Paisley Park, Prince’s home-turned-museum, holds his spirit close – and not always in exactly the way the artist meant it to.
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
Standing in the atrium of Paisley Park, Prince’s mansion-studio-turned-museum in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, Mitch Maguire points out his very favorite artifact in the whole place. It’s a spiral-bound notebook that holds Prince’s handwritten lyrics to “Soft and Wet,” his 1978 debut single. The late musician’s handwriting is beautiful, and the “i” in “Prince” is dotted with a heart.
Mitch is the manager of tour operations at Paisley Park. He’s showing us around the museum on a cool spring Friday, and it doesn’t take long to see that working to preserve Prince’s legacy is more than just a job for him.
“It really means a lot to me to be here,” he says. “Though given the opportunity, I’d rather not be here. Because that would mean Prince was still here.”
It’s a contradiction that pangs a lot of the superfans who visit Prince’s home. What they really want, after all, is to be at the Paisley Park that existed prior to April 2016: the place where Prince recorded, lived, lounged, performed, played basketball, ordered up vegan delicacies in the wee hours. It’s still that place, of course, but it’s missing a key element.
Prince has been gone from Paisley Park, and this earth, for more than a year now, but he ensured that a piece of him would always stick around. Paisley Park is meticulously curated, in large part, by Prince himself, who worked for years to plan in advance the facility’s eventual transition from home to historical site.
As he did so, he made sure the building would always retain his spirit — in a lot of ways.
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One of the first things we see when we enter the building is a large graphic over the entryway to the tour area: Prince’s eyes, overlaid by the Love Symbol that served as his mark as well as his name for several years. As we pass under his watchful gaze, we enter the atrium, a wide-open space lit by skylights, its walls mimicking a blue sky dotted with clouds.
“There are no ceilings here,” Mitch says of the design, “no limitations.” That may well have been Prince’s motto for the entire Paisley Park complex, from the massive soundstage — yes, Prince did in fact need a 12,500-square-foot music space in his house – to the surprisingly large numbers of cars, motorcycles, and pianos that reside within the building’s walls.
There’s the so-called “little kitchen” that’s actually the size of a small diner. There are constant flourishes of gilt and purple. And there are velvet couches everywhere. There are so many velvet couches, in fact, it feels as though Prince was unfamiliar with the existence of any other kind.
Then there are Prince’s doves. They live in the atrium, in a spacious cage on a balcony where visitors can look but not get too close. Divinity and Majesty are their names, but actually that’s not quite right: They’re Divinity, Majesty, and Divinity.
Prince had declared that Paisley Park would always be home to a pair of doves named Divinity and Majesty. So when Majesty died earlier this year, Mitch tells us, since doves are frequently pair-bonded, a new, younger pair was brought in. But, of course, the keepers of Prince’s legacy would never fail to cherish and care for the elder Divinity who had been the deceased Majesty’s partner, and so today Paisley Park is home to three doves, including twice the amount of Divinity.
Prince loved and respected animals his whole life, in addition to being a transcendent figure of musical royalty, so all of this makes perfect sense.
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Just to the left of the doves, we discover that Prince is not just metaphorically still present in his home; he is literally still here. His ashes are kept in the atrium, in a niche about nine feet off the ground. They’re in a custom urn that was 3D-printed as a tiny model of the Paisley Park complex.
Realizing one has entered the presence of Prince’s earthly remains, Mitch says, is often an emotional moment for visitors, and he steps away to give us some space. It begins to sink in anew that Prince has really died.
Another place that awareness takes hold is in the lobby, where a condolence letter from Barack and Michelle Obama is framed and displayed. Later, at the end of the tour, a display shows some of the hundreds of fan memorials that were placed outside against the Paisley Park fence in the days after the star’s death — artwork, flowers, notes to a man whom the mourners may never have met but loved just the same.
These artifacts of mortality are important. That’s because throughout the rest of the building, it feels more like Prince has just stepped out and could pop back any time now.
A hat sits casually atop a piano — they found it there when they began the museum-ification process, Mitch says, so they left it. Prince’s office, though tidy, looks lived in, like he’ll be getting back to business shortly. Paddles and a ball sit on the ping-pong table in Studio B, ready for one of the artist’s apparently frequent play breaks.
Or for us to play, as it turns out. The cutest perk of the VIP tour is the chance to send a few volleys across Prince’s ping-pong table. It’s a fun moment, and it’s also a chance to step away from reverence for a second and remember that Prince was not just a superstar; he was also a guy with hobbies. He liked to watch basketball, for instance, in the little kitchen, a room we only get to peek into. (There’s a velvet couch.)
His favorite movie was, ineffably, “Finding Nemo,” which Mitch tells us often played on the big screen behind the artist as he performed in his private NPG Music Club. Prince was weird and brilliant and as otherworldly as he could manage on Earth, but yeah, sometimes he also just wanted to watch “Car Wash” one more time.
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Early in the tour, we enter the editing bay, a small room with a computer, a few monitors, a video screen, and a couch. Mitch invites us to sit on a carpeted step to watch some video footage. This is where Prince himself sat – presumably on the couch, but the furniture at Paisley Park is largely off limits for visitors, for the sake of preservation — and watched footage of his performances, his rehearsals, his sound checks: reviewing and self-critiquing and making notes on how he and his band could do better.
Prince apparently recorded absolutely everything, and he watched a lot of it like a football coach, looking for cues like audience reaction to determine which songs, which dance moves, which arrangements would stay for future performances and which would be improved or scrapped.
“Most people don’t realize what a fantastic bassist he was,” Mitch offers as we watch Prince play a furiously funky bassline on the editing bay’s screen. And fantastic he was, as proficient on the bass as he was on guitar, piano, and drums, not to mention his unforgettable vocals. That musical genius is on display all over Paisley Park, of course. Songs play everywhere, whether piped through unseen speakers or as part of the many video loops featured in the various museum spaces.
But no less in evidence is the relentless need for control that drove Prince to spend so much time in that editing bay. Perfectionism is in the very bones of the building, custom built to be the center of Prince’s creative universe. Just consider the recording studios, where Prince worked as both artist and producer: In Studio A, a chair remains in front of the mixing board where the singer sat to both sing and engineer his own voice simultaneously.
Perfectionism and control were themes that ran throughout Prince’s life and career. It began with his debut album, recorded when Prince was just 19 and featuring the artist on every single instrument. That’s something only a very skilled musician could do well, but it’s also something that points to Prince’s real need for everything to be exactly right, exactly as he imagined it.
That was a goal he wasn’t always able to achieve throughout his career, and his lack of control over his music and image shaped the way he presented himself to the world. The record contract he signed as a young artist didn’t end up working the way he wanted; as his career progressed, his ideas about how his music should be released were not being honored. As Prince saw it, his label, Warner Bros., was profiting on his creativity, on his very name, without considering what he wanted. He responded in 1993 by making one of the best-known name changes in rock history, becoming the unpronounceable symbol that’s still indelibly associated with him more than a decade and a half after he stopped using it exclusively.
The general public saw the change to the Love Symbol as just a wacky bid for attention, but it was entirely serious for the artist. Unable to control the trajectory of his career, he controlled what he could: his name, his public persona.
By the time the millennium rolled around, Prince had left Warner Bros. and gone back to being called Prince, and without the constrictions of that record deal, he began to explore his new freedom to release his music how and when he wanted. Having regained control of his career, he turned to painstakingly arranging the way he would present his legacy to the world in the form of Paisley Park.
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Prince began inviting fans to visit Paisley Park as early as 2002, offering tours and playing small, intimate, often impromptu concerts in the facility’s Soundstage and NPG Music Club. That club is now the spot where Saturday night tourgoers can dance to DJ music at the weekly Paisley Park After Dark party. Sunday mornings, vegan brunch is served there to those with VIP tour tickets. But for a time, the NPG Music Club was a place where locals might show up at 2 am after hearing through the grapevine — or from one of the artist’s enthusiastic, all-caps tweets — that Prince was going onstage.
Mitch talks reverently about attending those shows — about the magic of being just a regular guy who still got to stand mere inches away from Prince while he performed in his own home. At the time, Prince was beginning to curate Paisley Park into the form visitors see today. His ultimate goal, it seems, was for studio, home, and museum to exist side by side during his lifetime. That vision was dashed by an unexpected and far too early death, but much of what we see at Paisley Park now was dreamed up by Prince for exactly that purpose.
One of the areas Prince created himself is the History Hallway. It’s a long hall, and on one wall, a selection of the awards he won is displayed behind glass: Grammys, BET Awards, Brit Awards. On the opposite wall is an engagingly designed timeline, from Prince’s first album cover circa 1977 through each year until 1996 — not the year when Prince created the timeline, but the point at which the space comes to an end. “If Prince had more hallway here,” Mitch says, “he would have put up more graphics.”
It’s hard not to wonder why Prince, being Prince, didn’t just say, “Tear down this wall and give me more hallway.” Maybe the reality is something very simple: He had a lot going on. In his last 10 years, he released nine albums, and based on reports of his prolific recording habits, we can only assume he recorded a lot more music that went unreleased. He was touring, supporting charities, playing at festivals, working on a memoir, launching a music publishing company, making TV appearances on “New Girl” and “Big Train.” The History Hallway may well have been on his to-do list, but never gotten done.
Another space in Paisley Park Prince imagined was the Influence Hall, which features a large mural he commissioned almost a decade before his death. Prince’s image occupies the center of the painting, floating beatifically with arms out to his sides. To his left are the musicians who influenced him: James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and many more. To his right are the musicians he influenced most directly, his protégés, including Sheila E., the Time, and Wendy and Lisa.
Prince, of course, influenced a much wider swath of musicians than those he worked directly with. Multiple generations grew up on the mashup of styles that Prince distilled into a singular brilliance — and on the gender-bending hypersexuality that infused his songs, his look, his persona. From Beyonce to Beck to Frank Ocean to Janelle Monae, Prince inspired so many more careers than he takes credit for in his mural.
An uncharacteristic example of humility? Maybe. Or maybe he saw his protégés as extensions of himself, and was less interested in touting his scores of self-taught students than the handful he thought of as his artistic children.
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Many more displays have been added to Paisley Park since Prince’s death, but in many cases, what was added was what he had already begun to plan. Photos had been tagged for printing; all curator Angie Marchese had to do was have them printed and arrange them on walls. Spaces had already been designated to display Prince’s iconic outfits, guitars, and pianos.
Marchese came to Paisley Park with kind of the perfect background: For 28 years prior to Prince’s death, she was the curator of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Now she curates both, and she sees both the essential similarities and the big differences between the two musicians’ homes.
The scope of each space is one of the big differences, she tells us. Graceland was exclusively a living space for Elvis, whereas Prince ran an entire working multimedia facility in his home. “At Paisley Park,” she notes, “you’re visiting the place where Prince created, where he could do whatever he wanted to do under one roof.”
But the two museums have this in common: They are a pilgrimage for fans, imbued with the spirits of their famous occupants even long after they’ve left the buildings. People feel an immediate connection with the musicians when they walk in, Angie says. Their essences are still there in the way they made those spaces their homes.
Mitch finds that it’s Prince’s workspaces that visitors are most drawn to. That includes the recording studios, of course – “where the magic happened.” But Prince’s personal office is also a fan favorite, because of the very lack of magic it holds. In the office are family photos, business papers, the small carrier where Prince’s cat, Paisley, liked to nap. Regular stuff.
Suffusing it all, straddling the mundane and divine, there’s Prince’s obsession with purple. At its heart, of course, it’s nothing more complicated than a dude’s favorite color. Everybody has one, right? Prince’s just happened to be one that’s a little unusual for a man. Except, as with so much in his life, Prince felt compelled to really go all in with it.
Of course it goes without saying that everything at Paisley Park is purple. But, seriously, everything at Paisley Park is purple.
The color is used to especially beautiful effect in the large “Purple Rain” room, where ever-shifting violet light moves across the walls, creating a rain-like look. But it isn’t just in the obvious places. It’s all over, from the purple pansies featured in the gardens out front to the hand soap in the bathrooms. The “No Smoking” signs are printed on purple paper; the sandwich boards directing drivers around the parking lot are purple, too.
It surprises some visitors to see how not-purple the actual structure is — and how anonymous-looking it is. Paisley Park’s exterior is about as far from purple paisley as it can get: It’s a cubic facade of stark white, the sort of structure someone driving by might guess is an office building or an insurance company’s headquarters. It’s only when you walk through the glass entry doors that you’re hit with an explosion of color — cloud sky walls, a starry ceiling, quotes and pictures and awards decorating the walls, and purple everywhere.
This supersaturated canonization of a single hue is certainly over the top. Then again, wouldn’t it be a disappointment if it were anything less?
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As extensive a complex as Paisley Park is, as easy as it could have been for Prince to just exist entirely within its walls, he didn’t hide out there. He owned property all over the Twin Cities, a lot of it nearby in Chanhassen. (At one point we overhear a local assert that “Prince owned more land in Chanhassen than the city of Chanhassen does.”) He had an obvious love for the place where he grew up; he committed to making it his home long after he could have opted for a mansion in Southern California or a villa in Italy.
A Prince sighting wasn’t a rare thing in the Twin Cities – though it still seemed to be a little magical for those who experienced it. People liked sharing the times they saw Prince out and about in town, whether he was attending a Timberwolves game or catching a show at the legendary nightclub First Avenue, where he performed in “Purple Rain” and in real life, too.
He could sometimes be seen riding his bicycle near Paisley Park, cruising around on his motorcycle, or driving the robin’s egg blue Bentley that now stands on display in Paisley Park’s soundstage, next to his purple Plymouth Prowler (which is the far cooler car, but the Bentley was a cushier ride and Prince’s personal preference, Mitch tells us). He stopped by Electric Fetus, Minneapolis’ iconic record store, several times a year, making a point to shop there annually on Record Store Day; he was there for RSD 2016 just a few days before his death.
Prince’s footprints are all over the Twin Cities area, and the dedicated fan who wants to extend their Paisley Park tour experience can do some self-guided touring around town. A map is available with suggestions including some more personal locations: the star’s childhood home and the house he lived in during his teens, the hospital where he was born, the church where he married his first wife.
Poking around Minneapolis for signs of Prince has some of the same effect Paisley Park does in terms of both humanizing Prince and exalting him. The homes he lived in before his fame are very ordinary, modestly-sized houses, comfortable-looking but far from fancy. The places he frequented around town are open to the public; of course you can shop at Electric Fetus just like Prince did. You can go to a show at First Avenue, and if you’ve got a band, maybe you can even score a gig there. Prince was a human who did these very human things in these very human places.
But then things will happen like the day we arrived in town, when someone snapped a photo of a really cool cloud over the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and posted it to Twitter. Someone else noticed that it looked pretty similar to the silhouette of a particular photo of Prince playing one of his Cloud guitars. The comparison blew up and went viral, and a fair number of people are pretty sure that Prince revealed himself to us that day, straight from heaven.
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As both Mitch and Angie remind us, Paisley Park was always meant to be “a living, breathing creative space.” The intention is to keep it that way. Exactly what that entails isn’t entirely set in stone yet, but it’s clear that nobody involved wants to see Paisley Park sit quietly as a sterile monument to Prince. Just like he did throughout his 40-year recording career, it’s intended to evolve.
There’s a series of small rooms each devoted to an individual album, tour, or movie. Some of these had already been created before Prince’s death, among them the “Diamonds and Pearls” room and the “Sign O’ the Times” room. These rooms hold artifacts — the guitars he played on his tours, the outfits he wore.
The largest of these, unsurprisingly, is the room dedicated to “Purple Rain,” one of the crowning moments of Prince’s career. In it, we see not just an iconic outfit from the movie and the white Cloud guitar he played in it, but the motorcycle he rode, the purple electric keyboard he played, the leather-bound script he read from. The Oscar he won for Best Original Song Score is on display there, too. A large projection of movie clips is on one wall; opposite is a faithful recreation of the sign for First Avenue, where his band performed in the movie.
Some of the themed rooms were only partially envisioned by Prince, then later completed or built entirely by Angie as she worked to curate the museum after his death. The “Purple Rain” room was one of them, transforming a former dance studio-slash-basketball court. Another was “Lovesexy,” a new addition to the complex’s exhibits that was completed just before the April 2017 Celebration that marked the first anniversary of Prince’s death.
The themed rooms are flashy and fun, but it feels like we get closer to the real Prince in his recording studios and the adjacent personal spaces where he liked to lounge while taking breaks from creating. Like the Galaxy Room, where a velvet couch sprawls beneath glow-in-the-dark stars in a room lit only by black lights and candles.
The studio spaces — Studio A, Prince’s primary analog recording studio, and Studio B, the “center of Prince’s recording universe,” according to Mitch — are surely the big payoff of the tour to the real music geeks who visit. Within the warm, wood-paneled walls of these rooms, hundreds upon hundreds of songs were recorded, many of which remain, heard by only a bare few, in the basement vaults. It’s not hard to imagine Prince right there, sitting at the piano or singing from his perch behind the mixing board.
In each studio, the performance space is open to visitors while the recording equipment is behind glass and off limits, though much of it can be seen if you peer. This preserves some mystery; it also protects the very expensive machinery that may once again someday be used by other artists to record and master their work. The exact logistics of that haven’t been figured out yet, but Paisley Park has such a rich history as a hotbed of creativity that it seems unlikely those recording studios will sit idle forever.
There is one group of people who are currently able to record something at Paisley Park, and that’s the folks who purchase Thursday VIP tour tickets. On that day only, you get the unique perk of recording your own vocals over one of Prince’s tracks while standing in the same space where he did.
New display tidbits continue to be added throughout Paisley Park – particularly interview footage that Angie is still unearthing and deeming perfect to place in one room or another. The goal is that the facility will continue to be updated, with artifacts rotating in and out of the archives. Mitch notes that only a small fraction of the memorials left by fans after Prince’s death are displayed in the tour’s final room, but they will continue switching them out periodically, so everyone’s tribute gets a chance to be seen. New exhibits are planned for this summer season, and special events are already in the works for the 30th anniversary of the facility’s construction in September 2017 as well as for the Celebration upon the second anniversary of Prince’s death in April 2018.
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A final VIP perk is one we have to pay a bit extra for, but it’s worth it to anyone who wants the chance to prove to their friends that they walked within those purple walls. It’s a photograph, taken by the tour guide as the visitors stand in front of a massive black and white photo of Prince with his purple grand piano — the one he used on his final “Piano and a Microphone” tour — in the background. The photo is saved and sent home with us on a purple flash drive, which is what the extra fee pays for. And it’s extra valuable because absolutely zero photos, or recordings of any kind, are permitted in Paisley Park.
This is an aspect of the tour that surely disappoints some fans. There’s so much to photograph — so many memorable artifacts of Prince’s life and career — so many perfect selfie opportunities. But the folks at Paisley Park are serious about it, and if you don’t just leave your phone in the car, you’re asked to power it down and given a special pouch to stow it in that can only be opened with a tool wielded by a staffer who stands at the exit door.
On the one hand, it really does feel like a shame that we can’t shoot photos of Divinity and Majesty, or capture memories of the tour-themed rooms, or cheese it up in front of the large, lurid flowers from the Lovesexy tour. But by forbidding cameras under penalty of being banned from Paisley Park for life, the museum’s creators have managed to make it feel even more special and somehow ephemeral.
Without the opportunity to photograph everything you see, you make sure to really look at it all. When you leave, you’ve got your memories, made more permanent by the fact that you saw everything without your phone in front of your face. And with only your descriptions and your flash drive photo to share with your friends, you preserve some of the essential mystery that entered Paisley Park when Prince did — and never left, though Prince did.
Visit Paisley Park at OfficialPaisleyPark.com.
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Linnea Crowther is Legacy.com's senior writer.