Paying the price of freedom

His child has died. He only has two friends. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince may be free from his record-contract ’slavery, but can he be happy?

Serge Simonart

Histrionics are afoot at New York’s legendary recording studio, the Hit Factory. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince’ has flounced out of the room because the woman typing up this interview couldn’t spell his wife Mayte’s name. For a moment it looks like a rare audience with His Purpleness is over before it has even begun.

The typist is banished from the room, making way for The Artist, who enters and starts to play sulkily on the piano. I suggest we cancel the interview, but he insists: “This new music needs to be heard so we have to talk.” And from now on everything said must be written by hand. “To me a tape recorder is like having a contract,” he says, “and I don’t want to have a contract with you. I don’t want this to be about business, I want it to be a normal conversation about something that we’re hopefully both passionate about: music. With no tape recorder, our relationship is based on trust. So if you write lies, you’re the one betraying that trust.”

Given his experiences with stifling contracts, this is probably fair enough. This is the man who spent years battling to free himself from his former record company Warners, who at the height of the wrangling took to writing ’Slave’ in eyeliner across his cheek. Music industry standard procedure to release only one album a year didn’t agree with him: The Artist wanted to release three. “Mayte has me in studio rehab,” he jokes. “People call me a workaholic but I’ve always considered that to be a compliment, John Coltrane played the saxophone 12 hours a day; that’s not manic, that’s a dedicated musician whose spirit drives his body to work so hard. I think that’s something to aspire to.

The Artist reckons he’s found a way of dealing with the record industry. By setting up his own company, New Power Generation, he can release whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

"What we’ve been trying to do with New Power Generation, what it stands for, is trying to create more freedom,” he says, including financial freedom, so that artists control their own genesis and can reach a much brighter revelation.” As a result, he’s catching up with lost time and this year has already released five CDs, with possibly more to follow. First came the four-CD set Crystal Ball – “partly inspired by trying to imagine what it would be like to make love during the apocalypse”, and more recently Newpower Soul.

The Artist has always been notoriously prolific, sleeping only a few hours a night and spending most of his waking hours in the studio. The film he says he most strongly relates to is Amadeus: “When I watched that movie, he says, “I noticed a lot of parallels between Mozart’s life and mine.”

Whatever genius he chooses to link himself with, the fact is even the most dedicated fan finds this level of output hard to keep up with. Crystal Ball sold only 250,000 copies, compared say with 1984’s Purple Rain, which sold 14 million. And the reaction to Newpower Soul has been lukewarm to say the least. The Observer described it as “another album of undistinguished funk smeared with smut - we’ve been here many times before with more style.” So when The Artist declares: “I can talk now, because I’m free , it sounds like ifs got very little to do with his release from Warners and a lot more to do with slumping sales and a glaring need for self-promotion.

Some would say The Artist lost it a while ago: just after Diamonds And Pearls was released in 1991 and just before he changed his name from Prince Rogers Nelson to an unpronounceable squiggle, a symbol which now adorns virtually everything he touches (even his cat wears one). Perhaps he’s been locked in his Paisley Park HQ too long – stranded out on the chilly plains of Minnesota. But today, The Artist, clad all in black and carrying a transparent walking stick, is keen to prove that he’s just a normal bloke who happens to be passionate about music. He talks easily, laughing and joking and fussing over his wife Mayte’s Yorkshire Terrier puppies.

"When people made fun of my name change, it was mostly white people,” he says, “because black people empathise with wanting to change a situation. My last name, Nelson, is really a slave name: a hundred years ago it meant ’son of Nell’ and white slave owners gave it to their slaves, so why should I go by that name now? Why not do what Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X did? I was brought up in a black and white world. I dig black and white, night and day, rich and poor, man and women. I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not on what I say.”

This year The Artist turned 40 and has set the Warners episode well behind him. Two years ago he married Mayte, a 25 year-old Puerto Rican dancer. They met when she was 16 after he hired her as a choreographer. “I’ve found that the spiritual peace that genuine love and passion brings makes anything less than that irrelevant,” he says. Before that, it seems, he was struggling with depression, and used sex and alcohol to keep it at bay: “When I wrestled with demons, I had moods when I couldn’t figure something out and so I turned to vice to sort myself out, like women or too much drink.”

He recently discovered religion, and now smoking, swearing and drinking are all out. He’s strictly vegan and his musicians are required to follow suit, no meat is allowed and some have been sacked for taking drugs. But judging by Newpower Soul, whose track list includes titles like Mad Sex and Push It Up, sex is still high on the agenda. Then, if you press the fast-forward button all the way up to number 49, there’s a hidden track called
Why Did I Waste My Kisses On You, which ends with the bleeping sound of a life support machine” It’s been suggested that this is a reference to the horrific loss of The Artist’s first child who died shortly after he was born. In the days after the birth, The Artist flew to Chicago to record an Oprah Winfrey show, then he told a press conference at Paisley Park
that he was “enjoying being a father” – even though, by that time, the baby was already dead.

Two years on The Artist, armed with his own record company, has found himself free not only to churn out as many CDs as he likes but also to resurrect the careers of others. Newpower Soul credits Chaka Khan and Sly And The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham as its midwife and husband, and both have been signed to his label with solo releases due out later in the year. “Chaka is another artist who was temporarily choked by restrictions, contracts, bad business deals,” says The Artist. “She’s free now, free to release as many songs as she likes. It looks as if output from the New Power Generation stable is going to be vast.

But delving beyond the freedom speeches and declarations of true love you can’t help but see a flip side; a sad picture of an embittered genius, holed up near Fargo-land releasing music to an increasingly disinterested audience. And it’s also a picture of a man who believes he can outwit the music industry through pure self-indulgence - this coming from the musician who wrote his first song when he was seven and released his debut album at 18. Looking back, perhaps Wa​rn​ers did him a favour after all, turning him into a Slave, because now that he’s free he’s a lonely Artist who trusts no one.

"If you’re talking about real ​​friends I have only two, and one of them is Mayte,” he says. “It’s hard to trust people when you’ve been burned and betrayed by so many; tax consultants, lawyers, companies, hangers-on. Fm disappointed by people all the time. I try hard to keep an open mind and bring as many people to the light as lean. And I hope my life is still about emancipation and the soul, no matter how many crooked people cross my path.