Donna Grantis of 3rd Eye Girl on what it's like to play with Prince
Donna Grantis (center) and the other ladies of 3rd Eye Girl.
Prince became a household name after the release of his third album, 1982's 1999. Over the years, his perfectly realized blend of rock, pop, funk and jazz has proved equally popular with audiences and critics. Throughout the '80s, Prince released hit records that broke genre barriers, not just in terms of radio programming, but within the music itself. His versatility and breadth of musical vision have influenced a broad spectrum of popular music ever since.
Recently, Prince assembled a band called 3rd Eye Girl for his current tour, which has him playing intimate shows in venues like the Ogden Theatre that are notably smaller than those in which he would typically perform. We recently caught up with jovial 3rd Eye Girl guitarist Donna Grantis in advance of Prince's shows this weekend (three out of four of which are sold out -- there's still tickets for Monday's 11:30 show, the last gig of the tour) and talked about her musical education and how it's helped her play with Prince.
Westword: What initially got you interested in playing guitar. It seems as though you've been playing from a fairly young age.
Donna Grantis: My older brother had an acoustic guitar at home, and one summer I thought I'd just pick it up and teach myself a few chords. I got the tabs for "Stairway to Heaven," and it was over after that. I was totally hooked.
That's a fairly ambitious piece of music to learn that early on.
For sure. "Stairway" was the first song I learned. The second complete song that I learned was "You Shook Me All Night Long" because I loved the solo in that, too. I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock influenced by my brother's record collection. He had a lot of Zeppelin, Hendrix, AC/DC and Guns N' Roses.
You have some deep roots in jazz and blues. What is it about those forms of music that captivated your imagination, and why do they remain interesting to you today?
I first got into it through the classic rock side of things with Hendrix and Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I started checking out their influences. That's how I got into B.B. King, Buddy Guy, T. Bone Walker, Willie Dixon and artists like that. What really attracted to me to that kind of music was two things.
One is how incredibly expressive it is on electric guitar. I love improvising and just jamming and making up stuff on the spot and playing what I feel at the moment and playing off of other musicians. We do a lot of that in 3rd Eye Girl. Because the group is so small, we can just really stretch out a lot and jam and improvise so it's a lot of fun.
Supposedly your first public performance was for that Jimi Hendrix tribute with his father in the audience. Is that true?
Totally. As a teenager I entered this competition where you send in this Hendrix tune. I made it to the semi-finals, and that was the first time I ever played in front of people. Hendrix's dad was in the audience, and I met him and got to shake his hand, and that was really magical.
How did you feel about playing that first performance before and after?
I've always been so excited to play. It was very surreal. The best performances are the ones you can't even remember. Or when you really get into a zone, especially with improvisation or just getting into a groove, I find that if I don't have much of a memory of it, it's usually a good sign. But it definitely reinforced that playing guitar is what I always wanted to do since I was a little girl.
As someone who is somewhat self-taught, what drew you to study and perform jazz at McGill [University], and how would you say that experience helped with what you do today?
It helped immensely. When I studied jazz, I learned a lot about arranging, composition, improvisation, theory, ear training, transcriptions -- all that kind of stuff. I apply all of that playing in 3rd Eye Girl and with Prince. When it comes to learning songs by ear and making sense of them musically and being able to improvise over whatever is thrown at us, I think it's all connected. Prince's repertoire is so huge. He crosses so many genres, so being able to play blues, rock, funk, pop, jazz -- it's all music, but having a musical vocabulary in all of those genres is so helpful.
When you first went to school for music was that kind of challenging or had you been studying it on a formal level anyway up to that point?
I took private lessons before that, but I definitely learned a ton there. One of the great things about studying music in a formal school is just being surrounded by like-minded musicians and people who want to jam and play all the time. It's a great way to immerse yourself in music.
How did you learn about sensory deprivation chambers?
It's funny: One of my old jazz guitar teachers was telling me about how he had spent some time in a sensory deprivation chamber. I always kept it in the back of my mind, but it's not like they're very popular back home in Toronto. Back in October, I was on tour with my own group called the Donna Grantis Electric Band, and I was based in Amsterdam for quite a few weeks. I was flipping through one of those weekly entertainment newspapers when I saw this ad for a sensory deprivation chamber, floating experience kind of thing.
I read up on it a bit it on Wikipedia. I read that some experiments were done, and it was found to stimulate creativity among jazz musicians. I thought I should totally try that and see what happens. I loved the experience. It was so peaceful. But it is kind of interesting that a month later that, I received the call to jam at Paisley Park. Here we are now with 3rd Eye Girl.
Was it the sort of chamber as in the film Altered States where you float in water and with goggles.
Yeah, but no goggles and it was just like water that is sustained at the same temperature as body temperature. You don't see anything because it's pitch black. You don't feel anything because you're floating and all your senses are deprived.
Did any images come to you? What was the experience like?
It was really peaceful. I didn't really know what to expect going into it. What I wanted to do was let my mind wander and maybe even compose some music for my fusion trio while floating there. I was really just taking it in and observing what it felt like in that moment. The craziest thing was leaving the spa, and the moment I stepped out of it and stepped on to the streets of Amsterdam, I was just really aware of all of my senses way more than usual. The sounds of the street noises, feeling the wind, seeing the lights. It was really cool. I think the idea is to [stimulate] your pituitary gland.
You met Prince through Hannah Ford and her husband. What was it like the first time you went over there to jam?
Oh, it was just wild. The first night I arrived in Minnesota, I went to Paisley Park with the other ladies, Hannah Ford and Ida Nielsen. I was given a short list of songs to learn. We jammed songs with Prince and jammed some other stuff as well -- some different grooves. Everything has been moving forward since then. We've been learning a lot of songs and jamming a ton together. We've been influencing each other a lot.
Obviously, Prince is one of the most talented guitar players around, and if the videos of you playing before working with him are any indication, you're no slouch, either. Did he ever tell you why he wanted to play with you?
I think that for this group, what's really special is that we all really bond well and the chemistry is great. And we've all played many different styles of music, as well. Over the past few months of rehearsing in preparation for the West Coast tour, that connection and that bond have been getting stronger and stronger.
How would you describe Prince's guitar style and the way that you work together as guitarists?
I would describe his style as being totally phenomenal. He can do it all: blues, jazz, funk, rock, everything. He's just a master of all styles. He plays with so much skill. He's so melodic, but he can shred and rip it up at any moment. It's such a pleasure to play with him -- and a huge honor, as well. What's really cool is that with 3rd Eye Girl and the shows we're going to be playing, it's a full-on rock show. So for anyone who has ever wanted to hear Prince just wail on guitar, this is the tour to check out, for sure.
There's a live video on YouTube where you play "Cosmic Jam" and in the beginning it sounds like you're altering the delay time while you're playing. How do you do that?
I love playing with different pedals and stuff like that. For 3rd Eye Girl, I specifically had a pretty crazy pedal board built. I have like twenty effects pedals spread over three boards. It's kind of like a giant starship of pedals in front of me. But it's so fun to use that, especially since it's a small group and I can really color the tone to create a variety of different sounds throughout the show. I also have a myriad of flavors of distortion and different types of delay and flangers and stuff like that.
With that song "Cosmic Jam," the concept of it is that there are two chords in the whole song and start off with an ambient feel and see what happens from there. So every time I play that tune it would always be different. I really love to experiment with those pedals because sometimes they can create spontaneous sounds.
I think it's really fun in a live setting to play off the unexpected. You can turn some dials and get interesting noise out of them too. I was probably using a Line-6 delay and tapping the tempo in that video.
When did you start playing Paul Reed Smith guitars and why do you prefer them to other types of guitars?
I've been playing PRS guitars since '98, and my main axe is a PRS CE 22. When I first bought it, it was really dark purple, but after years of love and wear, it has faded to kind of a magenta color. I love the sound of PRS guitars. The tone that I can get and I think they're beautiful works of art as well.
What is it you like about the tone? For instance, a Telecaster can have a bit of a twangy sound for some people, and they either like that or don't.
That's a good point. I feel like sometimes when you hear a song you can almost pick out that it was played on a Telecaster or a Gibson or that kind of thing. I almost feel like playing a PRS is more transparent, if that makes sense, in that your own voice can come out.
Prince, 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Sunday, May 12, and 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Monday, May 13, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $250, 888-929-7849. (All shows except 11:30 p.m. Monday are sold out.)
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