Twelve years ago, I got the chance to sit down with Prince one-on-one. I recall many of the details: the low timbre of his speaking voice, the dimness of the lighting (there was just one floor lamp lit, over my right shoulder), the intense silence between questions, while he sat impassively—and what I could only hope was patiently—waiting as I frantically scribbled as much as I could remember verbatim from his previous response. (No electronic recording devices were allowed, but at least he gave his interviewers enough time to keep up.)
Before the interview I wondered what he’d be like, whether I’d be starstruck and whether I’d even get to ask more than a few questions. I wondered what he would wear (I opted for a purple skirt, after much deliberation.) and made a mental note to check out his outfit as soon as he entered, especially his shoes. It wasn’t until an hour after the interview that I realized I never once looked at his feet.
I’m eternally grateful for having the opportunity to sit and speak with him. And to this day I still wonder what kind of shoes he was wearing.
[The following interview ran in the July 15, 2004 issue of the Amsterdam News.]
Pop icon Prince recently sat down with the AmNews for a one-on-one interview during the new York Stop on his extensive “Musicology” tour to talk about his band and his live show.
The suite on the 17th floor of the New York hotel is busting with a UPN camera crew, journalists and Prince’s publicity staff, who organize the crowd with an efficiency that is both crisp and hushed. The tone is contagious—everyone present speaks in muted tones and makes an effort to move quickly and quietly, despite all of the activity.
Away from the bustle outside, Prince sits down in one of a pair of small, plush armchairs facing the center of the room reserved for interviews. He is utterly immaculate in a black velvet blazer, charcoal gray shirt, mustard yellow waistcoat and dark slacks. He wears brown-tinted shades and sports the diamond ear-cuff he wears in the photo taken for the “Musicology” album cover. His skin is flawless and, looking at him, one is hard-pressed to remember that his career spans more than 25 years.
He is soft-spoken and reserved in conversation, articulating himself thoughtfully and pausing frequently to allow his listener to catch up (He does not allow the use of tape recorders during his interviews.). He speaks from a place of quiet confidence about his music.
The songs on “Musicology” were recorded at different times in different places, he says, and were pulled together into a seamless mix for the album. “I record all the time. I like to think of my songs as timeless. ‘What Do U Want Me 2 Do’ could be on my album ‘Sign O’ the Times.’ Or ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (the first single scheduled for release from the new album0 could be from ‘Dirty Mind.’ I consider the whole thing one song anyway, from the beginning of my career on.”
Backing Prince on the “Musicology” tour is his New Power Generation, featuring John Blackwell (drums) Greg Boyer (trombone), Candy Dulfer (saxophone), Chance Howard (trumpet) Renato Neto (piano and synthesizers), Maceo Parker (saxophone) and Rhonda Smith (bass). This current lineup, assembled over time, is the result of Prince compiling his musical wish-list and fulfilling it. “I imagined my ideal band,” he says, “and I shot for the moon. I pictured the band I would want, in my head. If you’re going to have a sax player, then why not have James Brown’s sax player?” Why not, indeed. “So you ask and, surprisingly enough, they said yes.”
Surprisingly or not, the musicians now form a cohesive whole that successfully blends legendary music veterans such as sax legend and James Brown veteran Parker with younger (although by no means less talented) musicians. “The glue that holds the whole band together is respect,” Prince asserts. “Maceo Parker respects Chance Howard and, of course, Chance Howard respects Maceo Parker.”
This respect becomes evident during the band’s live shows, which, Prince explains, involve a combination of structure and spontaneity. The entire band can change a song’s direction at a moment’s notice by paying attention both to each other and to their bandleader’s body language and verbal cues.
“Song parts can be cued at any time with gestures,” he says. “For example, if I sing a verse, the band knows it’ll be 16 bars straight, no solos or anything.” If, however, he plays the verse without singing, that’s the band’s cue to go ahead and “vamp it up.”
With such a responsive backing band in place, it’s no wonder Prince is happy to be back on the road. “I enjoy it,” he admits. “We take a lot of breaks and I have my favorite people around me. People from home visit a lot, which is another blessing. It takes a lot of money to be able to fly people out, put them up in hotels, etc. So it’s a blessing to be able to do that.
“Touring gets a bad rap from people who don’t have a relationship to music. I have a relationship to music. When [the music] is coming through me, it feels like home.”
Prince’s tours almost always involve large arena shows followed by more intimate after-parties, where the band and invited guest artists get a chance to loosen up and jam in smaller venues. Although he enjoys playing both, Prince admits that the smaller venues hold some advantages.
“The ‘One Night Alone’ tour we did in theaters,” he says. “Having chairs changes the whole experience. At arena shows, chairs just mark where you’re going to stand. But at smaller venues with chairs, people are more likely to say, ‘Let’s sit down and listen.’
“It’s hard to do a 10-minute solo in an arena. You gotta keep it moving, or else you’re going to get a mob mentality [from the crowd]. And then you’re in trouble.”
When asked whether he has time to listen to anything while on the road, he demurs. “We make a lot of music. I’m just listening to our music now. … I know how that sounds, but I like to think that I’m my own favorite musician.”
Favorites aside, he is extremely liberal in assigning praise for his band members. “I’m always meeting folks who are talented and who inspire me in different ways,” he says. “John Blackwell is a genius. So humble and calm. You’d never know he’d be so fiery like that. Like Goliath. You’d never know [it] to look at him. And Maceo Parker … he just needs a microphone and a spotlight and he’s good to go.”
Prince is less than generous when it comes to the topic of the music industry and its treatment of artists. “Throughout history, the culprits are all the same,” he contends. “I mean, how’d you like to own ‘Kind of Blue?’ It sure isn’t the Davis family. That album will sell for years and years, but they’re not seeing that money. That powers that be made that—no, make that ‘the powers that wanna be.’”
His concern extends to laws he feels were created to prevent artists from taking care of themselves. “With the compulsory licensing law, anyone can record a version of my song against my will, without my consent,” he says. “But the same law doesn’t apply to Stephen Spielberg. You can’t make ‘E.T.,’ make a new one, have him say ‘phone home’ and reap the benefits. There are no protections for my music.
“Quiet as it’s kept, I don’t need any more money. People can just leave my songs uncovered. I don’t need another version of ‘When Doves Cry.’ It is what it is.
“Some musicians are fearless with their music but are not fearless with their business or their lives. We’re trained to turn our music responsibilities over to someone else and our music suffers as a result. Not only can you make the music, but you can distribute it, you can manufacture it. You can create a new infrastructure to support a new industry. The future is so exciting, and people are waking up to it now.”
As for his future? “I know my future’s going to be bright,” he predicts. “I always know I’m going to have a good concert because I’m not the only one up there. ‘Cause when Maceo gets going …”