The former Prince speaks

In his first interview with a local journalist in more than 10 years, the artist formerly known as Prince talks about his, er, unusual name, his creative process, the media, his future and his faith in God.

Jim Walsh

The artist formerly known as Prince believes in fate, which might explain the two fortune-cookie messages I got the week before I interviewed him. One read, A “fool at 40 is a fool indeed.” The other, “Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can.”

Both could be headlines for this story. Over the past three years, whenever I’ve requested an interview with the former Prince, he had said through his people—all of whom have since parted ways with him and his Chanhassen-based Paisley Park Studios—that he’d talk only when he was free from his contract with Warner Bros., his record label of the past 17 years.

That day finally has arrived. Last month, TAFKAP inked a deal with the EMI-Capitol Records Group to distribute his albums on his own independent NPG label. And now that he’s free at last, he’s talking. In addition to last Tuesday’s worldwide broadcast of the Paisley coming-out party for his three-CD set, “Emancipation,” TAFKAP has done a handful of select interviews, for Rolling Stone, USA Today and the “Oprah Winfrey Show” (which airs Thursday).

When I arrive at Paisley last Monday, a woman is laying gold carpet in the foyer, in anticipation of the following night’s gala. A bodyguard who could be on loan from the Chicago Bears’ front four meets me at the door and directs me to the front desk. The walls are covered with gold and platinum records, and a new paint job illustrates clouds on the stairwell leading up to the building’s offices, and stars and planets on the ceiling.

The woman behind the front desk whispers to the bear, “Have you seen the Boss?” She disappears, and when she returns, tells me, “He’ll be with you in a minute.” A few minutes pass, and TAFKAP strolls into the lobby with a good-natured, “Hey.”

He’s dressed in a sheer gray jumpsuit, draped with a black fish-net smock and several necklaces.

“The zodiac stuff was Mayte’s idea,” he says, referring to Mayte Garcia, the singer’s wife since February of last year. “It had to be more colorful.”

He leads me into a small cluttered room on the first floor, where an engineer is putting the finishing touches on “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” the video for the first single from “Emancipation.” TAFKAP asks me if I have a tape recorder on me. I tell him that I brought one, just in case he’s changed his practice of not allowing journalists to record his voice. “No way,” he laughs. “Leave it in here.”

The engineer cues up the clip, and TAFKAP is careful to let me know that it isn’t finished—special effects of a rainbow and falling star will be matted in later today. And time is of the essence, for the video’s world premiere on VH1, MTV and BET is just 33 hours away. “I didn’t have enough time,” he says, “but I’m real proud of it.”

We walk down a long corridor that houses several awards, and is decorated with vintage Prince/TAFKAP posters. I tell him the posters surprise me, since he has has always been so tenacious about jettisoning his past.

“I never look at these,” he responds. “They’re just for the kids when they come in here.” He takes me on a short tour of the studio, and into the huge soundstage room, where technicians and carpenters are busy putting together the set for the satellite simulcast of Tuesday’s show.

He leads me into the control room of Studio B, where we settle into two swivel chairs behind the mammoth sound board, which is decorated with two small decals of the symbol that is his new name.

“Where’s that tape recorder?” he says, more teasing than accusing. I pull it out of my bag and ask him where he wants it.

“In there,” he replies, and I put it in a small closet that contains some recording equipment.

“Any more?” he asks. A little insulted, I say that no, I am not wired with a microphone, and ask him if the no tape recorder-rule stems from not wanting his voice out there.

“Yeah,” he says. “I don’t want it out there. You can call me paranoid, but... I mean, there’s a picture disc of me back from ’78 that’s out there. You know, a kid tellin’ stories.”

The fact is, in his older age, TAFKAP has gotten better—there was a time when he wouldn’t even allow journalists to use a pen and notepad. But when I ask him if that much is cool, he says, “Yes, yes – absolutely,” and even provides me with a pencil.

Cradled on his lap is the only copy of “Emancipation” that exists in the world at this point (the set will be released Tuesday). “I carry it with me wherever I go,” he says, tapping on the jewel case. “It’s like my little buddy.”

The rapport between us is instantly easy, which surprises me. Over the 20 years I’ve spent covering, listening to and dancing to Prince/TAFKAP, I developed a theory about his reluctance toward granting interviews. I assumed he simply wasn’t verbal, and relied on his two main modes of communication—sex and music—to express his feelings.

Any interview, then, would likely consist of monosyllabic answers and cryptic asides. But the nearly two-hour interview proves to be exactly the contrary: He is very engaged, warm, smart, funny, deep and extremely thoughtful.

His voice is not the slow, steady baritone of his stage banter, but an excited, animated burble. His eyes lock on mine whenever I ask him a question, and when answering, he either looks directly at me, stares out into the recording room or twirls around in his chair.

He responds to questions reflectively, confidently, curiously. The only other person I’ve been in a room with who exudes as much quiet energy and self-confidence is the cyclist Greg LeMond, who knew his body the way TAFKAP seems to know his muse and himself.

On the eve of what is arguably the biggest concert performance of his life, I ask him how much time we have.

“How ’bout three minutes?” he sighs, a million odds and ends obviously weighing on him. I open my notebook and hope for a little longer.

Q: Whenever the name change is ridiculed, I always tell people that there were segments of society who ridiculed Cassius Clay when he changed his name to Muhammed Ali. People change their names for religious reasons all the time, and for the most part, people respect that. It seems strange, then, that people don’t respect it when it happens for artistic reasons—and in your case, religious reasons.

A: Spiritual reasons, yeah. When I changed my name, I think I may have changed it too soon, because right now I feel that my change is just complete. And it was a different reason from what everyone thinks it was.

The Warner Bros. thing had very little to do with it. When I started writing “Slave” on my face, I did it because I had become a slave to myself. We don’t know how we get here.

I had to figure out my origins and where I’m headed. How did I want the story to end? And I started writing “Slave” on my face, because I felt like I was in a box spiritually, not creatively. You know, you can keep writing and writing, but that doesn’t mean you’re growing.

Q: Do you feel like you’ve grown spiritually?

A. Yeah. I don’t think you ever stop growing spiritually, even if you feel like you have. But I had to do something. You know, R.E.M. can re-sign; I can re-sign; everybody can re-sign. But is that the way I want to progress? Can I take the route that I’m supposed to take? And during this time, I had to do the total recall, all the way back to ’78 (when he made his first Warner Bros. record, “For You") and before. And all these people out there started speculating that, “He’s upset with himself,” “He’s upset with life,” or “He’s a brat.” But that’s not why I used the word “Slave.” I was doing it as a reminder to myself.

It’s a broad word. And by no means was I comparing myself to any people in any country—it’s the concept of slavery. Look it up. And for me to write “Slave,” what does that say about my oppressor? Who became my oppressor? That’s what telepathy’s about—finding the truth. Warner Bros. isn’t the enemy. A man is his own enemy. They couldn’t stop this ("Emancipation"). They couldn’t stop anything.

I didn’t know where I was going 10 years ago, but now I know where I’m going to be 3,000 years from now.

Q: And where is that?

A: That’s a secret.

Q: You say Warner isn’t the enemy. How do you feel about them now?

A: Had I not gone there, I wouldn’t be here now. I love Warner Bros. now. I know everyone thinks I’m nuts when I say that, but I love everyone in my past. I love them now. They had to be there for me to get to where I am now.

You’ve got to love humanity. We’re put here to save one another—and it’s hard to swallow, sometimes.

Q: So the “Slave” thing was a way of reminding you that you had to find a way out of your spiritual box?

A: When I went through this—and everybody goes through this—I was searching. Everybody has a path to his higher self, and what I named myself was my (vision) of my higher self. You can picture a perfect self; you can see your dream. And my higher self aspired to this ("Emancipation").

And I had to go through everything I went through to get to this. And it’s hard, because you get up every morning and write “Slave” on your face . . .

Q: Was there ever a time where you thought, “All right, already. I’m over this. I’m just not going to do it today.”

A. Nope! No, no, no! Because you’re not free. You don’t feel free.

Q: This reminds me of something I read in a meditation book once: Your 20s are about experimenting with who you are, your 30s are about becoming who you want to be, and your 40s are about taking that self-knowledge out into the world. I suppose it’s kind of that “Life begins at 40” philosophy—that if you do the work now, the rest of your days here can be extremely fruitful and gratifying. Is “Emancipation” the first time you’ve been aware of that path to what you call your higher self?

A: I saw it very clearly during (the making of) “1999” (in 1983). Everything goes by very quickly. You can see time. I’m hearing the sound of a future time, and I’m listening to it in a car.

You have to get that out of your head and onto the planet. After this ("Emancipation"), I don’t feel the need (to make any more music) for a while. There won’t be another record for a while. I feel like I could go to Hawaii and take a vacation.

Q: Have you ever felt that way before?

A: “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss.” You go to a higher plane (of creativity) with that. They don’t sound like anything else. “Kiss” doesn’t sound like anything else. They aren’t conscious efforts; you just have to get them out. They’re gifts. Terence Trent D’arby asked me where “Kiss” came from, and I have no idea. Nothing in it makes sense. Nothing! The high-hat doesn’t make sense.

Q: What has fatherhood meant to you, creatively?

A: I don’t know if I know yet. What I do know is that it makes me conscious of, more than anything, education. The first time I saw a person of color in a book, the person was hung from a tree. That was my introduction to African-American history in this country. And again, going back to doing the total recall that I did, I know that that experience set a fire in me to be free.

You know that song, “Let It Be"? There’s a lot of heaviness in that song. We should pay attention to that. If I was in charge of the government, I would make it mandatory that, at least once a year, we have a Chill Day—where everybody just kicked back and watched. Everybody’s so caught up in (the rat race), that we never really sit back and watch.

Q: You, of all people, seem to be in need of a Chill Day. You’re so prolific, it’s like you’re working all the time. Haven’t you ever wanted to take some time off, like other artists do, to let the muse percolate a little bit?

A: I don’t work that way. I am music. I feel music. When I walk around, I hear brand new things. You’re almost cursed. You’re not even (its maker), you’re just there to bring it forth. You know, “Can’t I go to sleep?” No. You can’t. But OK, now you can. And you go to sleep, and you don’t hear it, and then you’re lonely. No one wants to be on Earth alone.

Q: How do you feel about how you’ve been portrayed in the media?

A: If people would go back and read in the newspaper all the things that have been written about me that wasn’t true, they’d know, and they could judge things for themselves.

I don’t know what happened. The media has lost control. It’s got too much power. What do these people think? That they’re never going to see me again? That they’re not going to want to come out here and see me face-to-face, or want to get into one of (the gigs)? But it’s all good. You see where I live. You see what it’s like.

Q: Which brings us back to our search for the higher self. What about people who have straight jobs, or who aren’t as creative?

A: Jim, we’re all creative. I’m creative with music. You’re creative with your pen. The builders out there (working on the soundstage) are creative with what they’re building. Shoot, I couldn’t do what they’re doing. But if you go sit down with them and interview them, they’ll lay some complex (stuff) on you, and their work is very, very creative.

It takes everybody to do this. It even takes the person down the street to write the lies. It even takes People magazine, who said, “We’ll put you on the cover if we can have you, your wife and your baby on it.” Now. I have been a musician for 20 years. This is the best record I’ve ever made. You know: Kiss. My. A—.

What time is it when people (value gossip more than art)? But again, that gives me something to talk to you about, and that gives us a joke that we can laugh about here today. It’s all connected.