When Prince died April 21, the world lost a singular genius, an icon whose musical gifts were so preternatural it seemed like he would never actually die—that he would just sort of vanish whenever his mission here ended, his energy redistributing among the universe.
For Liv Warfield, though, Prince wasn't a starman fallen to earth, or a ball of light in human form, or even a larger-than-life pop star. He was practically a family member.
"Prince is my brother," she says while on a break from rehearsals for the BET Awards in Los Angeles, where she took park in Sheila E.'s blockbuster tribute Sunday to the man who was once also her boss. At a time when Warfield was considering giving up on her music career, the former Portland-based singer was recruited into the New Power Generation on the strength of a video of her crushing the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" at PDX Pop Now. Over the next eight years, Prince would become not just her employer but also her mentor, serving as executive producer on Warfield's 2014 solo album, The Unexpected. He held such a presence in her life that she's still struggling to process his absence. "I miss hearing his voice," she says. "I miss being able to call him."
But while Prince may be gone, the things Warfield learned from him—about being an artist, performer and person—are an inextricable part of who she is today. At this weekend's Waterfront Blues Festival, Warfield, along with other members of the NPG, leads a set subtitled "What Prince Taught Us." WW spoke to Warfield about some of those lessons.
WW: Before Prince discovered you, how did you discover Prince?
Liv Warfield: The first time I heard Prince's music, I think I was in eighth grade. My aunt would be in the car, listening to his music. I would hear bits and pieces. They wouldn't play the nasty stuff for me. I grew up in the church, but I would hear "Kiss" and "1999." But in high school, I was really searching him out.
What did you think when you eventually heard the explicit stuff?
I feel like he was fearless. He had no limits, and he did what he wanted. He was true to himself. How many artists can truly say that? He followed his own path. So I think that was the cool part about it. A lot of artists can't dive into that and trust it. He trusted every last one of his steps.
What do you remember about the first time you met him?
I met him at Paisley [Park]. The first time I met him, he opened his home to me. He said, "Are you hungry? Do you want to eat?" It wasn't like, "Get straight to it and go work and go sing." He wanted to get to know me first. He just made me feel like I was already part of something. And clearly, he did not have to. He was really sweet and humble. A beautiful man.
I remember my first rehearsals were crazy. The beauty about him is that he was patient with me. He took a chance on me. Honest to God, he was a teacher. He had the patience to teach me the steps. I'm going from a stage in my life where I'm used to singing in smaller nightclubs to singing in these arenas, which is crazy. It was just a blessing that he was patient. Because I didn't get it right the first time, I'll tell you that!
As you got to know him more, what surprised you the most?
He's funny. I'm so serious. He had a youthfulness about him. Anywhere he wanted to have a great time, we all had a great time. Sometimes you'd catch him riding his bicycle around Paisley—he was that kind of person. He had a freedom to him. And he had jokes for days.
Can you tell me about the day he passed away? How did you find out?
My best friend called me. I didn't think it was real. [Long pause.] I thought it was a lie. I got a whole bunch of texts from friends, and I couldn't understand it. I was at home, and it didn't hit me until honestly a week and a half later. I don't think people understand the magnitude of his energy. As days have gone by, and people who were part of the NPG, and his family—I should say, the big Purple Family that we'd been brought into his world—we've been dealing with it by telling each other stories, to get each other through. We laugh, we cry. Because we know his energy is very much still there and very much around. He just had a crazy, crazy light that way. It's unhuman-like. And you see, the world stopped. You look for signs, and those signs were everywhere. Now, I think I'm starting to be OK and get through it.
What was your last conversation or interaction with him?
The last time I was with him was New Year's Eve, and that was beautiful. It was beautiful to spend time with him and just see his face. A couple weeks before he passed, he sent me music to listen to, new artists, like he always does.
Were you aware that he'd been struggling with addiction?
Absolutely not. It's always been about music. It will always be about the music with him.
You're calling this upcoming Blues Festival show "What Prince Taught Us." What are the biggest lessons you took from him?
It's so easy to say [it was] about being fearless, but that's what I'm trying to do—to follow who I am as an artist and not second-guess it, and put your best foot forward. Be authentic and compassionate with the people and give back. Show love and show respect for the ones who came before us musically. And try to push the limits if you can.
In what ways did knowing Prince change you?
My eyes are open now. He made me aware of life more. He made me aware of my surroundings in the universe more. He just opened me up to have a different understanding, and see life through a different perspective. He taught me to look beyond and not stay on the surface. Peel back the layers sometimes. You might not like what you find, but you might be able to change it.
Five Other Reasons to Pay For the Waterfront Blues Festival This Year
Lloyd Allen (Friday, noon)
A true legend of the Portland blues scene, Lloyd Allen honed his guitar chops and sense of showmanship at long-forgotten local clubs stretching back to the '50s. Seeing him here, at the most un-blues-like of hours, should satisfy as a teaser, but for the full experience, catch him on a Saturday night at the Blue Diamond, where he wanders between tables, flirting with ladies, and sometimes goes straight out the front door to woo passersby on the street.
Los Straitjackets (Friday, 6 pm)
Don't let the Mexican wrestling masks prejudice you. Since the late '80s, the Nashville fivesome has been one of the finest instrumental guitar combos in America, playing midcentury surfabilly with punky energy and playful reverence.
Femi Kuti & the Positive Force (Friday, 7:45 pm)
When Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti died in 1997, it was left to his many, many, many children to continue spreading his message and music across the globe. But his eldest son, Femi, is not content to simply carry the family torch. Updating his father's saxophone-drenched polyrhythms and political radicalism with touches of modern hip-hop, electronica and other African dance styles, he's not only keeping Afrobeat alive but helping it evolve.
Maceo Parker (Saturday, 7 pm)
The 73-year-old sax giant possesses perhaps the most well-traveled instrument in R&B, beginning his career alongside James Brown and going on to wail with everyone from Parliament-Funkadelic to Prince (and, uh, Dave Matthews Band).
Dr. John & the Nite Trippers (Sunday, 6:45 pm)
In the late 1960s, the former session musician, born Mac Rebennack, reinvented himself as a high-priest of New Orleans bayou funk with the spooky, uncategorizable Gris-Gris—an album that sounds like a field recording of a voodoo ceremony presided over by Wolfman Jack—and has since become a widely recognized ambassador for the blues and R&B traditions of his hometown.
SEE IT: Liv Warfield and the Special Hornz play the Waterfront Blues Festival at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Naito Parkway between Southwest Harrison and Northwest Glisan streets, on Sunday, July 3. 9 pm. $10 single-day ticket, $40 weekend pass. See waterfrontbluesfest.com for schedule. All ages.