Prince Interviewed: “I am a giver by nature. I like people, but I test people in many ways.”

On the eight anniversary of Prince’s death, MOJO revisits one of his last ever interviews


by Will Hodgkinson  |
Updated on

In what would sadly prove to be one of Prince’s last ever interviews, MOJO’s Will Hodgkinson is lured to a Caribbean island, and a secret Bond villain lair, by the promise of a resurgent Prince: musical magician, boss from hell - and in 2014 - smoking lead guitarist in the best all-girl rock band on the planet. On the agenda: race, money, Led Zeppelin, the Cocteau Twins, and the power of belief. “For us, music is energy,” he says, “It’s a life force...”

IN A ROOM FULL OF MIRRORS, AN ELFIN, MOUSTACHIO'D MAN CLICKS HIS fingers in time to a crunchy funk-rock riff. Wrapped around his jet-black curls is a headscarf in the style of Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden. Around his neck dangles a somehow familiar, edge-bound Telecaster-style guitar, which he proceeds to rip into with savage insouciance. Behind him, a female bassist, drummer and a guitarist with half her head shaved groove to the rock'n'roll soul they're cooking up. Enigmatically, a caption ponders, “EYE DUNNO IF U’RE READY."

It is April 2013, and this two-and-a-half-minute Vimeo clip – one of the most unexpectedly thrilling of the year- is serving to advertise that the man who in the '8Os considered releasing an album as Camille, and in the '90s changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, has another brand new incarnation: lead guitarist in an all-girl rock'n'roll band named 3RDEYEGIRL.

When Prince Rogers Nelson last emerged from his bunker to engage with the world on a grand scale, it was for his mammoth 21-night runat the 02 in London in 2007. Emerging from a trap-door in a stage shaped like the aforementioned glyph, he smashed the audience into submission with one Prince hit after another: Kiss, Raspberry Beret, U Got The Look. This time round he's been taking the opposite approach, playing gigs at a moment's notice and at the oddest times, including a 3am "pyjama party" at Paisley Park - still the artist's Minneapolis headquarters – before an audience stimulated only by pancakes and orange juice. Meanwhile, he's begun to embrace this viral marketing wheeze. "Catch this now b 4 my lawyers dew", wrote Prince on 3RDEYEGIRĽ's Twitter account in August, posting a clip of the band raging through a new version of Purple Rain rave-up Let's Go Crazy.

In an age when there are no secrets Prince has remained behind a veil while reminding us that he is one of the greatest musicians in the world. After a few uncomfortable attempts to navigate the Wild West of 21st century music distribution including giving away albums as free covermounts on newspapers and having his subscription websites and 2Oprinc3com come and go in a flurry of confusion, he's returning to the power of music as an in-the-moment experience. Prince is still big. It's the music industry that got small. And now he's ready to talk.

“The feminine energy on the planet is very strong now, after being supressed for so long.”

A PRINCE INTERVIEW IS A RARE AND STRANGE THING - no voice-recording, no note-taking, sometimes even no Prince - but on January 1, 2014, and after a series of false alarms, confirmation comes that The Artist will meet MOJO at his Caribbean island hideaway. But first, he sends a reconnaissance team. On a hot tropical afternoon, our taxi heads down an unmarked coastal road and stops at what appears to be a path cutting through wild shrubbery. A friendly, long-haired young man pulls up in a golf buggy and drives us towards a serene paradise of glass-walled villas and shimmering pools. It feels like a cross between a luxury spa and a Bond villain's secret lair.

We sit down in a timber-shingled pavilion containing little more thana handful of white sofas and an enormous stereo. "The girls will speak to you first," says the long-haired man, who introduces himself as Trevor Guy, a laid-back former record company executive from Toronto who is now working as Prince's manager. "Prince will be down later."

Right on cue, bassist Ida Nielsen, drummer Hannah Ford and guitarist Donna Grantis of 3RDEYEGIRL, Amazonian visions of glamour all, troop in and shake hands with polite hesitancy. Over a patio lunch, they do their best to explain what it is like to be inveigled into the cult of Prince.

"I received a message that Prince would like me to come to Minneapolis and jam with him," says the statuesque Nielsen, who left her native Copenhagen in 2010 to join Prince's New Power Generation, the soul revue-style powerhouse he formed in 1990 and continues, alongside other projects, to this day. "At first I thought it was a joke. We jammed for three days. Then he said: Do you want to come on tour?"

You know how doctors are always on call, because their pager buzzes and they have to head to the hospital and do surgery?" asks the buoyant, peroxide-blonde Ford. “That's what being in Prince's band is like. The phone can go at any minute. It can be hard if you let it get to you, but at this stage in our lives we couldn't ask for more."

And how long are they billeted at their employer's tropical paradise? They look at each other and laugh. "We don't know."

Guy, who turns out not only to be Prince's manager but also Grantis's husband, joins us in the pavilion. Also in the room is Ford's husband Josh, who has been remixing tracks and working for Prince for the last year at Paisley Park. That's it: no bodyguards, no business associates, just a handful of men and women who have found themselves making up - for the moment, at least – Prince's inner circle. Guy suggests MOJO heads back to the hotel for a while; a car will come when Prince is ready. You wonder where he's hiding, or what he's waiting for. Aren't we in his house?

AT MIDNIGHT, A CAR ARRIVES TO take us back to the pavilion. The inner circle is there: expectant, cheerful, excited. Prince walks in. Everyone stands up. With a petite, hypnotically beautiful Latino woman by his side, Prince is dressed like a maharaja on a spiritual quest: white turban, white kaftan, white flared trousers, white boots. But what's really striking - more than his huge eyes and caramel skin, still unlined at 55, or taller than expected stature - is his feline stillness. He's standing motionless at the far end of the room, and then he's standing motionless next to you, and you're not quite sure how he got from one place to another. He makes eye contact and shakes hands.

“Heard you had a nice talk with the girls," he says in a quiet but commanding baritone, implying that a vetting process has been met with approval.

He announces that he's going to play us PLECTRUM ELECTRUM, his album with 3RDEYEGIRL, in its entirety, and that it will be the first time anyone outside of the band has heard it. First up is a blistering, Led Zeppelin-like instrumental called WOW. Adapted from The Unexpected, a song Prince wrote for the New Power Generation backing singer Liv Warfield, it must be the heaviest thing he has ever recorded.

“The girls said they'd kill me if I didn't give it to them," says Prince, flashing eyes inviting us to share his brand of sly humour. We all start laughing,

"That's not a joke," he says, smile gone. We all stop laughing. For a moment, I half expect the floor to open and drop us into a piranha-filled aquarium. And things don't improve with a question about his goals for the band and the album.

"Goals? You mean like mountains to climb? Seriously?"

He smiles again. In the ominous stillness, there is the faintest sound of piranhas snapping their jaws.

The next song Prince plays is an elegant ballad called WHITECAPS, which has a mysterious, transcendental quality reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash's Wooden Ships. Slightly haunted by the piranhas, I tell him it's beautiful and ask if he could reveal the song's inspiration.

"No, but thank you very much. I go back to that song more than any other on the record. It's like listening to a painting."

The rest of the album rattles by, stopping off at sweet, girl-group-style pop, pure bass-driven funk, heartfelt balladry and plenty of soulful, Hendrix-like guitar squealing. It's considered and cohesive, with a joyful spirit running through every song- that funky freak quality that made the world fall for Prince in the first place. But if it feels gloriously live it's because that's exactly how 3RDEYEGIRL came together.

"Usually at the end of New Power Generation rehearsals, no matter how long, Ida and I would stay after and just jam," says Prince, on his feet now, hands together. "Ida is one of the few musicians I have met who has the same stamina as I do. Play her at ping-pong if there’s doubt. I had been thinking about who would be the perfect match for her… Someone with chops but still funky and consistent. Enter Hannah Ford.”

            His description of the Paisley Park entrance exam paints a picture of Prince as a benevolent despot, giving generously to those who match up to his work ethic and casting out those who don’t.

            “For many days and test after test, I watched Hannah to see how she took direction,” he explains. “Because she has a good father she was brought up to respect authority. She listens first comprehends, and then executes. If she’s unsure of something, she doesn’t play it.”

Ford’s take on her initiations sounds slightly less forbidding, "The first thing he said to me was: Thanks for coming, Do vou like ping-pong?

“To get into this world you’ve got to be good. We ain’t no punks.”

PRINCE HAS HIGH STIANDARDS. HIS ONE-TIME drummer ‘Bobby Z’ Rivkin recalls early auditions for the legendary Purple Rain-era group, The Revolution, in which a keyboardist was dismissed after looking at his watch, while a would-be guitarist blew it by mentioning drugs. It's no different for Nielsen, Ford and Grantis. "I am a giver by nature. I like people," claims Prince. “But I test people in many ways so that the time we share is quality time.”

What qualities do his current musicians posses that got them the gig?

“Stamina, musical and spiritual consistency... And to be quite honest, they're easy to shop for. To get in this world" -and he waves an arm at the discreetly glamorous world ofpavilions, golf buggies and shimmering, palm tree-fringed pools that we're in - "you've got to be good. We ain't no punks. These girls have got to put up with me 24/7, which is not an easy job. At the Academy of Paisley Park you learn everything in a week, or else. My old bass player, who shall remain nameless, didn't know as many songs as Ida. She had to learn 150 to get the gig and she did it. So I sacked my old bass player."

The classically-trained Grantis, quietest of the 3RDEYEGIRS, left Toronto to spend a year of 12-hour rehearsal sessions chez Prince. “At Paisley Park it's a parallel universe where time stops existing," she notes. "You lose yourself entirely in the music because Prince can play anything: jazz, funk, rock, whatever.”

“When I first saw a clip of Donna," says Prince, “what struck me was her hair. I figured that anyone who ain't afraid to walk into the supermarket with that haircut ain't gonna be afraid of me.”

Ever since 1979, when Gayle Chapman played keyboards in her lingerie for The Revolution, Prince has surrounded himself with female players. Some of them, like drummer Sheila E or Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, became stars in their own right, not always to their employer's unalloyed delight. Then there were the female protégées - Vanity 6 and Sheena Easton among many in the ‘80s; America's Janelle Monáe and England's Lianne La Havas in recent times- while the lyrics to PLECTRUM ELECTRUM's FIXURLIFEUP an anthem of empowerment with a Sign '0' The Times-like lyrical undertow of apocalyptic morality, has it that “a girl with a guitar is 12 times better than another band of crazy boys". Prince confirms it wasn't just her fretboard skills that got Grantis the job.

"She can play better than anyone and she can look better while doing it," he says. "I’ve had enough of guys standing with their boots stuck to the stage. You go and see Donna and she’ll be lying over he amplifier, playing the best solo you've ever heard. The feminine energy on the planet is very strong now, after being suppressed for so long."

PRINCE'S WAY OF COMBINING PATRICIAN command with camp humour, 24-hour flamboyance and, prior to his spiritual awakening inthe mid-'90s and conversion (he calls it a "realisation") to the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2001, insatiable sexuality is consistent with an artist who has never been defined by the usual identity markers of race, gender or class. When Lenny Waronker signed him to Warners in 1977, Prince told his new label boss: "don't make me black". "He named an array [of influences] that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing," said Waronker. “That, as much as anything, made me think we shouldn't mess around with this guy."

“You can’t understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state.”

He can still surprise us, too. After playing a gentle ballad with hazy layers of over-lapping sounds, Prince reveals that it was inspired by, of all people, the Cocteau Twins, “We recorded it in Bryan Ferry's studio in London, after a night of partying for which the Cocteau Twins was the soundtrack," he says. “You can't understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state."

Prince likes the Cocteau Twins? Add another to his broad but mostly constant pantheon of inspirations: Sly And The Family Stone, Joni Mitchell, Santana, Miles Davis and James Brown. Mention of Funkadelic meets with approval (“Funkadelic? Oh, you can stay"), but a Led Zeppelin comparison is met with a caveat. “Jimmy Page is cool," he accepts, sitting on the back of a sofa and cracking a sideways smile, “but he couldn't keep a sequence without John Bonham behind him. He went from one to four without stopping at two and three." He nods at Donna Grantis. “I want her to be her own favourite guitar player. I want everyone at Paisley Park to be their own favourite guitarist, saxophonist, whatever. I don't want people to play like nobody else."

Completed after the release of Sign O' The Times, Paisley Park has allowed Prince to live in a bubble of music, work and ping-pong since 1987. Occupying the suburbs of the Minnesota town of Chanhassen 30 minutes to the south-west of Minneapolis, and built at cost of around $10 million, it has a 1,800-capacity sound stage, four studios and a secured room known to Prince fans as The Vault: the place where he stores his swathes of recordings, most of which may never be heard.

The recording engineer Chuck Zwicky recalls a Paisley Park session for 1988's Lovesexy that lasted for 40 hours without a break, while lda Nielsen confirms they once jammed on a 26-hour session. In 1998 Prince told Guitar magazine: "People call me a workaholic, but I've always considered that a compliment. John Coltrane played the saxophone 12 hours a day. That's not a maniac; that's a dedicated musician whose spirit drives his body to work so hard."

True, although Coltrane never reacted as Prince did while on tour in 1987, upon discovering there was no way of getting a baby grand piano up the stairs of London's Chelsea Harbour Hotel for him to practise on. He hired a crane and they brought it in through the window.

Paisley Park also allowed Prince to stay in Minneapolis. Eary collaborators like bassist André Cymone, whose mother Bernadette's leaky basement the teenage Prince lived in for a while, and Sue Ann Carwell, one of his first protégées, were part of a late-70s scene that, helped along by the multi-racial radio station KQRS, fused funk's groove with rock's power, paving the way for the synth-led 1999 to bring the Minneapolis Sound to a wider audience.

“This isn’t about being retro. That doesn’t help anyone. This is new music with a sense of history.”

After Purple Rain became a multi-million seler Prince could have lived anywhere, but it's significant that he's maintained a base and never cut himself off from the city's music scene. The New Power Generation's drummer Michael Bland got the gig after Prince spotted him playing his regular slot at downtown club, Bunkers, and in 2010 a bowler-hatted Prince popped up in the wings of a concert by Ryan Olson's Minnesota indie-soul group Gayngs, holding a guitar but stopping short of jumping on stage and joining the band. Wet and frosty Minneapolis, a blue-collar city where there isn't much to do but get on with it, is where Prince has carved himself a state of independence.

"Can we lose this word: 'independent'?" asks Prince. "Musicians throughout history have taken care of one another. Major record labels, publishers and digital download corporations should be the ones called 'independent'. Try auditing one of them and you will fing out why. I don't know about yours but my bills come in weekly so I need my cheques to do the same. It’s cold in Minneapolis. Haven’t you heard?"

OUR AUDIENCE APPEARS TO BE proceeding well when Prince tells me off for sitting in the wrong sofa. I should be in the middle of the one facing the speakers. I duly move. There's no question about who has the authority in the room, but at the same time there's a sense that Prince is seeking approval, a trace of the insecurity of an artist who presents their creation to an audience for the first time - even if it's an audience of one. And after all, there's been no-one to offer a critical view since the moment his relationship with Warner Brothers turned sour. “At that point, he took control," said Tom Tucker, Paisley Park's late recording engineer. “He started signing the cheques, literally."

Two years after scoring a major hit with the sublime orgy-funk of 1991's Gett Off, Prince abandoned his name and began his long war with Warners, the label he had been with since his 1978 debut For You. Hurt and angry after discovering that the company he previously had good relations with owned his master recordings, Prince released albums hastily to get out of his contract, including the long-suppressed The Black Album in 1994, The Gold Experience in 1995 and the unloved, aptly named Chaos And Disorder in 1996. At first it seemed like bite-the-hand behaviour from Prince, but his rejection of the major label system proved prescient. “He pretty much foreshadowed what we now live in: several independent record labels, many of them artist-owned," says Michael Bland.

Does Prince miss anything from the record industry's imperial phase?

"Yes, some of the people I met. A lot of them were fun, genuinely nice people. They inherited that system. It wasn't their design. That's all history now... Speaking of which, can you help me find out how many copies the album Purple Rain sold?"

In April '96, terms of severance with Warners were agreed. Prince's own NPG label released the triple CD Emancipation by way of celebration, followed by Crystal Ball, a five-disc archive set sold through his website for $50, launching him as the first major star to sell entire albums through the web. Now it may be the norm, but in 2001 it was underwhelming and a little tragic to have something as rich and as intriguing as The Rainbow Children, a cryptic jazz-fusion treatise on spirituality, buried behind a clunky website before it was available in record shops. More recently, Prince's relationship with the internet has been an ambivalent one. "The internet's completely over," he told the Daily Mirror in 2010, in an interview that coincided with the newspaper giving away his album 20Ten for free. “I don't see why I should give my music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it."

Now he has come out the other side, holding up 3RDEYEGIRL as a triumph of the spirit and PLECTRUM ELECTRUM as an album that belongs to both a pre- and post-digital age. "We have made the new garage band record," claims Prince, even if we're not in Prince's garage, or even freezing cold Minneapolis, but a tropical hideaway where a man in a starched white uniform is bringing in a tray of cocktails. “If I was 13 and wanted to play guitar, note for note I would learn PLECTRUM ELECTRUM."

Where once Prince delighted in cutting-edge music technology, today he's holding a torch for sonic classicism. We ask him why so few musicians favour analogue over digital when the sounds speak for themselves and we get a cryptic reply.

“You’ll have to ask the creators of digital recording devices," he says, sinking deep into one of his many sofas. "Analogue recording to us is like the Mystery Schools of Egypt. We could tell you, but you'll have to bring a sacrifice first." On a slightly more prosaic note, he adds: “This isn't about being retro. That doesn’t help anyone. This is new music with a sense of history.”

PRINCE GETS UP TO LEAN AGAINST A WALL, watching us as we sit on the sofa facing his giant stereo. With his apparently nameless companion ever close, Prince, who doesn’t own a mobile phone and has been banning them from recent conterts, offers his thoughts on the dangers of technology.

            “It’s a feedback loop,” he says, referring to the digital conversion between corporations and individuals that results in groupthink. “it means people don’t understand real musicians any more. Jack White is great, he’s the real thing, but he isn’t having hits. Why aren’t Vintage trouble or Lianne La Havas having hits? The goal is to get beyond the feedback loop ad create your own universe which what we have done here. There’s nothing wrong with those people [at record labels], but most of them are accountants and lawyers. What we create here, with music, goes beyond that.”

            Part of the problem, says Prince, is that we are losing a sense of history. He gestures over at the members of his very new band who have been sitting dutifully in a line throughout. “When Donna takes inspiration from Jimi Hendrix or Prince, when Hannah studies John Bonham and Led Zeppelin, they’re taking on their own knowledge and everything their parents taught them. I’m passing it on to these kids because it’s their turn. Who else is showing them? Where is it going? It’s your duty as a writer to cover the real thing because us musicians pay attention to that, you know."

After reassurance that MOJO is all about the realthing, he instantly rejoins: "That's why you're here."

Prince wants hits. After a surprising plea for help in getting him on Later... with Jools Holland – surely he doesn't need our help with that - he stretches over the back of his seat and talks business.

“It's about numbers as well as music," he says, enormous Chaplin eyes gazing out from underneath that bright white turban. “It's box office. I can't have something like The Great Gatsby on my hands. Didn't you know that black people don't get a second chance? It's like Chris Rock said: Leonardo DiCaprio can make one bad movie after another and he just keeps going. Chris Rock makes a bad movie and he doesn’t work again. Black people aren't allowed to make mistakes."

We talk about the source of his legendary stamina and productivity. After all, it's coming up to two o'clock in the morning and he is only just getting going. “For us, music is energy," he says. "It's a life force as well as a teaching tool. New ideas are everywhere. The best songs come from listening. Every new song is already present."

FOR PRINCE, A MAN WHOSE RELIGION does not recognise birthdays, the past is not so much another country as a distant cosmos, extinguished from memory so that he can live in the now. 3RDEYEGIRL Concerts have revived and reinterpreted heavier moments from Prince's back pages, but any question about the past is ignored entirely. His Warners albums have never been remastered and repackaged. The vast swathes of recordings that are unreleased, unheard and locked away in The Vault may never be preserved or archived. "What if it's in his will to destroy that stuff?" Tom Tucker asked the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004.That would be like half The Beatles' tunes being lost."

Whether or not that fearful prophecy comes to pass, Prince's policy of concentrating on the moment is getting results. PLECTRUM ELECTRUM ends with the self-explanatory FUNKNROLL, an energised, free-flowing groove that captures the spirit of Prince in 2014: virtuosic but spontaneous, fun but deadly serious. Trevor Guy explains how, inspired by tales of '60s London at its most swinging, the band are relocating to the city for a month or so in order to play as many last-minute gigs as they can, popping up in all manner of legendary rock'n'roll landmarks and blowing a few hundred minds at a time. Most significantly, while the artist formerly known as Prince took to the internet when it was still music industry's enemy the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince is returning to the format that represents the high watermark of rock'n'roll culture: the album.

He promises a great-looking slab of vinyl will bestow his new work with the iconic status it deserves.

Can the album survive? “Sure it can and it will, if artists like Janelle Monáe, Esperanza Spalding and Laura Mvula have anything to do with it. Real music lovers love the album format because they're art collectors. Real artists make albums people love, not just songs."

There are no goodbyes. When he decrees our time is over, Prince disappears from view: But not before leaving us with a final thought.

"Come to think of it, real music lovers are actually my favourite kind of people because they like to know, rather than just be told what to think. If you really love music... Come see me.”

Then he dissolves into the Caribbean night, his beautiful companion by his side. That's when we realise: she never spoke a single word all night.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 245.

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