Piano & a Microphone 1983, is the first posthumous album released by the Prince Estate since the superstar's death two years ago. It's an intimate recording of the artist before he was a giant, international star working through songs in a home studio — just Prince and his piano. The never-before-heard recording was discovered in the singer's personal vault on a cassette tape and takes place in Prince's Kiowa Trail home studio in Chanhassen, Minn. But don't think of this release as some unearthed demos meant for others to hear. As NPR Music critic Ann Powers explains, these songs were for Prince to try out ideas and develop new material.
"We are being allowed into a moment that we don't necessarily get and we never would have had access to, honestly, while Prince was alive," Powers says.
The album contains the fledgling beginnings and snippets of songs like "Purple Rain," which would go on to be one of Prince's most massive hits, a cover of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" and a re-imagination of the gospel classic "Mary Don't You Weep."
Above all, what the stripped-down piano on the album shows listeners is the process of how Prince worked. "What his piano-playing shows us is how he finds his voice," Powers notes. "His vocal style is related to the instrument."
As working tapes, Powers believes that if Prince were alive he would "most certainly not" want this early music out in the world. But she also argues that the release of Piano & A Microphone 1983 isn't an exploitation of the artist.
"I think we understand Prince's creativity in a different way because of it and for that reason, it doesn't feel like a violation, it feels like a gift," Powers says.
Piano & a Microphone 1983 is out now via Warner Bros. Records
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")
PRINCE: Is that my echo?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With new music from Prince.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "17 DAYS")
PRINCE: (Singing) Called you yesterday. You didn't answer your phone. The main drag is knowing that you probably weren't alone.
Turn the voice down a little.
MARTIN: "Piano & A Microphone 1983" is the first posthumous album released by the Prince estate since the singer's death two years ago. It is an intimate recording of the artist before he was a giant international star, working through songs in a home studio, just Prince and his piano.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "17 DAYS")
MARTIN: NPR Music critic Ann Powers has been listening and joins us now to talk about this. Ann, this is so awesome. I mean, it's amazing to hear him. Where do these tapes come from? Where had they been?
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Well, they were work tapes. So they're not demos meant for other people, I don't think. At least, that's how it seems. They were for Prince to try out ideas, develop new material. And there's somebody else present 'cause as in the clip you played, there's an engineer. There's, you know - someone's in the studio. It's not like he made this in a hotel bathroom, or something. But they're not your standard release. We are being allowed into a moment that we don't necessarily get and we never would have had access to, honestly, while Prince was alive.
MARTIN: So I mean, there's a lot, probably, to plumb in here. But what stands out to you on this album?
POWERS: There are snippets of songs that will eventually become classics, like "Purple Rain." There are early versions of album cuts, like "International Lover." And there are a couple of songs that, as far as we know, don't exist anywhere else. And there are fascinating cover versions, or really like a little cover medley of a tiny bit of Joni Mitchell's song, "A Case Of You," into the gospel spiritual classic, "Mary, Don't You Weep."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY, DON'T YOU WEEP")
PRINCE: (Singing) Mary, don't you weep. Mary, don't mourn. Oh, yeah. Be not lonesome.
MARTIN: I just love hearing him play the piano, too. I mean, we just don't often hear him so stripped down and raw.
POWERS: We think of Prince as a guitar player, right?
POWERS: Mostly. You know, and he was one of the greatest electric guitar players, but what his piano playing shows us is how he finds his voice. I think his vocal style is related to the instrument, and just enjoy the sheer pleasure of that rollicking keyboard, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "MARY, DON'T YOU WEEP")
MARTIN: It is impossible, obviously, for you to get inside Prince's head, but you alluded to this earlier - would he have wanted these things out in the world?
POWERS: Almost certainly not. However, it's my belief that we benefit from having this recording, in particular. And I would hate to see Prince's legacy exploited in any way, but this particular release, I think we learn things from this release. I think we understand Prince's creativity in a different way because of it. And for that reason, it doesn't feel like a violation. It feels like a gift. And I hope that Prince is up there, you know, lounging on his purple settee...
POWERS: ...And saying, you know, I get it. It's OK. I'm glad they're hearing me sing that song.
MARTIN: NPR Music critic Ann Powers. Thanks, Ann.
POWERS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")
PRINCE: (Singing) Never meant to cause you any sorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.