The Revolution’s Lisa Coleman talks Prince’s legacy and grieving through music

"He should be considered a gay icon even though he was not gay – he was androgynous and he was sexual and he was alive."


THE REVOLUTION at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (May 21), doors 7 pm. $49.50-$100. ticketfly.com.


After Prince unexpectedly died at 57, the music icon’s ballad Sometimes It Snows In April emerged from his extensive catalogue as a funereal anthem. D’Angelo performed it on The Tonight Show as a tribute, and it’s become a singalong staple in the set list on his old band the Revolution’s 25-date North American tour.

It’s a particularly meaningful song for Revolution keyboardist Lisa ­Coleman, who wrote and recorded it with Prince and guitarist Wendy Melvoin.  

When news of Prince’s death spread last April, the Revolution reconvened and decided to play three tribute shows in Minneapolis. Now they’re in the midst of an emotionally charged reunion tour that began around the one-year anniversary of his passing.

Many consider the Revolution lineup that solidified for the 1984 movie and soundtrack Purple Rain – Coleman, Melvoin, keyboardist Matt Fink, bass guitarist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z – to be the best band Prince was ever in.

Coleman began working with Prince on his 1980 album, Dirty Mind, and continued playing keys during his most commercially successful years. Following the band’s breakup in 1986, Coleman went on to form the duo Wendy & Lisa with Melvoin, her former romantic partner, and the pair continue to make music for TV series such as Heroes and Nurse Jackie.

Ahead of the Revolution’s Toronto show, NOW spoke with Coleman about grieving onstage, Prince’s legacy as a gay icon and his intensely devoted fans.

Who is singing at the shows? That’s something a lot of people are wondering about.

That’s the question of the tour. We’re doing a lot of the singing ourselves. But the whole point – and this is what we really want everyone to know – is that we’re not at all attempting to replace Prince. What we want is for the audience to sing as much as possible. Our whole philosophy is to have everybody sing together. And when we do that, that’s when we’ll find Prince.

What’s it like to grieve someone in this way? Normally if a band loses someone, they might replace that member or just stop performing. This feels like a unique situation.

This is definitely something that was completely created out of our grief. The band had been broken up for a good number of years, but we stayed in touch as friends and occasionally worked together. But when he died, we gravitated toward each other and needed each other. So we realized that maybe we could help a lot of people by playing the songs. It’s sort of like looking at old pictures when somebody dies. You tend to want to look at stuff that was theirs or that they gave you. It reignites the love and the connection you have with that person.

Has performing the songs without Prince given you a new perspective on him?  

Definitely. Everything is informing us about him: what he went through and what he was going through when we were all playing together. He was the one. The one in front. The chosen one. In one way it’s a huge gift. In another, it’s impossible pressure. I think it negatively affects the lives of lots of big celebrities and other important people.

Obviously many celebrities turn to drug use as a result.

Yeah.

Was is it a shock to find out he was taking painkillers? To a lot of fans that ran counter to his image.

Yeah, the extent of it was a shock to me. But I understand why he would turn to that, especially given the demands he put on his body. He was an acrobat for most of his life. To have your body start to fail and the way it was affecting him – that’s really not acceptable, not an option for somebody like him. It made me really sad to think he was suffering in such a way.

Given that he died in April, the song Sometimes It Snows In April has new prominence. You and Wendy wrote and recorded it with him for the Parade album. What do you remember about making it?

I just remember being in the studio that day. We were in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound, and it was just the three of us. It was a quiet night, and I remember playing the chords – I’m guessing a couple of times there were some definite notes in there – and when I played those, Prince would always laugh and offer to pay me more money. He’d pretend to reach into his pocket and bring out some dollars. I remember hitting notes, and he turned around and gave me the money sign. That always meant he liked it. And it’s just so bizarre to me what that song means to us now. It was April 21 when we wrote it, he died on the same date, and we were writing about a pretend death for a movie [soundtrack]. I don’t know. I’m still processing that whole thing.

Parade is an album that comes up a lot among musicians. Why do you think it resonates so much with them?

It was another very experimental kind of record for us. I remember we had just gotten the Fairlight [synthesizer], and it was like a new toy. It inspired us, and we wrote a lot of new and different-sounding things. Because we were also really high on the popularity of Purple Rain, we had all of this momentum, so as musicians we were really bold and brave. I think other musicians can feel that when they listen. There’s an irreverence to it, and it’s all over the place. It’s the kind of stuff that record companies hate but musicians love. [laughs]

It was a movie soundtrack [for Under The Cherry Moon] as well. Now that you do a lot of scoring for TV and film, do you bring any of those experiences into your work?  

The thing I learned from working with Prince that helped me the most is being able to play while keeping your attention on something else. Especially during live shows, we all had to keep our eyes on Prince all the time. You never knew when he was going to pull out a cue. We had all these hand signals he’d give us that would send us into a different section or cue some crazy riff. That’s exactly what I do now. I sit in my studio at my keyboard, I play and I watch the screen. The actors are like Prince, and I’m trying to score them and take cues from them. Prince came by the studio one day when we were scoring Crossing Jordan, and he saw this one cue for a shot of a cop running through an alley and jumping off a fire escape. He said, “Wow, you really made that guy look cool.” So maybe we learned some flair from working with him, too. [laughs]

The Revolution_Purple Rain_Larry Williams.jpg

Larry Williams

What’s it like being back with the Revolution given that it was so influential as a multiracial, multi-gender, multi-sexuality band? Is that something you think about?

Funny enough, we’re really happy to be together again right now because of the climate and political atmosphere in the country with our new president. We feel a call to arms. We’re more than happy to be representing what we represented back then, and it’s unfortunately just as relevant right now as it was then.

Many remembrances have touched on Prince’s influence on masculinity and gender. Some have even called him a gay icon. Do you agree?

Oh yes. And I think he would be fine with that. I think he did that completely intentionally, and it’s a very important part of the whole piece of being all-inclusive. He realized that early, early on.

Even though I think he questioned and played with his sexuality, he was very much a heterosexual guy. But he appreciated… I don’t know how to say it… being able to play with as many colours as you want to play with in the crayon box. And that’s what he was going to do. It’s all okay and it’s all great. He wanted Wendy and me to be out in the band, and we were fine with that. He should be considered a gay icon even though he was not gay – he was androgynous and he was sexual and he was alive.

What did you think when he became more focused on being a Jehovah’s Witness and stopped playing a lot of the “dirtier” songs?  

I personally thought it was his right to grow and change. There was a certain part of him that was maturing in a different way. Sexuality to an older person becomes a different thing. It’s more cerebral, more soulful and less physical. I think a person like Prince had to use his spiritual life to bolster that kind of maturity. I’m sure it’s hard to be a public person and to want to grow or change your philosophies about things and learn more about your own life and then try to translate that for your fans. People are either gonna go with you or not. But I think it was just him growing up. And that’s cool.

Prince was well known for playing after-parties. How integral were they to his creative process?

If it wasn’t after-parties, we would videotape every show. Oftentimes we’d watch it on the bus afterwards. I think Prince was just always working and he wanted to perfect himself. After-parties were great because you can do crazy things and solos and just have fun, whereas a show is more set. You had a commitment to a promoter and to x amount of fans. The after-party was Prince’s chance to stretch out and have fun. Shred a little bit, too, without having to be perfect.

You already mentioned that the fans are so schooled on every note and riff. You must have had some memorable interactions with them.

Oh man. Well, we just ran into a fan the other day. We did a morning TV show, and this guy saw us on the show,  jumped in his car, drove down to the TV studio and caught us walking out. And he just started to cry – a grown man. It’s incredible the way we’re connecting with people. We’re all so emotional right now. It’s sad and sweet, you know? It was such a bittersweet thing, but that was an incredible encounter. We just hugged him, said hello and gave him tickets to the show, and that was all. He just wanted to say thank you. It was amazing. That was outside of dream world.

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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