Never turn down an invitation to Paisley Park. Less than a week after receiving an email invite to speak with 25-year-old producer Joshua Welton about HitNRun—next month’s Prince album, streaming exclusively on Jay Z’s Tidal service starting September 7—I made my first pilgrimage to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Last year, Prince unveiled the 3rdeyegirl power trio (guitarist Donna Grantis, bassist Ida Kristine Nielsen and drummer Hannah Welton), his first new band since the New Power Generation debuted in 1990.
PlectrumElectrum by Prince & 3rdeyegirl dropped alongside Prince’s Joshua Welton-coproduced Art Official Age last September. Both albums marked Prince’s strongest work since 1996’s Emancipation. Chicago native Joshua Welton spoke to EBONY.com about the origins of 3rdeyegirl and producing an artist who’s never been produced on a studio album since his 1979 debut over 30 albums ago.
EBONY: How did you meet Prince?
Joshua Welton: Through my wife Hannah. It was three years ago. She came out one time and I came out the next. We met and it’s been a wrap ever since.
EBONY: What first put Hannah on his radar? Were there already 3rdeyegirl gigs going on?
JW: They kinda came one by one. Ida [Kristine Nielsen] was already here, the bass player in 3rdeyegirl. Hannah came because Prince found her. I think he was always excited about new young musicians. He heard Hannah’s talent and was like, “You know what? Have her come out here.” And then Donna [Grantis] came through Prince reaching out to Hannah and I, saying, “We need to find a guitarist.” So we searched for her and found her.
EBONY: When Prince located you and Hannah, were you collaborating together?
JW: We’re both musicians so it’s inevitable. I think we’ll always do that. At the time, it’s funny, when we got the email, we were actually at church. We were doing a youth ministry at World Changers Ministry in Atlanta. So we were serving there and she ran after me, found me and hit me up with the email.
EBONY: Between 1979’s For You and 2014’s Art Official Age, Prince had never had an outside producer for his studio albums. How did it feel for you to assume that mantle?
JW: What’s cool about the whole situation is that I was here for about nine months, just supporting Hannah. Didn’t play no music, nothing like that, didn’t really talk about it like that. I just took everything in. We had a meeting upstairs with the girls and I, plus Trevor, which is Donna’s husband. [Prince] basically said, “We need a producer.” My wife and I were like, “oookay… alright, alright.” [laughter]
So there were some producers in town at the time. And we got some stems—which are musical tracks and vocals—from a famous artist, and [Prince] basically said, “Whoever wins.” So I got thrown into it! We had two brothers in here in Studio B actually. Prince works out of Studio A.
EBONY: How many producers competed to produce Art Official Age?
JW: It was three. There were two producers that were in here, and then I was by myself in the smaller Studio D. And we did a track. They had the same stems I had. And it was just kinda like, hey, whoever’s the funkiest. Let’s jump in.
EBONY: When did the creation of 3rdeyegirl really become obvious for you all? Prince hasn’t had a new band since the New Power Generation.
JW: It was a slow but sure process, but it was very fast at the same time. It was slow for us because we were so excited. But actually if you look back, it happened really fast. Hannah came, and Hannah and Ida kinda vibed off of each other. And then Prince had told us we needed to find the best female guitar player. And so we reached out, found Donna. And over a month or so of time, it was a wrap.
EBONY: I saw 3rdeyegirl support Prince at City Winery in 2013, way before Prince & 3rdeyegirl released PlectrumElectrum. Was it clear from the beginning that 3rdeyegirl would make albums and be more than a backing band?
JW: The beautiful thing about Prince is that everything happens organically. Things begin to unfold. So I didn’t even know that he was gonna do Art Official Age, which is the album him and I did before, because 3rdeyegirl was such a priority at the time. We put all our focus in that. It kinda turned out that Art Official Age came too.
EBONY: What are the touring plans to support the HitNRun album?
JW: We take every day as it comes. We’re always ready to go onstage. Right now I think we’re taking it as it comes and seeing what tomorrow might bring.
EBONY: Were you present at Prince’s White House concert in June? How was that?
JW: It was one of the most amazing experiences. It was the first time I met Stevie Wonder. He was there and came and jammed outta nowhere with us. The Obama family is beautiful, they’re really amazing and we really enjoyed ourselves. It was definitely a lifetime beautiful experience.
EBONY: Since meeting Prince, what’s been the highlight of your relationship with him?
JW: Well, like you said, it’s the relationship. I think more than we actually make music, we converse with one another, build each other up. I’m a firm believer in Christ and so is he. And so that’s why those first nine months I wasn’t working, him and I connected on that, like, dopely. It was boom, right there. Before anything else, that’s my brother. And I think the relationship, to me, is the most treasured thing. [Prince phones from another studio, and arrives to say a few words.]
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram @furthermucker.