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.

Subscribe to my e-mail list for updates on the book. Click here.