Princess: We've been obsessed with Prince for over 30 years
Photo by Piper Ferguson
College pals Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, the pair behind Prince tribute act Princess, make for the perfect combination of soulful spirit and high regard for the Purple One's ouvre and its musical legacy. Rudolph, who often showed off her singing voice as a Saturday Night Live cast member, and Lieberum, who has a well-established background as a jazz vocalist, have revived some forgotten Prince material.
Judging by performances with a band in Los Angeles and a few gigs with the Roots, most notably with their amazing version of "Darling Nikki" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, they've preserved the sensuality of the originals. Not only will Princess perform at a massive The Music of Prince tribute at Carnegie Hall in New York -- also featuring Elvis Costello, Talib Kweli, D'Angelo, among many others -- but the Twin Cities gets to see them Saturday at First Avenue for Revolution drummer Bobby Z's second Benefit 2 Celebrate Life.
Taking a break from rehearsals in New York, Princess spoke to Gimme Noise about their purple obsession. Still giddy college girls singing Prince songs with hairbrushes in the mirror at heart, the thought of performing on sacred ground -- at the home to all that is Purple Rain, First Avenue -- is something they still can't believe is happening.
Gimme Noise: We're so super excited about the show this weekend. You're rehearsing right now?
Gretchen Lieberum: Yeah, it's always feels good to be in that rehearsal room. It's a very teeny tiny room with a bunch of people squished in it. A lot of music and a lot of love.
This is a rehearsal for the show in New York Thursday night? Who is in the band for that one?
GL: The Roots are the main act for this one and everyone else and their mom are performing at it. We live in L.A., so when we play there we have our own band. When we play out here in New York it's usually with the Roots. We've really only played with them a few times, on Fallon, at the Capitol, and at the Brooklyn Bowl.
Maya Rudolph: They are a New York band.
GL: They are. I wonder if they know that.
Are there people performing Thursday with you who you are really looking forward to performing with or seeing?
MR: We were just rehearsing some backups for some of the other people.
GL: Way excited about singing with D'Angelo, I'm not gonna lie. A really amazing song with Elvis Costello.
MR: Wendy Melvoin!
GL: We love Wendy!
Have you met Wendy and Lisa before? They were amazing at last year's Revolution reunion here.
GL: I've met Wendy but not Lisa yet. Maya has.
MR: Gretchen isn't ready yet.
GL: I'm not quite ready.
MR: She's gonna pop, she'll be so excited she'll explode.
So has Prince been invited to this event? Is it something he has he made an effort to say he will be there?
GL: I don't think you ever know 100 percent.
MR: As far as we know, he hasn't called us personally or anything to say he was going to be there. But I guess I am waiting for the his call.
So knowing about Prince, he is kind of infamous for controlling his music. Was it anything you needed to get permission to do these shows as Princess?
MR: No, not at all. In fact he has actually been really supportive of what we've done so far.
GL: We just heard recently that he actually is a fan, which thrilled us to no end to hear!
MR: I think what I always hoped was that he would recognize that our mission with this is purely done out of love. So I feel like he got the memo on that. I think as long as we are sending that message I don't think there is anything to worry about except for the music itself. I heard he saw our performance on Fallon and really liked that. That was really incredible to hear. I don't think I've processed that emotionally yet!
GL: We heard that when we sang the backwards part of "Darling Nikki" he was impressed by that. Apparently he listened to it a bunch of times which is kinda my fantasy come true. Mission accomplished!
That's one thing I noticed as well how you nailed the backwards masking, singing part. Did that take a bit of effort to figure out?
GL: Maya and I have been obsessed with Prince for over 30 years. By the time we met in college 20 years ago we had both listened to that song so many times we had both memorized the harmonies.
MR: That was really like one of the only things we didn't need to work on.
GL: We both just knew it so well so were just going to do it. I have a more soprano voice than Maya so I tend to sing higher harmonies.
MR: I have more of a manly voice.
GL: So she tends to sing the lower harmony. We love harmonizing on all sorts of music together so we just jumped into it and we both knew it from listening to it so many times.
MR: It was kind of like a parlor trick that we did for each other just for fun.
GL: Before we had even formed the band we had been doing that forever for a good time.
MR: Ha ha, yeah, that's how we have a good time. I wonder what other people do on a Friday night?
Yeah, wow. You guys really know how to party! So are you guys splitting vocals in terms of your different ranges or do you like to kind of embody different characters with the songs that lend themselves to having one of you sing one or the other doing more backup? How does that play out?
GL: We're mostly doing co-leads. Sometimes we are in unison but we love harmonizing. With "The Beautiful Ones" we each do a little solo taking turns but usually it's co-leads.
What about how Prince had that alter-ego, Camille, that had that really high female voice? You know what I'm talking about?
MR: Of course, I'm well aware of Camille.
Does anyone take Camille's leads?
GL: Most of the stuff we do, I don't think Camille was on the scene in the '80s yet.
MR: When we first started the group in Los Angeles I felt like it had a punkier vibe, more the Dirty Mind, Controversy era and that lead itself to a different instrumentation. Obviously there were falsettos, but the Camille stuff came later. As we work our way through the catalog we may get deeper and deeper into different eras. But it also requires a different instrumentation so there are so many different ways we can go. We've tried different songs with the Roots out here than we play with our band in L.A. because it's a different sound.
GL: We do "Sister" with our L.A. band and a demo version of "Tick Tick Bang" which is very punky, which comes in with just synth and a bass line. With the Roots we do "Irresistable Bitch" which we didn't do with the guys in L.A.
MR: We ended up doing "17 Days" with the guys out here which has been sounding really nice.
So looking forward to the show here this Saturday with Bobby Z. and the band he has put together, that's like everything coming together full circle. Has to be really mind-blowing to play on that stage and play the same songs that inspired you in college.
GL: Yeah, it's insane! We both haven't quite processed what's happening.
MR: Again, the emotional process has not begun! It's really unbelievable. We have been in touch with Bobby for this whole experience and he is such a little angel. He is so fantastic. We've been touched by an angel!
GL: He keeps thanking us profusely and we are like, "What are you talking about?! THANK YOU!"
MR: It's like we can't even believe we are allowed to perform in that room.
There was just so much love in that room last year. The spirit was so heavy and with Bobby's recovery in the last few years from heart surgery it was really great. Now that it's somewhat a tradition and having you guys along brings it to a whole other level too. Is there anything you are doing at this show that you haven't done with the Roots or your own band?
GL: We tend to shy away from the hits. We kind of pride ourselves on doing the ones that people know but maybe not the absolute biggest hits. We like to do some weird b-sides and maybe songs nobody will even know. Well, I'm sure at First Avenue everyone will know everything. In L.A. not everybody even knows that many Prince songs and we end up surprising them. That said, I think this time we might be doing "1999" which we've never even done.
MR: I know there was some requests. We used to do "Dirty Mind" but then dropped it but have to do it there since the good Doctor Fink is going to be playing with us!
GL: Yeah, since he co-wrote it. Again, Bobby asked us, "Would it be okay If we played it?" And we were just like, "UH HUH"!!
So Maya, I know you are pregnant again, so will Princess be on the back burner for a while with that or is this something you are planning on doing for a while?
GL: Yeah, Maya and I have been singing these songs for 20 years. Now people are enjoying what were doing and we are just kind of taking it as it comes, which is great.
What are your memories of the Twin Cities from filming A Prairie Home Companion here?
MR: Yeah, I was there. I actually drove over to Minneapolis and just parked the car outside of First Avenue in the middle of the daytime. There was no show going on so I didn't go inside but I just wanted to see it. We want to know what the weather is going to be like, how cold is there right now anyway?
There actually was a snow storm today but I suppose this weekend it could be in the 20s or something. Not freezing really.
GL: That won't stop anyone from coming to the show will it? In L.A., the city would shut down if there was any snow.
Music always fuels us through the long winters. Last year was such a party. The weather will not stop anyone. Ask Questlove, he was there!
MR: He has given us much advice. We love him, he's like our kindred Prince spirit. Really, he's our brother from another mother.
Princess will perform with Questlove, Bobby Z. and Friends, Nicholas David, and many more at the 2nd Annual Benefit 2 Celebrate Life! Concert Saturday, March 9. 7pm 18+ $65
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