“Where’s my interview?”

Prince is more popular than he’s been in years—and he has no idea why

Gary Graff

Prince sticks his head into the backstage production office at the Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit­—just a few hours before he rocks the house with a seamless two-plus hours of hits and funky jams. There was a time, of course, when Prince looking for an interview was about as likely as Tipper Gore singing “Darling Nikki” on the US Senate floor. But these days Prince, happily married (to second wife Manuela Testolini) and comfortable in his career, is opening up.

At least a bit. He still doesn’t do much talking, and he won’t let the interviews be recorded. This year he delivered show-stopping performances at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was inducted, and at the Grammy Awards, where he kicked things off with an assist from Beyoncé. His new album, Musicology, is a hit, thanks to a crafty plan to distribute a copy free to each ticket-holder on his current tour. And in an otherwise light year at the box office Prince has been a blockbuster, winning rave reviews for his fierce sets. He also says this will be the last time he ever trots out many of his best-known songs.

Mostly, however, Prince’s celebratory mood is due to having his career in his own hands, the result of a long struggle that led to him abandoning his name and adopting that unpronounceable glyph, leaving his original label (Warner Bros.) after declaring himself a “slave” to the industry, and establishing his NPG (New Power Generation) imprint and NPG Music Club website that allows him to put out music—and a lot of it—when and however he pleases. “It’s a respect thing,” he tells the Auburn Hills audience, and there’s more respect—and love—for Prince now than there’s been in quite some time. But, he cautions as he pops open a can of mixed nuts amidst the candles and incense sticks in his dressing room, don’t call it a comeback.

Your Grammy Awards performance celebrated the 20th anniversary of Purple Rain, and you find yourself now at possibly your greatest peak of popularity. Does it feel like déjà vu?

Not really. Purple Rain was more or less like a fever pitch type of feeling all the time—people at the hotel waiting, crowding. Now it’s more businesslike. It doesn’t seem like a madhouse. I’m running the affairs. I make a lot more money.

What do you think accounts for the increased level of interest at this point in time?

The more people talk about it, the more I’ve examined it. And, you know, take away the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, put them aside, and I’d still be here in this building talking to you. I would still release this album. I’d still be out here. Twenty-seven million people saw the Grammys, so instantly there’s a buzz. But all they saw us doing was what we always do. [Saxophonist] Maceo [Parker] had his band, if 27 million people saw them, there’d be a buzz about them, too.

So you don’t consider this a comeback?

I never went anywhere! The vibe, with us, is not really that different. I’ve been touring for a while. I took a break to make the Musicology project. It hasn’t really stopped.

Are the songs on Musicology relatively recent or have they been under development for a while?

It’s been around. I record all the time. This one I did over a year’s time; a couple of the songs are older, but I’m not gonna say which ones. What I try to do is put together an album; it’s about what fits well together, what flows. I’m trying to get a certain vibe. What people are vibing off on this album is they’re short songs again, little ditties. It’s a medium people are used to and like. But I make a lot of records that don’t get released, or that I just put on the website. It’s just stuff that’s pleasing to listen to on the weekend or stuff. I’ve got one [Xpectation], an experimental record, that’s for dinner parties.

Dinner parties?

Yeah. I have dinner parties sometimes, and I wanted to have something I could play that kept things in a place I like. I’m not trying to shock the world with every record.

The ability to make music and release it as you see fit is something you fought long and hard for. Did you have that kind of vision at the beginning of your career?

Back in the ‘80s we started having discussions about releasing things under other names. I mean, George Clinton had Parliament, then he had Funkadelic—two different bands, two different labels. Then he had George Clinton records, the Brides of Funkenstein... He could get it all out of his system. You just keep doing stuff, and it gets stacked up and drives you crazy. And you don’t know what to do about it. Studies show that things like regret, not being able to forgive other people, that’s what causes cancer. It piles up, and you get irritable.

So the website and NPG Music Club let you manage the clutter.

The cool thing is it’s interactive immediately. The temptation is to fill it up with new songs all the time. Freedom can get you into trouble—too much freedom, anyway. But it’s so much more fun and there are so many more rewards to doing it on your own. You can become so much more connected to your audience this way. They don’t need to see a chart first or hear it on the radio first or read a review. What they vibe off of is what they vibe off of. It’s that easy.

It’s not quite the same as releasing a standard CD, though. Do you have to divest yourself from the attitude of “stardom” in order to be comfortable working this way?

I think I’ve always been here. Go back to the Dirty Mind period; I was happy there, too. We had our little gang, our little clothes and little outfits and we’d go on stage and that’s what we were there for. That’s what we lived for. We didn’t know what was going to happen or what this was gonna become. We loved it.

So is this tour really the last time you’re going to play some of these songs, or are you just hyping us like Bowie and Elton?

I’ve been playing “Purple Rain” and “Little Red Corvette” a long time. I’m writing all the time—those are the songs I want to be playing. It’s hard to stay away from that and rest on my laurels. I can’t do that.