MY NIGHT WITH PRINCE
It was 11 p.m. on the night before New Year’s Eve, and I was doing something I hadn’t expected would crown my 2008: sitting in Prince’s limousine as the legend lounged beside me, playing unreleased tracks on the stereo. “This is my car for Minneapolis,” he said before excusing himself to let me judge a few songs in private. “It’s great for listening to music.” He laughed. “I don’t do drugs or I’d give you a joint. That’s what this record is.”
That morning I’d received an e-mail inviting me to preview new music at Prince’s mansion in the celebrity-infested estate community of Beverly Park, where he’s currently keeping his shoe rack. The summons wasn’t entirely unexpected. Prince, who’s less reclusive than his reputation would indicate, has spent a year and a half consulting with culture industry leaders and occasionally entertaining media types, with an eye toward taking complete control of his own musical output.
His new mantra is “The gatekeepers must change,” and he’s refashioned his career to become one of them.
Since beginning his gradual relocation from the Midwest to the Left Coast, Prince has headlined the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and 2007’s Super Bowl halftime show. He sold out a 21-night run at London’s O2 Arena and released an album, a high-end photo book and a perfume. Most recently, he’s whetted fans’ appetites with sneaks of songs from three upcoming releases, first on the popular “Jonesy’s Jukebox” radio program on Indie 103 and then on two websites, the now-dark MPLSound.com and the still-evolving Lotusflow3r.com.
This flurry of activity has been characterized by what might be called methodical spontaneity. Everything happens quickly, whether it’s a show that takes place only a few days after its announcement or an evening interview arranged that morning. But Prince’s personality seems to be governed by two oppositional impulses: the hunger to create and an equally powerful craving for control. Intense productivity battles with meticulousness within his working process. Others might not anticipate his next move, but it is all part of the chess game for him.
That’s why I was there, on the eve of a holiday eve, as the mainstream music industry was enjoying a break from its ongoing plunge toward insolvency. The turn of the year is a slow time for pop, not the moment blockbuster artists usually release material. But Prince has been hinting for a while that his upcoming recordings might not be tied to a conventional label. Abandoning that machine, including its publicity arm, requires other ways of getting the word out.
Prince began experimenting with new methods of distributing music more than a decade ago, and his early efforts with the now-defunct NPG Music Club paved the way for later bold moves by Radiohead and others. Most recently he’s partnered with major labels to get copies into stores. Columbia handled the release of 2006’s “Planet Earth,” except in Britain, where copies were distributed free via a London newspaper, the Mail on Sunday.
Now Prince is about to unleash not one but three albums without major label affiliation, and talking to well-vetted writers is one part of the rollout. How well vetted? “You’re blond,” he said when we met. “I thought you were a redhead.” (He’d done his research; I’d changed my hair color only the year before.)
When I entered the house, which has the vaguely European opulence of an upscale spa, I found Prince with designers Anthony Malzone and Scott Addison Clay, examining mock-ups for a “highly interactive” website. “It’s a universe,” said Malzone, showing how a mouse click could make the whole screen rotate. “There’s a lyric in one of the new songs about an ‘entirely new galaxy.’ We took that cue, and from there on, we thought that everything would emanate from Prince.”
The website, still under construction, revealed the recognizable logo of a major big-box retailer with whom Prince is finalizing negotiations to distribute the albums. The three will hit the Web and that retailer, the artist said, “as soon as the holidays are over.”
I’d be hearing music from each of them.
“Let’s go to my car,” Prince said. “We’ll listen to the first album there.”
Entering his garage, he ushered me into a low-slung black sports car that he’s apparently named after his late friend Miles Davis. I strapped on my seat belt, but we didn’t venture outside. Instead, Prince turned serious as he brought up a recent New Yorker article that had spun beyond his famously controlling grip.
“I want to talk about that interview,” he said, gazing seriously over the steering wheel before turning on the music. He’d felt the writer had taken certain remarks he’d made -- particularly one about gay marriage that implied he was against it -- out of context. (The New Yorker stands by the story.)
“They try to take my faith. . . .” he said, his voice trailing off. “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m trying to learn the Bible. It’s a history book, a science book, a guidebook. It’s all the same.”
Prince’s understanding of religion requires him to avoid political stands, including those that concern morality. “I have friends that are gay, and we study the Bible together,” he said. He did not vote for Proposition 8, the referendum to make gay marriage illegal. “I don’t vote,” he said. “I didn’t vote for Barack [Obama], either; I’ve never voted. Jehovah’s Witnesses haven’t voted for their whole inception.”
Prince, who became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001 under the guidance of veteran bassist and songwriter Larry Graham, views everything through the lens of his religion. No topic -- sexuality, civil rights, his disdain for corporate pop -- comes up in which it doesn’t play a role. Recounting a recent meeting with Earth, Wind and Fire singer Philip Bailey, for example, he commented that that group’s penchant for Afrocentric garb revealed a lost history similar to the one uncovered in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible.
Prince’s statements can sound extreme to a secular listener. Some have accused him of trying to conceal his views to avoid alienating nonbelieving (and, particularly, gay) fans. But his desire to be tolerant seems sincere. His favorite television show, for example, is “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Asked if the comedian’s confrontational atheism bothers him, he harrumphed. “That’s cool,” said Prince. “He can be what he wants. I like arguments. Somebody saying I’m a terrible guitar player feeds me.”
Prince’s faith fulfills a yearning that his songs expressed long before he became devout: a need for some kind of ruling theory to explain the sorrow and violence that intertwines with life’s joy. Songs as early as 1981’s “Controversy” focus on a quest for God, and his catalog overflows with complex number and color systems, prophetic statements and disquiet about the fallen state of humanity. In his religion, he’s found a code as inexhaustible as the one he was previously generating himself.
Which leads back to “MPLSound,” the album Prince recorded by himself at Paisley Park studios mostly last year. “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you sound like you used to?’ ” he said by way of introduction. “But that music doesn’t have any wave energy to it. It’ll move a party, but that’s not what I’m doing here.”
These tracks did sound new in some ways: electronica-based, futuristic and subtly mind-altering. They also harked back to early Prince, including touchstones like “When Doves Cry” and “The Black Album.” Some, like one about a “funky congregation,” could become live show pieces. Others, like the playful “Hey Valentina,” inspired by his friend Salma Hayek’s baby, and the Space Age ballad “Better With Time” -- dedicated to another actress pal, Kristin Scott Thomas, who costarred in Prince’s 1986 film, “Under the Cherry Moon” -- contained sounds that didn’t seem possible to replicate anywhere but in Prince’s imagination.
The key to this particular aural universe, it turns out, is the ubiquitous computer platform Pro Tools. Prince avoided the system for years. One thing he’s truly moralistic about is the use of artificial vocal enhancement by subpar artists, which in his view has reduced mainstream pop to a “weak diet” of sugary junk. Yet he’s unlocked new elements within the very control surfaces Pro Tools employs. Using both analog equipment and digital technology, Prince has come closer to the body-altering music he wishes to make.
“I’m interested in the inner workings of music, the effect on the body,” he explained. “I’m trying to understand why we respond to beats differently.” His former associate, the producer Terry Lewis, helped him realize Pro Tools might help. “Terry talked me into it. He said, ‘Don’t think of it as a digital machine,’ ” said Prince. “ ‘Don’t play by its rules.’ I just took it and started flipping things.”
As the music played, Prince singled out a few lyrics. “The songs we sing lift us up to heaven,” he said as a song espousing “old-school ways” played. “This one’s about Babylonian tricks.” Then the music ended, and we moved on to the next offering -- one that took us into Prince’s bedroom.
Before the New Yorker piece, the biggest question about Prince’s spiritual conversion concerned its effect on his own sexual expressiveness. No one in pop has written more powerfully about the transformative power of sex. His sometimes perverse, often humorous fairy tales opened up worlds of pleasure and possibility to listeners. After finding Jehovah, however, fans worried that he would denounce his most fruitful subject matter.
But a really powerful code can unlock anything. “I’ve studied Solomon and David now,” Prince said, referring to two famous Old Testament lovemen. "[In biblical times] sex was always beautiful. You come to understand that, and then you try to find a woman who can experience that with you.”
Songs on all three of Prince’s new projects celebrate carnal pleasures, but the album he played in his white-carpeted bedroom explores the topic from top to bottom. It’s “Elixir,” the debut of Bria Valente, Prince’s latest protegee. Valente grew up in Minneapolis and attended parties at Paisley Park as a teen, but she registered on Prince’s radar in Los Angeles. A tall brunet with a smooth, delicate voice -- “she knows how to use her breath like I do on my falsetto, to make it glide over the track,” he said -- she is Prince’s collaborator, along with keyboardist Morris Hayes, in reviving the quiet storm sound.
“This might be my favorite,” he said, playing a steamy ballad. “Remember those old Barry White records? A whole lot of people are gonna get pregnant off of this! I gotta call her.” With that, he left me to contemplate Valente’s “chill” songs, the heart-shaped mirror over his round bed and the large Bible on the nightstand.
It never became clear whether Valente is Prince’s partner in more than an artistic way. Since meeting him, she has become a Jehovah’s Witness. She lives just down the hill from Beverly Park, and later in the evening, she joined us at a nearby nightclub -- she’s a friendly young woman who held her own in conversation with the superstar directing her career.
At the club, Prince carefully sat me between himself and Valente, only touching her once, when he gestured for her to accompany him to the front of the club to check out the noisy blues band rocking the crowd. Later, she laughed when he sneaked away to play a quick keyboard solo with the band. “He’s like Velcro,” she said. “Stuck to the stage.”
Beautiful women always have been important in Prince’s life, both as musical collaborators and as prominently displayed companions. He has been married twice, separating from his second wife, Manuela Testolini, in 2006. Now he carries himself with the exacting self-sufficiency of a middle-aged bachelor. Often citing famous beauties as close friends, he never mentioned a sexual conquest.
Whether or not he needs a day-to-day companion right now, Prince does seem to require a muse. Valente’s project has allowed him to make more openly sensual music than anything else he’s re- cently produced. He even took the high-fashion-style photographs that will adorn the CD booklet.
As her album played, he spoke of other female musicians he currently admires. “Have you heard Janelle Monae?” he asked. “She is so smart. How about Sia, do you like her?” The jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding was due to spend a few days with him later in the week. The names of previous collaborators peppered his conversation: the singers Tamar Davis and Shelby J., his old companions Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman.
For now, Valente is the conduit for Prince’s female energy. Her music sounds contemporary but also connects to earlier Prince proteges like the Family and Taja Sevelle. Though he was quick to praise her songwriting abilities (and to point out that he helped her cement a good publishing deal), he spoke about her songs as they played, almost as if they were his own.
“The art of making records, I give it so much respect,” he said as the album’s final track, a New Age-flavored set piece about Valente’s baptism, concluded. “But it gets trampled on for the sake of commerciality.”
He led me back into the hallway. “Let’s get in the limo to listen to the last one,” he said.
An album’s range
“Lotus Flow3r” will likely be greeted by Prince fans and the general public as the central product of his latest creative spurt. It’s a full band album with a sound that ranges from cocktail jazz to heavy rock. The first track included the lyric his Web designer had mentioned about the expanding universe, while subsequent ones referred to traveling to other dimensions and transcending race.
Directing his driver to take us for a spin after leaving to change from black loungewear into a red suit, Prince explained that “Lotus Flow3r” began to emerge during the sessions for his 2006 album, “3121.” Prince selected the best of his massive output for this release, delaying its finish until he was sure every element hung together.
“The thing that unites these songs is the guitar,” he said. He’d fallen back in love with the instrument after playing in Davis’ backup band during a 2006 tour. He singled out a vampy solo in the samba-influenced “Love Like Jazz.” “When we do this live, that’s going to go on forever,” he said with a grin.
Positioning “Lotus Flow3r” as a rock record is a canny marketing move, given urban radio’s current focus on hip-hop-defined samples and beats. This music sounds more organic, meant to be played live, and Prince is trying out players for a new band, ones who’ll be able to grasp the tricky changes in the new songs. He makes decisions, he said, by “listening to the universe. If a name is mentioned to me three times, I know I need to check it out.”
Whatever band he assembles will have to be able to leap from the light-stepping funk of the song simply titled "$,” about “the most popular girl in the whole wide world,” to the soul jazz of “77 Beverly Place,” to the heavy-metal thunder of the album’s title track. That song references both Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, but asked about the influence of the latter rock god, Prince demurred. “I try to play guitar like singers I like,” he said, later adding, “Don’t you think journalists can be lazy, I mean, when they make comparisons?”
He delivered this criticism in a kind tone. Talk turned to the Internet and the need for musicians to claim a niche. “My audience is really big, though,” he said. “And they’re really easy to reach online. Everything has gone viral.”
He continues to be firm on copyright issues -- “I made it,” is his simple response to those who call him a hypocrite for restricting his material online even as he uses the Web for his own purposes -- but seems fairly open to trying new ways to promote his avalanche of music. “You can put in that I’d like to play the Troubadour,” he said, though he hasn’t made any arrangements for local club dates.
As the night wore to an end, the conversation turned free form, touching on topics ranging from Edie Sedgwick (he saw “Factory Girl”) to Ani DiFranco (he loves her) to his favorite guitar (the blue and white Stratocaster he played during the Super Bowl, named “Sonny” after an early mentor). And then the limo pulled into the driveway.
He hugged me goodnight, and I got into my mud-stained Mazda Protege. Hugging the road down Mulholland Drive, I asked myself, “Did that really happen?” So many moments would seem fantastic in the retelling.
But then, as Beverly Hills became the Valley, I realized how carefully executed this visit had been. Each listening environment had been ideal: the close confinement of the sports car for the intense “MPLSound,” the boudoir for “Elixir” and the classic rock star ride for the far-reaching “Lotus Flow3r.” And though Prince had been open about many things, he’s also an expert at wielding the phrase “off the record.”
What I’d experienced was like a dream -- a dream Prince had designed just for me. Which is what he’s been doing for his fans for 30 years.