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Live from Paisley Park, it’s Prince! (on speakerphone)

by Andrea Swensson

September 06, 2015

If there was a name for that singular, warm, musky sandalwood aroma that permeates the walls of Paisley Park, it would have to be Anticipation. How else to describe that smell of upscale, anything-might-happen glee? It’s intoxicating. It makes reasonable people do embarrassing things. And it keeps people coming back for more.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made the trek out to western suburbs for a night at Paisley Park, and my experiences there have run the gamut from DJed dance parties to one-on-one meetings with Prince himself. Regardless of how the evenings pan out, though, they always start the same: Taking in that musk and filling the lungs with the magic of possibility, trying to calm a racing heartbeat, and knowing that anything could happen, even if it probably won’t.

Saturday night was the second of three parties Prince is throwing at Paisley Park in celebration of his new album, HITNRUN, which is being released at 12:01 a.m. on Labor Day morning exclusively on Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal. The events were billed as “international dance parties,” and as the two Japanese gentlemen I met last night confirmed, Prince fans from around the world took his cue and traveled across oceans to get to Chanhassen, Minnesota, to see what might transpire.

What did transpire on Saturday was the opportunity to wait in a very long line and pay an additional $20 (on top of the $40 admittance fee) to take an unprecedented public tour of Paisley Park’s facilities. And though the cynical side of me questioned whether such an up-sale could be worth it, it turned out that the tour was where that unmistakable purple scent of anticipation emanated the strongest on this particular night.

The tour began with a door in the lobby swinging open and one of Prince’s back-up dancers greeting us giddily. Fans were given the opportunity to saunter slowly down the hall, which is lined on one side with all of Prince’s awards (ranging from Grammys and MTV moonman statues to Minnesota Black Music Awards from the late 1980s), and plastered with a timeline of Prince’s various fashion statements and looks dating from the early ‘80s to the mid ‘90s.

Our tour guide ushered us into Studio B to meet Joshua Welton, the 25-year-old producer who has become Prince’s right hand man. Welton oozes charisma and enthusiasm, and clearly reveled in the opportunity to show off his workspace and give the group of two dozen fans (many of whom were wearing Prince t-shirts) an up-close glimpse of his creative process. Pulling up a session in ProTools, Welton isolated Prince’s vocal parts and played us a sample of a new song. “I come from North Minnie,” Prince sang, his voice stacked in a multi-part harmony. When Welton clicked on the rest of the track his vocals were surrounded by a banging beat, and it sounded more in line with contemporary EDM-influenced pop music than anything else the artist has released in recent years. “That’s a new track from HITNRUN that features Rita Ora,” he explained. (I believe it was an excerpt of the same song Prince played for me in the same studio last summer.)

With a glint of mischief in his eye, Welton pointed to a chair to his right and told the fan who was seated there that she was sitting where Prince usually did when he was listening to his playbacks. As the entire room squealed, he reached out and punched a few numbers into a telephone to his left, and before anyone could react someone picked up on the other end of the line.

“Free yourself,” Prince proclaimed over the speakerphone.

“Hi Prince,” Welton said. “I’m here with a whole room of your family, we’re in Studio B.”

“Well if I’d known that, I would have answered in my cool voice,” Prince joked, then switched to a high-register, cartoony cadence. “Thanks for coming over!” he squeaked.

“Prince, what do you have planned for tonight?” one fan asked, as the rest of their room looked on wide-eyed.

“Why don’t you come see me in Studio A and find out?” he replied.

The entire tour group started jumping up and down and squeezing each other’s arms, and Welton’s wife and Prince’s drummer Hannah Ford Welton laughed and cautioned us to try not to pass out. Quickly, we were being ushered through the cavernous, bright white Studio C and into Prince’s personal recording space, Studio A.

What awaited us in Studio A was not, in fact, Prince, but Welton was sure to impress upon us just how rare it was that outsiders were allowed into the space. He motioned to a corner and explained that the Linn LM-1 drum machine sitting there was the same one used to create early songs like “When Doves Cry." In front of the soundboard, a chair and a single microphone were poised to collect a recording.

“You mean to say that this chair is where Prince sits when he sings, and this microphone is where he records all his vocals?” a woman asked, dumbfounded.

“Yes, that’s right,” Welton said, smirking.

“Hallelujah,” she replied.

We were given the opportunity to listen to another track from HITNRUN called “Free Yourself,” another more electronic leaning, soulful track, and the tour group shuffled awkwardly and attempted to dance in the small space. Welton also led the group through the tapestry-draped sound room of Studio A and into an immaculate granite-lined room that housed a grand piano, and he sat down and played for us so we could enjoy the flawless acoustics of the space.

Back in Studio C, guitarist Donna Grantis enchanted the tour group with a fiery guitar solo, and then directed us into a room that was lined with a selection of Prince’s custom-made jackets and shirts and showcased his motorcycle from Purple Rain.

Throughout the tour it seemed like Prince might be just around the corner but he never was. Instead, he was off in some private corner of the facilities, content to tease fans over speakerphone and wait for the next tour group to roll through.

His phone calls were the only time Prince addressed the audience at Paisley Park directly on Saturday, though he did make an appearance on stage briefly to wave a towel at Liv Warfield and rip a short guitar solo during an extended jam by her band. He popped up again in Paisley’s main room to wave at his disciples while DJ Kiss played a few more tracks from the new album, and even charged toward the edge of the stage like he was about the crowd-surf. But moments later he disappeared, and the music returned to a mix of old disco hits, funk tunes, and newer hip-hop and pop music.

For fans of Prince’s extended family, however, Prince’s hit-and-run appearances were just the icing atop a night of hair-raising live music. Liv Warfield commanded the stage in the smaller of Paisley’s two rooms with an hour-long set that included the Prince-penned title track of her latest album, The Unexpected; a scintillating cover of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”; and a medley led by her back-up singers that wove together a deconstructed version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with other jams. It was during this extended performance that Prince decided to hop up on stage, borrowing a guitar from Warfield’s bandmate Ryan Waters and blowing through a solo with his back to the crowd.

Earlier in the night, the group LP (led by former Family members Eric Leeds on sax and St. Paul Peterson on bass) warmed up the crowd with a jazzy set. The quartet cut deep grooves behind Leeds’ soulful saxophone, and helped to build anticipation for what might (or might not) happen later on in the night.

Later on, DJ Kiss kept fans on their feet and dancing until about 2:50 a.m., and when the 1,000-person-plus crowd started the thin out the Paisley crew flipped on the lights and led the rest of us toward the door.

Back out into the night, rain started falling softly over the exiting flocks of fans and lightening flickered quietly overhead. It wasn’t a disappointing night by any means—Warfield skillfully held the crowd's attention throughout her performance, despite the crowd’s obvious hunger for something more from Paisley’s main man—but people didn’t exactly leave buzzing, either. Paisley Park encourages us all to dream big, but at the end of the night you’ll still end up wandering down a suburban street toward your car, wondering where your dreams might lead you next.


Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.