Donna Grantis: "It’s all about rhythmic precision and the attack on your notes - that's one of the things Prince instilled in me"

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(Image: © Karrah Kobus)

“I have such good memories of being in London,” begins guitarist Donna Grantis. It would be fair to say those memories don’t really count as normal memories - instead of a few snaps by Big Ben before a rainy stroll down Oxford Street, the guitarist was performing guerrilla gigs across the capital in Prince’s 3rdeyegirl band for an eye-watering £10.

She joined the legendary musician in 2013 alongside drummer Hannah Welton and bassist Ida Nielsen, the trio performing on 2014’s Plectrumelectrum - Grantis herself writing its title track - and remaining in his band until his passing two years later. “I can’t wait to be back in London and perform my new music live,” she adds.

This year, she releases her debut solo album Diamonds & Dynamite, mixing the bluesy freedom of Jimi Hendrix with the kind of jazzy chromaticism John McLaughlin made famous through his work in Myles Davis’ band and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The eight tracks also feature from Pearl Jam hero Mike McCready and Suphala - “this brilliant tabla player from Brooklyn who studied with Ustad Allarakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain.”

The Indian percussion instrument lent itself well to the meditative, trance-like and psychedelic grooves instigated across the record’s 41 minutes, she notes, explaining how the music “became this really fun place to improvise in”.

Here, Donna looks back on her experience with one of music’s greatest icons and explains more about the sounds heard on her first solo full-length...

What was it like working so closely with one of the most visionary minds in music history?

We would often go in to Paisley Park at two in the afternoon and stay to anywhere between midnight and 6am

“Prince has influenced and inspired my playing so much. I learned a tremendous amount and it was such a gift to share the stage and learn from him. It was absolutely a musician’s dream to be in that environment at Paisley Park, jamming day in and day out.

“We would often go in at two in the afternoon and stay to anywhere between midnight and 6am, during which we would transcribe new songs, run through the sets, record, play extended funk grooves for half an hour - having a blast because it felt so good to do that. When we were on stage rehearsing and learning material there, it was very focused.”

He was known for being one of the most intense musicians, but what was he like offstage?

“When we were offstage, that’s when things would get a bit looser… we’d be playing ping pong or watching a movie or at a dance party. Being on stage with Prince was a very focused time and I loved that - it felt like the most efficient way to work on our craft and collaborate. After hours and hours of playing, we would take breaks… there really is nothing like a game of ping pong to help you rest your ears before getting back on that stage. We had so much fun.”

What advice can you offer someone hoping to play more in that style?

Learn songs like Musicology, Cool, All The Critics Love U In New York… there’s a whole catalogue of stuff in that funk vein

“I would suggest lifting the lines from the records. He taught me a lot about funk licks and how to build this funk vocabulary. That information was just gold! I took all of those funk lines he showed me and put them together in what I call my FunkPedia. I continue to refer back to it for personal reference! Learn songs like Musicology, Cool, All The Critics Love U In New York… there’s a whole catalogue of stuff in that funk vein.”

Was there anything technical you noticed while watching him noodle or improvise?

“It’s all about rhythmic precision and the attack on your notes. He preferred to keep it extremely short, and that is one of the things he instilled in me. He would often suggest thinking about the notes having no value... that’s how short and tight they are! It’s that style of phrasing I took from him.”

What kind of creative space were you in when writing this new solo album?

“The album was mostly written in 2016. That was a pretty crazy time in my life, with such big changes. On one hand, I was pregnant with my first child, which was completely wonderful, but then it was a difficult time with everything that happened [with Prince’s death]. There were a lot of emotions and I tried to turn that into the music you hear on this record.”

And did you use the same rig as you used with Prince and 3rdeyegirl?

“I played my PRS CE 22 on the record, along with my custom shop PRS. Those were the two main guitars. For the first session, I used what my guitar techs refer to as the Starship, which was the same pedalboard from that band. It’s 21 units over three interconnected 'boards.

We had such a huge repertoire to cover as only a four-piece band. We had to make all those songs sound like a freight train… super-fat and rockin’!

“Sometimes I would use one on its own, other times I would use combinations. That’s something I really got into because we had such a huge repertoire to cover as only a four-piece band. We had to make all those songs sound like a freight train… super-fat and rockin’!

“I also wanted to have tones that would be really complementary to what Prince was playing. Since then, I have created a new pedalboard, which is my top 10 essential pedals.”

Do tell us more...

“So that’s a Boss tuner, DigiTech Whammy, a 95Q Cry Baby wah, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, an MXR Micro Amp for a boost when I want a little more volume in a solo, a TC Electronic Vortex Flanger Mini - as well as a Boss Flanger, which gets used more for a swirly effect that sounds like an airplane taking off.

“I use the Empress Echo System delay and a Fuck Overdrive made by smallsound/bigsound. Then there’s also a Foxrox Octron 2, which you can hear on the track Elsa along with a Boss Blues Driver, it’s one of my favourite octave pedals.”

Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready also makes an appearance on two tracks. How did your paths cross?

“We first met in Seattle when Prince and 3rdeyegirl played The Showbox. They came down to check us out, we met backstage and kept in touch. In May 2016, Mike and the band invited me on stage in my hometown of Toronto for their encore, Rockin' In The Free World.

“We started talking about collaborating - he runs this boutique vinyl label called HockeyTalkter Records and they release seven-inch singles, so we thought it would be cool. I’m a huge fan of vinyl! I wrote the song Trashformer specifically for Mike… I wanted this giant build-up and leave a pocket for Mike to play into. What he played totally floored me; it knocks me out every time I hear it.”

Along with Prince and Pearl Jam, you’ve shared a stage with Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe… that’s quite the CV!

“Playing with Stevie Wonder was unbelievable, he’s so funky! The first gig with him was at the White House, in front of the Obama family… which as you can imagine was just incredible. To share the stage with both Prince and Stevie Wonder, plus members of 3rdeyegirl and New Power Generation, was such a thrill.”

There’s some great usage of outside notes on the record. What’s the secret to using the more dissonant flavours?

It’s all about being so comfortable playing inside that when you do go outside you can bring it back and resolve your phrases

“It’s all about being so comfortable playing inside that when you do go outside you can bring it back and resolve your phrases. I’ve been playing a lot with chromatics, approaching notes from a half-step above or below.

“Another thing I like to do is play lines that made up of intervals of a fourth, shifting it up or down a semitone and then bring it back in. That makes a really cool and angular sound that feels really fresh to me.”

It’s almost like you can get away with anything provided you know how to get back…

“Absolutely! I love the tension those outside notes can create. There are so many different options, like the whole tone or altered scales played against a five chord… it depends what chord you are vamping over. You can maybe hang on a flat-fifth for a while, and it creates this really cool tension.”

Diamonds & Dynamite is out on 22 March via eOne.