Friday, March 16, 2018

"The Love We Make" - Interview with Kat Dyson

"We have to make our energy. We have to lay in the bed that we make with our minds and our mouths and our bodies and our actions."

Photo courtesy of Kat Dyson

That is guitarist Kat Dyson's interpretation of Prince's song "The Love We Make" from the 1996 Emancipation album.

"He ended up keeping my guitar part [and] taking his off," Dyson said, "which I felt was very generous."

Dyson said the song was also indicative of the types of spiritual discussions she had with Prince. Though he began studying the Jehovah's Witness faith shortly after she arrived, that religion never came up.

"It was very much metaphysical, very much karma," she said. "It wasn't dogmatic at all. So I guess I was out of there before that happened."

Dyson left in 1998, and worked with Sheila E. on "The Magic Hour" talk show. She also went on to play for artists like Cyndi Lauper and Italian artist Zucchero (Adelmo Fornaciari), with whom she recently toured.

Dyson and Sheila E. rejoined with Prince in 2005 for, in my opinion, one of this greatest TV performances ever: The NAACP Awards show.

"He sent us the medley and we performed it exactly the way he sent it to us," Dyson said. "He was very much at ease. But that's the energy between him and Sheila. She knew what he wanted and there was a trust there."

I remember being so excited for that performance. I still have it recorded on a VHS tape:

But I digress.

My discussion with Dyson touched on everything from Prince's "creative restlessness" and humor, to how she addressed him, given his name change to the unpronounceable symbol.

"I'd be like, 'Hey, how you doing?' As long as we made eye contact, I never had any problems," she said.

When addressing her, Prince chose to say "Kathleen" or use her last name.

"He didn't ever want to call me Kat because of the other Cat that was there," she said, referring to dancer Cat Glover, who worked with Prince in the '80s.

We also talked about what it means to be a guitar player for Prince: how she supported him musically, and how she ordered him a guitar from Montreal, Canada (after he kept borrowing her guitar). It made me wonder why some of Prince's musicians get more recognition than others.

Of course the players who were there for the hit/iconic albums are going to be well-known. But beyond that, what roles do image, gender and race play in approval and appreciation?

Whatever the case, I was glad to learn more about Dyson, who considered the possibility that, because she played guitar--his primary instrument--and grew up with four brothers, she had a more amicable relationship with Prince than others.

"It was all jokes," she said. "I never got the [warnings]: 'Don't say that, don't do this, this is bad.' I never got any of those memos."

But when it came to his art, he was "relentless," Dyson said. "Always thinking, always listening always reading, always pushing himself forward."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

"The Choice You Make is Vital" - Interview with Michael Koppelman

"Obviously, he's a complicated figure. But he definitely had an other-worldly air about him."

Photo courtesy of Michael Koppelman

For many former Paisley Park employees (at least the ones I've interviewed), whether you were "let go" hinged upon one choice: whether to say "yes" or "no." For instance, Prince's former press agent Robyn Riggs was dismissed when she pushed back on a particular media request.

Prince's former engineer Michael Koppelman also said "no," and left Paisley Park in 1992 after a three-year stint working on the Batman, Graffiti Bridge, Diamonds and Pearls and Love Symbol albums (more on that in the book).

During Koppelman's time with Prince, he only got "little glimpses" into Prince's vision for certain songs, namely "Live 4 Love" on Diamonds and Pearls. Most fans know Prince changed the lyrics of the track, centered on the Gulf War, to be more optimistic.

But Koppelman didn't get much insight into the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack and movie--Prince's spiritual passion projects--which is what I really wanted to know. However, Koppelman was still able to provide a helpful point of view on Prince's spirituality.

"There's some part about him, in terms of that spirituality thing, that is absolutely sincere," Koppelman said. "He sees his role as being a messenger of God in a sense--and those are obviously my words--but in a highly conflicted way."

Koppelman recognized Prince's struggle, at times, to reconcile his spirituality and sexual side; he shared some remarks Prince made about shelving the explicit Black Album for the more spiritual Lovesexy record. I also asked Koppelman about Prince's decision to release Diamonds and Pearls, a significantly more sexual album, directly after Graffiti Bridge.

Despite Prince's focus on spiritual themes in his music, Koppelman said "there was not a spiritual vibe at Paisley Park." What I have learned while doing this project is that Prince's spirituality was not always enough to foster a positive working environment for his employees. And the spiritual awakenings he had were not always powerful enough to correct certain behaviors.

Or perhaps it's best to phrase those thoughts as a question: Can one be truly spiritual and problematic? I'm hoping readers will draw their own conclusions after reading my book. And I appreciate people like Koppelman, who address multiple aspects of Prince's personality.

It's always intriguing to hear people process their experience with Prince in real time, and in new ways, especially given I'm asking them about spirituality. Koppelman, specifically, wondered what would have happened if he'd responded differently to that crucial choice.

"I think in an alternate universe I could’ve just said 'yes' to everything he wanted and just followed it and see where it led," he said.

See you next Thursday!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Funk Owned and Creatively Grown" - Interview with Jacqui Thompson

"I've never known someone who can manifest as much as he did. ... He thought about it, and he did it. And he wasn't scared. He had no fear. And that's what I took from working with him, and I've lived by it ever since." 

Photo courtesy of Jacqui Thompson

That powerful quote from Jacqui Thompson, who worked at Paisley Park from 1996 to 2000, describes a type of spirituality that Prince employed: Unwavering faith in one's destiny and the ability to call it forth.

However, Prince was also studying the more traditional Jehovah's Witness faith during Thompson's tenure, so we discussed his transition from her perspective. She attended Kingdom Hall and had spiritual discussions with him, and dropped money into the legendary "curse jar."

"Everybody goes, 'Oh, that's so odd,'" Thompson said of Prince's eventual conversion. "But it's his choice, it's his spiritual path. It resonated with him."

During the rest of our conversation, punctuated by Thompson's infectious laughter, we talked about Prince's approach to his music career after severing ties with Warner; he managed his own distribution and marketing, and "signed his own checks."

"A lot of people discount that time in his career as unsuccessful, but it was actually ... really innovative," she said.

It was cool to hear about the impressive profits from Prince's Crystal Ball box set, which fans ordered online and by phone. And we bonded over the spectacular acoustic disc The Truth, with Thompson highlighting the songs "Animal Kingdom" and "Don't Play Me."

A lyric from the latter always stood out to me, so much so that I put it on the back of my business card:

In my book, I explore the impact of Prince's spirituality on his perspective of fame, especially as his popularity shifted over the years. I asked Thompson about that as well.

After changing his name to the symbol in 1993, Prince returned to his birth name in 2000. "He felt like he was himself again," Thompson said. Coincidentally, it was time for Thompson to reclaim her own identity. "You're in his world and that's cool, but there was a point where I knew I didn't want to be in that world forever, and I needed to expand myself," she said of her decision to leave Paisley Park.

She kept up with his career, though. She shared how she thought he was doing post-religious conversion from her limited vantage point of seeing him on TV or out on the town. We also discussed her reaction to his death and the subsequent news reports.

While a lot of fans miss seeing Prince pop up at awards shows with his cane, Thompson misses seeing him at NBA games. "He'd just be hanging out watching one of his favorite sports and I always loved that. ... I love basketball, so I think that's why."

But despite seeing that somewhat ordinary side of Prince "talking smack" about basketball teams, Thompson was amazed at how he could light up a room of major celebrities, who would always want to talk to him.

"He was a superstar of superstars," she said.

Jacqui Thompson also serves as the board president of the PRN [Prince Rogers Nelson] Alumni Foundation.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"All Good Things, They Say, Never Last" - Interview with Jerome Benton

"Spiritually, I think we had an unspoken, common denominator."

Photo courtesy of Tonya Giddens

Ten minutes before Jerome Benton called me, he got an alert on his phone from Pinterest, which prompted him to look through a collection of pictures of Prince.

"I'm like, 'Wow, he's really gone,'" Benton later told me. "And I go through that. Because we talked and we didn't talk. So I'm still in that mode. ... But when I see the pictures, I'm like, 'Aw, he's not here.'"

Throughout our conversation, Benton shared fond memories of Prince, whom he called a friend, mentor and brother. Among all the people I've interviewed for my book, I think Benton has known Prince the longest. They grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis, and Prince recruited Benton for The Time and The Family bands. Benton also appeared in Prince's films Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.

I was especially interested in Benton's take on the latter movie, in which Prince explores the conflict between good and evil, as well as the sacred and profane. In my opinion, it is one of the artist's most important spiritual statements.

"I wasn't thinking about the message [of the film]," Benton said. "I was thinking about working with my fellas and trying to do the best job that we could do."

That makes sense. One of the things I've learned talking to people who worked with Prince is that, often times, they weren't thinking about the greater meaning behind Prince's creative choices; they were just trying to do their jobs. For example, I also like to ask about Prince's conversations with God onstage during the Purple Rain tour. People like Karen Krattinger, who worked as the production coordinator for the tour, were too busy "tied to a telephone ... advancing for the next project, advancing for what he wanted to happen after the show" to analyze Prince's performance.

But of course there were some people who engaged Prince spiritually during that time--Craig Rice, for example--and others who are interested in thinking through Prince's spiritual journey with me in hindsight. So I've just had to learn that I can't always predict which category my subject will fall into ahead of our interview.

Benton did have a perspective on Prince's spirituality, and I will share that in my book. I also asked him about Prince's decision to change the ending of Under the Cherry Moon, which may or may not have been a moral or spiritual decision. I also asked him what he thought about Prince's beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness, and whether or not he was surprised by Prince's conversion to the religion.

What I'm happy to share here is Benton's touching thoughts on the Under the Cherry Moon era and a song from the soundtrack that has great meaning for him: "Venus de Milo."

"That was a very special time in my life that I shared with Prince when we spent almost a year of production and filming," Benton said. "The thing that gets me ... is what I feel, what I go through when I hear ['Venus de Milo']. ... It's just emotional to me. I tear up immediately."

Benton also expressed gratitude for Prince's hand in shaping his professional life.

"Who would've thought, 38 years later, that somebody made a career out of holding a mirror up in front of somebody and talking shit to them," he said of his classic role in The Time.

A highlight for me during our chat was Benton's mention of The Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center in Dayton, Ohio (an hour away from me), which will have its grand opening on Feb. 16. My hope is that he will visit soon.

Benton's hope is that he and his dear friend will reunite one day. "Maybe we'll do Under the Cherry Moon 2 in Heaven," he said. "And get a second [Raspberry Award]."

Thursday, November 2, 2017

"Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" - Interview with Cheryl Sonny Thompson

"I think people grasping for religion are afraid of hell and I think he'd been through enough hell to where he was grasping for spirituality." 

In 2013, I interviewed Cheryl Sonny Thompson, who worked as a production assistant for Prince's Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert, which was broadcast on cable on New Year's Eve in 1999 and later made available on video.

I think I had to stay up until about midnight two days in a row to catch Thompson on the phone, but I didn't mind, of course. And like many of my interviews for this project, there were coincidences or twists of fate; besides sharing the same last name, Thompson and I are both from Cincinnati, Ohio.

But there's something else. I hadn't listened to this interview in years, but returning to it this week, I discovered it validates something I've been looking into recently: Prince's possible spiritual transformation in the last years of his life, and 2013, in particular, as a significant turning point. So revisiting this interview now--and hearing Thompson's perspective on Prince's spirituality in 2013--was perfect timing.

That really assures me that things (including the completion of this book) happen when they are supposed to, which, oddly enough, was a topic a Prince fan and I were discussing just before I transcribed this interview.

Of course Thompson also shared her opinion of Prince's spirituality when she worked with him at the turn of the century, just before his conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith. In fact, the impact of the religion on Prince's was on display during the Rave show, where he memorably (at least to me) changed the lyrics of "Gett Off," rapping "23 scriptures in a one-night stand" instead of "23 positions in a one-night stand." He also changed the the title and lyrics of "The Cross" to "The Christ" because Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe Jesus was crucified on a cross.

I asked Thompson if Prince's performance of "The Christ," alongside his spiritual mentor Larry Graham, was moving.

"It must not have been moving because I don't remember that performance," she said. "My most memorable performance of the night was when he and Lenny Kravitz did 'American Woman.'" For what it's worth, that is a great performance, especially with Prince doubling Kravitz' vocal line on the guitar near the end. Re-watching it inspired me to learn more about their friendship, which Kravitz described in a beautiful tribute in Rolling Stone.

I'm actually looking forward to watching the whole DVD again. From what I remember, I enjoyed seeing Prince playing the drums, and the return of former NPG member Rosie Gaines. I recall not caring for the backup dancer. But I digress...

Thompson also had some experience working, not directly for Prince, but in his "sphere" in the 1980s. She did, however, walk right up to him and ask him a question: "Do you think that you've reached the Dionysus syndrome?"

During our interview, Thompson compared Prince to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and--wait for it--religious ecstasy, among a slew of other things. How perfect! Someone far more knowledgeable than I am needs to write a paper on that topic.

Thompson and I also talked a little bit about Prince's sister Tyka, his ex-wife Mayte Garcia, his battle with fear, and some of his other personality traits. I found Thompson to be extremely spiritual (not "religious"), which is not suprising, given the amount of people around Prince who were either already spiritual/religious or later became spiritual/religious. Thompson also cited a couple people (not Graham) whom she believes kept Prince spiritually grounded.

I would say most people, if not everyone, I've talked to when Prince was alive said they would work with him again, despite any previous conflicts. Thompson was an exception. No, she didn't bash him, but she offered an honest, understandable reason, and said:

"I wish him love. I wish him well."

What is your favorite performance from the Rave Un2 the Year 2000 concert?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Everything You Think is True" - Interview with Sam Jennings

"I never felt like he was trying to force me or giving me any ultimatums or anything like that. I think he genuinely thought it would help my life and help everyone’s life if they believed in this religion." 

"Microsoft Type Cover 2 - IMG_4252" by N i c o l a, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Earlier this year, I interviewed Sam Jennings, who worked as Prince's webmaster--and later took on an art director position--from 1998 to 2007. Together they created the groundbreaking NPG Music Club, which won a Webby Award in 2006. Jennings also put together the amazing "Prince Online Museum," a comprehensive archive of Prince's websites.

Interviewing band members, engineers, friends and ex-girlfriends is obviously important for getting a sense of the influence of spirituality in Prince's music and life. Additionally, people like Jennings, or lighting and set designer Roy Bennett, bring valuable insight into the influence of spirituality in Prince's visual art.

I also wanted to talk to Jennings because he started working with Prince right as the superstar was studying the Jehovah's Witness faith, and stayed well after Prince's conversion. So it's nice to see this period through the eyes of someone who--unlike Prince's spiritual adviser, Larry Graham, or ex-wife, Mayte Garcia--had a less personal investment in Prince's faith.

Jennings did attend Kingdom Hall services dozens of times, but never converted himself. "I respect it and I was open to it, but it didn't take, I guess," he said.

On the overall influence of spirituality in Prince's work, Jennings explained: "I think that guided him for most of his career, actually--his belief in God and just doing what he feels is right."

Jennings was at Paisley Park for the first "Celebration" festival, where Prince previewed his Jehovah's Witness concept album, Rainbow Children, and lead spiritually based discussions with fans. I appreciated getting Jennings' take on the audience's reaction both at the "Celebration" and on the One Nite Alone tour, where Prince avoided playing his explicit hits and preached from the stage. I also asked Jennings for his take on director Kevin Smith's famous bit on filming the "Celebration" events.

We also talked about that persistent rumor that Prince's mother asked him to become a Jehovah's Witness before she died. Of course I'll elaborate more on these topics in the book.

Besides discussing spirituality, it was fascinating to hear how Jennings engaged Prince when the musician's name was the love symbol.

"It's funny because our biggest form of communication was instant messenger, so we would be typing a lot of times and he would have a screen name that he would use, which wasn't Prince or [the] symbol," Jennings said. "And so his screen name just became what I would call him if I had to call him anything." (Prince fans, can you guess the screen name if you don't already know it?)

But even after Prince went back to his birth name, Jennings found that he didn't have to call Prince anything when they were in the same room. (Who else hums that line from Prince's song "Ripopgodazippa"--"If you're always with me, you'll never have to call me"--when this topic comes up?)

I think Prince's name change is so compelling, and I hope someone at the next Prince-based academic conference tackles the subject.

I also enjoyed talking to Jennings about Prince's websites and online dealings. Even though I became a serious fan around 2002, I never joined the NPG Music Club. I'm not even sure I knew it existed right away. I was focused on reading Prince's biographies and listening to his music on physical CDs. I did spend time on the frustrating, though.

One of my fondest memories as a fan was when popped up online out of nowhere in 2013. I remember giddily accessing the site from my laptop in my bed, and rocking out to the super-funky "Same Page, Different Book" (a spiritual song, of course) on the 3rdEyeGirl YouTube channel.

Jennings also shared insight into Prince's motivation for suing his fan sites. That's another great memory; I remember sitting at the computer in my college library when Prince dropped his "diss" track, "PFUnk," in 2007 in response to fans' criticism. I lost my mind with excitement but had no other Prince fans to talk to (I wasn't part of a community back then).

Jennings and I discussed many other topics in our nearly one-hour interview, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to talk to him. (I'd love to get Prince's other art director, Steve Parke, next.) For now, I'll leave you with another quote from Jennings because I don't want to cry alone:

"Last time I spoke to him was in an e-mail exchange about a year after I left. ... I told him, 'Hey, I miss our friendship,'" Jennings said. "He e-mailed me back right away and said, 'We'll always be friends.' ... I always thought I'd run into him again. ... I think that was the biggest surprise when he did die is that, 'Oh, that's not going to happen.'"

What is your most memorable interaction with one of Prince's websites?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Preach the Good News" - Extended Interview with Larry Graham

"It was never me pushing him or telling him what to do. ... I’m simply just teaching him what I know and then he could decide what he wanted to do with that information."

"Larry Graham" by JouWatch, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Back in 2013 when I was living the hectic life of a freelance writer (I'm blessed to have a full-time journalism gig now), I interviewed Larry Graham with an intention to place the article somewhere, anywhere. My communication with his manager had actually gone as far back as Prince's Welcome 2 America show at Madison Square Garden in 2010; I was hoping to talk to Graham then because he was an opening act.

So after two years of perseverance, I finally spoke to Graham about his career, and was unable to place the piece anywhere other than my website. After the fact, I had an editor tell me I should have played up the Drake connection a bit more (the rapper is his nephew). Oh well, you live and learn.

So I held onto Graham's cell phone number for three years, knowing I'd eventually have to call him back to talk about Prince's spirituality for my book. That day came earlier this year, and I've finally transcribed the interview.

Graham was Prince's spiritual adviser before and after Prince's conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith (Prince was batpized in March 2003, according to Graham). Graham was very pleasant and patient during our conversation, and I am honored he took the time to speak with me. And he's a legend, for goodness sakes (I made my mom proud by getting this interview).

Some of the most valuable information I found out was the true start of their spiritual study, which I don't think many people know about; the titles of three religious publications Prince studied; and Graham's perspective on Prince's faith at the time of Prince's death (I think I startled him when I asked if he thought Prince died at peace with God). Graham also offered his opinion on reports of Prince's drug use.

Additionally, we touched on Prince's heavily religious Rainbow Children album (Graham likened it to his Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It and Mirror albums with Graham Central Station in the '70s, following his own religious conversion), and the changes Prince made in his life and art in the 2000s.

This was such an important interview for me, and with both Graham's description of Prince's conversion and Prince's ex-wife Mayte Garcia's description in her book, I think I'm approaching a somewhat balanced picture of that time period.

Overall, I think some fans are too critical of Graham; we have to remember that Prince was an adult and ultimately made his own decision about his religion.

Check back each Thursday for a new blog entry!