Interview: Shelby J (US) on celebrating Prince’s life and legacy in Nothing Compares 2 Prince

Shelby J is an American singer, songwriter, entrepreneur and social activist, who has toured nationally and internationally with her band Blackgypsy and as leading backing vocalist in Prince’s The New Power Generation. In Australia next month for the World Premiere of Nothing Compares 2 Prince, she will be one of the twelve performers involved in this celebratory show.

Nothing Compares 2 Prince is a celebration of Prince’s life and career, making it’s world premiere in Australia a week after the anniversary of Prince’s passing (April 21st 2016), and features twelve performers, musicians, singers, producers and composers who, at various times, were directly involved in Prince’s incredible career.

What more can you tell me about the Australian show? What can audiences expect?

It’s going to be everything epic, amazing, fantabulous and awesomeness personified to the one hundredth power [laughs]. We are so excited about the collective of musicians that are coming together for this, it’s like a super group and Prince is the purple thread that binds us. To have us all coming together, bringing all of those different experiences that we have with him to Australia and playing music from so many different decades – I mean the set list is crazy. I’m not supposed to say what’s on it but I can tell you this, it’s bananas because it covers so much of his repertoire.

I love surprising people! Of course, we’re going to do “1999”. Of course, we’re going to do “Raspberry Beret”. But I love grabbing something off the B-side. The way the set list has been put together, like those hidden gems of Prince that people don’t get to see perform with the musicians that can play it the best because he taught us. They’re going to be happy with a lot of the hits, but they’re going to be some amazing surprises that people are going to be like, “I can’t believe they played that song!”

I’m excited for them to see what we’re putting together because we’re putting so much work and thought into you know representing him and honouring him and making sure that the people he loved, which are all the purple fam in Australia, get the show they deserve. I’m bringing people up on stage to dance too. You never know who. You never know when, but it will be happening.

The line-up includes St. Paul Peterson, who was chosen by Prince to appear in Purple Rain and was later the original voice of “Nothing Compares 2 U”; Cassandra O’Neal, keyboard player for Prince and The New Power Generation from 2009 to 2016; Tori Ruffin, lead guitarist with Morris Day & The Time; Stokley Williams of Mint Condition and Minneapolis All-Star; Jellybean Johnson of The Time, a high school friend, and along with Prince, one of the architects of The Minneapolis Sound; Ricky Peterson, who co-produced Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”, a number one hit in Australia in 1994; The list continues with Andy Allo, collaborator Nik West plus members of The NPG Hornz.

Will the show capture the spirit and energy that Prince brought to his live shows or do you think it’ll be completely different, considering there is such a big collaboration of musicians?

It’s going to be both. It’ll be newness because many of us have never played together, but we’re playing Prince’s arrangements of the music. You’re gonna feel that Prince energy because of the way he taught us to play his music and he’s the reason that we’re all connected. Even the fans, he’s the reason they were all connected so it’s going to be amazing. I’m doing “Nothing Compares 2 U” with St. Paul Peterson, I haven’t performed since Prince passed and I’ve decided to do it in Australia for the first time. I felt it in my spirit that it was the time for me to do it. This song needs to be heard [and] sing it like when we sang it together.

He taught us how to put on a show and make it be a party – especially me, I love a good time! I’m not dull; I ain’t never been dull. I like to have fun! He would let me do that. That says something about him, because a lot of artists they have people on stage with them, they might try to diminish them or have them you sing way in the back. But Prince, he’s like, “No, no, no. I need you out there, getting people excited and doing what’s natural to you. It will be so unnatural for you to be back here, timid and shy. That’s not who you are.” He brought out the best in us and who we truly were. This man is such a special person to be able to do this, and the fact that he’s still doing it and he’s physically not here, but his teachings live on through his music and his lyrics.

You have 10-year-olds now going out to listen to Prince music and getting into the lyrics of “Paisley Park” and “Sign o’ the Times”. The political stuff he would write about, it’s so relevant even today. Stuff he wrote in the 80s, it’s such a mind trip but really cool. I’m always going to honour him because he’s the reason I write like I write now. He’s the reason I perform like I perform now. So if I get an opportunity to honour him for people who loved him, like I know people in Australia did and still do, I was like, “I’m all for this!” [Laughs] I’m honoured to be able to continue that legacy.

I knew of his iconic songs like – “Little Red Corvette”, “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss”, for example, but had no idea before doing research for this interview that he had written hits for so many other artists, like “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” for Alicia Keys, Madonna’s “Love Song” and Celine Dion’s “With This Tear” to name a few – do you think that shock will add another element to the show?

Yeah, they’ll be amazed. A lot of people didn’t know. Like even with the “Nothing Compares 2 U” song, they didn’t know he wrote that for St. Paul and his band. They were like, “He wrote that Sinead O’Connor”, but like no, that’s not how it happened! [Laughs]

That’s the beauty of education, my Mom would always say, “People only know what you teach them or what you tell them, so if you don’t teach em or tell em, how are they supposed to know?” So we have to let people know these stories behind the songs and how they came to be, because then they can go on and spread the truth, as opposed to something they heard or saw.

Now that people are really finding out how many artists everything from Stevie Nicks to [The Bangles] “Manic Monday”, Chaka Khan‘s “I Feel For You” and, depending on what age you were, if you were pop locking, you’re not thinking, “Wait a minute, this is was a Prince song?!” They’re rediscovering all the stuff that he did other than just performing. He also made a lot of hits for a lot of people.

Do you have a personal favourite song of his?

I think it would be “Baby I’m A Star”, because that’s the one I used to sing the most around the house before I met him. Even in the movie Purple Rain, that was the climax. And how it ended, I’d do the hands just like when he does the spin at the end. I did all of that. [Laughs]

I imagine any one who toured, or even met with, Prince would have many fascinating (maybe even untold) stories. Will personal stories of the times spent with Prince be shared on stage?

We have his sister, Tyka [Nelson] coming. I have two older sisters, and nobody knows you like your sister. They usually are your first best friend, like my sister recalls me singing with a brush on the fireplace when I was 6 years old, with my dreams and aspirations way before the world pays attention, so a lot of times your siblings get to the see that genius as it’s coming up.

So I know Tyka’s going to speak on the mic to share a few things, and she’s also going to sing. With the different songs that we’ve chosen to do, I’m pretty sure people will say a few things about that. I don’t think it’s going to be planned; we’ll just feel it, like he did what he performed. I know me personally, it’ll just come and it’ll be very natural and organic. I see that happening.

Will the show feature any video or audio footage of Prince?

Right now, not that I’m aware of but that could change. I’m pretty sure it’s just us performing his music and having a celebration of his life with all of the fans and with each other.

You were a member of Prince’s New Power Generation for ten years, so I imagine you would have come to know him quite well on a personal basis. What’s a fact about Prince very few people know that you think would surprise?

Sometimes people or even celebrities, when they give they want people to know. They might donate money or computers to a school, but they’re going to call the news cameras to be there so everybody can see what they’re doing. The thing about P was, he would do stuff nobody would know about. I’m still finding out about generations of kids he helped with sending money to their schools for instruments and computers. In like a week, they would have what they needed and nobody would know about it.

A lot of times people see the celebrity, the music and the rock star stuff, but this guy’s heart – they say a person’s character is defined by what they do when people aren’t watching, and he was so generous and giving. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of just how loving he was. [He was] always checking on people, asking me about my mother and sisters by name. They don’t come along every day. He was a very special human.

Do you have a favourite memory you shared with Prince?

So many! If I had to narrow down one, I would say it was us at the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards. He was receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award and I’d just cut off all my hair – all of it – and I didn’t tell him ahead of time, I just did it. He walked around me and looked at me. I was like, “Oh my god! I’m about to get fired.” And he said, “I see you” and he wanted other people to see me. He’s like, “You’re going with me.”

They showed a videotape of us watching him being honoured. We had so much fun and that was one of those nights, it was almost felt like a prom night. It was so magical. I look over I’m like, “It’s me and Prince at the Lifetime Achievement Awards. Alicia Keys is climbing across the piano and she’s pregnant. We’re sitting out in the audience and we’re having the time of our life.”

I always think about that night and I know how much it meant to him. It was such a special night for him to be honoured like that by the BET. That’s one of them, but there’s so many!

Nothing Compares 2 Prince Tour Dates:
Sydney Opera House: 27th April, 2018
Melbourne Hamer Hall: 29th April, 2018