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Purple Rain Book Author Recalls the ‘Playful’ and ‘Soft-Spoken’ Side of Prince 

We interviewed author Andrea Swensson about her new book, ‘Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years,’ releasing on May 21
Prince onstage during the Purple Rain Tour, November 4, 1984, at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. (Credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images)
Prince onstage during the Purple Rain Tour, November 4, 1984, at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. (Credit: Ross Marino/Getty Images)

There seems to be as many books about Prince as there are tapes in The Purple One’s vaults. With 2024 being the 40th anniversary of his chart-topping, multi-platinum, Academy Award-winning film and Grammy-winning soundtrack, Purple Rain, there are sure to be more. Perhaps the most essential one, however, is Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years, penned by Minneapolis-born and -bred print and broadcast music journalist, and host of the Official Prince Podcast, Andrea Swensson.

Swensson was earmarked by Prince for her writing and invited by The High Priest of Pop to Paisley Park numerous times. A champion of Minneapolis’ musicians and music scene, Swensson is the author of Got to be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, as well as Deeper Blues: The Life, Songs, and Salvation of Cornbread Harris, who is Jimmy Jam’s father. There is also a grip of Prince-related books Swensson has written or contributed to that range from his fashion to his guitars. She has written tour guides for Paisley Park and according to her, conducted 150 interviews with Prince associates for various projects. These include members of The Revolution, Morris Day and The Time as well as Apollonia, Jill Jones, Prince’s managers, and staff.

This access fed into the deeply researched Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years, weaving a first-person narrative into the complete telling of the story of the album and film. The book goes beyond Purple Rain providing a fast-moving biography of Prince’s entire life leading up to Purple Rain. It provides concise but thorough overviews of each of the five previous albums with a wealth of quotes from a cross-section of credible sources, in addition to Swensson’s own interviews, plus a forward written by Maya Rudolph.

It’s the visual component of the book that makes Prince and Purple Rain: 40 Years–a hardcover coffee table-sized volume with a slipcover–a collector’s item. Swensson says, “Prince is such a kaleidoscopic artist, and always had such a comprehensive creative vision. He wasn’t just coming up with songs—each album had a new color palette, a new wardrobe, a new hairstyle, sometimes a whole new band.” To tell the full story of Purple Rain, the book includes over 200 images including live photography, album-related artwork, posters, ticket stubs, tour passes, press clippings, and fan memorabilia. Says Swensson, “It all comes together to create this cohesive statement about the world he built in this period.”

From what Swensson shares with SPIN, it seems His Royal Badness chose her to be in a very unique and favored position in his orbit—and we are not going to pretend that we are not thoroughly envious of her station.

When did you first meet Prince? What was your initial impression of him?

ANDREA SWENSSON: I met Prince face-to-face for the first time on the 30th anniversary of the day Purple Rain was released—June 2014. I had just aired an interview with the drummer from The Revolution, Bobby Z, to mark the anniversary, and he called Bobby and I out to Paisley Park that night to playfully tease us about our desire to look backwards when he was so focused on the future. My initial impression was that his eyes were enormous, his sense of humor was disarming, and that he was far more laid-back, soft-spoken, and gentle-natured than all the lore about him had suggested.

But you had a personal/professional connection with Prince prior to meeting him?

His people first reached out to me after I reviewed a tiny club show of his at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. They didn’t allow cameras or phones into the venue, so I drew a little doodle of him in my notebook and included it with my review online. The email basically said, “Prince would like to own your drawing.” He ended up using it as the artwork for a live recording of that show that he posted to his YouTube account, and from then on, I got all kinds of invitations to private parties and events at Paisley Park, with the understanding that I would write about what I experienced. By the end he would tweet out links to my reviews, which was very surreal. He would tweet my name in all caps with a link to the review between my first and last names.

How did your personal connection with Prince and his music begin? How did it change as you got more involved on a professional level?
I don’t remember a time in my life when Prince’s music wasn’t in the air. I was born on the same day that he recorded the first version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” which is something I learned while researching this book, and I grew up feeling like it was cool to be a Minnesotan because Prince claimed us as his own. When I started working as a local music journalist, it became essential to brush up on his career and I started doing a deep dive into his enormous discography. I think it can be intimidating for casual fans to explore Prince’s music beyond his hits because his body of work is so vast, and his fans are so intense. 

But here I am, over a decade into writing about him and researching him, and I keep learning new things all the time. My fascination never wanes. I am deeply inspired by his prolific desire to create and create and create.

What are your earliest memories of Purple Rain specifically?

I was a baby when it came out, so I didn’t actually watch the movie until years later, when I was a teenager. My friend and her older sister taught me the hand gestures for “I Would Die 4 U” and we would do them over and over again in her basement while watching that part of the film. I thought Morris and Jerome were hilarious, and I couldn’t wait to see a show at First Ave.

You have a wealth of Prince quotes from various sources. How did you go about sourcing those? Where did you know to look for them?

It’s so important to include Prince’s own voice in stories about his work, so I’ve spent many, many hours combing through all of his old interviews with magazines, newspapers, and TV programs. The Purple Rain era is tricky because there was a period leading up to and during the release of the film where he stopped speaking to the press altogether. But people kept asking him about it over the years, and he started talking about it more as he got older (and wiser) about what it all meant.

You have amazing images and artifacts and memorabilia in the book. From where did you source such a rich collection?

For the visual elements, I called on a handful of key photographers from this period—including Nancy Bundt, whose work I absolutely adore, and additional Minneapolis photographers Greg Helgeson, Tommy Smith, and Jimmy Steinfeldt. Robert Alford shot the opening dates of the Purple Rain tour in Detroit and had a treasure trove of images. And for the artifacts, I worked with a few passionate fans who have amassed amazing collections of Prince memorabilia—my friend Rich Benson, who is located in Minneapolis, and two collectors from the Netherlands, Angelo Schifano, and Roald Bakker. Everyone was so eager to collaborate, and we all felt this was going to be something special.

Considering what you shared about your experience with Prince about not looking backward, what do you think his reaction would be to this book?

It’s so hard to say. If he was still here, I would undoubtedly be writing about his next album instead of this one. Ouch, hurts to think about.

Do you have some Prince anecdotes you can share? 

There are so many little moments from my time with him that stick with me to this day. At one point we were walking into his studio together and he winced when he saw that all the overhead lights were on. “Ugh, set a mood,” he said to no one in particular, and his staff scurried around turning off the lights and lighting candles. 

When it came time to bid me adieu, he led me back into his club at Paisley Park and we watched some musicians jam on the small stage. When they started up Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” he reached out his hand and said, “You want to dance?” I turned beet-red and froze like a deer in headlights. Before I could summon the will to react, he whipped his hand away and said, “Just kidding!” Then he did it all again: “Do you want to dance? Just kidding!” and started cackling and slapping his hand on his leg. I looked down at my feet and blushed, and when I looked back up he was gone.