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Liv Warfield: Skydiving Into Paisley Park
You may know Portland’s Liv Warfield as the beautiful, talented, glamorous singer and songwriter who has gained worldwide notice since she became one of Prince’s backup singers in 2009.
When not travelling the world with him, she has her own solo career and her own band. She’s got both equally spectacular writing and performing talent. Her highly emotional songs deeply analyze the human condition, as well as the world’s. At the same time, she rivets the audience with her personality and her message.
And she is funk-ee, with a capital EE.
Light and warmth bursts from her, both on stage and in person. I first encountered Liv in 2002, when she was still a student at Portland State University singing with keyboardist Joey Porter in the band “Silky.” It was her first full-time professional gig since graduating from karaoke.
All of her talents were apparent, but she was rough around the edges when it came to how she presented herself. Sometimes she would just sit on a barstool on stage dressed in a running outfit.
A lot has changed since those times. What hasn’t changed is her fire.
But how do you get from Stumptown to Paisley Park? You jump out of an airplane and learn some lessons.
It’s been quite a trip since your Portland State days.
I feel like I am really lucky. I came out here in 1999 and had my heart broken. I ran track and I got a scholarship at PSU, but I came out here because I was going to get married. That didn’t work out. What was he doing? (As though she were talking to him.) “You’re leaving me? Out here all by myself? All alone? You know I’m from Peoria, just a little itty bitty town.”
But life goes on.
As soon as I moved out here I went skydiving. It was like seven in the morning and I remember I couldn’t really sleep because I was just like… just kind of up in the clouds (no pun intended). When I moved here, I was like a little lost puppy. I just… I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I kind of knew but I didn’t know, you know? I felt like I was just kind of stuck in this place. No friends, no family. And I’m thinking, “Oh great idea, let’s skydive.”
Maybe I felt like I needed to do something to let myself go. The clouds were really terrible. I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was so scared.
After I jumped I was going through the clouds and I was screaming really loud, but maybe five seconds after that I was thinking, “This is so cool, oh my God! Oh my God!”
That’s kind of stayed with me in my life… maybe sometimes it’s gonna be hard Liv, don’t be afraid. It’s gonna come to those times where you’re screaming your head off, and then there’s that calm period where I’m floating. That’s where I’m at, and I feel that’s the right place.
You have to tell us how you got to be in Prince’s band.
Okay cool. Let me get comfortable really quick. (She scootches in the chair.)
Marva King (former backup singer with Prince, Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder, and star of the stage play Diary of a Mad Black Woman) and Rick Cook (music promoter) got in touch with me. Marva told me, “Oh Liv, I heard Prince is looking for a new background singer.”
I said, “What?” and then, “Whatever.” Rick said, “You should send them the ‘Gimme Shelter’ that you did at PDX Pop Now!” I was like, “Yeah right, whatever.” But it never hurts just to send it right? I was going to Michigan for the SoulTracks Awards, I had gotten nominated for best new artist, and Marva called me and she told me, “Liv, Prince wants to meet you.”
I said, “What? What are you talking about? First off, let’s scoot back for a second. Are you telling me I got this or… ?” She said, “No I think he just wants you to come to Paisley and sing… just sing and just hang out.” I was still in Michigan and they asked me if I could leave the next day.
So I roll up to Paisley, and I feel like I’m skydiving again. I’m a zombie. While I was driving there I was thinking, “Oh my God, this is beyond, beyond for me right now. Okay be calm, be calm. Calm these nerves girl, calm these nerves.” Whew!
It was like going over to Grandma’s house… don’t touch nothing, don’t sit on her new furniture, don’t do any of that, stay right there.
So Prince opens up the door and I’m thinking, “Oh God, beautiful.” He just welcomed me. I walk in and he’s like are you hungry? I’m like, “Umm, no.” But he says, “Yes you are, come on.” We had dinner and we were just talking, and I loved the fact that he was a conversationalist. He just wanted to get to know me.
I knew he knew I was really nervous, and so we just chilled. When we went to the studio, he just sat down at the piano. I was feeling like I wanted to have a little concert of people who know me, who could just sit on my shoulder and just see what’s happening right now because this is the most amazing thing in the world.
I was trying not to be a fan. He sat down and he started playing and I’m… let me see… Marva was sitting there. He started singing, and I think he just wanted to see how fast my ear could catch on as far as harmonies and stuff. Marva’s nudging me, “Sing louder, sing louder. Don’t be scared. This is not a time for you to be scared right now.”
I can’t remember what we were singing. We were singing something in harmony and he starts playing… I mean phenomenal. He’s so effortless… and he’s so easy to be around. And so after we all sang together, he said, “You guys sound like the Pointer Sisters or something.” And I knew he was happy. He didn’t necessarily tell me he was happy with me at that time—because of course, you’re looking for some sort of affirmation like, “Oh my God you sound great, you sound this… ” And I’m like, “Oh my God Marva, what am I supposed to be doing?” I think he wanted to see how natural it was.
I wanted to explode inside. This is insane right now. Later we were chilling and he said, “Are you free?” I said, “Uh… yeah.” “Um… we really like your voice and would you want to come sing with us?” I was trying not to be excited. “Yes! I do!” That’s what I wanted to say but of course I said something like, “Yes, mmm-hmm, sure.”
As much as I wanted to shout and scream… He said, “Okay cool.” He had a gig maybe a week after, but I had another gig and I was thinking, “Oh my God. I have a show. How am I going to cancel this other show that I committed to? And he wants me to do this other show with him coming up that week.”
I had to learn probably thirty or forty songs in a week or so, and I’m thinking, “How do I tell him?” I thought, “Just be honest Liv, be honest.” Someone said to me, “Are you really gonna cancel and tell him that you can’t do the gig?” But I did. I didn’t do the gig, the first gig, with him at all. I didn’t. People said, “Are you nuts?” But thank God I’m singing with him today.
So what was the process of learning those songs? Did you just sit down with recorded music? Did you have to do it by yourself? Did you do it with the other singers?
The first couple of weeks I was by myself. Mmm-nnn. It’s like going to college all over… like breaking everything down. It was a different animal for me because I was going to be singing with other people. I had to learn about blending—how it really matters to blend with people. You know, you can sing harmonies, but to have three voices sound as one… that’s one thing he’s taught me.
We rehearsed a lot. My very first rehearsal was in LA and, once again, I clammed up. I remember he told me, “I can get somebody else in here.” (Eyes wide) Who?!?! I straightened up—flied right then—because I learned that you have no time, really, to be scared. You really have no time—just sing. You’re just criticizing yourself too much.
He goes, “I know she’s new at this so give her the melody.” I’m thinking, “Oh good yes! Give me the melodies.” Over time though, it got so much easier, it got… (big smile) it’s just such an awesome, awesome thing to be a part of. Learning from him… just entertaining and being a person and that kind of thing. I just jumped in—jumped in the water. Really, I really jumped, I really jumped. But I also had to be confident in myself.
So it’s like jumping off a plane, then.
Exactly. It’s exactly like jumping off a plane. Skydiving. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but I’m just gonna go with the flow and hopefully this will work. And it’s worked, it’s worked.
So your first gig was the Leno show. It’s one thing to be at a concert, but to be on television for your first gig?
Yeah. Yeah. That was crazy. I said, “I gotta get in-ears?” (earpieces) That was a whole new thing. I’m used to monitors. And the glam squad team (laughs), that was like too much. I’m used to just jeans and I’m like—Oh! That’s another thing he said. He saw the PDX Pop video and he was like, “How y’all gonna wear street clothes and play ‘Gimme Shelter’?” I’m thinking, “Oh my God, he’s absolutely—like it’s a trip.” You know what I mean? Cause he’s an entertainer, you know. It was really funny.
And what about your outfit on the Leno Show? Was it an outfit you brought with you?
Yeah, actually yeah. My girl (former Portland, now New York singer) Gretchen Mitchell found it. Gretchen found that and we had some other pieces… Like, I’m not used to glitter, so glitter and bling are my friends now. So I was never used to that, but yeah. So… (laughs) I’m cracking up because it’s so different from how it was before, you know, organically… playing in front of 80,000 people… a crowd of 80,000! That’s a trip, you know. I’m thankful… it’s just… it’s a trip… a movie.
I’ve never thought… mmm-nnn… but I knew I wanted to do something like this. And you know when you pray hard, you ask God for it and like Mom says, “You’d better be careful what you wish for–you wanna be happy with what you get.”
What an experience.
Yeah. It’s crazy.