STORIES FROM THE PARK
PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, Love4OneAnother, any and all of Prince’s companies spanning his impressive nearly 40 year career.
There have been, quite literally hundreds of us in Prince’s employ. The Foundation represents our collective voice.
We are musicians, engineers, managers, lighting directors, wardrobe designers, stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bodyguards, admin staff, valets, drivers (and more!)
This ‘Stories From The Park’ chronicle is a way for our colleagues of all tenures and job types to share a little bit of Prince’s magic with you through our individual voices.
We hope you enjoy getting to know us…we feel as if we’ve known you, Prince’s fans (fam) forever <3
With love and gratitude,
PRN Alumni Foundation
Spotlight: Taja Sevelle
Music From The Heart, Healing From The Root
One-time Prince protégée Taja Sevelle talks about the early years, her new passion (“putting out art that is mindful”), and a lifelong friendship with Minnesota’s Purple Yoda (“It really changed my life”).
Interviewed by writer: Fr. Fred Shaheen
One night several years ago, Prince called Taja Sevelle and asked her to come to where he was staying in New York. “He wanted to play me a new song he had just finished,” she recalls. Taja loved the song and asked her former musical mentor when it would be coming out. Prince shook his head: “Nah, I’m putting that in the vault!” In fact “Future Soul Song,” did see a limited physical release in 2010; and only last year, it was made available everywhere with the official digital release of the album (20Ten). Though it had been years since Taja Sevelle was a Paisley Park recording artist, it was clear that Prince still valued her artistic sensibility. And their friendship. In 2005, Taja founded Urban Farming™ a revolutionary non-profit that has repurposed acres of unused land in urban, rural and suburban areas into sustainable sources of food through the planting of gardens. Again, Prince was there for her in the provision and implementation of her vision. “He was keen to support it,” Taja affirms, telling of how Prince generously donated proceeds from the revenue from his 3121 fragrance to her charity. The two had hours of conversations discussing ideas to help the world.
Back in the mid-Eighties when Prince asked her to be part of a new girl group he was forming, Taja Sevelle had envisioned herself as a solo artist. She had also just been accepted to Berklee School of Music in Boston, so the singer-songwriter-musician knew a major life decision had to be made. When the music superstar agreed to sign her to his custom label as a solo act, the twenty-three year old informed him that she would give him an answer after she slept on it for 24 hours. Did we mention “bold”? “It’s something my grandfather taught me,” says Ms. Sevelle, explaining the 24-hour waiting thing.
That Girl Could Sing.
It was apparent early on that Taja Sevelle wasn’t exactly like the other acts associated with Minneapolis’ most famous musical genius. She had her own producer, Chico Bennett; the look and the image were all hers: jeans and work boots; no lingerie, thank you. And the majority of the songs were hers too. Did we mention that she could definitely sing? Her first appearance on record was on “The Ladder” from Prince and the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day (1985). Taja really let it loose on that session, wailing on the background vocals: “Afterwards Prince told me I sounded like Aretha,” she recalls with great fondness. The comparison to Ms. Franklin, one of Taja’s biggest musical influences, was indeed a compliment of the highest order. Aretha, Chaka, Earth, Wind and Fire, Barbra Streisand - they were among her early musical heroes. And Prince? “Of course I was a fan,” says Taja. A friend of hers at boarding school had his first record, For You, and was playing it. “When I first heard the singing, I thought it was a woman’s voice,” she recalls with a laugh. “I bought all of his records after that - I loved his music!”
It’s About That Walk.
Music was Taja’s first love. And it still is. Prior to being signed as a Paisley Park recording artist, Taja (née Nancy Richardson) had sung in bands - five of them - and performed solo. She plays piano and also learned to play bass a little, but didn’t continue with it. Nevertheless, in the brief time she spent with that instrument, Taja learned a valuable musical lesson. “The thing that playing bass taught me,” she says, “was how to hear the lower notes in the music.” This would be one of many lessons, both musical and non-musical, that Ms. Sevelle would pick up through the years. “Putting out art that is mindful” is a top priority these days. She has roughly 20 singles currently streaming on digital platforms, all independently released, one of which (“Little Diva”) reached the top 30 on Billboard’s Dance chart in 2017; a couple of TV shows are in the works, and her new book, launches June 8th. “It’s an important message for our world right now - a pathway to healing our world from the root’. Whether it’s singing, writing or promoting Urban Farming™ Taja believes it is important to “really walk the talk” in everything she does. That philosophy is one she and Prince have in common. The artist who once famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol was a positive creative influence on Taja even years after her initial association with his record label. “Later, watching him make remarkable changes in his life, and not be afraid to really look at himself,” she says today, “was inspiring.”
After meeting Prince, Taja Sevelle was signed to a seven-year recording contract and her first album was released on Paisley Park/Reprise in September, 1987. A modest commercial success – the first single reached #62 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the US and made the Top 7 in the UK – Taja Sevelle is a stunningly excellent record front-to-back. Although Prince had gifted Taja two of his own songs for use on her album, the fact that the lead track and first single (“Love Is Contagious”) was one she wrote herself - she also played all the instruments on the demo - signaled yet another break from Paisley protocol. “I just had an absolutely wonderful time,” says Taja about the making of her debut record. “He gave me the freedom to write my songs and to present the image I wanted to.” “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?,” one of the two Prince tunes on Taja’s album, had at one point been considered for Michael Jackson to use on Bad. Wait…Michael Jackson? Think of it. It’s almost like MJ and Taja both auditioned, and Taja got the part. Had the girl needed a boost of confidence -- she really didn’t – it was right there. Prince fans will get a treat in June when Originals, a collection of songs the artist gave to others, is released. His version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” is expected to be a highlight of the record.
Are You There, G-d?
Prince gave her songs, he gave her a channel of expression for her own music, and most significantly, he gave her freedom to be the artist she was meant to be. Where did “Taja Sevelle” come from? She says she never really connected with her birth name. “During the recording of my first album,” Taja recalls, “my producer and I started brainstorming names for me. He suggested “Taj” which soon became “Taja” and then it all just came together kind of organically like that.” Ms. Sevelle also says she feels drawn to the Native American custom of “allowing the name to come to you.” She recounts how her family lived in their cabin in the remote wilderness for a year, far away from the amenities of life in the Twin Cities. There, being surrounded by only nature - the stars, water, the air - was therapeutic for Taja and allowed her to connect to who she really was. Significantly, Prince once claimed that he changed his name on the advice of his spirit. He recalled standing on the beach, looking imploringly to the heavens and being told that the unpronounceable symbol was his name. Surely we see the parallel here between these two epiphanies. Both artists recognize the role of the universe in allowing one to discover the truest expression of self. Later, Taja would begin to search for deeper meaning in a Higher Power: “I realized that I don’t have a recipe for making a butterfly,” she says, relating how she came to realize that God must exist. Although she converted to Orthodox Judaism, Taja has been open to look at other paths that teach love. “The New Testament too,” she adds, “anything that teaches the message of love for one another.” Of the many belief systems that uphold those principles, Taja says, “it’s really like ‘the same girl in a different dress,’ you know? They’re all striving for the same place of truth and love”
How To Make An Impression On The Boss.
In 1991, Taja Sevelle released a second album, Fountains Free, on Reprise. This time out, she was coming into her own more and showing tremendous growth as an artist. The liner notes boast of songwriting collaborations with the likes of Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer-Sager, David Pack, and legendary Philly Soul producer Thom Bell. "Prince lovingly said he was envious that I got work with Thom Bell," Taja said. Prince envious? Perhaps more accurate is to say he possessed a healthy sense of artistic competitiveness. On this album, as on her next one, Toys of Vanity (1997), Taja Sevelle was no longer known as Prince’s protégée. Vanity, her strongest album yet, had been released on Sony/550 after the label won a major bidding war and secured Taja a deal worth 1.5 million dollars. The album boasted a harder sound that flirted with alternative rock and trip-hop thanks in part to collaborations with Detroiter R.J. Rice (of R.J.’s Latest Arrival renown). Prince was impressed. After the band played at the first Prince: A Celebration event at Paisley Park in 2000, he asked Taja where she found her guitar player (Shawn Carrington) and drummer (Adrian Porter). She jokingly told him he couldn’t “poach” her players for his band. Again with the healthy competition thing.
Video And The Radio Star.
Like her mentor and one-time label boss, Taja Sevelle was born and raised in Minneapolis near the dawn of the Swinging Sixties (she is four years Prince’s junior). She and Prince grew up in close proximity of one another and even attended some of the same schools, but the two wouldn’t cross paths until the Reagan Decade was in full swing. Nancy Richardson, as Taja was then known, was working at Minneapolis’ KMOJ when she received word that producers were looking to cast extras in Prince’s film, Purple Rain. Taja got a part; she can be seen briefly in a crowd scene during the performance of “Purple Rain,” the movie’s musical climax. Pausing the DVD at just the right spot to find her proves a bit of a challenge, however: “We all had the big hair back then,” Taja says now with a laugh. A little later, she and Prince would meet face to face at First Avenue, the locale where those riveting concert performances in the movie were shot. And with that encounter in the fabled Minneapolis nightclub began an association with Prince that Taja Sevelle says “really changed my life;” and in the years that followed, “developed into a lifelong friendship.”
These days Taja doesn’t feel it’s necessary to recount what transpired with her music after Toys of Vanity. Her relationship with Sony/550 never went beyond the one record, but to quote a certain 90s rock band from Minneapolis, “every new beginning starts with some other beginning's’ end.” Guided by the belief that things happens for a reason, Taja notes that if her music career hadn’t been put on temporary hold, she may have never been led to discover a new vocation. After relocating to Michigan, Taja began noticing the areas of abandoned acreage in depressed areas of Detroit and wondered if there was a better way to make use of it. Imagining the possibility of using this blighted land for the planting and growing of food, she founded Urban Farming™ in 2005. Taja’s vision “began with $5,000, a pamphlet, and three gardens we planted in Detroit.” It became a global trend within three years, and today there are more than 65,000 gardens around the world. And what about her music career? “Music is my first love,” Taja affirms. “And it always will be.” In recent years she has re-recorded two songs from her first album (“Love Is Contagious” and “Fly For Your Painted Rainbow”) and released them as digital singles. On the new version of “Contagious,” Taja says she worked with the original producer/musician, and the original engineer, which allowed her to get as close to the original master recording as possible. She also says two new singles will come out later this year, sometime after the launch of her book. One of those, “A Fine Place,” is described as “an intimate love song.” The other one, “Be Free,” is produced by Shawn Carrington, guitarist for Beyoncé and Jay-Z, among others.
Love Is Contagious.
If there was one thing Taja Sevelle would want the world to know about Prince, what would it be? “His philanthropy,” she states without hesitation. “He was passionate about helping people in many ways.” Then she adds, “Of course, music was his first love.” Since his death in 2016, Prince’s philanthropic work, much of it previously undocumented, has come to light. The secrecy with which Prince did his acts of giving reflected his belief that one shouldn’t boast about charity nor seek the praise of men (he knew his Scripture: this was Matthew 5:6). While Taja respected her friend’s way of giving anonymously and quietly, she also feels “it is good to let this out; it’s important that people see it.” Why? Because they just might be inspired to do the same. If this were a Scripture duel, Ms. Sevelle could counter the above-cited verse with Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine before men…”). Both Prince’s approach to music, and his desire to give to people in need, made others want to follow his example. It inspired them. It certainly inspired Taja. Her nickname for Prince — it appears this way in the credits to both Taja Sevelle and Fountains Free — reflects how his way of doing served as a great guide for others to follow. Taja calls him “Footprints.” “Prince had a good heart,” she remembers, then adds: “His clean living, his zest and passion for music, art, loving people...when you are around all of that, it makes you want to do it too.”
Taja Sevelle recognizes the rarity of the experience of having Prince as both a mentor and a friend. Even more so now. “I am appreciative,” she says. “I feel he is with me. He is championing me.”
As always. And like never before.
Ms. Sevelle’s book From the Root: A Memoir and Philosophy for Balance in Our World, is available on Amazon June 8th. She is donating partial proceeds to Urban Farming™ and during the month of June, to the PRN Alumni Foundation.
© PRN Alumni Foundation