His name is Prince. He is not funky.
Far from it. The somber singer-songwriter William Prince leads listeners into his quiet, quotidian reflections and character portraits with his beckoning baritone. Un-funkiness aside, he was recently featured alongside R&B star SZA in a recent Mastercard ad campaign, a spot that ran during the 2018 Grammy broadcast and the Super Bowl. It was a huge profile boost for the Winnipeg artist, who was already pleased with a glowing endorsement from Bruce Cockburn, after Prince performed the legend’s “Stolen Land” at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame gala at Massey Hall last September. (Former fellow Winnipegger Neil Young also had some kind words.)
Hanging out with SZA and Bruce Cockburn might seem odd on the surface. But Prince now keeps company with similarly strange bedfellows on his brand new record label, Glassnote Records, which is also home to Mumford and Sons, Childish Gambino, and Phoenix. There, William Prince is just another square peg on a roster full of them – including Canadians Half Moon Run, The Strumbellas, and Justin Nozuka.
How did the humble, 32-year-old country singer, who took 10 years to make his debut album, end up here?
William Prince was born in Selkirk, Manitoba, and, as a boy, moved with his family two hours north to Peguis First Nation. There, he watched his father preach and sing in the local church; Prince soon joined him on electric guitar. Rock and grunge bands with high school buddies came and went, before Prince was drawn to the simplicity and mobility of the acoustic guitar.
“I tried to sing,” admits the baritone. “I felt pressure to sing in higher registers, and I was just terrible. I went through a screamo phase; I wasn’t cool enough to pull it off. But it was fun, just figuring out everything you love about music – learning Metallica chops and then applying that to acoustic guitar. My guitar was my life for a couple of years; I was a better musician at 17 than I am now.”
Early attempts at recording a debut album fizzled for a variety of reasons. In hindsight, Prince is just fine with that. “I’m not just stumbling upon my first good songs,” he says, now that his 2015 debut Earthly Days is being readied for a re-issue on a much grander scale than its modest beginnings. “Who cares what 20-year-old me had to say? I didn’t want to have to go through three or four albums before getting to the place where I show people my best. You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
That it does. Earthly Days is a stark, sparse record, rich in narrative detail. The focus is primarily on Prince’s narratives, which include character portraits like “The Carny,” “Bodyguard & the Beer Girl,” and a song written about his father, “Eddy Boy.” It’s a confident, self-assured recording. Prince credits producer Scott Nolan for enabling the songwriter to keep tempos slow and the voice low.
“I’ve worked so hard to just be a songwriter. If I were to come out of the gate swinging those issues hard, that might trap me in a zone that’s hard to get out of.”
“We’re creating a feeling, capturing a mood,” says Prince. “He gave me the confidence to use my voice to fill the bottom end when I don’t have a bass player and kick drum. To let my words draw people in and keep them there. I had all these things I didn’t see, because I was trying to fit in with everyone else – who doesn’t want to fit in, when you’re insecure? So we did these songs the way I felt most comfortable, and the way Scott encouraged, and it worked.”
Surely now that he’ll have to continue promoting what is currently a three-year-old album – with a re-recording of the song “Breathless,” cut in Nashville with Dave Cobb – he must be sick of these songs by now? “No, that was the intention: to write songs I won’t get sick of,” he counters. “I want to be in my Leonard Cohen years and still be playing stuff from that record. And now people know those songs, they recognize the opening chords and start cheering – that’s the kind of thing songwriters dream of.”
Meanwhile, writing is a constant activity for Prince; he feels more than prepared to start making his second record, which he’s doing in April of 2018. He’s also allowing for some last-minute future classics: after all, “The Carny” and “Earthly Days” came to him just before entering the studio in 2015. And because his Glassnote deal includes publishing, he’s itching to place his songs with other singers.
“There were a lot of years there where all I was doing was writing country songs and hoping to get them to somebody,” says the former morning host on a Winnipeg country station. “I don’t mind writing about beautiful skies, and how much you love somebody. There’s no condemning those things in the bro-country world. Some of it isn’t for me, but every so often I hear a song I can get on board with.”
In September 2017, Prince and Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac performed Bruce Cockburn’s “Stolen Land” in front of the man himself at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame presentation at Massey Hall. It’s not a song that fits in with Prince’s oeuvre: there’s nary a political sentiment to be heard on Earthly Days. That might change, says the descendant of Ojibwe WWII hero Tommy Prince, but not anytime soon – despite the fact he says he is as shaken as everyone else by recent verdicts in the Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine cases.
“There are people looking to me, saying, ‘You should write a song about residential schools,’ or, ‘You should write a song about injustice, because you’re one of us,’” says Prince, whose album lost the 2017 Juno for Indigenous Album of the Year, but won the in the Contemporary Roots category. “I understand that. Those people are going through a real loss right now. But it’s not the time for me to do that. That’s a song I’ll write 10 years from now, when we need help remembering. Right now, it’s every pulse and every ache for some people.
“I’ve been trying to get to a point where people just listen to me,” says Prince. “When I formulate that audience, then I can say, ‘Look guys, there are also these other things we need to talk about.’ That will be the point to bring it to them, in a place that will do a lot of good because it will come from a place of love, not of scorning or anger or disappointment – even though there are days when I feel that. There’s no elephant in the room I’m avoiding. I’m just waiting. I’ve worked so hard to just be a songwriter. If I were to come out of the gate swinging those issues hard, that might trap me in a zone that’s hard to get out of.”
Similarly, Cockburn is someone who grew into his political role before spending the rest of his career writing lyrics that oscillated between being broad and being very specific. “Oh, for sure, and I love that about him,” says Prince. “I think about how many albums he’s done – which is what, 27 or something? Here we are talking about me: ‘Oh, this is your second album? How cute.’ I’m hoping I have a 20-album catalogue by the time I start slowing down.”