Photo courtesy of New Power Soul
After sunset on a Tuesday evening, purple lights shine on the white tiles that line Paisley Park and there are only a few cars left in the rear parking lot. The building’s public tours have shut down for the day, and the merch booths and cash registers are shrouded in purple fabric, all the lights turned down low.
But just down the hallway from the soundstage, tucked behind an insulated glass door, a familiar scene is playing out for the first time in far too long: The sound booth of Studio B is lined with musicians in wheeled office chairs who are bobbing their heads to a song they just finished recording in the early hours of that morning. The funky opening beat of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is weaving through the air overhead, and Prince’s brother, Omarr Baker, is smiling like he’s trying to keep a killer secret, restraining himself from getting up to dance.
It’s taken a long time for Omarr to get here. Since Prince passed away, he’s been championing the idea of using Paisley Park’s state-of-the-art studios to record new music, something he says Prince explicitly wanted. Paisley Park opened for tours in October 2016, but it wasn’t until this summer that surviving members of Prince’s family began using Studio B again — first it was Tyka Nelson, who recorded a tribute song and video, then Sharon Nelson, who had musicians record some of their father John L. Nelson’s jazz compositions. This month, Baker is in the studio with the just-formed New Power Soul, tracking a new album of Prince covers by musicians from the NPG and other projects that Baker will release on his own record label, PRN Family Records, in the next few months.
“This is one of the few times I could actually see it coming alive,” Baker says, sitting on a purple plush love seat in Studio B next to his wife, Virginia. He speaks softly and stoically, but his eyes twinkle with excitement when he talks about his project and he softens into a gentle smile. “Our brother didn’t want this to be a dead place. He wanted the recording studios to be active — for talented artists to be able to use this space. He said to me, ‘One day I’ll be gone, but this will all live on.’ And music is what keeps it alive.”
He looks over to Marva King, who is seated next to an open Pro Tools session, and she enthusiastically nods her head. Marva spent years performing alongside Prince in the NPG, joining in 1997 during the Emancipation era and returning for a stint in the late 2000s.
“This all came from Marva,” Omarr explains. “She wanted to keep on performing, but to assemble the whole NPG is 23, 24 people. So we said, ‘What if we formed a new band?’”
With King acting as producer and director and Baker overseeing the project, they recruited former NPG saxophonists Adrian Crutchfield and Marcus Anderson; NPG bassist Josh Dunham; the keyboardist Gail Jhonson, who had performed with Morris Day; London-based drummer Vanessa Domonique; and lead singer Jason Tenner, who has spent the past 20 years paying tribute to Prince with a Las Vegas-based show called Purple Reign. They expect the band to evolve and grow in size over time, especially as they move out of the studio and onto the stage.
For now, though, the members are tending to the matter at hand: Getting an album of material in the can. They’ve spent the past five nights working from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., with engineer Jason Miller setting up the studio for recording each night and tearing it down each morning before the public tours resume. The musicians gelled in the studio by jamming on familiar Prince songs, and the first 12 songs are from throughout Prince’s career, ranging from Prince’s earliest material, like “Sexy Dancer” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” all the way to “Revelation” from his final album, HITnRUN Phase Two. And they’ve started recording original material; one recording that’s already been finished is a new song from King.
“If you didn’t have his ethic, you wouldn’t last very long with him,” King reflects, speaking nonchalantly about their intense recording schedule and smiling contentedly at the recording playing overhead. After listening to “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” Baker asks the engineer to cue up portions of “Revelation,” a ballad channeled beautifully by King and Marcus Anderson, and “Days of Wild,” which digs deep into a funky groove.
As the music plays, Tenner sits coyly in a chair at the end of the console, bowing his head as he listens intently to the songs. When the music finishes, he speaks slowly, as if he’s still wrapping his head around what all of this means for him.
“It’s very surreal,” Tenner says. Just days after visiting Paisley Park and taking a VIP tour, he was contacted by Omarr, who had heard positive things about his Las Vegas show. Now he finds himself at the same mixing board where Prince tracked many of the songs he’s spent his life examining and perfecting, taking on the gargantuan task of contributing his voice to the recordings of these songs. “Marva’s a great producer, and a great director,” he says. “I’ve got a big old head, but she keeps me in check. It’s helping me evolve, which is what Prince was all about: Always growing, and always getting better.”
“The first day I had to keep punching myself,” Domonique says, and the room bursts into laughter. “I don’t even have a word for it; it’s big, for me to be here. It’s big.”
Looking around the studio space, King has an enchanted look in her eye. “It takes me back. I’ve spent a lot of time on that sofa waiting for my turn at the mic, and on the sofa in Studio A, watching Prince work and watching him sing into that microphone at the sound board and record himself.”
“This has been therapeutic for me, too,” King continues. “I was in a dark place last year, and when I visited Paisley Park for the first time I had to set some parameters; I couldn’t go into certain areas yet. But now, to be here, the musicians are so excited. This feels right. All of the music he provided for us, it’s brought us back together. And we’re laughing so hard that my sides hurt, just like it used to be.”
After the music is finished, Baker takes a moment to further explain his vision for the project. “This is a group effort,” Baker says. “This isn’t about replacing Prince; it’s about paying homage to him and his music. Prince always promoted ‘Real music by real musicians,’ and that’s what this is all about.”
Though he is taking on the endeavor independently, he did received a trademark license for use of the New Power Soul name from the Prince estate (it’s the name of a 1998 New Power Generation album, and a phrase that showed up repeatedly in Prince’s songs), and intends to funnel some of the proceeds back into the estate. In addition to the album, in the near future they’ll begin offering live performances, in what Baker describes as “a theatrical production, which is what the fans have been wanting.”
When I ask Baker what he means by theatrical, he simply smiles and says, “Have you ever seen Sign o’ the Times?”
As our conversation winds down, the musicians are eager to get back to recording, and Tenner stands up and starts singing a few lines of “International Lover” over a recording by the band, snapping effortlessly between a high, soulful falsetto and a Prince-like snarl. He closes his eyes and tugs at his shirt, as if overtaken by the moment, then shakes his head and grins sheepishly. “Sorry,” he says, and everyone around him laughs.
No matter what happens next with this particular project, one thing is for certain: Studio B has been filled once again with music, laughter, and giddy joy, a little creative hub churning away in the middle of the Chanhassen night. And something about that feels just right.