The Artist formerly named Prince, one regular guy

Franklin Paul




NEW YORK (Reuters) - Getting an interview with the Artist Formerly Known as Prince was startlingly simple.

After years of being rejected by his lawyers and label executives, it came down to this: I inquired, and his spokeswoman shot back, “How about Thursday?”

But then came the polite warnings, the class in “temperamental rock star interviewing 101.” Watch what you say, she advised, because he may get up and leave at any point.

"I can’t tell you what to ask him, but there are certain topics you might want to avoid,” she said, putting questions about his family and the tragic 1996 death of his newborn son at the top of the list.

No problem. Any music critic worth his salt would jump at the chance to chat with one of the most prolific, influential and downright funky musicians of our time.

"And,” she continued, “no tape recorders or pictures. Just notes.” This was a minor setback, but not an unexpected one.

Fans of the Artist—as he’s commonly called—are keenly aware of his history with reporters. He once gave an interview while driving in his car around Minneapolis to a reporter forbidden to tape or take any notes. He’s briefed journalists while recording music or in noisy nightclubs.

Last year, during his “Jam of the Year” tour, he invited writers to fax questions to him and to wait for a written response.

So, sitting with him in the quiet, plush offices of Manhattan’s Hit Factory, even if armed only with the nub of a No. 2 pencil and a notepad will be a cakewalk, right?

"How long can I talk to him?” this reporter asked.

"Until he says it’s over,” she responded, “which could be at any time.”


HE’S NORMAL. REALLY.

The Artist is in town promoting the latest product from his independent NPG label, an 11-song CD titled “Newpower Soul” (the jacket lists 10 tunes, but there’s a hidden song at the end of the album, following several minutes of silence, which appears on CD players as track No. 49). The disc actually is released in the name of the New Power Generation, the Artist’s band.

Until recently, press junkets like this were nearly unheard for the former Prince. During the high points of his popularity over the past 15 years, he’s submitted to maybe one publishable interview every three years.

He’s been more accessible since the 1996 resolution of his contract battle with Warner Bros. Records and the subsequent release that year of his 3-CD set “Emancipation.”

Accessible—not chatty. The 40-year old Minneapolis native last year stingily squeezed out five-word sentences on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. As a guest in June on the late-night show “Vibe,” he spoke fewer words than did his new touring partner, bassist Larry Graham.

With all that eccentricity and shyness on his resume, how is it that he turned out to be so—for lack of a better word—normal?

The door opens to the dimly lit conference room where we will talk, and he offers a firm handshake and an invitation to sit next to him near the end of the room’s large table.

The Artist slides into a lively discussion about the record business, his music and his idols, with sidebars into the Year 2000 bug, Venus Williams, Eddie Murphy’s movies, Puff Daddy’s “Benjamins” and the fact
that he does not take vacations.

With a laugh, he says he ignores critics and has no expectations for his current album. Expectations take away from the quest for great music.

"Did you see Venus Williams?” he asks, referring to the tennis pro who recently was outplayed at Wimbledon after a series of verbal outbursts. “She expected to win. Then when it didn’t go her way, she lost control.”I don’t expect anything,” he says. “I just do what I feel I’m supposed to do.”

He is dressed showbiz-flamboyant in a flowing rust-colored top, which drapes down over his hip-hugging black pants, a matching rust scarf, and gold, crescent-shaped jewelry on the outer rim of each ear, from which a tiny star dangles. His heels make him seem taller than he really is.

All that rock star stuff aside, he’s not the scary man about whom this reporter was warned. This is the energetic, crowd-pleasing guy you’ve seen at his concerts, cracking jokes and talking about hanging out with D’Angelo.

Whatever his name is, he’s the guy that grew up with, and speaks a lot like, Morris Day, the lead singer of the Time.

He talks about his work with Graham and soul diva Chaka Khan and the fact that money did not change hands between them in the process of creating their solo albums, which will be available later this year.

"How am I going to make Chaka, one of my idols, pay for time in my studio?” he asks. “What can I possibly charge her? The only thing she can pay me is a compliment.”

Perhaps they will talk financial compensation later, he says. For now it’s all about the music.


NEWPOWER SOUL

The music on “Newpower Soul” is standard 1990s fare for 1990s former Prince, neither his best work nor his worst. The funk is tight and George Clinton-flavored. The ballads are melodically tender and lyrically mature.

But while he once sang: “take this beat/I don’t mind/I got plenty others/and it’s so fine,” pitying others less funky, now on cuts such as “Funky Music” and the title track, he seems to spend too much time forcing the issue, as if to say: “hey, look at how funky I am.”

And then there are the songs that even your garden-variety critic will see as autobiographical. From “Controversy” to “Papa” to much of the film “Purple Rain,” the former Prince has never shied from singing about his life—even if he won’t talk about it.

That’s what’s so striking about the nameless extra cut on “Newpower Soul.” A sparse three-minute ballad whose hook is “Why did I waste my kisses on you baby?”, the song’s ending features the bleeps of a heart-rate monitor, which flatlines as the melody dissipates.

Is that about his son? Could the lyrics, “Every morning when I awaken/I imagine you sleeping in your bed/Wrong or right the reason you were taken/from my embrace/well it’s never said,” from “Until U’re in My Arms Again,” refer to his child?

I choose not to pursue it. We regular guys—one a journalist, the other a musician who’s penned a thousand songs and sold 33 million records—have other things to discuss ... like Wyclef Jean, his new friendliness toward the media and his flight back home that night.

Interviewing the Artist, at least on that one day, was startlingly simple too.