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 Lotusflow3r.com, though.

One of my fondest memories as a fan was when 3rdEyeGirl.com 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?

2 comments:

  1. A very informative post. Liked reading the whole article. Looking forward to read the book A purple Day in December. Why I the color purple used?

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