Ida Nielsen: “Prince gave me some music and said, ‘Call me back when you’ve learned that show’”

Pop quiz: name the musician this bass player is talking about. “I’m in the vaults,” Ida Nielsen says. “You can’t count the amount of master tapes there are, but I’m sure that ‘thousands’ doesn’t cover it. I do know that all the time that I was with him, of all the stuff we recorded, not all of it has been released. And we really recorded some very cool stuff...”

Vaults? Master tapes? Legendary songs yet to see the light of day? No prizes for guessing who Nielsen’s last boss was: Prince. Nielsen knew the late multi- instrumentalist better than most, having been the bassist in two of his backing bands - 3rdeyegirl and the New Power Generation. The Danish four-string master was plucked from her solo career by the Purple One in 2010, and recorded and toured with him in the years leading up to his premature departure in April 2016.

At 16 years old you don’t think it’s going to be your career, or anything. I just loved it

It was all a long way from the early 1990s, when Ida Kristine Nielsen was at school in a small Denmark town, Aarhus, singing in the school choir. One of her fellow choristers was in a band, she recalls.

“They had a concert, but their bass player couldn’t make it,” says Nielsen. “So she asked me if I wanted to do it. All I knew was the name of the strings, but I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I was 16 at the time, whereas her band members were in their 20s and 30s.

“I thought the music they played was super-boring,” she continues. “But then at the concert there was this other band playing, with younger lads, it was kinda funky, Danish-style, and the bass player was going for it. I was completely floored by it and thought, ‘I want to do that,’ so I went home to do what I saw him do.”

“At 16 years old you don’t think it’s going to be your career, or anything. I just loved it. Before I played bass I played piano and sang, because I’ve always loved music. The bass is an instrument where it’s complicated, but it’s also easy to start out and sound good.”

“You can find cool basslines that don’t require a lot of technique, but which sound good,” she adds.

“A good melody on the bass, a good rhythm. I used to teach, and the first song I’d teach my students was the first part of Another One Bites the Dust. You can play a cool-sounding bassline from the start and you have more desire to play it, rather than scales or whatever.”

(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty)

Feel before technique

Feel before technique, in other words - but when you have talent too, you’ve got an incendiary brew of ingredients if you want to fire up the funk. Nielsen’s first bass references, she says, were Marcus Miller and Mark King. Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins and later Victor Wooten then came into her orbit as a student of her instrument. She also namechecks Jaco Pastorius, Steve Bailey and countless others.

“I’m always worried I’ll miss someone out,” she laughs. “But all these guys have been a huge inspiration to me. When somebody has their own sound I love it. The thing about playing bass is that the fun is about playing with other people. To me it’s all about the groove.”

One of my friends had asked me what I wanted to do with my career - and I said, ‘The biggest thing would be to play with Prince’

Nielsen spent most of the 90s studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, before joining a number of bands in and out of college as she made her first forays into the wider world of gigging.

“I had an electronic band at one point. I played bass live and keys in the studio,” she continues. “Then I toured with [pop act] Michael Learns To Rock as hired player, and with a Belgian-African band called Zap Mama. I didn’t really know much of the African stuff, and it was funky in a way I wasn’t used to, but I learned a whole lot and we went all over Europe.”

Come the mid- to late 2000s, and Nielsen wanted to create her own music. Her funk instincts led her to create a groove-laden album, Marmalade, in 2013. “I just wanted to make a funk album,” she says. “I did it for me. And then a lot of good stuff happened!”

This is an understatement, as you will notice. After the album release, Nielsen decided to move to Copenhagen to cut back on her teaching hours and spend more time concentrating on her own music.

“After doing that for three months, I got the call from Prince,” she explains. The mercurial Minneapolis musician had, she explains, discovered her courtesy of a small club gig which had been filmed and posted to MySpace.

“He wanted to jam with me,” she continues. “It was weird because one of my friends had asked me, when I made that move to Copenhagen, what I wanted to do with my career - and I said, ‘The biggest thing would be to play with Prince’. It was so crazy for me; literally a dream come true.”

Initial sessions took place at Paisley Park, she remembers. As auditions go, it was both unusual and almost unbelievably straight to the point. Anybody would be nervous in this situation, and Nielsen was no exception, but Prince put her immediately at ease by asking about her basses.

“He was really, really nice,” she recalls. “When I got there it was just Prince, his drummer John Blackwell Jr. and me. We were in Studio A, just jamming. Prince started to play something with a really weird bass-line, to see if I could catch it. We jammed for about 20 minutes and he said, ‘Right, we’re going on tour.’ It was crazy!

“I was there for three days; we went to the soundstage to really jam properly. Then he gave me some music and I went and learned it in the hotel room. He said, ‘Call me back when you’ve learned that show,’ which is what I did.”

(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty)

3rd time lucky

Rehearsals followed before a European tour in the autumn of 2010. The hard work was only just starting, of course.

“Everybody played so brilliantly. I definitely felt like ‘the little girl from Denmark’. If you ever went to a Prince show, you know we never played the same set, so I had to learn a whole bunch of other songs so he could switch when he wanted to. Also, we’d play different songs in the aftershows we did. Then we toured for the whole of 2011. It was really, really crazy.”

You can hear when a band is well-rehearsed. It’s not really about their skill as musicians

A second solo album, Sometimes A Girl Needs Sugar Too, came out in 2011, which had largely been written pre-Prince. It was released and then the new project began. 3rdeyegirl officially began with December 2012 rehearsals. Nielsen, who was joined in the new band by guitarist Donna Grantis and drummer Hannah Welton, recalls:

“We didn’t know that he was going to make us into a band! After Christmas we rehearsed every day, did video shoots - we had so much fun. It was more rock than what I’d been playing with NPG. We didn’t know we were 3rdeyegirl until it was announced! Then we went on a really long club tour, after which that band was just slamming.”

Prince’s 2014 album Plectrumelectrum is testament to just how much of another understatement she’s made there. Playing both with the NPG and 3rdeyegirl kicked things up to another level when it came to Nielsen’s already-stunning mastery of her instrument.

“You tend to cut on rehearsals when you’re constantly gigging,” she says. “When you just have to show up and learn material, it’s a luxury because you get so good at it. You can hear when a band is well-rehearsed. It’s not really about their skill as musicians. You get to know each other so well; if you can get on the same level that’s when it starts to get really beautiful. It’s like when you’re really young and you start playing in bands; you rehearse all the time, and that’s when you really get a lot better.”

Nielsen has a new album in the offing, with tour dates in Europe from March onwards, either with her full band or as a quartet. Festivals then beckon; 2018 looks like another busy year for a musician continuing to push the envelope. Don’t miss out on the chance to see her play live, not least because her signature Sandberg California bass, coupled with TC Electronic pedals and amps, creates tones to die for.

“My music isn’t mainstream in any way; it’s not getting airplay, but I’m happy to discover that people still want to hear funk music live,” she says with conviction. “I also realise that there’s a lot of Prince fans out there that want to support me. I really appreciate that - and I really appreciate that they still love the funk. It’s all beautiful.”

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