Donna Grantis was already an accomplished jazz and rock guitarist in Toronto when Prince invited her to Paisley Park in November 2012.
A jam session with Prince, drummer Hannah Welton, and bassist Ida Nielson turned out to be an audition for a new stripped-down rock band. Grantis passed that audition, and, as a member of 3rdEyeGirl, she traded molten guitar leads with the band leader and co-wrote the title track for the group’s sole album, Plectrumelectrum.
After a period of reflection, Grantis decided to remain in Minneapolis, and in true Prince fashion, she’s scouted out some top-flight local musicians for her own project. The group Grantis will debut live at the Dakota Jazz Club Friday includes keyboardist Bryan Nichols, drummer JT Bates, bassist Cody McKinney, and tabla player Suphala.
We spoke with Grantis by phone while she was on her way to rehearsal about her new band's electric Miles Davis-inspired sound, the many lessons Prince taught her, and whether 3rdEyeGirl really needed to perform with three bass drums.
City Pages: I was surprised you have stuck around town. It must’ve been a big decision.
Donna Grantis: Yeah, it was definitely a big decision. Last summer I thought I’d maybe end up in L.A. or New York. But my partner and I decided to move to Minneapolis.
CP: How did you become familiar with some of the musicians in town?
DG: Last October for a couple of months I was looking around for band members. I went to Icehouse and First Avenue pretty regularly. I checked out different players online and went to see different bands in person. When it comes to Bryan, JT, Cody, and Suphala, those musicians totally fit the vibe and direction of the new project.
CP: Totally. I mean if electric era Miles Davis is the inspiration for this new band, those people are the perfect choices.
DG: Oh yeah, for sure. The new project is an extension of my electric band that I had prior to 2012. But now it’s informed, of course, by the experiences I had from the past four years. Everything that I learned from Prince—from performing live and in-studio with him, recording Plectrumelectrum and other music at Paisley Park. So I’ve been taking all the things I learned and applying it to this. I’d been really only recently introduced to that ‘70s era Miles by Prince.
CP: I’m trying to imagine hanging out and listening to Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson with Prince, that sounds amazing. How did he turn you onto that stuff?
DG: Well before most 3rdEyeGirl shows, whether we were playing in an arena or a rock club, he’d put on the song “Recollections” from Big Fun and it would really set the tone or the mood for the audience. When I first heard the whole album it really opened the door to Jack Johnson and albums like On the Corner, a whole new world for me. I think that, essentially, there is jazz structure there but at the same time the attitude behind it is rock ‘n’ roll. It really blends a major set of influences.
When it comes to rock guitar, it’s really near and dear to my heart. And of course Prince is, like, the best guitarist—best at everything really. With 3rdEyeGirl we would improvise a ton. I love the mindset of getting into that zone when you really don’t know what is going to happen. With this, it’s an extension of that, lots of open sections and we’re really just listening to each other and see what happens.
CP: And having seen JT play many times, he’s a really good guy to have for that.
DG: He’s an amazing drummer. I saw JT play with Alpha Consumer at First Avenue and at the Jazz Implosion at the Icehouse. Someone described his playing to me like John Bonham meets Bill Stewart or a Tony Williams. Suphala is from Minneapolis originally but she lives in Brooklyn right now. Again as an extension of those Miles records, where he incorporated some traditional Indian instruments, I wanted that element, and tablas aren’t an instrument you might normally hear mixed into a jazz-rock context nowadays. So I thought it’d be super cool to include that.
CP: Since Miles is the big inspiration do you think you might add a trumpet player or other instruments with this band?
DG: Definitely down the road. I see this as a band where, depending on what city we might play in, having special guests on trumpet, saxophone, maybe vocals from time to time.
CP: I saw the Revolution at First Avenue last week and watching Wendy nail some of those leads was, first of all, very heartwarming, but also made me think about the precision that he had and the direction he had for others. He really played the band like an instrument. I think with 3rdEyeGirl he really cut loose a little more those last few years with your band.
DG: He was a master band leader. The really cool thing about 3rdEyeGirl was that since we were such a small unit there was room for a ton of improv on the spot. Every night any song could go differently. He could throw a solo anybody’s way—guitar, bass, and drums. I think that was what was exciting, not only for us but also the audience. The audience could pick up on that feeling. There was such a sense of urgency on stage—we had to really keep our eyes on him like a hawk. Anything could happen at any time.
I played “Purple Rain” with him and the girls during my audition—which I didn’t know was an audition, but was the initial jam session in November of 2012—and after that Prince always played the solo, whether it was on guitar or piano. Four years later when we were playing in my hometown, Toronto, and right before the guitar solo at the end of the last chorus he pointed his finger at me, which meant I had to take the solo. It was that kind of element of not really knowing what was going to happen or what to expect but really be ready for anything at any moment.
CP: I mean this in the best way, but I think Prince could really be kind of a little bit of a twerp—in terms of putting you on the spot, I think he had a lot of fun with people sometimes maybe at their expense, but really kind of pushing you off a cliff. Is that what it felt like?
DG: Oh, 100 percent! But you know, it’s sink or swim, right? I mean, what are you going to do? You’re on stage and it’s your turn to play, you can’t even think about it for a split second. You just dive in and go for it. He definitely had a way of bringing the best out of everybody. On stage, calling people out to play solos, or even compositionally to tunes he was writing to highlight everybody’s talents arrangement-wise. Every group he had, from all the different versions of NPG or the Revolution or 3rdEyeGirl, each band’s arrangement of songs was very different. He always highlighted the skills and talents of the musicians he played with at the time.
CP: Do you think there’s a chance you and 3rdeyegirl would eventually play together again?
DG: I think it’s always a possibility but I think right now everybody is pursuing their own thing. Ida recently put out an album and is touring a ton over in Europe and Hong Kong. Hannah and Joshua put out a single called “Woman’s Intuition.” For me it’s leading up to Friday’s performance and just getting started with my new project. We’re definitely really close friends and have a real musical bond and chemistry.
CP: What do you think was Prince’s obsession with asymmetry? He had the armband with fringes on one side, or his coat jacket would have one side longer than the other. Of course, there was your hairstyle as well. He visually seemed to like those off-kilter, asymmetrical looks and I think it visually complemented the nature of the music. Did he ever talk about whether that was what he was going for, or is that just how he rolled?
DG: That’s a really good observation that I never really thought much of. But I can definitely speak to the artistic vision how it went beyond music. All things—fashion, jewelry, production, stage lighting, graphic design, artwork—everything you could imagine. He had a vision and really always tried to see through it throughout all those areas.
CP: Totally, nothing was happenstance. Every inch of the stage, every note, every sound.I mean there was no reason Hannah needed three bass drums on stage, it just looked cool, right?
DG: Well, Hannah definitely used two of them. I think three was to be intimidating.
CP: There was a spiritual element to the threes and the uneven things in his life. I am always fascinated with that and see how it came together.
DG: I also think it was all part of the mystery too.
Where: Dakota Jazz Club
When: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Fri. Aug. 4
Tickets: All ages; $40/$45/$55; more info here