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."

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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.