When talking to keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin about their experiences working with mercurial funk-rock God Prince, the stories are seemingly endless. So much so, that we couldn’t fit the bulk of the duo’s interview into our 51 Best Albums That Never Were package, which highlighted Prince’s now mythical 1986 unreleased project Dream Factory (Paisley Park). These days Wendy and Lisa—the most celebrated members of the Purple One’s classic ‘80s backing band The Revolution—are still making uncompromising music with the release of the latest album White Flags of Winter Chimneys (wendyandlisa.com).
As for Prince, the 50-year-old music icon is as prolific as ever. The superstar is releasing a three-disc CD set, LOtUSFLOW3R, MPLSoUND and third album from protégé Bria Valente through an exclusive deal with retail chain Target on March 29. So what’s it like recording with a prodigious talent who can write a song as easy as “brushing his teeth” as Coleman muses? Read on.
VIBE.com: The Dream Factory album remains one of Prince's most coveted unreleased works. What do you recall about the start of the studio sessions?
Wendy: When we were working on it, it wasn’t called the Dream Factory. It wasn’t that record. The time between Parade and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times was an incredibly prolific time for me, Lisa and Prince together. There were so many songs that didn’t end up on any records that later ended up on Sign O’ The Times. At that time I remember Susannah, my sister, was doing a lot of vocals on that record.
Lisa: There also another record that people refer to called “Crystal Ball”. But I remember doing songs that were 15 minutes long and all these different sections.
Wendy: There was also “Roadhouse Garden “which was unreleased as part of that as well.
Lisa: We were traveling and working everyday.
Prince's songwriting prowess has now become legendary. What was it like to work when an artist who could write a song and record it in one day?
Lisa: Prince, he can write a song a day. I remember that whole time as being so creative. We were really exploring a lot of things. It was buying new gear.
Wendy: Lisa and I bought the Fairlight [sampling synthesizer] into the situation.
Lisa: The Fairlight was just inspiration for a writer like Prince – for all of us. There were flute sounds, wind sounds, voice samples, hand clap sounds. We would just build these songs around it.
"All My Dreams” is arguably the highlight of Dream Factory. You can hear
influences from jazz to 1930's Hollywood musicals within the framework of that track. This was a pretty ambitious track.
Wendy: It reminded me of classic Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Prince had this
cool sort of personality when he was singing it. One track he sang through a megaphone and the other track was a clean track and he mixed the two. And Lisa and I were doing these crazy background vocals.
Lisa: Prince would tell us when we would be doing background vocals, “Sing like you are Betty Davis.” If we weren’t in the studio we would watch old black and white films and that whole “Puttin’ On The Ritz” era.
It was during this time that the Revolution was on tour with Prince for the Hit & Run tour. How were you guys able to keep the frantic pace of touring and the marathon recording sessions Prince was known for?
Lisa: You know I got to say we were not doing drugs (laughs). If we had, it would
have been bad.
Wendy: I save my wine consumption for now, as an older dame.
"Visions" seemed to be a huge curve pitch for Prince. How did he approach you (Lisa) about creating a short avant-garde jazz piano instrumental?
Lisa: Prince had being thinking of ideas of doing piano interludes on a record. He
had just got a new grand piano in his house. His studio was downstairs in this basement. It was all improvisational. I played it once and that’s what that is. I haven’t played it since. We were just testing out the set up. Susan Rogers recorded it and miked the piano. He didn’t even have any inputs that day. We were just running a cable from upstairs (laughs). We were just testing out the gear. Prince wasn’t there. He just asked us to do some thing. He said, “Make them two and half minute pieces.” So I recorded a few and that’s what “Visions” is.
Then there's “Witness 4 The Prosecution." There's a very hard rocking vibe to that track, but Prince being Prince also decided to add a gospel feel to it.
Lisa: That was good stuff. That was a moment when we were all in a room and Prince pressed play and just said, “Do you like it?” [laughs] I do remember being in the room singing those background vocals and getting up really high, trying to work that vibrato. [laughs]
Can you shed light into the track “Strange Relationship," a song Prince had recorded and given to you to finish?
Wendy: We got a master tape that had Prince’s vocals, piano and drums. He said,
“Take it and finish it.” So Lisa and I went back to Los Angeles and created the other parts to it. The sitar sound came from a sample from the Fairlight.
How did you feel when you heard "Strange Relationship" on Prince's landmark '87 work Sign O’ The Times, stripped of you and Lisa's contributions?
Wendy: Jealous that our name was not on it and that he took us off.
Your relationship with Prince seemed to be the closest out of anyone from '84 to '86. What do you feel was Prince's motive for letting you and Lisa go and disbanding the Revolution?
Wendy: That was the relationship he, me, and Lisa had. It became this triumvirate, a three-headed monster. And that was the main reason why he let us go. He wanted to express himself completely. We were doing so much work. That’s the way I rationalize it now. Prince may have other reasons why he let us go. He’s never really talked about that. But we were led to believe that he needed to get back his mojo.
Lisa: That was hard. After getting fired I remember two things: The morning I was blow-drying my hair thinking, “Did we just get fired?” [laughs] And then when Sign O’ The Times came out. We listened to it like, “Oh wow...we are gone.” It was like a breakup and seeing your boyfriend with another girl.
Looking back, what comes to mind thinking about your time with Prince during one of his most productive periods?
Wendy: That was a creative time for Lisa and I as well. We wanted to show Prince things he had never heard before. And we are very proud of that.
Your current album White Flags of Winter Chimneys features some of the same left field, quirky, experimental hallmarks that can be found on the Dream Factory. Are we going to see a Wendy & Lisa tour anytime soon?
Lisa: We are looking into that now. Even back when we had a big record deal it was
like, “We don’t have enough money to put you in a room.” We might be in New York in the summertime so we might set up a residency.
Wendy: What would ultimately be cool because we work with so many great musicians, we have this band called Edith Funker with Questlove, Erykah badu, Doyal Bram Hall, James Poyser and Jazzy Jeff. We cut songs and we are trying to finish a record. Quest has been out on the road for about a year now and Erykah has been out for a year, but what could be great is if we could all go out as this revue. That’s my goal.