Prince Fans Get First Look At His Vault With 'Piano & A Microphone 1983'

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 4, 2018 1:02 pm

More than two years after Prince's death, his fans got their first album-length glimpse into the famed vault. Piano & a Microphone 1983 features nine songs Prince recorded solo on cassette in his home studio, spilling fascinating secrets about his approach to songwriting.

Like many artists, Prince made demos to capture the basic outlines of his songs — the melodies, the chord sequences — but he didn't stop there. He left specific clues about how he wanted the song to feel. On "17 Days," we hear Prince ad-libbing at the piano and emulating small finishing touch details, like echo and other studio effects. We hear him testing out all kinds of vocal personas, sometimes even singing the drum groove he's hearing. These are intangible moments. They don't show up on the sheet music.

Early on, Prince understood that these elements were essential to his sound and part of the songs themselves. He approached everything, even an unfinished idea, as a performance. "Wednesday," a gorgeous chamber tune, was recorded for Purple Rain but trimmed from the final album.

This is the first full offering of previously unreleased material from Prince's storied vault and it's sure to upset some die-hard fans in part, because much of this set has been available in bootlegged form for years. But the Prince Estate had to start somewhere, and these intimate demos, — blueprints to the vast sonic worlds he would develop in the studio later — offer a window into his process. When he started working on a song, Prince looked beyond the building blocks. He chased moods, the deeper and more conflicted, the better. Turns out the iconic singer didn't need a fancy studio or even his trusty guitar for that — all he needed was a piano and microphone.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been more than two years since Prince died. Now, fans are getting their first album-length glimpse into his famed vault.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) Never meant to be cause you any sorrow, never meant to cause you pain. I only wanted one time to see you laughing, yeah. I only want to see you in the purple rain (ph).

CHANG: That's a demo from "Piano & A Microphone 1983." The album features nine songs that Prince recorded solo on cassette in his home studio. They represent a pivotal moment in his career after the release of his fourth album, "1999," and before the smash hit "Purple Rain." Critic Tom Moon says the 35-minute set offers a rare look into how Prince approached songwriting.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Even Prince's scratch pad was dripping with vibe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")

PRINCE: (Vocalizing).

MOON: Like many artists, Prince made demos to capture the basic outlines of his songs, the melodies, the chord sequences, but he didn't stop there. He left specific clues about how he wanted the songs to feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")

PRINCE: (Singing) I know it's underwater. I doubt that you could hear me. So let the rain come down.

MOON: We hear him ad-libbing at the piano and emulating small, finishing-touch details like echo and other studio effects and testing out all kinds of vocal persona.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")

PRINCE: (Vocalizing).

MOON: Sometimes he'll even sing the drum groove he's hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERNATIONAL LOVER")

PRINCE: (Beatboxing, vocalizing).

MOON: These are intangibles. They don't show up on the sheet music. Early on, Prince understood that these elements were essential to his sound, part of the songs themselves. He approached everything, even an unfinished idea, as a performance. This gorgeous little chamber tune was recorded for "Purple Rain" but trimmed from the final album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEDNESDAY")

PRINCE: (Singing) I needed someone to talk to, hate it when I'm all alone. I contemplated suicide from 12 o'clock to 2. If you're not back by Wednesday...

MOON: This is the first full offering of previously unreleased material from Prince's storied vault, and it's sure to upset some diehard fans, in part because much of the set has been available in bootlegged form for years. Hey, the Prince estate had to start somewhere. And these intimate demos, blueprints to the vast sonic worlds he would develop in the studio later, offer a window into his process. When he started working on a song, Prince looked beyond the building blocks. He chased moods - the deeper and more conflicted the better. Turns out, he didn't have to have a fancy studio or even his trusty guitar for that. All he needed was a piano and a microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY DON'T YOU WEEP")

PRINCE: (Singing) I don't like winter. But I seem to get a (unintelligible) kick out of doing you cold, yeah, yeah, yeah (ph).

CHANG: That from the newly released Prince album, "Piano & A Microphone 1983." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY DON'T YOU WEEP")

PRINCE: (Singing) Got a bad, bad feeling your man ain't coming home, yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.