his career. “I'm happier than I've ever been” he states which has directly influenced the type of melodies he writes. Presumably when he felt suffocated within his Warner Bros. contract, his creativity suffered?

”No. I was still creative but what I was creating wasn’t necessarily ehat people would want to listen to” he admits. And negativity isn't a place he chooses to dwell. “Look, you see those groups talkin' about negativity and anger and they'd do that for two albums and then you'd see them change up. I knew they couldn't do a Kurt Cobain on their whole career. You can't stay like that all the time. It's like when Hammer tried to go gangster. You can't be something that you're not. I always used to cuss on stage. I'd wonder why Larry and his family would always leave the shows. He told me, 'why d'you need to cuss on stage?' (The Artist is now up and animated, acting out a scenario) and I'd say. 'Cos, that's how I express myself I need to!' Now I've learned that's not necessary.”

Which brings us conveniently to the other central theme of our conversation. The Artist’s need to express himself in a positive fashion, with what he terms “Heart music”.

”I’m much more comfortable with doing interviews now, because I'm harder to misquote” he states. “Everything I'm about is freedom of choice and knowing what the truth can do. As great as Jimi (Hendrix) and Santana were at Woodstock, for me it was about Sty and The Family Stone singin' "I Wanna Take You Higher”. That energy was incredible. I went out on tour with Rick James years ago and before he went on he'd play "I Wanna Take You Higher". Only problem was, was that Rick was gettin' himself a little too high back then! And he don't like me, none 'neither!

Although The Artist mentions singers such as Beyonce from Destiny’s Child in a favourable light vocally he's not overiy encouraged by the theme of some of today's R&B, mentioning his single, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” as the counter to "Bills. Bills, Bills” which he feels only serves to keep the sexes separate. He's also unimpressed by many of today's songwriters churning out "mundane R&B”. Thus despite, admiring Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill it's unlikely that you'll see too many of today's young R&B hopefuls heading out on the road with him.

”On the next tour I’m gonna do it's gonna be more of a revue type thing with all good acts. The shows might start at 4 0'clock in the afternoon. There'd be Mavis (Staples), Maceo, Lenny (Kravitz), Santana, The Family Stone with Larry, Rose, Cynthia and Jerry and us. I just want to be around people that are about positivity.”

The Artist goes on to talk about Lenny Kravitz’ new studio that he's had built overlooking the ocean in Miami, joking with Larry about the “shag carpets on the walls. You know he's going through that phase” he says.

”I take it you’ve been through that phase?” I put it to him.

”’Oh yeah” he says rolling his eyes. But as I question him further about what songs of his would signify “that phase”, with all the skill of a George Best body swerve he dodges the issue, refusing to be nailed down and gamely, realising that he's running the show here, I move on to a fresh topic, namely that of he various bands he's had over the years.

”Well, for the longest time I’d tell all my bass players to play like Larry” he jokes. “Now I have him in the band. And that's the thing about this band. This is the most fun I've had because it's not about ego. Larry's been a band leader himself so he don't have to prove anything. The problem comes when you get those guys who think they've got something to prove and wanna play over everything, playing all these notes.

”The thing about the band at the moment is that there’s a lot of masculine energy in it now” he continues “so I'm looking for that female keyboard player to add some balance. It affects the way the band sounds. I'm very aware of that.”

And he’s been through some great keyboard players in his time - Dr. Fink, Tommy Barbarella, Rosie Gaines, Wendy & Lisa and even Patrice Rushen at one point.

”Women keyboard players are very sensitive about their art” he says. “Wendy and Lisa were influential because they loved me so much and they take music very seriously. They’d talk about music in a 'sanctified' place. They really wanted to please me and never make a mistake.”
How does he replace players who proved such key components to classic bands.

”You don’t replace Sheila E” he responds. “You can't. We're still good friends and she's amazed at how I manage to put my bands together. You have to bring out what's best in musicians and play to their strengths. My old bass player, Rhonda, was really good with colour and harmony and those melodic runs but if we did a song like "Let's Work” she'd be in trouble. She knows it. Now. in Larry we have someone who can do that, who can tear it up.”

As with Miles Davis (who The Artists credits with teaching him about colour, space and tempo in music and how to play slow and still funky’) many a musician may well have come and gone trough the revolving door of Prince/The Artist's bands over the years but the quality of the unit has remained a constant.

”What happens is that when band members start to get a little money things change. You see a change in attitude” he reveals. “There was one guy, who shall go un-named. I called him to come to rehearsal and he said. ’I'm doing the laundry, I'll call you back'. I'm like 'Oh, no I didn't just get played for the laundry. He wasn't in the band after that”.

as I type this, the day after our interview, it’s with the knowledge that The Artist and the NPG are in the huge aircraft hanger of a rehearsal room at Paistley Park going through the material for a European promo tour, which will precede the largest global trek they
have undertaken in many a moon. Although the States has got its fair share purple funk recently (if you live in Minneapolis you can catch his and the band put on a charity show in the Paisley soundstage every Friday) the rest of the world has been somewhat starved. Did he miss world travel?

”Mayte (The Artist’s significant other half) and I have a place in Marbella, Spain, so I divide my time between here and there.”

Did he say Marbella? I can’t quite imagine him swapping pints with Brit lager louts in Union Jack shorts, or sharing a round of golf with Sean Cannery and various East End business men.

’I heard it can get a bit wild fay the harbour” he replies when I tell him of Marbella's reputation in the UK. “But I go there for the serenity and the warmth of the (Spanish) people. Mayte had a list of mansions and she said 'choose one', so that's the one I chose. It's always beautiful and the people are very hands on.I tend to hook up with the Arab and Moroccans over there.”

Recording studios can’t be too easy to come by though?

”I don’t go there for creation. I go for a break from it” he explains. “It's very chilled out and laid back. I love the culture, the food, the discos.”

The Artist, taking a break from music and going on holiday? Sounds uncharacteristic to say the least.

”Larry and Maceo have helped me be able to relax. They say, ’look, you've got nothing to prove'. In the early years when I toured I was never a tourist” The Artist explains. “I was always so focused on the show. I just wanted to tear it up and get out of town. Actually, Mayte has really helped me in that area. She's opened me up to being far more international. She's very wordly. She's learning Italian now, which is like her 4th or 5th language.”

A few times during our conversation The Artist mentions children with the intention of one day having them. “Sure, I have some money but what legacy am I going to pass on to my children?” he says when we were discussing the fact that he doesn’t own the master tapes to his Warner Brothers albums and thus plans to re-record them...all 17 of them! Am I gonna say, "Here's my legacy"? He pretends to slide a stack of CD'S across the table.

”For me things are just getting better I think I’ll always have this energy.” And that's the scary part. The Artist is 41 now but hasn't changed in appearance in the last decade plus and I'm not just talking about the flares and high heels that are the staple of his wardrobe. There's something disarmingly  youthful about him. Make-up aside (he had a photo shoot planned for earlier that day) there were no jowells or grey hairs. And he still can do the splits at the drop of a hat. A strict vegetarian diet may help but the key must be doing what he loves to do every day of his life. “Being around great musician's always gives me this energy. I've had it my whole career. I look at some of the newer artists on stage that are performing with the tape rolling and they're good performers but looking all looking tired an sweating after a few songs. That's because what they’re doing is so predictable. When I’m up there with the band and suddenly Larry does something on the bass that’ll excite me, I’ll react to it. It gives me this energy. That’s why we don’t count. We don’t celebrate birthdays like we don’t celebrate Thanks-Giving. Because you’re told you’re supposed to retire at a certain age. Just look at that word: ’retire.’ It sounds like you’re supposed to become ’more tired.’ Charlie Chaplin started having kids at 60 - just decided he wanted to have kids then. I still feel the same as I’ve always felt. Better now because I’m happier. I’ve got Larry for the inner self and Mayte for the outer self. Everything is taken care of.”