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Love Is The Color: How Paisley Park Fostered Prince’s Creativity

Next week, Prince’s legacy will be honored with a 3-day “Celebration 2017.” We went inside his iconic mecca with the people who know its secrets best.

Love Is The Color: How Paisley Park Fostered Prince’s Creativity
Architect Bret Theony worked with Prince to develop Paisley Park into a multi-use center than included several recording studios and living quarters for the artist. [Photo: Bret Thoeny/Boto Design]

From the outside, Paisley Park resembles a less ambitious Ikea or a suburban medical center—the kind where podiatrists and dentists make their living. The 65,000-square-foot, clinically white compound is surrounded by a traditional parking lot and a few evenly spaced trees. In the distance of the residential area of Chanhassen, Minnesota, you’ll spot a day care center and a public storage facility right before a highway entrance. It would more seemingly be the home of the film Office Space than one of most creative musicians of our time.

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Yet inside, one is transported to a kaleidoscope of trippy colors and questionable interior design decisions. As you enter, a six-foot horizontal mural of Prince’s eyes seductively stares you down—it was the artist’s way of letting guests know he was watching them. From there, you walk into a colorful atrium with large piano keys drawn into the ceiling and plush purple velvet sofas anchored on either side. Heavenly cloud designs on the wall are meant to symbolize that this was a place of “no limits.” Beneath you, the artist’s insignia is inscribed into marble tiles. A caged dove coos from a second-floor balcony.

Further down lie several recording studios and bland offices, as well as a “galaxy room” filled with ultraviolet lights and drawn planets meant for one to practice meditation. There’s also a spacious nightclub complete with a stage, theater screens, and velvet ropes where Prince would throw concerts or parties for up to 1,000 guests. Sometimes, though, he would play Finding Nemo for them instead.

In some ways, the entirety of Paisley Park feels a lot like Prince himself—a successful combination of corporate aggressiveness and psychedelic creativity, with just a dash of kookiness. Business in the front, party like it’s 1999 in the back.

“There Is A Park That Is Known…”

While the icon passed away last year, his sanctuary lives on, albeit in a much different way. Paisley Park now serves as a museum run by Graceland Holdings LLC, the same company that manages Elvis Presley’s Graceland. But prior to his death, Paisley Park functioned as a revolutionary symbol for the music industry. What Prince created was more than just a home and recording studio—he created an entirely new way for musicians to envision their production.

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Following the meteoric success of Purple Rain in 1983, Prince Rogers Nelson decided he wanted to build his very own recording studio. At that time, he was living in a residential area of Minneapolis in what was dubbed “the purple house” because it was the only house painted the regal hue in what was effectively a rather homogenous block. (The neighbors, it’s been said, were not pleased.) He already had an in-house recording studio, but with all his different projects, the young musician was spending outrageous amounts of money renting additional commercial recording studios.

Bret Thoeny, architect and owner of Boto Design Architects in Los Angeles, was only 23 years old when Prince’s manager tapped him to design the purple house recording studio. Shortly thereafter, he was summoned to produce what would become the $10 million Paisley Park.

Upon arrival, the architect discovered that Prince’s team had already purchased a warehouse in Eden Prairie, a suburb south of Minneapolis.

“He really had a vision that he wanted to have a creative complex that was his—that wasn’t in Los Angeles or New York, but in Minneapolis, where he was born and raised and felt comfortable in,” says Theony. “So he could bring everything to him, not the other way around.”

Professor Sarah Niblock, associate dean of the University of Westminster and co-author of Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon, regards Prince’s physical dedication to his Midwestern roots as symbolic. During the ’70s and ’80s, the African-American community consisted of less than two percent of the Minneapolis-St. Paul population. Growing up as an African-American in one of the whitest American cities was key to forming Prince’s talent for melding a unique blend of musical styles, explains Niblock. That he also overcame local radio stations and music clubs—which had traditionally refused to associate with black music—made him a trailblazer.

“Prince went through huge battles to put the Twin Cities on the map as a global center for black musical innovation,” says Niblock. “No wonder he wanted to create a permanent monument to that struggle, right on the highway so no one could ignore it.”

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On a lighter note, Prince once told Oprah that he chose to remain in the Midwest for more practical reasons. “The cold keeps the bad people out,” he said coyly.

Minneapolis was non-negotiable, but the chosen property wasn’t large enough to execute Prince’s demands: a complete multi-use complex of recording studios, Hollywood-equipped sound stages, vaults to hold unreleased songs, multiple dressing rooms, editing suites, offices, and enough space to film movies and hold full concert tour rehearsals. It would also include living quarters so that, if need be, Prince and his team could rest following late hours. That means the Purple Rain star could compose at any hour of the day, whenever he pleased, in his very own sound factory.

“The music, for me, doesn’t come on a schedule,” Prince asserted in a 1996 interview with The New York Times. “I don’t know when it’s going to come, and when it does, I want it out.”

Such a compound was revolutionary for its time. It might be standard fare for popular artists today, but back then, musicians strictly worked with commercial studios. The only similar project belonged to George Lucas, who built Skywalker Ranch in 1978.

“Artists weren’t doing this,” stresses Theony. “It was forward thinking, [this idea] of combining everything under one roof. It had never been done by an artist.”

Theony was tasked with finding another property, so he simply drove further north into the suburb of Chanhassen, a quiet area that had a few industrial complexes peppered throughout. Theony stumbled upon an open piece of land—six acres—with nothing but several beehives. It would become the future site of the production plant that was Paisley Park.

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Boto Design’s Wall rendering

“They’ve Taken A Lifetime Lease . . .”

For the next year and a half, Theony worked alongside The Purple One to execute the first recording facility of its kind. Not that working with such a demanding—and visual—artist was by any stretch simple. For example, Prince didn’t want to look at blueprints. Such documents didn’t help him imagine the end product. Instead, Theony was required to make a scale miniature model of all of Paisley Park.

“I would show him in 3-D, and he really got into it—looking inside the little rooms and making suggestions,” Theony recounts.

Some of the facility was pre-determined due to its production specifications. The high ceilings throughout the complex were a direct result of the large sound stages built. Other details, though, were specifically requested: “He wanted pyramids,” says Theony, who positioned one in front and one by the living-quarters suite in the middle. The latter would light up in a soft violet glow whenever Prince was in residence, much like the Queen’s flag at Buckingham Palace. He also preferred that the structure be mostly windowless to protect his privacy and to limit sunlight.

Other aspects were functional. The entryway had double doors to prevent the cold weather from seeping in. Once inside, there was a small gathering point so guests could warm up. “It had some public aspects,” says Theony.

Close up on the Panels

Some details were a hybrid between the two professionals. Theony designed the building exterior’s white metals panels, which he thought would serve as a dramatic contrast against the green front lawn. Prince took it a notch up by using them as a canvas with which he would either light up in purple lights or flash various images on.

During his time with Prince, Theony was also witness to some of the singer’s lovable eccentricities, including his appreciation for fan mail. “A fan had sent him a white dove and that dove lived in his office,” recalls Theony. “It became a [Paisley Park] mascot for a while.”

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When it was completed in 1987, “Prince couldn’t believe it,” says Theony. The singer, who was 29 upon its opening, had been on tour for a good portion of that last year. “He was quite happy.”

An inside look at one of the recording studios within Paisely Park [Photo: Bret Thoeny/Boto Design]
Prince’s mission to build a recording production plant solidified his independence, both creatively and physically. Much like how he took on the recording industry to break free of corporate interference, he envisioned a new, bold approach to music-making. Prince wanted to control and have access to everything he created.

“Everything was in one place so, at the drop of a hat, he could do whatever he wanted, 24 hours a day,” explains Niblock. “If he wanted a new album cover, his in-house photographer could have the shoot set up in an instant. If he wanted a new outfit rustled up, he could phone down to the wardrobe department. Whenever the energy felt right, he could jump into a studio and lay down vocals or, if he wanted, do an impromptu stage performance video with his band at 3:00 am.”

“Ask Where They’re Going, They’ll Tell You ‘Nowhere’ . . .”

Life was busy at Paisley Park, which served other artists from the get-go. Steve Parke, author of the upcoming book Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait began painting with the artist in 1988 and ultimately became his art director for 13 years. He recalls the early days of Paisley Park filled with musicians, actors, and directors who were renting the premises for a number of projects. It was not unusual for him to walk past someone like MC Hammer in the halls.

“It was definitely more of a corporate entity,” says Parke. “The estate had its own sustainable income.”

But over the years, the direction of Paisley Park changed: Prince slowly took up more of the studios and reclaimed his investment. “He wanted to bounce between studios,” says Parke, who would witness the musician hustle back and forth across the atrium to record in various studios. “He’d be occupying all the spaces [until] he took it all over.” In the later years, outside recording was restricted to a few close friends and collaborators.

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Prince’s refocus on Paisley Park was not only reflected in his decision to cut back on rental use, but also in his desire to rework the interior design. As Parke remembers, “One night, he said ”I want to change all this and make it more creative.'”

Parke had to throw ideas out in hopes that Prince would take to them. “He wasn’t super communicative, you kind of had to figure it out,” he says. Parke incorporated details like the mural of the artist’s eyes by the entrance, building a waterfall behind a drinking fountain, and designing a rug that weaved in the singer’s lyrics. “It was about making it more interesting instead of, in his mind, bare bones.”

Working 100-hour work weeks to meet the singer’s demands wasn’t out of the ordinary. Prince’s perfectionism extended beyond himself and became a work ethic he expected of his employees.

But there were perks: Parke often worked to the sound of Prince playing his piano. During late nights, Prince would challenge him to a game of ping-pong, although it wasn’t always fair. (“He cheated,” claims Parke of one memorable game.) And oftentimes, Prince would go into the kitchen to prepare him a fruit shake in big red Dixie cup.

“He was a bit like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory,” says Parke.

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Paisley Park proved remarkably productive for Prince, who recorded 30 albums there, including Lovesexy, the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman, Diamonds & Pearls, The Gold Experience, Sign O’ The Times and Emancipation. In addition, the facilities were rented out by a number of bold-faced names: Madonna, James Brown, Celine Dion, and Stevie Wonder among them. It even hosted movie sets, such as the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men.

In later decades, Prince’s home became infamous for its secretive, legendary parties and recounts of adorably bizarre behavior. The Chappelle Show hilariously immortalized late comedian Charlie Murphy’s story of being schooled by a competitive Prince on the Paisley Park basketball court, while Jamie Foxx said of the eccentric scene, “It was like all these people in there just kinda left over from the set of Purple Rain.”

Over the course of Prince’s residency, Paisley Park was subject to the artist’s private life and milestones: weddings, divorces, record contracts. Some were happy moments, others more melancholy. Following the death of his newborn son, writes his ex-wife Mayte Garcia in her new memoir The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince, Prince destroyed a newly-constructed home area and playground he had designated for the family he would no longer have. “In the darkest possible state of mind, [Prince] had it bulldozed to the ground and the contents burned,” wrote Garcia.

But perhaps one of Paisley Park’s greatest unsung contributions is the community it built. Prince brought together a wide variety of up-and-coming musicians, proteges, and collaborators who ventured to Minneapolis to record music. He was more than a legendary singer and songwriter of funk and R&B—he was a talented producer, editor, mixer, and talent scout. His more recent proteges included Janelle Monáe, Esperanza Spalding, and the female trio 3RDEYEGIRL.

“He was a huge champion for women and women being in the position of power,” Monáe said of her late mentor last year.

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“Admission Is Easy, Just Say You Believe . . .”

Today, Paisley Park is outfitted with memorabilia, exhibitions, and tours that reflect on the artist’s decades-long career. Daily tours trace the creativity that was once bred at Paisley Park; fans can walk through the recording studios, editing suites and club that are no longer in use. The museum kept Paisley Park pretty much as it was the day Prince passed away in the facility’s elevator. So much so that even a few of the musician’s personal belongings—a cat carrier in his personal office, travel luggage in the corner, handwritten lyrics on a music stand—are left as they were on April 21, 2016. A Yankee Candle (Ocean Mist scented) that lies on Prince’s editing desk is probably the most jarring reminder that despite his otherworldly attributes, he was above all, a human, like us, who enjoyed cheap candles.

In the atrium that once held legendary parties lies a hoisted elaborate model recreation of Paisley Park. In it remains Prince’s ashes. A tour guide has a tissue box on hand should you find it necessary.

The Paisley Park museum will undoubtedly excite fans who have always wanted a peek inside the artist’s notoriously private creative space. (There is, at press time, no exhibits dedicated to his personal life.) But for some, there is disappointment that a complex so very dedicated to creation—with three recording studios still fully functional—remains inactive. Prince had wanted Paisley Park to ultimately serve as a museum, but did he want it to cease its original intention?

“My personal feeling is that should be both a museum and a working facility too,” says Theony. “I’d like to see it have a double life because I think it pushes the legacy forward.”

Parke, who recalls Prince mentioning Graceland “from time to time,” harbors conflicted feelings. He recognizes it would likely be a logistical nightmare to keep a museum running while coordinating rental space of the recording studios, but “Maybe that’s something they can do in the future,” he hopes. “Prince loved kids and educating kids through music and it’d be great if there was an opportunity somewhere down the line for that to be integrated into the museum.”

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For the time being, Paisley Park remains quiet, save for the cooing of surviving dove Divinity. At the very least, says Parke, he hopes visitors remember all that Prince gave not only to the music industry, his community, but also to his fans.

“Prince worked really, really hard,” says Parke, “I’m not sure people realize that. They just see the end product.” Parke recalls witnessing eight-hour rehearsals and all-night choreography preparations, albeit it all looked effortless once the singer took stage. “He pushed himself to an incredible degree. There may have been a tiny bit of magic involved, but most of that magic was stuff he created. It wasn’t out of nowhere . . . He [built that] at Paisley Park.”