the AU interview: Donna Grantis of 3rdEyeGirl (Minneapolis) chats about working with Prince

Prince has just released two albums, a solo record and one with a live band called 3rdEyeGirl. Guitarist Donna Grantis chats to John Goodridge about how the band came together and what it was like working with Prince.

Congratulations on the release of your album Plectrum Electrum. Did you expect such a good response?

Thank you. We were all hoping for a great response. I mean we’re all really in love with the music and we were hoping that it would make other people feel the way that we feel when we listen to it.

So how did the group 3rdEyeGirl come together?

Well Prince found Ida Nielson, the bass player, on Myspace back in 2010, so she’s been playing with him the longest. She was invited to Paisley Park to audition and she had to learn over a hundred songs really quickly. She started playing with The New Power Generation and then in the summer of 2012, Hannah was invited out after Prince had discovered her on Youtube. He then asked Hannah to find a guitarist and she found my videos on-line and forwarded my website to Prince and in November of 2012, I was invited out to Paisley Park to jam. I had a one-way ticket to Minneapolis to do some playing and it just really clicked, the chemistry was there.

It’s kinda funny because we were jamming and playing six days a week, all day, all night for quite a few months, but we didn’t realise we were 3rdEyeGirl until we played on the Jimmy Fallon Show. I mean we didn’t know if 3rdEyeGirl was Prince, was us, if it was referring to the fans or a piece of art, but once we played Jimmy Fallon and we played “Bambi” and “Screwdriver” and he was like “Ladies and Gentlemen, 3rdEyeGirl!” and then when we got off stage and we were like “ah ok that’s our name.”

How did it feel when you first got the call?

Oh it was the opportunity of a lifetime, for sure. I mean I dreamed of playing with Prince and then when I got the call I wasn’t sure if it was real. They sent an email asking if I’d be interested in coming to Paisley Park to jam with Prince and the band, so I didn’t know what to make of that at first if it was real or not, but it turned into a phone call, which turned into a short list of songs to learn and by the weekend had a flight booked to Minneapolis.

So you girls never met before starting 3rdEyeGirl?

No, that was the first time we met.

How long did it take to gel as a group?

I think right from the first time we jammed there was a really great chemistry. It felt really special and easy to lock in with everybody. Having the luxury of being able to play with the same musicians for hours upon hours a day for months, I mean we’re just getting better and better, especially with all the touring that we’ve done. Every show is better than the last.

What can you tell us about your musical background?

I started off playing guitar as a teenager. I was really into rock and blues and then I studied jazz at university. I was a session musician in Toronto, playing in a ton of bands, doing a lot of touring and I was leading my instrumental jazz fusion trio as well as doing studio work and recording in the city.

Do you have a favourite guitar?

I do have a favourite guitar, yes. It’s purple, no coincidence. It was my first real guitar I had since I was a teenager and it’s a Paul Reed Smith CE22 and that’s my main axe and I used that to record the whole album actually.

I always find it interesting that guitarists seem to have a relationship with their guitar. Guitarists keep them for years and years and love them. Is that how you feel?

Oh absolutely! I’ve been playing that guitar for years and the back of the neck is so worn out just from all the hours I’ve spent on it. It’s true, it’s kind of like a best friend in a way.

I really like the cover art on Plectrum Electrum. How involved did you get in that? Was it Prince or someone external?

It was all of us. We were working with a friend, a great photographer called Madison Dubé and we’d done a great photoshoot at Paisley Park of the girls and I and we were working with an artist from Minneapolis called Jesse Dressler and he does a lot of experimental avant-garde pieces. We were all brainstorming as a band, what is Plectrum Electrum and what do we think of and that’s the image that really came to mind. So the idea that all four of us are on there; you can see Prince’s face coming through Hannah’s body. We all worked together, Madison and Jesse and as soon as we saw that we all loved it and it felt like that’s the one.

It is a really striking image. Where did the name Plectrum Electrum come from?

Ooooh. It’s a sound that I originally wrote and Prince rearranged, and once he rearranged it he gave it the new title Plectrum Electrum. My original version was called the Elektra. Plectrum Electrum is one of those interesting words that doesn’t have a very obvious meaning, but I think that’s really cool, especially when it’s paired with music, particularly an instrumental song that’s really open to a lot of interpretation. Plectrum Electrum is always evolving and changing and it can mean many things to many people.

When I think of Prince I always think of the image of Prince. It must have been very exciting working with him and the whole concept.

Definitely! His artist vision goes beyond the music and he takes control in all areas of his artistry. When it comes to photos, videos, lighting, stage setup, sound, everything, he plays a huge role in making decisions.

So did you ever have arguments with him?

No. I think we’re all really on the same page and we’re all working toward the same goal, which is making amazing music, and trying to go beyond our potential as musicians. I think that really unites us as a common goal we’re all working toward. We’re all in agreement.

I’ve seen some imagery of the live shows and they look amazing and they were really well received. How did it feel to be up on stage doing the live shows?

It feels amazing. The really special thing about playing live is feeding off the energy of the audience. It was really cool during the Hit and Run tour we did of London and Europe, we were playing in really small clubs that would hold 400 to 4000 people and in venues that size you can really feed off the energy of the audience. You can see everyone’s faces, go right up to the end of the stage and look into everyone’s eyes. It’s a real trip.

On the album, I think my favourite song would be “Whitecaps”, which is a really cruisy song, but I guess what really struck me was the variation in the music. You’ve got “Stop this train”, which has a real reggae feel and then “Marz” is more rock and roll. Where did the different influences come from?

We’re definitely an eclectic bunch; Ida is heavily influenced by funk, Hannah is into classic rock and I really love rock and jazz. The cool thing about this record is that Prince wrote all these songs specifically for this band and specifically for the girls and I, so there was a lot of room for us to put our personalities into the music. The thing that’s so cool is that Prince is so amazing at playing all styles of music, blues, rock, R&B, everything. So he pushes us and brings to the table songs that cover all of those styles. We all had jazz backgrounds, we’ve all studied jazz and we know how to improvise. He would bring in grooves and we would just jam on them and it was just part of our day-to-day. He’d teach us a song and ten minutes later we’d be recording it.

It must have been an exciting way of recording, having that improvisation involved.

Yeah, big time. The thing that was especially cool is that we were all in one big room, everything was recorded analogue to tape, so we had to really nail the take collectively as a band. If one person made a mistake, we all made a mistake. The cool thing about that is that it’s real and live, you know. We didn’t record to a click and we didn’t play our parts one at a time, so what you hear on the record is representative of what the band sounds like for the live show.

Personally I prefer the thinking behind that. I know that some bands prefer to overproduce but I really like the idea that it’s from the heart.

Yeah me too.

Prince released a solo album at the same time, Art Official Age. That’s obviously unusual for an artist to do that. Do you think that was a gamble he took or is it part of his overall thinking and strategy?

I think Prince is always thinking outside of the box. Being able to release two albums that are such distinct bodies of work, a live band rock album compared to a solo R&B funk album, his musical genius is so amazing. What I love so much about the feedback I’ve been hearing is that people are excited about both records. To expose music fans to different styles.

That’s one thing that got me is that they are quite different records. They both stand alone. What can you tell us about the listening party at Paisley Park?

That was really really cool. We had several listening parties throughout the summer. They would be announced at pretty short notice, a few hours beforehand and people got to come to Paisley Park and we sat in Studio B with about 15 or 20 people at a time while some of the music was played for them. We played songs from both albums and it was a really cool experience. I think even just the process of listening to the music with people and with friends in a candlelit room with music blasting through studio speakers was very special.

Again, I’m sure it happens, but it seems like one of those unique things that Prince has come up with and I would be totally blown away if I could go to something like that.

Well we gotta get you over to Minnesota!

That would be amazing! So what about next steps – where do you go from here with 3rdEyeGirl?

We’re constantly learning new music, working on new arrangements and we’re really excited to tour and a special announcement will be made when the tour dates are locked in.

Hopefully you can get down to Australia. That would be amazing.

I hope so!


PLECTRUMELECTRUM is out now through Warner Music Australia.