Considering how many elaborate musical creations Prince made, it does seem unusual for the first official posthumous album from his estate to be “Piano & a Microphone 1983,” basically a rehearsal tape containing a half-hour of him alone at the ivories, rolling through nine songs, some for 90 seconds, some for six minutes. But that’s also what’s special about it: It’s a rare look at musical genius unselfconsciously at work, trying out ideas — some of which he’d already recorded, some that would be developed later, some that were apparently abandoned — playing for no one but himself and the engineer.
And while it also may seem unusual to speak about this album with two people who weren’t directly involved in its creation, Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman and Prince estate archivist Michael Howe also provide unique perspectives.
Coleman, of course, was Prince’s pianist for six years, joining in 1980 for the “Dirty Mind” tour, staying through the “1999” and “Purple Rain” eras and leaving after Prince disbanded the Revolution in 1986. But also, as Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin told this writer in 2016, “I’ll tell you what it was about Lisa: Prince could play every one of our instruments and pretty much kick your ass. But when he’d try and do what Lisa does, it actually sounded bad, because he knew that was a part of himself that he didn’t have access to — Lisa had access emotionally to a side of his musicianship that I think he continually tried to reach.” While she wasn’t present at the recording of “Piano & a Microphone 1983,” she understood his playing at the time in ways that no one else probably did.
“I think this tape was just meant for his own ears, just working out the songs,” she says of “Piano & a Microphone 1983.” “It shows how talented he was — he goes from being funky and funny to being deep and intimate and introspective. This tape is really a special thing — it’s a look at somebody who shared himself with the public taking moments for himself, to make himself better.”
Asked if he’d bring similar tapes to the band to flesh out, as many songwriters do, Coleman says no. “If he played us something he’d recorded it was usually so good we’d just leave it alone,” she laughs. “When it came time for writing or [the band] coming up with ideas, he’d play guitar and call out chord changes and we’d all produce our own parts. We all knew what our roles were, so it was pretty easy. We were like his live, human Garageband [digital sound library] — for me, he’d click on the ‘Lisa’ icon.”
Coleman is also largely able to identify which songs Prince wrote on piano as opposed to guitar, which he arguably played with even greater virtuosity. “You can tell which songs he wrote on which [instrument] by the chords,” she says. “Usually, the funkier songs are guitar, and the piano ones are more lyrical, like ‘Pop Life’ and ‘Baby I’m a Star.’
“When I first joined the band I noticed a lot of the songs were in the same key,” she continues. “Like ‘Do Me Baby’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and ‘Do It All Night’ were all in the same mode, but it was interesting how he made that work and not sound like everybody else. He was changing things around and playing really cool 9ths and stretching the chords out, playing an E and B in the black keys, making it sound more extended. But then he started moving into different keys, and his playing changed. He was very ornate and did little curlicues and flowers and stuff. The most fun I have during the [reformed Revolution’s current tour] is playing ‘Baby I’m a Star,’ because it’s so funky and yet there’s something about it that’s almost Broadway-sounding, it’s very majestic and musical. If you go from [1979’s] ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ to [1983’s] ‘Baby I’m a Star’ you can see the progression in his playing, stretching out and mixing it up. He was always thinking about the next thing, pushing it farther.”
By contrast, Howe is a veteran A&R exec (Warner Bros., Capitol, Virgin and Downtown) who worked with Prince on the two final albums released during his lifetime, as well as the excellent “Purple Rain” reissue that the artist oversaw before his death. Howe has since become the estate’s chief archivist, and is perhaps more familiar than anyone with the contents of Prince’s much-vaunted “vault” containing thousands and thousands of hours of unreleased recordings — nearly everything that the artist ever recorded, from his early demos to unreleased albums and concerts and rehearsals to projects he worked on with other artists, reaching back to 1976 and possibly even earlier.
“The way I am approaching this job is basically as an archivist-preservationist in a museum among pieces of fine art, attempting to make sense of how to catalog and preserve them,” Howe says “The path of least resistance is to try to do it as chronologically as possible. It’s a little easier to draw a throughline that way, and also, the older the material, the more potential distress [the source tape] is in, generally speaking, so we want to address those potential issues as quickly and completely as possible.”
While some of the items formerly stored at Prince’s Paisley Park compound were found to have suffered damage through moisture or simply age, “Fortunately, we have not come across anything that has been irretrievably damaged — at least not on the audio side and I think on the video side,” Howe says. “We’ve had to ‘bake’ some tapes [a common restoration process with aged recordings], we’ve had to restore a couple of things, but we haven’t had to throw anything away or found anything unusable — at least not yet.”
(While Howe is aware of virtually every rare Prince recording even the most die-hard obsessive could name, he is not at liberty to speak publicly about them. Suffice it to say he has highly informed and evolved ideas about how ultimately to present material from the vault.)
Asked about the quality of the earliest recordings, Howe says, “The ones I’ve heard range between good and superb. I don’t know if I’d recommend putting out a cassette of early demos as a high-profile release, but there are enough intriguing things to be interesting to more casual fans as well as superfans.”
As with any musical archive, Howe has to go by what’s written on the tape boxes until the team can actually listen to the untold hours of music inside them. “A lot of the boxes are incompletely or incorrectly labeled or not labeled at all, and we have to do some forensic detective work,” he says. “It wasn’t stored in a chronological fashion by any means, but we know where everything is that has been bar-coded and ingested — although [often] it’s based solely on what’s written on the boxes. It’s not like we’ve taken every tape out and listened.”
Having said that, “We come across things almost every day that surprise and delight,” he says. “At least once a week I find things that I’ve only heard on bootlegs or did not know existed.”
Some of the most interesting items are ephemera that falls out of the boxes when they’re opened.
“That happens all the time,” he enthuses. “I’ll open up a two-inch [tape] box and shoved in there are handwritten lyrics and track sheets, with little doodles that Prince did of cats or whatever, notes to call [former manager] Bob Cavallo at 2 o’clock, musings about what the set should be at the following night’s gig. It’s a treasure trove.” Rather than being returned to the boxes from whence they came, those items are stored in a separate archive.
And while Howe worked with Prince for a relatively short period of time, it’s given him a sense of responsibility to both the person and the vast body of work.
“I was not tight with him by any stretch, and I don’t want to overstate my importance in his life, which was relatively nil,” Howe says. “But he was awesome. He was totally engaged and insightful and articulate and humble and very funny, a dry-humor kinda guy. Being in his presence — especially when there were no handlers or bodyguards or other executives around, when it was just you and Prince talking across a table — was almost surreal. I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot of iconic artists, and he was orders of magnitude more creatively evolved than any of them. He was just titanically talented, it was almost otherworldy, so it was very special to be able to be in his orbit.
“I take all of this very, very seriously,” he concludes. “I am committed to doing this with the most completeness and respect and integrity possible, not just because that’s the way I operate and because I liked the guy a lot as a person and I want to do right by him — but because he would demand it, and the body of work demands it.”