Calling his own tune

Dan Glaister

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is at a crossroads. He turned 40 this year, and with his new album, Newpower Soul, he professes to have found a way to avoid the machinations of the record industry, perhaps providing a way forward for other artists. He is smiling on the back of a triumphant US tour last year, and he is coping with the death of his week-old baby son in November 1996.

Don’t ask him about the baby. Not unreasonably the man does not want to talk about the infant’s death from complications caused by Pfeiffer’s Syndrome, an obscure disorder which causes the skull to harden and not expand. After just a week of life and two operations, the Artist and his wife, Mayte, decided to turn off his life support machine. It is a heartbreaking story, made worse by the story sold to the press by the couple’s nanny and bodyguard, which in turn prompted a police investigation.

For the record, the police concluded that the infant died of natural causes. Yet while the Artist does not want to talk about it, perhaps his music does, and should. In Liz Jones’s recent biography Slave to the Rhythm, she quotes Vernon Reid of the group Living Colour. Prince, he says, “is in a lot of pain. The degree to which he faces his own internal struggle is the degree to which he’ll have real happiness. For the music he’s given us he deserves happiness. The music he does at that point will be in another place.”

So it is a shock to hear the hidden extra track on Newpower Soul - Why Did I Waste My Kisses On You - end with the sound of a life support machine. It is also surprising to read in the album’s credits “Conceived and born at Paisley Park, bathed and circumcised by the Artist. . .”

Unprepossessing on the outside, the Artist’s Paisley Park studio is far from ordinary inside. Gold discs are everywhere, there’s even a trophy cabinet, complete with the Best Original Song Oscar he received for Purple Rain. Down one corridor, leading to the rehearsal stage, is a series of photographs, one for each year since his recording debut 22 years ago.

A cat stretches out on the sofa and watches contemptuously as two small dogs scamper around. The dogs belong to Mayte, the Puerto Rican dancer the Artist married at the forbidding red brick Park Avenue United Methodist church in a lower middle class area of Minneapolis. Mayte is charm herself; assured and glamorous in her Prada print dress and immaculate make-up.

The last time I interviewed the Artist was some three years ago in his dressing room at Wembley stadium in London. This time, just prior to his current European tour, I’m allowed to take notes, although tape recorders are still prohibited. “Yeah, I’m getting better,” he says, “it’s going up and up.” Sitting back in his chair, occasionally hooking a leg over one of the arms, over the next hour and a quarter he emerges as open, assured, engaging, funny, lucid and eloquent, with just the occasional rough edge of a man who does not like to be contradicted.

His dress sense, however, has not changed. The day we meet he wears high-waisted black trousers, little white boots with heels, an off-white shirt with gold cufflinks, opened to reveal a hairy chest, which is in turn concealed by a blue and black scarf. A chain and curious jewellery hooked over the ear set off the image.

Compared with three years ago, when he was at the height of his dispute with Warner Brothers and spoke to me with the word Slave scrawled across his cheek, he is more relaxed. He now strikes one-off distribution deals to get his albums into the shops, although the last set, Crystal Ball, one for the fans, was sold first by mail order via the Internet, and then through a direct deal with three retail chains in the US. Although critics have called it a flop, he is bullish about its success.

"When somebody wants to say that you’re a flop in the industry, that’s because you only get seven cents an album. We sold 250,000 copies of Crystal Ball. That’s all we ever intended to sell. Now it’s finished, over, and guess who gets the lion’s share? Was it positive for me to take seven cents an album when we know that Purple Rain took $150 million? I have no regrets. If I had not done that I would not have the knowledge I now have.” His US tour last year, covering 71 cities, was hugely successful, earning $27 million, and making the Artist sixth in the ranking of US tours for last year. The plan is to tour from now until the end of the century.

"I make a lot of money on the road. I make $300,000 a night. You add that up and you can see why people want to put a rope around an artist. And sales of music is not as important as giving people a night they’re going to remember. I’d just as well give the music away.” A track called The War is indeed to be given away, he says, to the fans who bought Crystal Ball. The fans will also be interested to learn that he is recording a solo album - “In the style of Sign O’ the Times” - his first solo effort since that album, and perhaps this is the time for him to address the personal issues that surround him.

In the meantime, it is tour, tour, tour, although the live shows are stripped down. “I’ve been part of some pretty grandiose spectacles and we wanted to get back to music,” he says. “I’m tired of all of it. I’m tired of making videos. I never really liked making them anyway. I never wanted to be a star. I didn’t want to get rich. It’s such a game and when you wake up from it you go, `Oh man’. You get whipped into so many things you don’t have to do. I don’t want to be a part of any lie or any game any more. I want a job.”

The discontent with the industry machine, and his happiness at having discovered a viable way around it, go some way to explaining the troubling change of name. “Prince was a company. It wasn’t my career. It’s embarrassing,” he tells me. “When you’ve got a whole machine behind you making sure your record is in every store that they own and on every radio station that they own . . . You’re being programmed.”

But there must have been a fallout for him from the dispute with Warners. He was, after all, subjected to enormous ridicule, and the name change has served to alienate many Prince fans. “There was no cost,” he flashes back. Then he considers. “Do you know, there were no colours in here. Everything was white and the carpets were grey. I just think that venting had to occur and it’s still occurring. I still don’t own my master recordings. I have a problem with the Prince era.” The problem could become acute again as we move into 1999.

If ever there was a ready-made theme song for the Millennium, one that has a chorus “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999” would seem to be it. But Warners owns the title, although it would need the Artist’s permission to commercially exploit it. He dodges the question when I ask about his plans for next year, beyond saying he is going to party all year. “Maybe if the world ends all the malls will be empty,” he jokes. Ah, the malls. Minneapolis, as any shopper will tell you, is home to the largest shopping mall in the world, complete with fun fair, aquarium, and shops. The Artist is surely the only resident of Minneapolis who has not been there.

The idea of 400 shops in one building probably fills him with the same sense of horror that many feel at his output. He has pushed out five CDs so far this year, with the probability of more to come. The shadow of Miles Davis, who he frequently refers to in conversation, protects him. Davis recorded 17 sides of music for Columbia records between August 1969 and August 1970.

"Sometimes I’ll sense criticism from people about releasing too much music. I can’t do too much music because it’s infinite how much music you can do. You force it and you’re going to get a mouse with an ear on the back.”

The musical ascetic’s self-denial is now spreading to other parts of his life. What’s changed? “My connection with God. I don’t swear any more, that’s shocking. I’m trying to cut all these things out of my life. I can just smell death on food that’s been killed. I can’t preach the glories of being vegan enough. Your dreams change, they go sequentially. You dream the future, you’ll dream the whole next day. And you hear your intuition more.”

I ask him what he will be doing in 10 years. “Sinatra’s a good model. I’d like to believe that I’m part of the cultural fibre now. When someone makes a joke about you, well . . . Only time tells. Time’s my journalist, time’s my critic.” Mayte enters with a pill and a cup of tea. “Gotta take my vitamins,” he says. “Actually, it’s an aspirin. Too much talking gives me a headache.”

The night before we meet he had jammed with George Clinton. They produced a 46-minute track, which, he says, they had then reduced to 22 minutes. The following night, we are promised a small scale performance in his rehearsal area, but a storm causes it to be canceled. Instead we play basketball on the Paisley court and listen to a live track recorded at the previous week’s jam. More than half an hour long, it is a funky, soulful wonder, a Marvin Gaye-style backing running under the constantly repeated refrain “The revolution will not be colourised”.

As the black kid from one of the whitest states in the US who made his name playing funked-up rock in a multi-racial band, grows older, his music grows blacker.