Prince Hoped to ‘Redefine Minneapolis Sound’ Before Death
About a year before his death, Prince believed he had discovered a new sound. When he recorded the single “Baltimore” – a response to the mysterious and controversial death of Freddie Gray while in police custody – he had a unique idea for its music. He had recorded a guitar solo that ran throughout the four-and-a-half–minute song but thought it could be approached differently. The musician sent it to orchestral arranger Michael Nelson, who plays trombone in the Hornheads and worked closely with Prince off and on in long stretches for the past 25 years. Most recently, Nelson did many of the arrangements on Prince’s final album, HitnRun Phase Two.
“On ‘Baltimore,’ we basically orchestrated his guitar solo with strings and woodwinds and brass,” the arranger tells Rolling Stone. Nelson (no relation to Prince Rogers Nelson) had earned the trust of the artist over the years and recorded the arrangement remotely. “When we finished that track and sent it to him, he sent me back a note with a link to the finished recording saying, ‘As you can hear, we’re onto something special.’ He said, ‘We’re going to redefine the Minneapolis sound, and I’m going to need your pen to do it. So block off some time in the summer.'”
When Prince began working on the song in his own studio, he played around with the orchestration. He removed his guitar solo from the first part of the song, brought it in in the end and pulled back the horn arrangement. “At 2:28, you actually hear the guitar play with the strings into that string section which originally continued as the guitar solo,” he says.
Prince also moved Nelson’s work around in the song. “There’s this string line at the very beginning of that song that’s really interesting and it’s not at all where we put it,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the type of thing he would do. It’s like he shifted it by two-and-a-half beats, just something that made it completely different than what was intended. You’d never write it that way as an arranger, but you just go, ‘Oh, my God.’ It’s really cool. He would make that adjustment and make it totally Prince. I tip my cap to the genius and I’m glad I was a part of it.”
A fan of the process, Prince began sending Nelson songs that he wanted what the arranger calls “big orchestrations” on. Nelson estimates he worked on four or five songs with symphonic guitar solos for the artist, though some might have been intended for other artists. One was intended for a new 3rdEyeGirl record (its working title was “New 3rdEyeGirl String Session”), and guitarist Donna Grantis came to the studio where Nelson was recording. “It had a couple of different guitar solos, so we orchestrated around them,” he says.
“The thing about his guitar solos is, as everything he did, it had a uniquely Prince take on it,” he says. “They’re quirky and they’re melodic and they’re interesting and they’re just ripe for orchestrating. They’re just so interesting.”