Will the real Artist stand up?

We thought he’d gone mad. Now, in an exclusive interview, The Artist does something really weird: he talks - a lot: ’If you don’t use my new name, you’re insulting me’

Tim Adams

Let’s call him the artist. He’s sitting on the edge of a plump sofa in Park Lane’s Four Seasons Hotel, surrounded by dozens of gilded pictures of the dandified Duke of Wellington on horseback (it’s the Wellington Suite); he’s just flown in from Paris where his plane was delayed by snow and where he got to bed at six in the morning after a three-hour impromptu concert that even his band said was ’something’; he’s wearing a big black sweater and tight black trousers and stilettoes; his hair is wild, he’s unshaven, and he’s talking about his new interview technique. ’I used to do that stuff where I’d sit on the floor with the lights real low and not say anything, maybe nod a little weirdly,’ he says, nodding weirdly. ’Then I’d walk out. And you, the guy with the pen, sitting there in the dark, you’d go off and write “jerk”. I don’t do that now: I just dare you to write bad stuff. Prince didn’t used to talk much,’ he looks at me mock-demonically, and then rocks back and giggles. ’I talk way too much’.

His liberation from his former self, his fabled ’emancipation’, began six years ago with his name change, and continued with his winning the battle to escape from his $100 million recording contract with Warner Bros; it was completed by his marriage to his Puerto Rican backing dancer Mayte. Now, the transformation complete, at 41, he says he’s never been happier, or had more creative energy.

I’d seen graphic evidence of that three days earlier when, on a grey Monday afternoon in a concrete theatre in Blackfriars, he’d electrified an invited audience of cynical journalists and music industry representatives with an inspirational two-hour performance, moving effortlessly between his souped-up
James Brown funk and virtuoso Hendrix-esque guitar, singing and dancing as if divinely possessed. (And this after we’d waited endlessly for his arrival on stage while the boss of Arista Records, Clive Davis, painstakingly introduced each track on the artist’s new album and half-heartedly hand-jived behind a lectern while we listened. Davis is a portly, balding man with tinted spectacles: ’I haven’t come all this way to watch fucking Frank Butcher dance,’ someone said.) In contrast to this lacklustre support act, Arista’s unpredictable new artist seemed to be fighting a heroic battle to contain his extraordinary energies within three dimensions. Last Thursday, having barely slept in between, he was still apparently euphoric.

I wonder why he feels more himself now he’s not Prince.

’I was always myself,’ he says. ’I’m not schizophrenic, don’t believe in schizophrenia. It’s all you; it’s just which part of yourself you show.’ He tells a story about Miles Davis, his late friend and
mentor: ’Miles would show you what part of him he felt like,’ he says. ’Man, sometimes he’d show you much more than you wanted . I’d go round to his place and he’d come to the door butt-naked, just to see my reaction.’ He gives a look of stage horror at the recollection, gasps. ’And that was something you didn’t want to see. All of human history was on that body. See that and you wouldn’t want to eat for a week’.

This was always supposed to be his year; Prince started the millennial celebrations 17 years early with his apocalyptic promise to ’party like it’s 1999’. But in his current incarnation he’d planned to take
most of it off as ’a time for reflection’. However, he feels so good he’s made a quick album, the suitably titled Rave un2 the Joy Fantastic , which recalls the vibrancy of Parade and Sign O’ the Times,
both made long before things went sour with Warners, (and he’s even got ’Prince’ to produce it). ’For the first time recently,’ he suggests, ’I could see my whole life ahead of me and there was no ceiling. I was talking with Mayte earlier this morning about how long the days must be when you are a baby, when you’re a really, really small kid, because all you are concerned with is that second, what’s in front of you. Really good parents allow their kids to find out who they are for themselves. That’s how I feel about my music now. I can play’.

He means that word in the broadest sense. As with all the greatest musicians there is a wonderful ludic quality to his best work. Let loose in the studio with his falsetto posturings, his encyclopaedic
appropriation of styles, his childlike punning, his cocky mastery of every instrument, he is at his most alive, working 18-hour days. In the early Nineties, however, preoccupied with legal wrangles, he seemed to become a remote and self-absorbed figure, earnestly protecting his comic myths. He can laugh
about it all now, though, and claims there was never any real aggression on his part towards his record company: ’Still,’ he concedes, enjoying the understatement, ’you walk into a meeting with the word
“slave” written on your face with mascara, and you know it does kind of change the dynamic a little.’

Those battles, he says, which were principally concerned with who owned the rights to the ’master’ copies of his work, helped to create a reputation which he uses to his advantage. ’I sit down with
execs now, and I think,’ he says, tongue firmly in cheek, ’they got a fair idea where I’m coming from. They start shifting positions and stuttering and doing this sidetalk.’ He shifts and stutters and
sidetalks. And then he breaks off, and laughs. ’I said to them: Bill Gates don’t make something and then give it away to someone else...’ He jumps to his feet. ’Hey, I heard a good story: I’m Bill Gates,’
[it’s not the most convincing impersonation I’ve seen] ’and I’ve dropped $50,000, and the thing is: it’s not worth my time to bend down and pick it up . I love that stuff...’ He throws himself back on the sofa.

Now let loose to follow his whims (and he has never been short of them) his new album is more of a collaborative effort than in the past, when everything was often ’produced, written, composed and
performed’ under his name. (’There was a time when my contract said I couldn’t even give a tape of new songs to a friend. Now I can work with who I want.’) There is a range of guests on Rave: Sheryl Crow,
folk rocker Ani DiFranco, rapper Eve, saxophonist Maceo Parker, Public Enemy’s ChuckD. They are held together with the unmistakable production verve of the resurrected Prince (’I was curious to see how Prince used to edit himself,’ he says of his former ego. ’I was interested in my approach to music then.’)

He was inspired, too, by the recording philosophy of Chuck D, who released his band’s most recent album first on the Internet, and of DiFranco (’we don’t talk too much, we send these cartoons to each other’) who sells all her work through her own label. Though Rave is being released on a loose, non-contract arrangement with Arista, he foresees a time when such deals may not be necessary. In the past few years, he has been using his web site to promote and sell his work. His previous album, Crystal Ball, a five-CD set, sold 250,000 copies over the Net at $50 a time. (It also, critics argued at the time, demonstrated what Warners had suggested: that it was possible even for geniuses to be too prolific.)

The artist’s web site, ’Love4One Another.com’, is a ’webwide effort to raise the vibration of the world’. As with all the output of its creator, it’s a likeable mixture of control freakery - he makes corrections to articles that appear about him in the press - and his personal philosophy, which ranges from a home-made Egyptian mythology to the familiar ’lovesexy’ liberation movement. There is a global love superhighway charity helping with flood and famine and chat rooms to discuss the mixture of music, sex and religion that he bundles up as The Truth.

In the artist’s mind as well as the artist’s web site all of these things are part of the same obsession. ’Those master tapes are one of the reasons I went back to the Bible,’ he says, typically. ’I read how Moses dealt with the Pharaoh. He had these people over him telling him what to do and he said: “Let my people go.” The story’s the same. We have to do these things for our bloodline.’

His particular promised land is to re-record every track he ever made, to bring his music back ’into his family’ away from Warners who still hold the rights to his back catalogue. He is uniquely placed to do this: ’All it takes is a new master tape, and I have the old master tapes. I don’t own ’em. But I got ’em.’ He smiles broadly from under his hair at the prospect.

You can see how the idea of ’masters’ might have special significance for him. He talks about his rechristening with the same kind of spiritual fervour: in the past he has spoken of getting rid of his ’slave name’, inviting comparison with the ridicule afforded to Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X when they did the same.

I wonder how far he would push the comparison between his corporate struggles and those of the civil rights movement.

’I didn’t draw that parallel at all until I saw what disrespect I got,’ he says referring to the endless media ’jokes’ about The Artist Formerly Known as Popular/ Sane/ Interesting. ’I was on MTV, and the presenter said he had a problem with my name. I asked him what the problem was. He just said there is a problem. The truth is that there is no problem. I made it known very publicly that that was my new name. If people do not use it, they are insulting me. I don’t understand that insult. I don’t play the race card, but it seems to me that, in this case, you can’t get away from it.’

You could see his name change as the natural conclusion of a crusade. From the time he grew up in Minneapolis he has attempted to avoid simple categorisations. He obfuscated his racial make-up in early
interviews to appear a kind of everyman, able to take on the musical apartheid of US radio stations and the Billboard charts. He has always cross-dressed and promoted his uniquely feminised heterosexuality, sung about being ’your girlfriend’. In all of this it was his ambition not to be so much a crossover as a unification artist. You could argue that his use of the symbol was a logical extension of that position, of not wanting people to tell you who you are. Or you could just see it as a kind of extreme paranoia.

He looks at me, half-smiling, leans up a bit closer. ’Have you ever seen yourself outside yourself?’ he asks.

Not that often, I concede.

’You have a woman, right? What she thinks of you, Tim,’ he says, conspiratorially, ’may not always be what you know is the truth. Now multiply that millions and millions and millions of times. That was Prince. There were all these perceptions that had nothing to do with the truth. I changed my name to get rid of all that. I’m free from it. I could start again.’

I start to suggest that perhaps in some small, entirely insignificant way (by making hugely successful albums and films which dramatised that persona) he encouraged those perceptions in the first place, but before I can finish he’s off again.

’I changed my name to a trademark symbol so I can own myself again. People started that stuff with The Artist Formerly Known as. I’m not The Artist Formerly Known as Anything. Use my name .’ (Somebody recently asked Mayte what she called him around the house: ’When I need to talk to him, I just stand in front of him to get his attention,’ she said. ’Otherwise I call him “honey”.’ For his part, he says, ’if she said “Prince get me a cup of tea, I’d probably drop the cup.”’ )

There were plenty of other associations of ’Prince’ that he understandably might have wanted to bury. His original name came from a jazz band his father played in, called The Prince Rogers Trio. When his parents split up, the young Prince Rogers Nelson lived first with his mother, then with his father; and then, at the age of 12, he was taken in by the mother of a school-friend, apparently (and the myths are virtually impossible to separate from the facts here) after he had been kicked out of home when his father found him with a girl in his bedroom. When Oprah Winfrey asked if his father had ’abused him’, the artist replied that he had ’had his moments’. Over the years the pair have frequently been estranged.

Still, when I ask whether he renamed himself as a reaction to being part of his father’s showbusiness fantasies, he says only that: ’My father is a deeply spiritual man who asks God for guidance in almost all he does. My father said he looked down into my crib and called me that name because he wanted something better for me than his life.’

So have they resolved their differences (which included John Nelson selling a story to the News of the World saying he wrote his son’s best songs)? ’You don’t ever fall out,’ he says. ’Ultimately when you love one another you all want the same thing. The Truth.’

His idea of the Truth is an elastic one. He looks around for a convenient example. ’Take that light switch,’ - he leans over to touch one of the Wellington Suite’s gold-plated fixtures - ’The truth of it is that it only works one way. Flick it down and the light comes on. But some people don’t want to know that kind of truth. They want to find some new way of turning the light on. I like to keep it simple’.

This simplicity extends to a somewhat fundamentalist view of the Bible. The man who on ’1999’ dreamt it was judgment day still has a hankering for divine retribution. ’Why’d you think there are all these earthquakes and planes falling out of the sky. Why is that?’ he asks, and then answers for himself. ’We’re all shooting each other. These guys come out of a summit meeting and say, you know, we really, really tried but we couldn’t really agree how to stop killing each other. Y’all can’t say that. We don’t want to hear your failures. There’s an easy way to stop killing’.

I have an image for a moment of the artist; sitting down across the table from Ian Paisley, poring over scriptures. He goes on: ’Look at Revelations, man, that will put you right. Be sure you get a New World
translation, mind. Don’t let that old King [James] lead you down. We all know where that old King is coming from...’

If there was ever an event to test this faith it occurred at the time of the release of the Emancipation album in 1996. The album was in part a (fairly saccharine) testament of the liberated artist’s love for his new wife: it featured some of the music he had written for their wedding as well as a track suggesting ’Let’s have a baby’. By the time the album was finished Mayte was pregnant and her husband had used a sample of the ultrasound heartbeat ’of the first conceived 2 the artist’, on one of the album’s tracks. When their son was born, however, it was with a congenital bone defect, and after a series of operations the baby died when only two weeks old. The expectant father who had built an adventure playground in his recording studio so the pair of them could ’play’ together, protected his son from the public gaze, even after his cremation, maintaining that all was well until several weeks later. In the months that followed he wrote a song called ’Until U R in my Arms Again’, in which he sings: ’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.’

I hesitate to ask whether his faith helped him through the tragedy, but when I do, he says simply that ’there is no such thing as tragedy’, and asks to leave it at that.

Given his musical gifts, it is perhaps no surprise that the artist believes them to be divinely inspired (’In the beginning God made the sea,’ he sang, ’But on the seventh Day he made me’). I wonder if he ever fears he will lose his creative powers, that his inspiration will dry up?

’Do people still fear things?’ he says, eyes wide, smiling. ’After all this time on the earth there is still stuff to fear? It’s all inside you somewhere,’ he says of his music. ’You just have to know where to access it.’ He doesn’t seem to have too much trouble. He talks of having 1,000 songs that are unrecorded; when asked to write the score for Batman, he knocked it off in a fortnight. His only real pop equivalents - Sly Stone, say, or Jimi Hendrix - have burnt themselves out in different ways. Perhaps that is why he reveres the memory of Miles Davis, who started great and carried on getting better.

’There was a lot of silence with Miles,’ he says, remembering his friend again. ’He was a genius of space. He’d come to my house and not say anything and just sit at the piano. And stare at me. It was kind of unnerving. And then he’d play a chord. And then he’d stare some more. And then he’d play another chord, just watching me, playing me.’

As he well knows, he is not easily played. In the short time I have with him, he does, as he says, talk a lot more than he used to, but as he repeatedly insists, he communicates largely through his music, where there is no telling what he might say next. Tipper Gore, future First Lady, was excited into campaigning for the introduction of parental warning stickers on CDs which contained his masturbatory hymn, ’Darling Nikki’; but preaching ’dancemusicsexromance’ seems fairly benign when the next generation is preaching combinations of ’slap’ and ’bitch’ and ’up’. His web site greets you with the sampled line from ’1999’: ’Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, I only want you to have some fun...’

It seems that finally he’s returned to that philosophy himself. ’So what are you up to on New Year’s Eve?’ I ask, as I’m leaving.

’Something very cool,’ he whispers, self-mockingly.

And what’s he working on next?

’What next? I’ll be reading those nice things you write about me on Sunday,’ he says.