'There's a lot of purple in there."
Toronto's Donna Grantis, who is Prince's guitarist, is on the phone from Minneapolis talking about Paisley Park Studios, the recording complex where she has been working lately. Most of us are not privy to the insides of Prince's home office, though we do know that it is a facility where doves are sometimes in distress, where small sports cars are parked and where premillennial partying occurs. And now we have verification of what we should have suspected: In Prince's place of business, the colour purple reigns.
Earlier this week, however, behind-the-scenes cybertours of Paisley Park were available when Prince celebrated the release of his two new albums – the solo Art Official Age and the funk-rock band effort PlectrumElectrum – with a live-streamed online launch party.
For Grantis, trained in jazz performance at McGill University in Montreal, her involvement with Prince and Paisley Park Studios has been the time of her life, but not all party. After being recruited to join 3rdEyeGirl – a three-quarter-female quartet also featuring Ida Nielsen as bassist, Hannah Ford Welton as drummer and Prince as the one and only – the rehearsal and recording regime has been more demanding than any bebop curriculum could be.
"We'll go in for the afternoon, play until dinner, come back and play to any time," Grantis says, about the schedule at what she likes to call the school of Paisley Park. "Sometimes it's midnight, but it might be four in the morning. And it's six days a week." She hasn't contacted her musicians' union local about the rigorous working conditions. "We're taken care of very well," she says. "It's a musician's dream."
It could be said that Grantis was already living the dream in Toronto. After McGill and before this gig with the mauved maestro, the guitarist gigged diversely. In any given week, she might be playing with a jazz duo or a hip-hop show with Kardinal Offishall or soul-pop with Amanda Marshall or blues with Saidah Baba Talibah or R&B with jacksoul. She also fronts the axe-attack Donna Grantis Electric Band, which released its debut Suites album in 2012.
Grantis believes her experience with a variety of sessions prepared her for the job with her current bandleader, noting: "Prince is all over the map. He does it all, and he does it amazingly well."
As you might imagine, Grantis speaks glowingly of Prince. The pop auteur and groove master is a legend, and the reports from last spring's U.K. and European Hit and Run Tour were favourable, but one has to wonder if Grantis might be laying it on a bit thick, to keep in the boss's good books. In an interview with Guitar Player, she named guitarists who had inspired her: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, John Scofield, Jeff Beck, Bill Frisell, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Prince.
Was she sucking up? "No," she laughs. "Are you kidding?" Maybe a little. "Check out the videos to Let's Go Crazy and Something in the Water," she instructs. "My mind is constantly blown. He is a phenomenal guitarist."
Fair enough. But I press on. What about Prince, as a phenomenally preserved 57-year-old man, working with a young, all-female band. Is there something vampiric involved? Does he draw on your life force? "On the contrary," she says. "There's an amazing adrenalin rush from the live performances. There's nothing like it."
Prince's taste for female band mates is well established. "I think he likes the energy," says Grantis, who in addition to being a member of 3rdEyeGirl also plays in Prince's 13-piece sex-funk ensemble New Power Generation. "He's mentioned the strength he admires in women."
Grantis has the training and experience, but Prince operates on a higher, more intense level than most. The basic tracks for Plectrum Electrum were recorded live, with all the musicians in the same room. The song Wow was laid down before it had even been rehearsed all the way through.
One night the band was rehearsing Another Love, when Prince asked Grantis about the guitar solo and when they should cut the track. "Tomorrow morning," she suggested. To which Prince replied, "Let's record it now."
The riff-heavy Ain't Turnin Round features a ripping solo from Grantis. Was she given any direction? "He told me to record a solo at the end," she says. "Then he walked out of the room and went to go play Ping-Pong."
Superlover plays table tennis? "We're all pretty serious players," says Grantis, "but Prince is the master."
Prince is the master, as he has been telling us for 35 years, and at least as many albums. And that's a lot of purple.