Interview: Prince Archivist Michael Howe On Prince's Famed Vault

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Interview: Prince Archivist Michael Howe On Prince's Famed Vault

michael howe prince archivist
Prince, 1986 (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Prince fans, are you sitting comfortably? Prince’s 30-something studio albums, multiple soundtrack releases and pseudonymous projects are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the gifted star’s library of recordings. Prince archivist Michael Howe suggests ‘The Vault’, Prince’s famed store of recordings dating back to his first sessions in the 70s, contains a high percentage of genuinely uncirculated material.

“I would say the vast majority of The Vault is not officially released,” Howe says. “It’s difficult to quantify, but there is a lot more unreleased material than there is released material - I can tell you that much. As well as Prince music in The Vault, there are sessions with an array of other artists and players whose work intersected with Prince’s work. I can think of one collaboration with an artist in The Vault no one even knows about.” 

Joni Mitchell? Madonna? Miles Davis? While fans drool over the possibilities of this lost session buried in music’s equivalent of King Solomon’s Mines, Howe remains tight-lipped about future releases due to a non-disclosure agreement with the Prince Estate.

“The limitations of my agreement restrict me from commenting in much more detail, but there is years and years’ worth of surprises and delights in there, I can tell you. It’s wonderful to have that knowledge about upcoming projects, but a little bit of a bummer not to be able to share it.”

What Howe can detail is the expansive and expertly executed new 1999 collection, which sees around 30 unreleased songs from the era paired with the original 1982 album, B-sides and live recordings. An electrifying journey through one of Prince’s earliest and most creative, ahem, purple patches, the 5CD and 10LP super deluxe editions of 1999 offer an inspirational display of Prince’s creativity and talent. On top of well-known tracks including “Little Red Corvette”, “Delirious” and the title track, the 200-song collection features previously unreleased gems including “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya”, “Purple Music” and “Ya, You Know”.

Taking in recordings made in the wake of Controversy’s release in October 1981 through to tracks laid down during the 1999 tour in 1983, it’s the most extensive archival release since Prince’s death in 2016. It could easily be argued only Prince himself had previously heard as much of this material as Michael Howe, so which of these song sessions would the curator have loved to have sat in on?

“Boy that’s a very good question. There are so many surprises and delights we discover on a weekly basis that my answer would change on any given day, but certainly from the 1999 batch of material, one date in particular which sticks out is the session where Prince and Peggy [McCreary, engineer] recorded “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, which in my opinion is a pretty majestic moment with an enormous emotional heft. It’s just Prince at the piano but what he conveys in the space of six minutes is remarkable.”

Prince’s naughty sense of humour is also on display on 1999’s uncovered song trove. On “International Lover (Take 1)”, Prince breaks from the lyrics about getting a female conquest wet to cheekily ask his engineer, “Peggy are you listening?”.

“Yes exactly,” Howe agrees. “He’s in a particularly playful or mischievous mood. I’m sure it was heightened by having Morris [Day, The Time frontman] in the room during that recording. When they were together there was a lot of hijinks, so you can hear some of that on that session, for sure.”

Some of Prince’s attempts at humour from this period no longer translate, particularly in a post #MeToo environment. Howe explains that despite the wish to create an exhaustive overview of Prince’s 1999-era output, unreleased songs “Extraloveable” and “Lust U Always” were left off the package.

“Even though those two tracks are resolutely of the era, both tracks contain somewhat lamentable rape references. Given the egregiously insensitive candour of the lyrics and our lack of wanting to take creative license by editing or manipulating the tracks, we decided not to include them. Even though we want to shed light on the entire creative period, we certainly don’t want to be inflammatory or insensitive. We didn’t think it was right to include them.”

While Howe admits his Prince Estate-appointed curatorial role offers an incredible opportunity (“It’s been the most satisfying creative endeavour I’ve ever undertaken,” he says. “If my 19-year-old self could see what I’m doing my head would explode”), it’s also something of a poisoned chalice. While ultimately answering to the Estate, Howe also has to navigate appeasing Prince’s particularly opinionated fan community.

“We want to be as respectful as possible to Prince and his legacy but we’re also very aware of the fan community,” Howe assures. “In my estimation the fans are really the most important aspect of the entire tableau and the music brings so much joy to so many people.” 

So what message would Howe most like to convey to those who have questioned the posthumous release choices to date?

“I would like to convey that the people making these decisions take this very seriously. It’s very much a deliberate and involved process, it’s not like I walk into The Vault and pluck a tape off the shelf and decide that it’s something that I think should emerge and then it ends up on the marketplace. It’s a very forensic, very involved, very thoughtful, very high-integrity process and to do it right takes time, a lot of thought and conversation. It literally keeps me up at night; I want to do right by Prince, I want to do right by the fans and I certainly want to do right by the family. 

“Prince touched so many different people from all walks of life, so we try to take those things into consideration as much as we can when making these decisions and contemplating these things.”

Prince’s remastered 1999 is out on November 29 in multiple formats including 5CD/DVD and 10LP/DVD super deluxe editions, 2CD and 4LP deluxe editions and a 2LP purple vinyl edition. Check them out here.

Listen to 1999 on Spotify

Listen to 1999 on Apple Music 

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