In 2006, there was no brighter shining light in Portland's music scene than Liv Warfield. The R&B singer could bait audiences by laying smoky nu-soul vocal melodies over her band's understated grooves, then take them to church with searing, authentic vocal hysterics. She was a soulful, sexy and explosive performer with snowballing stage presence and an absolutely flooring voice. And then, after two years of relentless gigging behind her excellent debut disc, Embrace Me, Portland R&B's MVP took a day job and dropped out of the city's music scene.
Warfield doesn't talk about that job much. She's always on call, and her boss is kind of an eccentric. He's demanding: He makes her work long hours—sometimes she's on the clock until 4 in the morning, doing exhausting, physical work—and often keeps her away from her friends and new husband for weeks at a time. But Liv Warfield loves her work. And though this past year has been a challenge—she ruptured her Achilles tendon and underwent thyroid surgery—she's not about to give up on her job.
"I try not to make a big deal out of it," Warfield says over dinner at Queen of Sheba, the restaurant on Northeast MLK where the staff greets the singer like family. "And maybe not until answering these questions with you right now do I realize how special the whole experience has been."
See, Liv Warfield's boss is, arguably, pop music's greatest living icon. Her boss is Prince. "I remember the first time I came in for vocal rehearsal, and he was just like, 'You got something to write with? You got a notepad?'" She laughs. "He's an amazing man. I've learned a lot. It stepped my ear game up—my ears have gotten bigger."
Her calf muscles have probably gotten bigger, too, judging from Prince's Tacoma show last month, where the 32-year-old singer—dressed in a flowing sheer gown, skintight undergarments and platform shoes—rarely stopped smiling, dancing and belting out the hits over the course of the two-hour concert. Later, as they do in nearly every city, Prince and the New Power Generation played a two-hour after-party. "It can be exhausting," Warfield says of the parties that can go until 4 or 5 am. "I don't have [Prince's] stamina. Some of us are human."
One might assume that after three years of recording and touring the world with His Purple Majesty, Warfield would forget her Portland roots and relocate to New York or Los Angeles. But Warfield, who grew up in Peoria, Ill., before taking a track scholarship at Portland State University in 1999, says she works hard to keep her ego in check. "I have to make sure this doesn't change me one bit. I don't want it to change me. And I've seen it affect some people," she says, rolling her eyes (but refusing to name names). "This is home. I'm not trying to take any drama back here."
When asked for her influences, Warfield is quick to name a laundry list of local scene staples—from Doo Doo Funk All-Star Tony Ozier to the late Barry Hampton to old-school singers like Linda Hornbuckle and LaRhonda Steele—who helped transform the young college dropout from a nervous singer in karaoke bars to the cool, confident performer she is today. If she harbors any regrets about the past few years, it's that she's been absent from a blossoming soul music scene that she helped ignite. But now back with many of her old band members—dubbed "The Liv Warfield Experience," the group will also feature Prince keyboardist Cassandra O'Neal—Warfield says she's never been happier to be in Portland. "When we get together, it just sounds like home," she says of her band.
"I don't even know how this year is going to be," Warfield adds. "I know it's going to be dope. I know I'm going to try to get out the box—to get a little more gutsy." And then Warfield smiles devilishly and drops a New Year's prediction that suggests playing alongside Prince has changed her after all: "Maybe I'll even let out one of those screams that he does."