He's sorted through hundreds of lyric sheets, listened to thousands of songs, viewed countless videos of concerts and rehearsals. And he's far from done.
As official archivist for the estate of Prince Rogers Nelson, Michael Howe is in charge of cataloging all the material the Purple One left behind in his storied vault.
Since the fall of 2017, he's immersed himself in an overwhelming volume of recordings and ephemera, some carefully labeled, others waiting for an assistant Prince never hired. Whether music or doodles — cat drawings, anyone? — Howe makes sure it's inventoried, digitized and preserved. Then he figures out what to take to market.
The eternally prolific Minneapolis icon not only died without a will on April 21, 2016, but he left his vault in Paisley Park's basement in a bit of a mess. He apparently forgot the combination to open its locked door, so he piled boxes of tapes in the room just outside it — the so-called "pre-vault."
The administrators of Prince's estate had the vault's contents shipped to Iron Mountain, a storage facility in Hollywood. There, Howe, commuting from Nashville, began his work on a "more than full-time" job.
About 18 months ago, the archivist discovered "Welcome 2 America," a finished album that Prince recorded in 2010 but never released. It will be his next posthumous release on July 30.
"Having a Prince record that has never been heard before and never seemed to get leaked out into the collectors' sphere or bootleg market was something very special," Howe said.
A music industry talent executive for 20 years, Howe, 49, has supervised projects with such stars as the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Gnarls Barkley, the Decemberists and Tears for Fears. At Warner Bros., he worked with Prince from 2014 to '16 — and was summoned to Paisley Park for a preview of two 2014 albums.
"He was absolutely wonderful: gracious, kind, accommodating, engaged, humble and just downright delightful," Howe recalled. "No handlers or bodyguards or hangers-on. I have never felt more 'seen' meeting any other world-famous figure from McCartney to Jagger to Liz Taylor."
In a phone interview from his Nashville office, Howe talked about the vault, the decisionmaking process behind posthumous releases and the "Welcome 2 America" deluxe package, which features covers of songs by Minnesota's own Soul Asylum and Bob Dylan.
On the fabled vault
Howe never actually entered the vault at Paisley but said Iron Mountain is "much more organized and rigidly secure than the 'pre-vault' pictures shown on '60 Minutes' taken by the Carver County Sheriff's office.
"Iron Mountain is a very large, windowless, climate-controlled, naturally disaster-proof, retrofitted building in Hollywood that houses a tremendous amount of other high-value entertainment assets. It's a pretty unsexy environment."
On why it's time for 'Welcome'
After a series of posthumous releases featuring material from the 1980s, including deluxe reissues of "1999" and "Sign o' the Times," Howe said "we thought this would be a special stand-alone, strong statement that shines a light on some later-period Prince. And it's something that has some mythical status among Prince fans."
The lyrics reflect on "the Wall Street collapse in 2008, Obama's election and racial inequality, and technology encroaching on privacy and the rise of Facebook and all kinds of things that are as relevant today as they were then."
On why Prince didn't release it
Howe's theory: With the European-only album "20Ten" already in the can, Prince recorded "Welcome 2 America" in March 2010 with a new rhythm section: 23-year-old Australian bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman. However, Wilkenfeld could not tour with Prince that year because of a commitment to Herbie Hancock.
"So, Prince reconvened the NPG [New Power Generation] and put this record on the shelf," Howe said. "For whatever reason, he decided to tour [behind] a record that was unavailable. That's a very Prince-like kind of move."
On the 'Welcome' cover
Prince had not prepared cover art. The photo the estate selected was used for posters promoting his Welcome 2 America Tour, which ran from December 2010 to September 2012. The super deluxe version will include scrapbook-like items such as a concert ticket, set list and backstage pass — a first for a Prince package.
On the songs heard elsewhere
Two songs on "Welcome" also appear on 2015's "Hitnrun Phase Two" — "When She Comes" and "1,000 Light Years From Here" (as the last three minutes of the tune "Black Muse") — but those are different mixes.
In 2007 Prince had recorded Soul Asylum's "Stand Up and B Strong" with former NPG sidemen Sonny Thompson on bass and Michael Bland on drums; coincidentally, Bland had joined Soul Asylum two years before. The anthem, written by the Minneapolis band's frontman Dave Pirner, debuted on the 2006 Soul Asylum album "Silver Lining" and was used on college football telecasts that fall.
However, the track on "Welcome 2 America" was cut in March 2010. "It's completely different people [playing] but kind of the same spirit," Howe said.
On the Dylan cover
The deluxe version of "Welcome" includes a live album/DVD that offers a treatment of Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" with lead vocals by Liv Warfield, Shelby J and Elisa Fiorillo of the NPG.
Howe said the band did lots of cover songs during its "21 Nights at the Forum" in Los Angeles, but this particular show was one of the few with multitrack audio and multicamera footage. Plus, "the video had never circulated among collectors before."
On seeking a wider audience
"We are mindful of what the superfan might find appealing," Howe said. "But we're always thinking how to bring Prince in front of people who were not familiar with his artistry or only know him by name or were too young to ever know anything about his performances."
Howe added that he doesn't interact with "the collector community" much, but "their passion is commendable. It is a big and loud fan base."
On a first-ever vinyl release
"The Truth" was part of Prince's four-CD "Crystal Ball" package in 1998. It's being reissued on vinyl as a single album June 12 as a limited release for Record Store Day. "It's a very sparse, succinct Prince record, heavily guitar-based because it's acoustic, but there are some electronic flourishes, too."
On how decisions are made
As he combs through material, Howe prepares "road maps" of what's available and marketable. He speaks regularly with Troy Carter, entertainment adviser to the estate, and confers with executives at Warner Bros. and Sony, which have the rights to Prince music depending on the year it was recorded. He joins periodic meetings with Prince's heirs, Carter, Comerica (the administrator of the estate) and a Carver County judge.
Howe said he always tries to imagine what Prince would do.
"It is a very tricky proposition," he said. Unless, of course, something is labeled "DNU," as in "do not use," or is clearly unfinished.
On the vault's biggest surprise
"The one that most delighted me was the acoustic demo of 'I Feel for You,' which we released as a surprise 7-inch single [in 2019]. We get delighted by surprises on a regular basis, but I can't talk about them."
On overcoming 'Prince fatigue'
"I jokingly call it APF — acute Prince fatigue. I talk about it with my wife and some of my colleagues. But it passes very, very quickly. The job is not without its challenges, but the creative pursuit is so monumentally satisfying that it outweighs any of the difficulties by a wide, wide margin. Whatever Prince fatigue occurs on a Monday night is gone by Tuesday morning."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719