How do you prepare for an audience with Prince? It feels like there should be a purple velvet handbook, some kind of formal protocol. Does he expect visitors to bow and avoid direct eye contact? Would dressing in his favorite color please him, or is that like wearing white to a wedding? How many topics are off-limits for such a famously private star?
The answer to all those questions was: He didn’t seem to care — at least not during the day I spent with him late last summer at Paisley Park, his longtime home and studio outside Minneapolis. (For the record, he wore black and gave a great handshake; the only subject he ever really shied away from was the one he practically invented — sex.)
His publicist’s sole instructions were that I should book a flight immediately and stay in my hotel room until I was summoned. The focus should be on his upcoming album, HITNRUN, and his voice could not be recorded. While I waited, I tried not to think too much about the stories I’d heard: that he could be difficult and remote, sometimes walking out abruptly when he didn’t like a question or felt he’d been disrespected. I preferred the ones that said there was a more accessible, almost playful side to him, that on a good day he might even make you pancakes.
Whether it was luck or chance, the Prince I got that August afternoon was the second one — funny and thoughtful and endlessly engaged in the world around him, even while his whole life seemed to be contained in the lavender bubble of his compound. Pancakes never materialized, but he constantly offered to call in food, and the spread laid out in Paisley’s bright industrial kitchen looked like a birthday party for a highly lactose-tolerant 8-year-old: quesadillas, nachos, piles of mozzarella sticks.
Deep-fried cheese didn’t seem to be the secret to Prince’s own sylphlike figure. He moved like a dancer when he walked, and even at 57 his skin was luminous, as if the pair of pet doves he kept — their names are Divinity and Majesty — feather-dusted him daily with fine emollients. The leggings and swingy tunic he wore tipped toward the lady side of unisex, but he spoke in a deep, candle-melting baritone that only got throatier when he laughed. (When he really liked something I said, he’d point his fingers and whoop; I embarrassed myself more than once trying to hear that sound again.)
The 55,000-square-foot space — unassuming outside, a riot of swirly jewel-toned decor inside — was massive, dimly lit and mostly windowless, but activity hummed in various corners. His young producer and a girl he was recording with who called herself the Golden Hippie rolled in and out leisurely, and there seemed to be beautiful women in every room I passed, a legion of helpers and assistants who also just happened to look like part-time Bond girls. Wandering through a long hallway lined with Grammys and gold records and lusciously blown-up photos of Prince from every era, I wondered which of them was tasked with keeping those mementos — including the sleek wine-colored motorcycle parked casually near a restroom — so clean.
Right away, Prince said that he wanted me to hear the new album, and watched closely while I listened. He told me he thought eye contact was important, so I left my notebook in my lap, trying desperately to file the details away in my head for later. When we finished, I assumed he was done with our meeting; instead he settled in, talking easily about things he loved (Joni Mitchell and Janelle Monáe, the Scarlett Johansson thriller Lucy, playing Ping-Pong), things he didn’t (old ideas, accountants, EDM), and a few the jury was still out on (he acknowledged that his relationship with the internet was complicated, “but you can’t put that cat back in the bag and that’s okay. You’ve got to burn it down and start again”). More than once he would start to describe his songwriting process, but it was like he was trying to explain rainbows to a blind girl; that part of his brain existed on another level. At various points he compared the work to a matrix or to falling down the stairs. There were parts of it just too mystical to pin down, he said, “like the way that science can explain the mechanism of breathing, but not every part of it.” And he swatted away the idea that his creative pilot light might ever go out: “Worry? I don’t use that word. I don’t know it…. When you hear something you like that you can’t find a precedent for, that’s what you want more of, and that’s what gets me excited.”
After a years-long battle with his record label, Warner Bros., he had finally regained the rights to his back catalog. The Warner people weren’t bad, he said. “I’ve known some of them half my life. But the ones working there now aren’t the people who were there when I made Purple Rain, so why should they get to have it?” That was why he said he had turned to a fellow artist, Jay Z, to stream his next album on Tidal; there he could decide exactly how and when his work went out into the world, and at what price. The “when” was especially important. He hated that music had to wend its way through what he saw as an antiquated system, already stale by the time it reached an audience. Now he could compose a song like “Baltimore,” his impassioned response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, and have it in people’s hands within weeks.
He also understood that some fans couldn’t reconcile his faith — he officially converted to Jehovah’s Witness more than a decade ago — with the wild, electric sex god they knew from the ’80s and ’90s and still sometimes got to see on stage. But for him, it was all integrated. “Religion is beautiful,” he offered, “as long as you don’t become a fanatic and start shutting other people out, other ideas.”
By then more than half the afternoon had passed, and he moved to sit behind a synthesizer, his fingers rippling absently up and down the silent keys while he talked. Maybe he was hearing the melodies in his head; it was almost too much to think about the iconic songs those hands had written — possibly on that machine and in that room — so I didn’t ask. Instead we talked a while longer, mostly about God and OutKast and Ping-Pong, and eventually he stood up to go. He had his assistant hand me a glossy book of photographs and told his driver to take me wherever I needed to be, then disappeared down a hallway. Outside, the Minnesota evening looked so ordinary and un-purple that I doubted whether the whole day had even happened. Could Prince and these flat suburban roads lined with Target outlets and discount meat stores even exist in the same universe? Hours later, though, my phone started to ping. He was CC’ing me in tweets that sounded complimentary, though they were in such dense all-caps Prince-speak that I wasn’t quite sure. And when the profile came out in EW a few weeks later, I was told that he was pleased with it.
After that I mostly put the experience away, a magic day to revisit when “Raspberry Beret” came on at the drugstore or someone asked me about my favorite interview at a dinner party. Until last week, when there were suddenly different questions: Had he looked ill? Could I tell something was wrong?
He didn’t, and I couldn’t. In the endless aftershocks that followed his death, news sites were publishing what they said were the last known photographs of him, taken three days before he passed. In them, he was riding his bicycle near the grounds of Paisley Park and looking “free and happy,” according to a witness. That was the final image I had of him too, eight months and a lifetime ago: a man peddling easily into the evening light, gliding toward the horizon like there was nowhere else he needed to be.