With the release of his electric new album, 'HITNRUN,' the icon takes EW inside the very, very purple world of Paisley Park.
There is nothing stranger than spending an afternoon at Prince’s house. There is nothing more normal than spending an afternoon at Prince’s house.
The scantly worded invitation to join the Artist Currently Known as Himself at Paisley Park, the 55,000-square-foot complex he had built nearly 30 years ago on the outskirts of his hometown of Minneapolis, arrives with almost no preamble one late-August afternoon: He has a new studio album—his 38th—and he’d like to talk about it. Few other specifics are provided, aside from the fact that tape recorders and extensive note-taking are not encouraged. Nevertheless, it’s a unicorn of an offer, too fantastic to refuse.
From the outside, the Park looks like a telecom center, or maybe a place where dental supplies are manufactured—boxy and gray and office-park anonymous. Stepping inside, though, is like walking into the bottle of a genie who is very fond of high-end recording equipment, plush velvet, and every iteration of the color purple. The man of the house is standing alone at the front door, small-statured but supermodel lean in a knit hat, black pants, and a tunic with a giant photo print of a cat with moons (or maybe they’re binoculars?) for eyes. He turned 57 in June and looks at least 15 years younger, but there’s no sign of the eerie, too-taut smoothness that plastic surgery imparts. “I’m sorry, come in and sit down. I’ll be just a minute,” he says, extending the hand that isn’t holding a phone to his ear and offering a firm, friendly shake. (He doesn’t usually use cell phones, he adds, it’s just that reception is bad in the building right now.)
His signature pigment is everywhere, not exactly 50 shades of it, but close: orchid, eggplant, amethyst, grape soda. In the lobby there are a lot of celestial motifs—walls painted like clouds, area rugs covered in stars—tufted cushions, and oversize chairs in swoopy, Dr. Seussian shapes. The unpronounceable symbol he famously adopted for seven years in the 1990s during a protracted legal battle with his then record label is everywhere: as a discreet monogram on speakers, in a silver monolith hanging from the ceiling in the cavernous performance space, on the hood of a gleaming merlot-colored motorcycle parked casually in a foyer.
Prince leads the way to the studio, where a handsome, soft-spoken producer and engineer named Joshua Welton is waiting, ready to cue up tracks from HITNRUN, which is scheduled to be released on Jay Z’s Tidal streaming service on Sept. 7. The sound in this sleek wood-paneled space is pristine, and a reporter’s objectivity may be compromised by listening to music created by an international pop icon while that icon sits three feet away, tapping out the bass lines with his fingertips, but the songs sound great: supple and sexy and full of ear-walloping rococo flourishes. “This is an experimental Prince record,” Welton says. “I know he has different types of fan bases, and this is kind of for [his hardcore followers] the Purple Collective, the ones that say, ‘I don’t care what he puts out, I just love him.’ ”
Welton, who is 25, wasn’t necessarily one of those fans. He liked Prince’s music growing up, but when he first came into the Paisley orbit it was to support his wife, Hannah, who plays drums in Prince’s current backing band, 3rdEyeGirl. So their bond at first was more personal: After years of study, Prince officially became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, and Welton says he also lives a “God-focused” life. The first time they met, he remembers, “we just stood in the kitchen and talked about Scripture for two hours.” That friendship eventually led to working together, and Welton’s beats, instrumentation, and mixing became an integral part of HITNRUN. Prince is eager to promote those contributions: “I don’t need to be any more famous,” he says earnestly. “I want you to write about Josh, so that one day when he’s producing Beyoncé’s next record you can say, ‘I was on that.’ ”
Modesty is one of the many tenets of Prince’s faith—he abstains from drinking, swearing, and eating meat, and has been known to proselytize door-to-door like other, not-famous Witnesses do. But he hasn’t completely excised the strutting libertine whose carnal 1984 classic “Darling Nikki” spurred Tipper Gore to slap parental-advisory stickers on thousands of albums deemed too explicit for innocent ears. New tracks like the throbbing, reverb-drenched “HARDROCKLOVER” would make any Sunday-school teacher blush, and they sometimes even scandalize the man who made them: After one particularly spicy lyric booms from the speakers, Prince buries his face in his hands and then jumps up and runs from the room. (“I forgot about that part,” he murmurs sheepishly when he returns.)
It often gets said that he’s shy, a completely different personality off stage than the guitar-wailing, assless-pants-wearing lothario of legend. But he’s also surprisingly easy to talk to, thoughtful and engaged and a consummate host—it’s hard to go more than an hour in his home without being offered a snack. Signs of his superstardom aren’t exactly hidden: His assistant, an Ethiopian-born beauty named Meron, is also a professional model; Grammys and platinum plaques line the hallways; and the only sound that disturbs his creative process here, he admits, is that “sometimes the doves are noisy.” (Yes, he keeps doves. Yes, they cry.)
Still, he takes time to consider even the most quotidian questions before replying, and lights up when he hears a joke or a metaphor he likes. He’s also prone to awesomely random references: At one point, when asked whether he’s the kind of songwriter who wakes up inspired in the middle of the night or has to chase his muse, he leans forward and asks, “Did you see the movie Lucy?” The 2014 sci-fi thriller where Scarlett Johansson gets bionic powers? “Yes. At the end, when she’s inside the cell phone, what does she say?” That she’s everywhere? “Exactly!” He leans back, satisfied. “It’s something you grab from the air, tap into. Science can’t explain it…. Everything is a grid. You have to build off that.”
In a lot of ways, it’s hard to fit Prince himself on any kind of grid. He’s sold more than 40 million albums since his debut in 1978 at age 19, and scored nearly 50 Hot 100 singles, many of which helped define the popular-music landscape of the ’80s and ’90s. He’s still prolific, but not necessarily chasing hits at this point in his career. And he doesn’t exactly have a peer group: Michael Jackson is gone, and Madonna, still intensely focused on pop relevance, may not sell records like she used to but remains a major touring force. Prince, on the other hand, plays shows only sporadically, almost whimsically, often without notice and at venues exponentially smaller than he’s capable of filling.
For decades he’s chosen to live mostly outside the busy coastal hubs where show-business types congregate, but he is an active consumer of pop culture, and isn’t averse to tweaking his place in it: Last year he reached out to the creators of New Girl just because he likes the show, and his subsequent guest spot in a post–Super Bowl episode—eating pancakes, playing Ping-Pong, and performing a falsetto duet with Zooey Deschanel—drew more than 25 million viewers. For the cover of his 2013 single “Breakfast Can Wait,” he chose a still from a fabled Chappelle’s Show sketch in which Dave Chappelle appeared as him circa 1985, bedecked in flouncy toreador ruffles and brandishing (again) a platter of pancakes.
When a young musician’s work intrigues him, Prince will often invite them to Paisley to jam or just hang out, and his long tradition of nurturing the careers of female protégées (see: Sheena Easton, Sheila E., Vanity) continues. On this day, a vivacious Arizona native who goes by the stage name the Golden Hippie is hanging out in the studio. She says she met Prince when they double-tapped on the same Instagram post. He liked her sound and invited her to come to Minneapolis; her lush vocals later appeared on 2014’s Art Official Age.
“I like young energy,” he says. “If there’s a big mess, you can bet an old person did it. An old person or a lawyer,” he laughs. “Or an accountant.” But he also still reveres the artists he grew up on—the Staples Singers, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder—and says, “If I want to hear real funk, I’ll call Maceo Parker.” His easygoing demeanor only falls away when the subject of the music industry comes up. He recently reconciled with his old label Warner Bros., and agreed to a deluxe reissue of Purple Rain, in part to regain ownership of his classic catalog. “It’s just a business relationship, clean and transparent,” he says. “And I got my stuff back.”
But why, he wants to know, is there still a need for labels at all? “They’re outmoded. Why do they get to take your work and take a piece of that? What are they bringing to the table? I’m not mad. They’re not bad people. I’ve known some of them for more than half my life. But the system is old and it doesn’t work anymore. It’s the past.” Jay Z, he says, understands what the new model can be, which is why he’s chosen to put HITNRUN out through Tidal.
“Jay allowed us to pick the artwork, design the page, choose the related content. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to do that when it’s your music, your creation?” Part of the reason he doesn’t like his interviews to be recorded, he says, is that like most people, he changes his mind. “Remember what I said about the Internet?” he asks, pulling a wry face. (Five years ago, he famously dubbed it “completely over.”)
Tidal, of course, is a digital service, and Prince does use social media, albeit sporadically. Another thing that bothers him about the big labels is the delay—the fact that “when music reaches you now, it’s over a year old,” like light from a dead star. “Athletes have unions, musicians don’t. They can strike, we can’t. So this is what we do, we go outside the system. And the music gets straight out there, no filter. You feel me?”
That’s actually exactly what he did with “Baltimore,” a funky, bittersweet ballad released in May on SoundCloud in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray and other young black men who have died in police custody; he followed it with a Rally 4 Peace concert in that same city, which drew thousands.
Over the next few hours, he touches on that and many other subjects—his faith, the concept of infinity, the impossibility of judging one piece of art against another. Quesadillas and mozzarella sticks are set out, and his assistant offers to have the chefs make something more substantial. But it’s almost evening now, and time to go. He reaches out for one more handshake, then graciously excuses himself. The air outside is warm, and the light is just beginning to fade when suddenly a straight-backed figure on a bicycle swings into view, peddling serenely toward a gate that opens onto the main road. It’s Prince, riding off into his own sunset.