Donna Grantis on Prince, Paisley Park and PlectrumElectrum
Hard graft and a talent for improvisation saw Donna Grantis land her dream role playing with Prince. The 3rdEyeGirl tells us how it feels to pull up at Paisley Park...
It was the job that half of the music world would’ve given its left nut (or appropriate equivalent) to nab: trading licks with Prince on stage and on record. In the end, it went to Canadian cognoscente Donna Grantis - and we can’t say that she didn’t deserve it.
Beginning, like many of us, as a kid with an acoustic guitar picking out Zeppelin licks, Donna soon proved herself an accomplished guitarist, gained a scholarship in jazz at Montreal’s McGill University and carved out a career as a go-to session player in Toronto’s musical melting pot.
Then came ‘the call’, a trip to Paisley Park, and the rest is recent history. Now, as her debut album with Prince And 3rdEyeGirl, PlectrumElectrum, has cemented its place in Prince’s immense catalogue, Donna talks to TG about her experiences working with one of the world’s finest (and most demanding) musical minds.
What was your background and experience before you got the Prince call?
“I was living in Toronto, playing in a bunch of bands and touring. I was doing session work in the studio, recording for different artists and I was leading my own jazz rock trio, called the Donna Grantis Electric Band. I grew up playing a lot of rock and really got into blues. I’ve always loved improvising. The jazz training and the experience I’ve had were great training for this.”
Who are the players you most admire?
“Well, Prince, absolutely. Then Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, John Schofield and Buddy Guy. The thing that I really admire about all of those players is they have their own sound. I think that’s the mark of a phenomenal musician. All of those players are very blues-y, which I love, especially on guitar, I think it’s such an expressive style and way to play and communicate on the instrument.”
How exactly does a guitarist wind up getting the call to be a Prince protégé?
“It was back in November of 2012. Prince had asked Hannah Welton [née Ford], the drummer in 3rdEyeGirl and her husband Joshua [Welton], who co-produced Art Official Age [the Prince ‘solo’ album released simultaneously with PlectrumElectrum, and also featuring Donna and the band] to find a guitarist.
"So they searched the internet and they came across some of my videos and sent them on to Prince. I was invited down to Paisley Park to jam and it’s been full-steam ahead ever since then!”
What goes through your head when you pull up to the gates at Paisley Park?
“I was just excited to have the opportunity to jam with a phenomenal musician. I was absolutely aware of the weight of the opportunity; it was something I had dreamed of, but psychologically I was trying to put all of my energy and all of my focus into the music. I was just trying to fit in, listen to the other players and do my best.”
Is Prince a teacher or a collaborator?
“In rehearsal, when we’re learning things, it’s absolutely teacher/student - and I’ve learned so much - then when we’re on stage, it’s the four of us all together collaborating and sounding like a freight train.”
What was it like recording in Paisley Park?
“We were all set up in one room, Hannah, Ida [Nielsen, bass] and I. It was the same room that we were rehearsing in. Our amps were mic’d, but we didn’t even realise that we were recording an album when we started Plectrum... Prince would come in and he’d teach us some grooves and then he’d say, ‘Okay, let’s record this.’
"A lot of what we were recording was for reference purposes, because we were learning so much new material and we needed something to listen back to, but those jams and those songs, once we started adding vocals to them, it was like, ‘OK, something’s going on here...’
“The vibe was really cool. It was analogue. We recorded to tape and we really wanted to capture the live sound. So we all had to nail the take together. Pretty much, what you hear on there is a true representation of what happened as a band in that one room.”
Leading the way
As a lead guitarist, how did you feel about having to produce solos off the cuff?
“I felt, ‘Okay, I’ve got to nail this!’ Not just the playing and the feel, but all of the right sounds. And that was really new to me. On past recordings, I’ve spent time really crafting the exact tone and then tried out a new amp and new pedals and new settings, but this was just, ‘Figure out the sound and go for it!’
“It really pushed me to start hearing my part complete, so when we were arranging a song, I would instantly try to think, ‘Okay, what pickup setting is best, what pedals, what settings and what combination...’”
We heard that you had to nail the epic AnotherLove solo first time...
“Yes, that was a really late-night session, so it was probably four in the morning. We laid that track down and the ending just had the room for an epic solo. Prince was like, ‘Do you want to record it now, or tomorrow?’ Because it was so huge and sounded like it was going to be an epic solo, I thought, ‘Well, let me work out some concepts and different ideas and come back tomorrow.’ He was like, ‘[Pauses] Let’s do it now.’
“So I did it and I’m really proud of that solo. Prince has this way of really pulling out the ￼￼best in everyone. I think that really comes with an adrenaline rush and a sense of urgency to really deliver. Prince and I both play in that song and we both play off each other, which is really special.”
What have you learned from Prince as a guitarist?
“One of the main ones that comes to mind is committing and playing with a tremendous amount of conviction. Playing always from the heart and with a great amount of purpose. He’s an incredible soloist and just a master rhythm player as well.
"Another huge thing is how to challenge each other and keep things fresh. Prince never plays the exact same solo twice, so now I don’t want to play the same solo twice, either! I want to keep things interesting and to throw out new ideas, because he is as well. He blows my mind all of the time.”
Getting the gear
What gear did you use to record your parts on PlectrumElectrum?
“For the recording, I was using my number one axe, which is a purple PRS CE22. Amp-wise, I was using Traynor Amps YBA-1s, Traynor Bass Masters. They’re vintage amps from the 70s that I’ve had modded to my specifications. I really love them.
"There’s a guy I work with back home in Toronto, whose name is Pat Furlen, who mods all my amps. I used those on the recording because I really wanted to have that fat, warm vintage tone, but that has a lot of articulation. I love to be able to hit the guitar hard and hear some break-up in the tone, or play it softly and hear all of those accents.”
What was it that drew you to that PRS guitar in particular?
“The sound of PRS guitars is absolutely stellar. I had my CE upgraded with ’57-08 pickups, and I just think they sing and they’ve got attack. They’ve got a great amount of sustain, which I love. PRSs have always just been so comfortable for me to play, even when I play new ones.
"When I was in London for the Hit And Run tour, I was given a 513, and the instant I picked it up, it just felt perfect and it played like butter. That’s what I love about those guitars, and I think they’re beautiful and works of art, as well.”
Do you keep it simple on the floor, given the need for improvisation?
“No, there’s a tonne of stuff on the floor! One of my techs calls it a starship of pedalboards. It’s three pedalboards that form a semi-circle around me, and I have 20 pedals on there [including a Line 6 DL4, EHX Q-Tron, Fulltone Octafuzz and Deja Vibe and a TC Flashback]. I use them on their own, as well as in many combinations.
"I got that after playing with Prince and 3rdEyeGirl for a couple of months, because I wanted to be able to recreate a lot of different sounds. At the time, we were working on arrangements of older songs, and they have a lot of horns and synth parts.
“Because we’re just four people, the goal was to recreate those songs and make them sound massive, so I wanted to make sure that I had access to a tonne of different sounds in order to recreate those songs.”
The ping pong Prince
We hear the other essential equipment is a ping pong bat. What’s the secret to beating Prince at ping pong?
“I’ve got to say, I have never beaten Prince at ping pong, yet! I had never played before [I joined the band], but my game has skyrocketed since the first time. Everyone in the band is pretty serious about it! It’s just a great way to take a break and clear the mind a bit. And, well, it’s just really fun!”
Prince has a reputation for being reclusive. Is there any truth in that in your experience?
“It’s always been great, in my experience. When we play ping pong we have a blast, but when we rehearse we also have fun, but the vibe is very focused. We’re there to work and make music.
"Prince joins Hannah, Ida and I very often to jam and to make new material, but often he leaves us to work on our own, while he continues to write music and record [on his own]. So it’s a great combination of the times when the girls and I work together, and then our really focused jam sessions with Prince, combined with some downtime.”
Given Prince’s long list of collaborators over a 34-album catalogue, do you ever worry about the longevity of the band and your role?
“I’m not worried at all. I’m just enjoying every moment of it. I’m learning so much and I’m so grateful to be able to go into Paisley Park every day and make music with Prince and Ida and Hannah. It’s a musician’s dream, you know? All of us are really enjoying the moment.”
What’s the main lesson that you think you’ll carry away from the experience?
“One thing that I’ve learned from Prince is his amazing work ethic. Always doing your best. I think that’s a huge thing. He’s one of the greatest musicians of all time and always does things at the highest level. So, I think, always giving your all, and putting the art first. It’s the dedication and the passion and the talent, all together. Just being so prolific. It’s really a way of life.”