The West Australian
Tapes of songs the music legend wrote for others are the latest of his old work to be unearthed, writes Cameron Adams
Michael Howe’s full-time job is to sift through the hours and hours of unheard music Prince left behind in his vault.
That vault has been relocated from Paisley Park to a data-recovery centre in Los Angeles, where Prince’s cassettes are being digitised using modern technology.
Howe has signed “a tremendous amount” of non-disclosure agreements, which means he can’t be specific about the amount of music in the vault, any particular items in the vault or any plans beyond the family’s tentative plan of an album a year of unheard material.
“I’m working harder now than I did as a full-time A&R guy, which I was for 20 years,” Howe says. “But I can’t imagine that there’s a more varied and voluminous vault of material in the world or one with this much cultural currency. To dive into it every day is a privilege.
“What we’re doing is a multi-year process. There’s so much stuff. Some of the tapes are only partially labelled or misspelled. We have to listen to them in real time. We have to make sure the tape is not damaged, it’s very time consuming. We’ve tried to be chronological about doing the archival process the way the Library of Congress might do it.”
After last year’s Piano & a Microphone, a recording of Prince rehearsing from 1983, the latest release is Originals.
It features Prince’s original versions of songs he wrote for other artists — from global hits Manic Monday, Nothing Compares 2U, The Glamorous Life, Jungle Love and Love … Thy Will Be Done, to fan-pleasing obscurities recorded by everyone from Kenny Rogers to Jill Jones.
Many of Prince’s original versions sound identical to the versions released by other people. “It’s hard to imagine someone else improving them,” Howe says. “Often he’d assume the persona of the person who will eventually deliver the track to the public. And these are guide vocals to literally guide the other artists. Even his guide vocals are by a magnitude better than many people’s very
best work. The guy was just astonishingly good, more creatively evolved than anyone I’ve worked with, or can point to.”
You’re My Love, later recorded by Rogers in 1986, was first recorded by Prince in 1982 under the pseudonym Joey Coco — many of the songs on Originals are under fake names or Prince generously gave full writing credits to the artist who recorded them.
“That’s one that had not emerged in the collector community,” Howe says of You’re My Love.
“It’s a side of Prince not a lot of people had heard, it’s full-on Holiday Inn lounge vibe, it’s not Prince the arena-stomping rocker.”
Howe is aware that Prince is one of the most bootlegged artists in history — from all his live concerts to unreleased songs that escaped from tapes the musician would share with friends.
“When contemplating things for release we try to take in a number of factors, not the least of which is has any of this material circulated, can we offer a better version or a version with more integrity than what is currently floating around? Almost without exception, the answer is yes.” Howe is constantly asked whether Prince would have wanted his unreleased songs heard — he points to several interviews that suggested he knew that would happen and had deleted songs he never wanted heard or marked them “W” for weak.
“At the top of our checklist is ‘Would Prince approve of this, is it a high enough calibre to release?’ If there’s any doubt, we remove it from contention immediately. Preserving and promoting his legacy with the integrity he would demand and that the body of work deserves is priority number one.” Howe worked with the artist himself on the reissue of Purple Rain. While it was released in 2017, a year after the musician’s death, it had been in the works for years, with Prince finally signing off on a remastered version of the album in 2015, which was included in the reissue as well as unreleased songs. Diehard fans were disappointed with the lack of rare songs known to exist from the era. “It didn’t really take shape the way I envisaged. I’m glad something emerged,” Howe says. “I wish it had been a bit different.” There are still dozens of songs Prince wrote for other artists, such as Martika and Sheena Easton. “There is certainly enough material for volumes of Originals-type releases, and I suspect that whatever the consumers’ desire is . . . could or would be met at some point.” Fans are tipping 1982’s 1999 will be the next album to receive the reissue treatment, which Howe doesn’t confirm or deny. “I know people are awaiting that . . . all I can say is that the ability to release vastly expanded bodies of work in a much more comprehensive way than Purple Rain is being contemplated.”
‘What we’re doing is a multi-year process. There’s so much stuff.’
Prince Originals is out now.