“I was always hoping that these recordings were still around because of the feeling that’s in them,” Don Batts, Prince’s personal recording engineer in the early Eighties, tells Rolling Stone. He’s reflecting on a demo cassette he made with the artist released Friday as Piano & a Microphone 1983, 34 minutes of Prince sketching out song ideas by himself. “It’s just him pounding this idea out so he could come back later and fill in the blanks. These were his little grooves.”
Beginning with an airy recital of the “When Doves Cry” B side, “17 Days,” and ending with the contemplative, previously unreleased “Why the Butterflies,” the recording is a rare look into how the artist’s mind works. He dashes off a minute and a half of “Purple Rain,” a couple minutes’ worth of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and a long, passionate riff on the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which he intercepts with the lyrics to his single “Strange Relationship.” He does his best husky-voiced James Brown impression (which he called his “Jamie Starr” voice, a reference to the producer alter ego he used when working with his Purple Rain rivals the Time). And he tries out a few ideas he never recorded again. It’s entirely stream of consciousness, which makes it a release that will likely appeal most to diehard fans, but he’s still putting his full stage power into the performances.
At the time of the recording, Prince was already famous. He’d put out five albums, the last of which – 1982’s 1999 – charted in the Top 10 and earned him his first Grammy. The following year, he’d appear in Purple Rain and become one of pop music’s brightest megastars. But on this cassette, he’s simply riffing on songs in their most basic form, using only his voice and 88 keys. Batts called them “refs” – the essence of a song – and Prince used them to develop his ideas fully later on. Many of the songs here show Prince playing wide jazz chords on the piano, beatboxing drum lines and trying different vocal approaches. They were for his use only.
“He never played us a tape like this,” says Lisa Coleman, who played keyboards with the artist from 1980 until 1986. “He would [instead] sit at the piano and start calling out chords or playing the guitar and we would follow long. He would never play us something like this unless it was a totally recorded, finished song.”
When she listens to the tape now, she’s struck by how it shows Prince’s process. She’s fascinated by the early version on the tape of “Strange Relationship” – fully developed on 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times – and “Wednesday,” a short interlude he’d been playing with since he met her but never officially recorded. “An artist can write a song and record it, and it’s beautiful, but then you take it out on the road and you play it for a while and it evolves,” she says. “Then you feel, ‘Oh, this is the song,’ and ‘I should record it now.’ So Prince had the luxury of being able to spend some time with a song. With a couple of these, he’s just getting it into his body.”
“I don’t think people realize that this was recorded in a basement, basically; in a family room,” Batts adds. “I got the funds later to create a nicer room that we did ‘Little Red Corvette’ and some other stuff like that in, and a lot of the gear ended up out at Paisley [Park]. But this is an old, Yamaha piano – an old CP-70 – in the corner and an [AKG] 414 mic.”
“I don’t think people realize that this was recorded in a basement, basically,” Prince’s engineer Don Batts
The release is also part of the way the artist’s estate is rolling out items from his archives in small, easily digestible doses. Now that they’ve gotten things in order and appointed Spotify’s global head of creator services, Troy Carter, as their entertainment advisor, they’re slowly unveiling the relics they’ve uncovered. The estate released a demo of “Nothing Compares 2 U” in April and recently made much of his Nineties and Aughts recordings available on streaming services for the first time. Piano & a Microphone 1983 was one of some 8,000 cassettes that vault master Michael Howe discovered, by happenstance, in a box that had been sitting in Paisley Park.
Both Batts and Coleman are hesitant to guess at whether or not this is the sort of thing Prince would have put out in his lifetime, but they’re happy it’s finally getting an airing. Coleman believes he may have been getting near a release like this, though, since he had embarked on a “Piano and a Microphone” tour in the last year of his life. “It scared me when I heard he was doing a Piano and a Microphone tour,” she says. “My first reaction was, ‘Why?’ because it felt to me like he was giving up. Then when I heard how he was telling stories, it seemed like maybe he was ready to look back at things and reflect and tell the story about what happened. I think he really went through a lot of emotional pain in the last year of his life, and that just kills me. I think he was trying to find an outlet by just showing up by himself and playing for people.”
But in 1983, he was playing just for himself. And even though it was likely only himself and Batts in a room, he was happy simply entertaining himself. “It isn’t a four-star recording, but it sounds pretty good in the feeling,” the engineer says. “I’m really glad the world is getting a chance to hear it.”