The host and a woman a head taller than he walked into a recording studio control room filled with a dozen or so invited guests.
“This is Judith Hill," he announced just before midnight Sunday night at Paisley Park in Chanhassen. "And I’m Prince.”
Yes, Prince is working with Hill, 31, the Los Angeles singer who caused a sensation on NBC’s “The Voice” in 2013 and also was featured in the Oscar- and Grammy-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” about backup singers.
But Prince invited representatives from Fox 9, City Pages, 89.3 the Current and the Star Tribune to preview Hill’s album at Paisley and ask her – and him – questions. (The three members of Prince’s band, 3rdEyeGirl, were there, too, along with staffers Trevor Guy and Josh Welton, who are married to band members.)
Six selections were played from “Back in Time,” which Hill recorded in two or three weeks at Paisley Park with Prince as producer. “It’s the fastest album I’ve ever made,” he said.
After the first number was blasted over giant speakers in the studio control room, Prince piped up: “Ask your questions now. She’s going to be a superstar and you won’t be able to talk to her.”
Surprisingly, Prince did not discover Hill on “The Voice” or in the Michael Jackson movie “This Is It,” where she was featured as a backup singer in rehearsal for his upcoming tour. He learned about her when he saw a video clip of her being interviewed on a European TV show and she mentioned that she’d like to work with Prince.
Prince eventually tracked her down and invited her to a listening party in Los Angeles for “this album,” he said, pulling on his long-sleeve T-shirt which depicted the cover of last year’s “Art Official Age.” They talked briefly at the party and Prince asked what kind of music she wanted to make. He said she said “Sly and the Family Stone.” He said, “That’s all I needed to know.”
During this 50-minute listening session, Prince was remarkably relaxed. He wasn’t putting on airs or playing games. He seemed committed, sincere and proud. He seemed to relish that Hill is a singer with serious vocal chops, not just another attractive wanna-be. Not that Hill isn’t a striking figure, a tall woman in a kimono-like dress with frizzy hair piled atop her head.
Hill explained that some of the songs on the new album were written a while back and others more recently.
“Cry Cry Cry,” the first number played but not the first tune on the record, is an exciting big blues workout, with terrific big-band horn arrangements, some inspired R&B vocalizing and “that’s me on guitar,” as Prince put it. The song sounded like nothing associated with Prince. It was more like a young Irma Thomas doing an Etta James song with sizzling instrumental work. Prince said of Hill: “She has an analog voice.”
“Turn Up” and “My People” are funk pieces with a more familiar Prince vibe. “That Angel song,” as Prince called it, is a digital-sounding number, with Hill’s strong, soulful, mysterious voice surrounded by synthetic sounds.
“Beautiful Life” is a pretty, piano-driven ballad with strings. It's a number that Hill had performed on tour opening for Josh Groban in 2013 but Prince urged her to change it from a minor to major key.
Prince then pointed out how Sly’s big, joyous hits like “Dance to the Music” and “Stand” were done in major keys -- and praised Sly as a songwriter, not just a musicmaker and cultural force.
While Prince has felt comfortable in recent years as a mentor working with young musicians, he also was seeking knowledge on Sunday from the invited guests.
“What’s the most efficient way to get this music out?” he asked, noting that the music-bz landscape has changed..
City Pages’ Reed Fischer suggested a video. I suggested TV appearances because Hill has a built-in audience from “The Voice” and she appeals to multiple generations – like Adele did. (How ‘bout an entire hour of “Ellen” devoted to Hill, with surprise guest Prince playing guitar on “Cry Cry Cry”?)
Rachel Chazin, a digital producer for Fox 9, suggested Spotify. Prince had no idea what Spotify is.
So Chazin, who said she’s 23, explained how the online listening service works, with a $10 fee per month or free music with commercials mixed in.
Prince liked that suggestion and asked his associate how long it would take to get on Spotify? “One week,” Guy said. Prince said to pursue it even though he was told that Spotify pays very minimal royalities to artists.
Getting the album on Spotify might be premature. Hill said she has no release date for the project and is close to signing a record deal. She inked a contract with Columbia Records in 2013 but no album was released.
Hill does have a cover photo for "Back in Time":– a picture of her as a young kid at a toy piano. Her mother took the photo. And, no, Hill didn’t play the toy piano on the album. In fact, its whereabouts are unknown.
Prince was asked how he felt about making music available on iTunes. So he recounted a dinner meeting he'd had with Apple executives in about 2005. He asked what was the biggest selling album at the time on iTunes. He was told 200,000. “The meeting is over,” he said.
He then mentioned that Hill’s album cost a lot to make because it involved many musicians who need to be paid. If she doesn’t get paid, he said he couldn’t afford to keep buying shoes.
Radio programmer Jim McGuinn asked if Hill would perform on the Current.
“No,” she said unknowingly. “But I’ll play at Bunker’s.”
Then Prince apologized and said he should have explained that the Current is a radio station.
The Purple One has shown her a bit of Minneapolis, including going to the Dakota Jazz Club together in December to see Lisa Fischer, who was also featured in “20 Feet from Stardom.”
After the Current faux pas, Prince led the invited guests back to the NPG Music Club room at Paisley Park, where about 100 lucky Purple fans had gathered. It was show time for Hill and her six-man band.
She tore into “My People,” which was the last song heard in the listening session. Next came a new tune with an old-school jazz vibe and the key line “I wanna love choo choo.” New Orleans funk is probably the best way to describe the ensuing song, which could be titled “Let’s Get Wild Tonight.” Hill played keyboards on “Cry Cry Cry,” which sounded soulful but strikingly different without horns.
Still, the slam-bam, 30-minute performance proved that Hill has a world-class voice that has improved since her TV-talent stint -- and a formidable band with a funky bent. Prince never joined her onstage. She didn’t really need him.