Prince: The hits he gave away to Sinéad O’Connor, The Bangles and Kenny Rogers
The 15 demos for songs on Prince: Originals are a rough draft of pop genius
Prince: wrote songs with particular artists in mind. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/WireImage
Questlove, the drummer for the Roots who has a side career as a DJ specialising in Prince tracks, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Originals, a collection of 15 demos “the Purple One” made for songs that he gave away to other artists – fascinating rough drafts of genius for a supremely polished musician. But he admitted to having mixed feelings.
He’s pleased that there’s more material in Prince’s vaults than he realised, but sad that one day it’ll be depleted. He’s delighted that people will appreciate the genius of Prince – who died at 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016 – anew, but disappointed that it reduces the impact of his own collection of bootlegs. (He can’t blow people’s minds the same way now when he plays Prince’s demo version of The Glamorous Life, Sheila E.’s 1984 hit single.)
“I fall really deep in the Prince collector pool, maybe abyss level,” Questlove said in a recent interview. “I’m elated to see what’s under the hood.”
Susannah Melvoin, a singer for the Family, the group that first released Nothing Compares 2 U, said Prince’s songs numbered in the thousands and he was consumed with finding the right homes for them. “These songs are like his children – he would say that very often,” she said. “He was the ultimate social worker.”
Even though the original version of Nothing Compares 2 U languished in obscurity on the Family’s 1985 debut album, the song endured: Five years later, Sinead O’Connor’s version topped the charts.
“It was most unusual for him to give you a track that was incredibly personal to him,” Melvoin said. Prince had finished writing the song the night before they recorded it at Sunset Sound. It was inspired both by issues in his relationship with Melvoin and the absence of his personal assistant, Sandy Scipioni, who was taking time off because of the death of her father.
“I had left, and Sandy had left,” Melvoin said. “He was so sensitive to longing and need, if you were his lover and he loved you and you weren’t there, it would compel him to go into the studio because that was the only way he could service those emotions.”
Melvoin didn’t save any physical memorabilia from her time with Prince – but she has the song. “He wasn’t a guy who would pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, don’t go to L.A., I’m going to miss you,’” she said. “He would write Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Originals includes songs recorded by the Bangles, Kenny Rogers and Martika. Its arrival via Tidal on June 7th – two weeks before its wider release on June 21st – is the result of a 2016 lawsuit filed by Prince’s estate against the streaming service, which is owned in part by rapper Jay-Z. The artist’s heirs objected to Tidal’s exclusive deal to stream Prince’s closely guarded music and contended that the service was streaming 15 albums without permission.
“Part of making it go away was this,” said Troy Carter, the entertainment adviser for the Prince estate. The settlement gave Tidal an exclusive 14-day window to stream an album of unreleased material before its physical release.
The theme of Originals was sparked by the discovery of Prince’s demo for Nothing Compares 2 U, released last year. Because Prince had “such a vast archive,” Carter said, they emphasised tracks that were completed – “we weren’t going to put out a rough vocal” – between 1981 and 1985. That was an era when Prince was particularly fecund, masterminding spin-off groups like Apollonia 6 (represented here with Sex Shooter), Vanity 6 (Make-Up) and the Time (Jungle Love).
“It’s a moment in time when all the records speak to each other,” Carter said, “so it doesn’t feel like it’s all over the place.”
There is one outlier, from 1991: the haunting Love . . . Thy Will Be Done, first released by Martika. Jay-Z pushed for it, Carter said: “Jay was listening with our archivist on the treasure hunt and chiming in on specific songs that he would love to hear.”
In an email, Jay-Z said, “Prince led the way, for artistic freedom, for ownership. He’s one of the bravest people I can think of in the industry.” He tried to pick songs that covered a range of music, and would satisfy his curiosity as a fan: “What he would sound like if he had kept the songs.”
Prince sometimes gave away songs from his vast backlog that he wasn’t using – that’s how the country singer Rogers got You’re My Love. When Prince saw the Bangles on MTV, he wanted to be some kind of friend to the band, and after making a guest appearance at one of their shows, offered them a song.
“I knew it was an incredible gift,” said the Bangles singer-guitarist Susanna Hoffs. “It was like putting on the slipper in a fairy tale.” She drove across Los Angeles to Sunset Sound studio, nervous and excited for the charming Prince to hand-deliver the song to her. As it turned out, he was busy recording, so she picked up a cassette tape and drove back to the Bangles’ studio.
“We all hovered around a cassette machine,” Hoffs said. They listened to the tape, which had two songs: Manic Monday and Jealous Girl.
The band unanimously opted for Manic Monday, which rewrote Prince’s hit 1999 with lyrics about a woman’s 9-to-5 travails instead of a nuclear apocalypse. (Jealous Girl was later sung by Bonnie Raitt but remains unreleased.) They recorded the song, carefully following his blueprint – except they rearranged the bridge. “His bridge had almost a psychedelic, classical feel,” Hoffs said. “Looking back, why didn’t we do it that way?”
After they finished the track, Prince visited the band in the studio, and although Hoffs found him “semi-inscrutable,” she said he seemed surprised and pleased that the band had Banglesised his composition. Manic Monday became the Bangles’ first pop hit, going all the way to No 2 – kept from the top only by Prince’s own Kiss. Later in life, Hoffs wanted to express her gratitude, but didn’t see her benefactor again: “It makes me sad that I never got an opportunity to thank him.”
Most of the songs on Originals were written with a specific artist in mind, often a woman. Melvoin was a romantic and creative partner for Prince in this era (and the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist in his band the Revolution). “He has a musical clairvoyance, this ability to project himself into you, as if he were another aspect of your artistic self,” she said, speaking of him in the present tense.
Jill Jones, also musically and romantically involved with Prince during these years, described that skill as a double-edged sword: “On some level that could be great, and on another level it could be disturbing, a little claustrophobic.” As she summarised it: “He thought he could be a better woman than you could.”
To better get in the heads of his collaborators, Prince asked them to keep journals that he could mine for lyrics. Jones already kept a journal – she hid it from Prince, but he found it and busted the lock. “He was a snoop,” she said, and laughed. “I snooped in his too.”
The song he wrote as a result of that bedroom espionage was Baby, You’re a Trip. “I was a little taken aback by the lyrics,” Jones said. “This girl, she was so desperate and submissive. I thought I was a lot tougher.”
Listening to these tracks, Questlove said he heard Prince tapping into “his machismo, what we would now call toxic masculinity”; expressing his vulnerability (which Questlove preferred to think of as his humanity rather than his femininity); and “trying to navigate his way to pop stardom and the top of the mountain.”
Questlove added, “Most humans have a duplicitous side – is ‘triplicitous’ a term? Prince is basically three people.”
Originals can also be seen through the lens of Prince’s intense productivity and studio culture. “He got pleasure out of his own ability to create in an instant,” Melvoin said. “The endorphin came from allowing the spigot to be constantly running.” That meant he was supremely focused in the studio. “If you weren’t doing what he was doing, it didn’t mean anything to him. Catch up. You’re just trying to chase him,” Melvoin said. She repeated his mantra: “I’m cutting, what are you doing?”
His collaborators got used to late-night phone calls, sometimes summoning them to work at 3am. “Before cellphones, somehow he found us,” Jones said. “You’d go straight to the studio.” That was how she ended up singing backing vocals for 1999 in her pyjamas.
Jones said that sessions with Prince could last three days without sleep: “Lots of coffee. He drank coffee, too, with a little bit of powdered creamer.” He would also reliably have a bag of Doritos. “He’d crunch really fast and chew really fast, but his hands were so delicate when he’d reach into the bag,” Jones said.
Prince’s studio was emphatically not a party scene, and not occupied by people who couldn’t contribute musically. “If you lacked the talent or the ability, he would shame you out of the studio,” Melvoin remembered. “He could pick up the bass or guitar and say, ‘This is what I need played’ – although almost never would you end up playing those instruments for him.” Almost every note on Originals was played by Prince himself – and in some cases, his demo appears to be identical to the released single, except for the vocals.
“You didn’t really know Prince unless you had been in the studio with him,” Jones said. “Those were the best years: living, breathing, eating music.” – New York Times