Sometimes fairy tales come true. But even an unassuming, sweet girl like Hannah Ford couldn’t believe it when she opened an email from what would turn out to be the manager of the one and only Prince. The wording was vague, just a lot of general praise for her style and presence behind the kit, but no mention of who the “boss” was who wanted her to audition. As a woman in the male-dominated craft of drumming, Ford endures almost as many haters as she does fans, so she approached the random message with caution.
“I was like, “Am I being punked?’” she recalls of the surreal events that unfolded rapidly over the next couple of hours. At the moment, the 21-year-old drummer is wandering around in search of something to eat in a trendy part of Vancouver, where last night Prince’s new trio, 3rd Eye Girl, played the second of two consecutive performances. A day off feels weird for the preternaturally focused Ford, whose dedication would come across as OCD if she didn’t have such a bubbly disposition.
Back to that email. Ford’s manager, Dave (who happens to be her dad), makes a point of sifting through every Web page comment and sundry piece of traffic generated from her drumming videos. Unassuming netizens, the Fords’ savvy response to the mysterious email set off a rapid back-and-forth that, after a few video submissions of Hannah playing along to Prince tunes, prompted a first-class ticket to Minneapolis, destination Paisley Park, the famed studio where the pop star had cut some of his biggest albums.
Ford packed a small bag while trying to keep at bay the idea she was being taken for a ride. “I didn’t know if there were going to be other drummers [like an open call] so I didn’t know what to expect. I just went with an open mind and was just going to do my thing.”
When Ford showed up she saw Ida Neilson, 3rd Eye’s bassist, tuning her instrument. Guitarist Donna Grantis had yet to arrive. State-of-the-art is a term thrown around a lot with studios. Prince’s compound is all that but instead of being tucked into the usual industrial-zone warehouse, Paisley Park is a gleaming futuristic cube designed by a well-known architect. “Prince came in and introduced himself to me and he was just like, ’You want to go jam?’ And we just started playing the songs that he had wanted me to learn for the videos. It was really laidback and he was super cool. There was no pressure or any expectations. A situation that could have been a high-pressure, uncomfortable situation … it was so not that.”
Until a few days ago, Ford had been living at Paisley Park for the last six months recording and writing music for the full-length album tentatively titled Plectrum Electrum. Several of the tunes have made it onto the set list of the tour. “I’m not certain on a release date, but I’m really hoping that all [the new material] is released because it’s fantastic music.”
If the Revolution was the “hits band” in the ’80s, and the ’90s/early 2000s saw the New Power Generation working a funk/hip-hop mode, 3rd Eye Girl is the Purple One’s rock experiment, and fans occasionally need reminding that he is a fret-smoker on par with Hendrix. “When I came into this, I never heard of his rock stuff,” Ford says. “All of what [the fans] usually hear from Prince is his pop stuff. Unless you’re a hardcore Prince fan and you really dig into his catalog, you don’t really hear a lot of the rock stuff. So I didn’t realize how much he loved rock music, but I think that’s totally were his heart is.”
The few singles that have been released (“Screwdriver,” “She’s Always In My Hair”) have a hedonistic vibe, but with cleaner production and tighter execution than their acid-rock counterparts from the late ’60s. Live Out Loud, the current tour, is all about intimate setting (The Vogue Theater last night had a capacity of 1,250 – the largest venue on the tour).
The smaller scale might seem like a step backward for a musician once denoted by the Love Symbol, but performance-wise, the theater- and club-sized spaces make Ford’s playing more visible, at least compared to any previous Prince drummer. The cozier vibe also lends itself to experimentation as opposed to the dumbing down necessary at sports domes. “You feel the energy from the audience in a totally different way because they are right up on the stage and screaming at you,” she says. But she is quick to point out that it cuts both ways. “It totally gives you a whole other level of, ’Oh, man, I’ve got to step it up. I’ve got to keep giving them what they want and make them happy.’”