HITNRUN: Behind the scenes of Prince's new album

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter

Image source, Press release
Image caption,
HITNRUN will be Prince's 37th studio album, following the likes of 1999, Diamonds and Pearls and Purple Rain

Prince's producer Joshua Welton reveals the studio secrets behind the musician's new album, HITNRUN.

For years, Prince's albums came emblazoned with the legend "produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince".

But that all changed with last year's Art Official Age, where an unknown musician called Joshua Welton was credited as the megastar's co-producer.

The album gained rave reviews, with Billboard calling it Prince's "most imaginative album since the '90s", while the Chicago Tribune wrote: "Prince sounds not just relevant, but renewed."

So it's hardly a surprise that Welton has been retained at Prince's Paisley Park's studios in Minneapolis; and his second collaboration with the musician, called HitNRun, comes out on Jay-Z's Tidal streaming service next week.

Speaking exclusively to the BBC, the 25-year-old talks about the recording process, Prince's working practices, and how he ended up in Minneapolis.

Image source, Press release
Image caption,
Joshua Welton hadn't produced any other major artists before working with Prince

Hi Joshua. How are you feeling?

It's all good, all good. Prince and I, we're excited to hear what people think about the album and we're hoping people will dance around to it and have a good time!

Before we talk about the album, tell me a little bit about your background.

I was born in Chicago, Illinois and I was raised in a suburb called Aurora. I grew up in music. I have five brothers and we are always dancing - because if you didn't dance in our household it was almost a sin! My mother sang, I was inspired by that. My pastor in my church played the keyboard and the saxophone, and I was inspired by that. And my dad is a gospel writer and rapper, so I was inspired by him, too.

Is it true that Count Basie is part of your family tree?

Yes sir, that's my uncle on my father's side. My family is very musically-oriented. I've always been around music - but being around it here in Paisley Park is definitely a one of a kind experience.

So how did you meet Prince?

It was actually through my wife Hannah, who drums for 3rdEyeGirl. The first time I came out [to Minneapolis], Prince was rehearsing at a sound stage in Paisley Park.

Now, rehearsal is a time when you get things locked in tight, and you perfect what you're working on but Prince goes, "on the one" and the whole band stops. Then he literally jumps up - because he's on the keyboards - and he goes "Joshua!", runs off the stage and gives me a big hug. And I'm thinking to myself, I really enjoy this guy already!

Literally, right after that, we had this two-hour conversation about Jesus. And that was, for nine months, our relationship. I didn't do any music. I was really just supporting my wife. That was my main goal, making sure that I was there for her.

In an interview to announce the album, 3rdEyeGirl said HITNRUN was "super funky" and aimed at Prince's hardcore fans. What should we expect?

Well, I think you'll be able to dance to it! You'll get the groovy Prince, you'll get the fun Prince, you'll get the hilarious Prince, you'll get the serious Prince, and you'll get the going-out-on-a-date-with-my-lady Prince.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Joshua is married to Hannah Ford Welton, the drummer in Prince's band 3rdEyeGirl

What's the studio set-up at Paisley Park? Is there any truth to the story that you have to be ready to record 24/7?

He's walking music, so we always have to be ready to record, and always be ready to lay something down. That's just the heartbeat of any musician.

As far as the myth goes, about everything [that happens] being recorded all the time? I don't know too much about that but I know that we're always recording. So if that counts, it is 24 hours a day.

Prince spent 40 years producing his own records, so what do you contribute?

You know, Prince was asked the same question recently and he said, "Joshua alleviates me so I can do other things". That blessed my heart when I heard that, because that's how it is.

He'll basically say "this is what I want" and I'll make the music in Studio B. He takes the track in Studio A [and] he'll record his voice. Then he'll come and give me his vocal and if he feels like a bass needs to be added, or a guitar needs to be added, then we'll do so.

So give me an example... How was a track like HardRockLover made?

Prince said to me: "I need something that starts off quiet, and then I just want it to erupt and then I want you to go back… like this roller coaster". And so I said, "ok, cool".

So HardRockLover was done literally almost as soon as it came out. Actually, that and the last song on the album were made literally in the same hour.

Image source, Press Release
Image caption,
"I would want anyone who had a dream to meet Prince to meet him because he's such a great guy," says Welton

It can happen that quickly?

Songs literally happen overnight. Say I make a track at 10 at night? He'll go into studio A and the next morning, however many songs I've given him, I get those songs back. And in the same day, I give him the songs back saying "here's the mix, what do you think?" and that just keeps going.

How easy is it to interpret his instructions?

Because we talked for nine months and laughed and played ping pong - it kind of gave me an idea [of his tastes] so I can give him something that I think he would like. But some tracks on the album he didn't touch any instruments on, so that was really crazy for me as a musician.

There must be immense pressure on you to live up to Prince's reputation?

When you've got an iconic person like Prince standing over your shoulder, you've got to produce at this level all the time. As a friend, you don't want to bring anything that is less than what he's looking for. Why would you give your son or daughter a stone if he's asking for bread?

But when you're working with a friend, that's different than trying to make sure your boss is happy. When you've had times you've been on the floor laughing, and you're red in the face and there are tears rolling down your cheeks, and you've got inside jokes. That, to me, made the working experience a breeze.

Does that make it easier for you to say something like "we need another take of that vocal"?

I'm not in that process with him. He does that all by himself, literally. So he'll sing and he'll get into his zone and he'll give me the vocals the next day.

Image source, Press Release
Image caption,
Members of 3rdEyeGirl contributed to the new album, but it is officially a solo Prince record

Do you get several takes to choose from, or does Prince just present you with the final version?

Exactly that. He's saying, "Hey, sir, I've recorded these vocals. This is what you get."

But that gave me the opportunity to appreciate the genius of Prince. The harmonies, and where he sits on the beat, which notes he chooses, and the breaths he takes… I'm hearing all this stuff because I'm having to mix it and I can really say that he is a genius.

When I tell you he can hear the sun rise, I'm not lying to you.

How do you know when a song is finished? How does Prince signal his approval?

Either he'll send me a message, or we'll both run out of the room because it's so good! It happens in many ways. But at the end of it, it's an understanding. You look in each other's eyes… and you know, "we shouldn't touch that".

Does your faith play a role in the studio? Or is it there for strength when things get tough?

Anything that him and I do, it's impossible for us not to move in faith.

[But] when you're constantly making music and you're constantly at that speed… it's a lot to try and say "I'm doing this on my own". So I need my wife, I need my friends, but ultimately, I need God because he's really been the core inspiration of the non-stop-ness and the keep-going-ness. It can be a lot, but we work it out.

Image source, NPG
Image caption,
Prince played a benefit concert to honour Freddie Gray and support those protesting in Baltimore in May

One of the songs you recorded between Art Official Age and HITNRUN was Baltimore - a response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. It's quite a positive song, looking at how America can move on and heal after a spate of similar incidents. What was the thinking behind that?

The black community in America, some of the things we've experienced, it's quite a travesty. I'm not one to try to point out colour - but at the same time we can't ignore the situation and we can't be oblivious to the racism.

The Baltimore song is just a way of saying, "I see what's going on. And here's my voice in the community and I just want to be able to let you know that we are here for you."

Tell me about releasing HITNRUN exclusively on Tidal? Why go there, rather than any of the other streaming services?

Just [the ability to stream] high fidelity music. Because we take time to make it sound great and we would love for people to hear it the way that we hear it, uncompromised. So for us it's really cool on that alone.

Given his prodigious work-rate, is there a scenario whereby Tidal would allow Prince to release music more frequently?

For us to put out music non-stop, I believe Tidal is a great avenue and the relationship with Jay-Z [means] I can definitely see it being that way.

HITNRUN will be available on Tidal from 7 September and on CD at a later date.

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