Q&A: Matt Thorne—‘Prince: The Man and His Music’

MATT THORNE_BOOK COVERWhen it comes to music superstars, Prince is truly in a lane by himself; but while he has long been one of the world’s most revered and incomparable entertainment figures, he is also one of the most enigmatic.

In his newly-released book, Prince: The Man and His Music (available February 9), British author Matt Thorne offers a “meticulously researched and critical biography” of this iconic music legend.

In an interview for SoulTrain.com, Thorne discusses the book and Prince’s incredible professional career, his performances and of course, his indelible impact on the music industry.

SoulTrain.com: This is your second book about Prince. What motivated you to pen another one? What is different this time around?

Matt Thorne: This is the first book of mine about Prince to appear in America, but it’s an updated version of the book that first appeared in Europe rather than a completely new book. There are new chapters and changes throughout which bring the story up to date.

SoulTrain.com: As you know, there are quite a few biographies that have been written about Prince. How will this one stand out?

Matt Thorne: I think it stands out because it’s a study of Prince’s whole career, combining a detailed look at the entirety of his output with interviews with many of the people who’ve played an important role in his music either in the studio or onstage. Most of the books written about Prince previously either focus mainly on the first decade of his career or, as with most of the recent ones, are cut-and-paste jobs that have little original research.    

SoulTrain.com: His entire professional life, for those on the outside looking in, has always been one of conjecture and mystery. Do you think there’s any part of him that relishes in being such an enigma?

Matt Thorne: Oh, absolutely, and I’m not trying to demystify him as that’s an essential part of what makes him such a compelling figure. But I think for such an incredible artist, there’s relatively little critical commentary or detailed analysis of his work in the press. With the exception of brilliant critics like Robert Christgau or Jon Bream, most of the reviews mainly rave without getting into the detail of what makes his work so extraordinarily significant.

SoulTrain.com: In the book, you cover finite details about the peaks and valleys of his career: his battle with Warner Bros., the “symbol” era, protégés, rivalries, etc. How were you able to narrow it down? Was there anything you wanted to include but didn’t?

Matt Thorne: The book took me seven years to write. I approached everyone I possibly could, listened to every last note that was available to me, watched every video, all the films, read all the books and articles, went to literally hundreds of shows and tried to distill all that into six hundred pages. I’m not sure there was anything I wanted to include but didn’t, but it’s definitely the case that his work is endlessly protean and mutable. I’m not trying to offer definitive readings of his songs—that wouldn’t be possible—but instead contributing to a conversation of music lovers around the world. One of the best things about the European publication of this book was hearing from other Prince fans about how they interpret certain songs or shows; hopefully, that will now happen with American fans. The music books I like most, like Paul Williams on Bob Dylan or Nicholas Pegg on David Bowie, are books you can pull down from the shelf while you’re listening to an artist’s music and think, “I really agree with that,” or “No, he’s got that all wrong.”      

SoulTrain.com: As someone who has meticulously researched and catalogued his life, do you think this book clears up any misconceptions, especially about him from a personal standpoint?

Matt Thorne: I found it fascinating to talk to people who had worked with Prince over the years and felt that through consistencies in different people’s observations, some elements of his character do come through in the book. I’m not sure if it clears up any misconceptions, but one of the things I think is most interesting and not much commented on is how much of Prince’s personality comes through the music. If you look at his lyrics from different eras, you can see the same preoccupations repeated again and again, and while allowing for artistic license and songs from fictional personas, I still think you get a really good sense of the man from the work.   

SoulTrain.com: With his massive discography, what do you think might be his proudest accomplishment so far?

Matt Thorne: I wouldn’t like to speculate on what Prince might feel proudest about, as two recurring points in his interviews seem to be that he values each song equally and that he doesn’t like to dwell on his past (though that seems to be changing recently). But I can tell you what I think is his greatest achievement, and unique in popular music, and that is his ability to run two careers side-by-side. On one hand, you have the still incredibly popular stadium musician who can effortlessly transport tens of thousands of people; then, at the same time, you have the experimental musician who plays an often entirely different set in small clubs, is conversant with jazz, funk, and some elements of experimental music, and means so much to a smaller group of fans who follow his every release, no matter how obscure.

SoulTrain.com: Prince made an appearance on Soul Train during the mid-90s, after Don Cornelius relinquished hosting duties. If you could guess, what did you think his thoughts might be on the show and Don Cornelius’ legacy?

Matt Thorne: It would be hard to say anything about his thoughts, but I did think it was a fascinating performance. It took place at a very interesting time in his career and as always with Prince, he didn’t just play his hits of the time; he mixed it up, performed with Nona Gaye and commented on the performance by having Mayte [Garcia] walk around with signs while he played. I don’t know why it took him so long to perform on the show; as I understand it, Don Cornelius asked Sheila E. to ask Prince to appear much earlier. Maybe it took a while to work out. This is one for the Soul Train historians.

SoulTrain.com: Once you completed the book, did anything surprise you? Did you learn anything new?

Matt Thorne: The process of writing the book was one of constant discovery. I think Prince put it best when he said there are gems hidden everywhere among his back catalogue. Hopefully, my book can help readers find some of the most deeply buried ones.

SoulTrain.com: What do you want Prince’s fans to take away from the book?

Matt Thorne: I hope that readers and fans enjoy the book in the spirit it was intended—to complement their enjoyment of Prince’s incredible body of work. It’s a conversation-starter, from one fan to all the others out there, and a record of the thoughts of people who’ve played a part in Prince’s work and life that might otherwise be lost.

—LaShawn Williams

LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.

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