Anyone wondering if there's still a "Minneapolis sound"—a line of continuity between the Time and Big Jess, Mint Condition and Lazerbeak—should hear the new album by Tyka Nelson, Prince's only full-blooded sibling. She has a better excuse than most for sounding like her brother, amid the icy funk of A Brand New Me (on London's Gospel Frontiers), but her allure goes beyond the uncanny resemblance she can't help. On "Touch from Heaven," a synth dirge among insinuating pop songs, Nelson's high overdubbed vocals sound like a small choir of herself, swirling over a computer-blue throb like a reverie above a daydreamer's aching head.
This is the Minneapolis sound, but haunted. And like Atmosphere's similarly '80s-struck disc from earlier this year, it's an album about addiction, which is only fitting for a music scene grown by Hazelden, the rehab center where Nelson went five years ago with the help of her brother, walking out sober and grateful to God.
"For a long time I didn't want to live," she says, speaking over water at the Perkins in Golden Valley one Sunday after church. A lovely woman two years Prince's junior, Tyka has large brown eyes and a gentle laugh, one she doesn't put her voice into.
"I'm very quiet," she says. "In the beginning, my brother would play the piano and I would sing, because that's what my mom and dad did. And then along the way somebody teased me for even thinking that I could get up there. That stayed with me, and I became very shy."
The last time many Prince fans were aware of Tyka Nelson, she was bringing a stuffed animal onstage, a dinosaur named Jazz who also accompanied her to interviews. Her 1988 debut on Chrysalis, Royal Blue, was well-reviewed, but the yoke of fear and self-doubt kept her from making the music her own, she says. (She dismisses a follow-up on CMC International for the same reason.) By contrast, Nelson performed and recorded A Brand New Me entirely herself, in her bedroom. She has also formed a live band, the Word, with musicians from her Faith Pentecostal church, and they will perform a CD-release show Friday at Bunker's. "Now I just have Jesus to hold onto," she says, remembering Jazz.
So where did her insecurity come from? She began writing songs when she was 10, and dedicates her CD to her late parents, John L. Nelson and Mattie D. Baker, both musicians. She's old enough to remember walking around north Minneapolis in the mid-'70s and hearing funk bands in many of the garages. Flyte Tyme practiced across the street from the house where her dance group rehearsed, and she remembers doing the pop-and-lock from Soul Train between Prince sets at the Nacirema and the Drake Hotel.
But where other kids in this highly influential milieu stayed away from drinking and drugs, Tyka took to smoking weed when she was 13.
"My world was different from theirs," she says. "I was the overweight kid who didn't have a boyfriend. I listened to other people say, 'You're ugly, you're fat, you're stupid,' and I believed it. My brother, he just thought I was crazy."
Around the time Prince got a record deal, his younger sister ran away from home. She arrived in Los Angeles with a knapsack full of lyrics, but didn't find success as a singing star. She wound up making a home of sorts with the 2,000-person-strong Bethany Apostolic Pentecostal Church, off Sunset Boulevard, and its powerhouse choir. Years later, after returning to Minneapolis, she looked back on her California days as among the happiest of her life. Something clicked, and soon she began dreaming the words and melodies of a gospel album. The songs on A Brand New Me came together over a period of many years.
Despite what you'd think on first listen, she and Prince haven't collaborated since they were young. She doesn't hear his influence in her music, instead hearing their parents in both of them. Tyka doesn't even know if her brother has heard the new album. But you can imagine he'll be proud.
TYKA NELSON AND THE WORD play a CD-release show with Arc Flash Hazard and Khemist on FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12, at BUNKER's; 612.338.8188