He sorted through hundreds of lyric sheets, listened to thousands of songs, watched countless concert and rehearsal videos. And it is far from finished.
As the official archivist of Prince Rogers Nelson’s estate, Michael Howe is responsible for cataloging all the material the Purple One left behind in his vault.
Since the fall of 2017, he has immersed himself in an overwhelming volume of recordings and ephemera, some neatly labeled, others waiting for an assistant Prince never hired. Whether it’s music or doodles – cat drawings, anyone? — Howe ensures it is inventoried, digitized and preserved. Then it determines what to put on the market.
The perennially prolific Minneapolis icon not only died without a will on April 21, 2016, but he also left his safe in the basement of Paisley Park in a mess. He apparently forgot the combination to open his locked door, so he piled boxes of tapes in the room just outside – the so-called “pre-safe”.
Administrators of Prince’s estate had the contents of the vault shipped to Iron Mountain, a storage facility in Hollywood. There Howe, commuting from Nashville, began work on a “more than full-time” job.
About 18 months ago, the archivist discovered “Welcome 2 America,” a finished album Prince recorded in 2010 but never released. This will be his next posthumous release on July 30.
“Having a Prince record that had never been heard before and never seemed to leak into the collector sphere or into the bootleg market was something very special,” Howe said.
A music industry executive talent for 20 years, Howe, 49, has overseen projects with stars such as the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Gnarls Barkley, the Decemberists and Tears for Fears. At Warner Bros. he worked with Prince from 2014 to 2016 – and was called into Paisley Park for a preview of two 2014 albums.
“He was absolutely wonderful: gracious, kind, accommodating, committed, humble, and downright charming,” Howe recalled. “No dog handlers, bodyguards or hangers. I’ve never felt more ‘seen’ meeting another world-famous figure, from McCartney to Jagger to Liz Taylor.”
In a phone interview from his Nashville office, Howe spoke about the vault, the decision-making process behind posthumous releases, and the “Welcome 2 America” deluxe package, which includes covers of songs from Soul Asylum and Bob. Dylan from Minnesota.
On the legendary vault
Howe never entered the Paisley vault, but said Iron Mountain is “much more organized and solidly secure than the ‘before the vault’ photos shown on ’60 Minutes’ taken by the office of the Carver County Sheriff.
“Iron Mountain is a very large, retrofitted building in Hollywood that’s windowless, climate-controlled, naturally disaster-resistant, and houses an enormous amount of other high-value entertainment assets. It’s a pretty unsexy environment.”
On why it’s time for ‘Welcome’
After a string of posthumous releases featuring 1980s material, including deluxe reissues of “1999” and “Sign o’ the Times”, Howe said “we thought it would be a strong, standalone statement that shines a light on some Prince later. And it’s something that has mythical status among Prince fans.
The lyrics reflect “the collapse of Wall Street in 2008, the election of Obama and racial inequality, and technology invading privacy and the rise of Facebook and all kinds of things that are also relevant today. than they were then”.
Why Prince didn’t post it
Howe’s Theory: With the European-only ’20Ten’ album already in the box, Prince recorded ‘Welcome 2 America’ in March 2010 with a new rhythm section: 23-year-old Australian bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Chris Coleman. However, Wilkenfeld was unable to tour with Prince that year due to a commitment to Herbie Hancock.
“So Prince brought the NPG together again [New Power Generation] and put that record on the shelf,” Howe said. “For some reason he decided to tour [behind] a record that was not available. It’s kind of a move very similar to Prince’s.”
On the “Welcome” cover
Prince hadn’t prepared the cover. The photo selected by the estate was used for posters promoting his Welcome 2 America Tour, which ran from December 2010 to September 2012. The super deluxe version will include album-like elements such as a ticket concerts, a list of sets and a backstage pass – a first for a Prince package.
On songs heard elsewhere
Two songs on “Welcome” also appear on 2015’s “Hitnrun Phase Two” – “When She Comes” and “1,000 Light Years From Here” (like the last three minutes of the song “Black Muse”) – but these are mixes different.
In 2007, Prince had recorded Soul Asylum’s “Stand Up and B Strong” with former NPG members Sonny Thompson on bass and Michael Bland on drums; coincidentally, Bland had joined Soul Asylum two years prior. The anthem, written by Minneapolis frontman Dave Pirner, debuted on Soul Asylum’s “Silver Lining” album in 2006 and was used on college football broadcasts that fall.
However, the “Welcome 2 America” track was cut in March 2010. “It’s completely different people [playing] but kind of in the same spirit,” Howe said.
On the cover of Dylan
The deluxe version of “Welcome” includes a live album/DVD that features a treatment of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” with lead vocals from NPG’s Liv Warfield, Shelby J and Elisa Fiorillo.
Howe said the band had done numerous covers at their “21 Nights at the Forum” in Los Angeles, but that particular show was one of the few with multi-track, multi-camera audio footage. Additionally, “the video had never circulated among collectors before.”
Looking for a wider audience
“We are aware of what the superfan might find appealing,” Howe said. “But we’re still thinking about how to introduce Prince to people who didn’t know his artistry or only knew him by name or who were too young to know anything about his performances.”
Howe added that he doesn’t interact much with “the collecting community”, but “their passion is commendable. It’s a large and vocal fan base”.
On a very first vinyl release
“The Truth” was part of Prince’s 1998 four-CD “Crystal Ball” package. It was reissued on vinyl as a single album on June 12 as a limited Record Store Day release. “It’s a very sparse and succinct Prince record, heavily guitar-based because it’s acoustic, but there are a few electronic flourishes as well.”
About how decisions are made
As he goes through the material, Howe prepares “road maps” of what is available and marketable. He speaks regularly with Troy Carter, entertainment adviser to the estate, and speaks with Warner Bros. executives. and Sony, who own the rights to Prince’s music based on the year of recording. He attends periodic meetings with Prince’s heirs, Carter, Comerica (the estate administrator), and a Carver County judge.
Howe said he was always trying to imagine what Prince would do.
“It’s a very tricky proposition,” he said. Unless, of course, something is labeled “DNU”, as in “do not use”, or is clearly unfinished.
On the Vault’s Biggest Surprise
“The one that thrilled me the most was the acoustic demo of ‘I Feel for You,’ which we released as a surprise 7-inch single. [in 2019]. We regularly look forward to surprises, but I can’t talk about that.”
Overcoming “Prince Fatigue”
“I jokingly call it APF – acute Prince fatigue. I talk about it with my wife and some of my colleagues. But it passes very, very quickly. The work is not without its challenges, but the creative pursuit is so monumentally satisfying that it outweighs all odds by a wide, wide margin.However tired Prince was on a Monday night, it was gone by Tuesday morning.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719