20 Questions With: William Prince
If you don’t know William Prince, you should. And believe us — you will.
Since dropping his debut album in 2015, the Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter has perked a lot of ears, turned a lot of heads and developed a devoted and ever-growing fan club. In the last few months alone, he’s opened for Buffy Sainte-Marie, rubbed shoulders with the legendary Sam Baker and Kris Kristofferson and performed at the new National Institute of Music in Calgary. He also took the stage at the 2016 Canadian Folk Music Awards, where he was nominated for a pair of awards, and won Aboriginal Artist of the Year at the 2016 Western Canadian Music Awards (where he was also nominated for Roots Solo Artist of the Year). Most recently, Earthly Days earned him a pair of JUNO nominations: Contemporary Roots Album of the Year and Indigenous Music Album of the Year.
But success for the silky-voiced baritone has been anything but overnight.
Much like his songs, Prince’s career has been a slow and compelling journey, replete with false starts, lessons learned, obstacles overcome and knowledge gained. In fact, Earthly Days was more than a decade in the making, the culmination of what Prince calls “every song and experience I’ve ever encountered.” One listen to the finished album, however, is proof enough that Prince’s patience – and resilience – has paid off in spades.
Framed around stories about love and loss and fear and hope, his songs are at once simple and complex, his rich tone and masterful delivery adding layers of depth and holding your attention from the first note to the last. But most impressive of all is how, like all great artists, he makes it seem so effortless. Listening to his music, it’s easy to imagine him sitting around a campfire, guitar in hand, everyone in the circle hanging on his every word.
But music is only part of Prince’s story. To get to know him a little bit better, we recently chatted with him about everything from songwriting and influences to his heritage and fatherhood. Here’s what he had to say. (The following interview was conducted in two parts: Fall 2016 and March 2017.)
How did you get in to music?
My parents ran a DJ business on the side when I was a kid. Our house was full of vinyl, tapes and CDs. I remember listening to music all the time and choosing albums based on how interesting their covers were. My dad always played guitar and I started playing tambourine alongside him in church. He taught me how to play guitar and sing and it progressed from there. I had fun in a couple rock bands before settling back into the comfort of the singer-songwriter approach.
How would you describe your sound?
Slow-talking, country-folk love songs framed inside traditional gospel.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I’d say Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash are at the heart of my influence. A lot of traditional gospel and country western stuff. I listened to a lot of music growing up. My first memories of music range from the Gypsy Kings and Beach Boys to Whitney Houston.
I’m inspired by my peers these days. Scott Nolan has played a huge part in helping me hone my skills live and in studio. The songs were there, I just needed someone to help unearth them with a little style and grace. His songwriting motivates me every day. Richard Inman could also be one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard.
First record/CD you ever bought?
Our Lady Peace – Clumsy.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I wrote a song called So Many when I was first learning guitar. It was super cheesy and mentioned all these things the protagonist wished he could say to this girl. It wasn’t even about me or any girl in particular! It was heavy on the E minor and sap lyrics. “So many things I’d like to say, maybe I’ll write them down some day, put them somewhere, with a strand of your hair you left on my pillowcase”. – 13-year-old William Prince
When did you move from Peguis First Nation to the “Big City?” Tell us a bit about the transition.
I had just turned 17 when I graduated and moved to Winnipeg. I skipped a grade so I was given adult freedom a year before I could do anything with it. I began pursuing a career in medicine at the University of Manitoba and wasn’t the best student. I wasn’t the best student for the amount of effort I was used to putting in. I excelled in high-school and things always came so easily to me. The world of science and medicine is extremely competitive and requires the utmost dedication. It was hard to fail all the time and work jobs to supplement my funding. For the first time I had to work really hard just to make B’s while everyone around me felt like a genius who never needed questions answered. It was quite stressful and led to depression and anxiety issues. My dad was also going through a number of health problems that challenged us as a family. It was a really tough time.
I was also distracted by my growing love of music. I would constantly find solace in late-night writing and jamming with my friends. Medicine and music are not 50/50 careers. You have to put your whole heart into the one that fulfills you. Music was the thing that provided me the most consistent happiness. After I didn’t get into med school I took it upon myself to take a break and explore what music had to offer. That was seven years ago.
You recently had your first son, Wyatt. How’s fatherhood been treating you?
Being a dad is the best thing about me these days! It’s so exciting. I’m going through all the motions. My dad passed away last year on Aug. 6. I always thought that would be a huge hole in my year. My son was born on Aug. 2, and has provided me the greatest healing. He looks just like me. He’s a big boy. Only three months and is outgrowing his six-to-nine month stuff. He’s starting to laugh and talk all the time. It’s an incredible feeling to learn and experience all the things other parents tell you about. I used to be uncomfortable around babies. That goes away pretty quick when you love someone so much. We’re gonna be best buds just like my dad and I were. Fatherhood is easy when there’s amazing motherhood on the other side. He has an incredible mom who allows me to travel and set up the future I see for him.
What role do your Indigenous roots play in your day-to-day life in general and your music in particular?
I didn’t move to Peguis until Grade 5, and until then I wasn’t aware of the beauty of our culture or my ancestry. Pow wow music, singing, dancing, medicine. All majestic things. We are the original inhabitants of this land and it’s only in the past decade I’ve begun to understand what that actually means and how we’ve been mistreated. I am a direct descendant of Chief Peguis and the history there is fascinating. I carry a lot of quiet pride because of that.
I released a song in July called 7. It’s based on the seven sacred teachings of Aboriginal law. It was written for the Peguis graduating class of 2016. It was a beautiful subject to explore during the writing process and it was during this time I felt a real connection to my inherent right to speak these things with pride. The perceptions of Aboriginal identity have a long way to go before the negative associations dissipate. I guess I’ve always felt on-guard to be judged because of it. I began finding strength in the teachings of elders and cultural practitioners. I am surrounded by culture now and listen to the words of those who know more about it and use it to further educate myself and others. Growing up, there was a bit of a divide between the Christians and cultural people in Peguis. It might still be there, in fact. In the end, I learned there didn’t have to be a “choice.” My fundamentals are rooted in love and understanding these days. Trying to be a better person. Being Aboriginal has afforded me opportunities and a foot in the door that a lot of others fight to get and often see no return on. I’ve only ever wanted to be a great songwriter who happens to be Aboriginal. I see and feel the shock when people discover the person behind the songs they love is in fact an Indigenous man. I want my heritage to inspire our youth. Awards and big shows are lovely, but if they can lift our youth out of the somewhat disenchanted state that reserve life can inflict, allow them to see me as one of them, and push them to try for the same dreams I’m after, that’s the payoff.
Your debut album, Earthly Days, was 10 years in the making. Tell us a bit about the experience making it. What’s the most important thing you learned along the way?
The recording of Earthly Days was a crowning moment for me. I had tried numerous times to make a record and it would always flop. I got ripped off for a lot of money the first time, the studio closed the second time. Scott Nolan and Jamie Sitar stepped up with a vision for my songs and completed the task. We locked ourselves away for 10 days and created. I was working with a songwriter and passionate engineer as opposed to a producer watching the clock and dollars. It was a beautiful time and I’ll never record music any other way.
I think Earthly Days was my whole life in the making. It’s a culmination of every song and experience I’ve ever encountered. It has songs about my friends, family, and the trouble love can bring. I used to be the guy who felt like my worth was based around a beautiful girlfriend adoring me. It was very egotistical and unrealistic. You can’t be incomplete and expect someone to make up the remaining percents. That’s unfair to them. Earthly Days is in part the story of Wyatt’s mom. She’s a number of the songs and even painted the album cover. Losing her was truly one of the hardest things I’ve ever endured. Possibly harder than losing my dad, because I wasn’t done loving her. Of course, Wyatt tips those scales back to the positive light.
You can be wonderful with words and songs, but if those charms aren’t in constant practice, soon the whole thing will implode. Love is not ego or tabulated weighs and measures. I wanted Earthly Days to feel like serious love. I’ve always been a bit heavy and serious. People only see and hear the completed song. Truth is, there’s a path of doubt, discovery and growth that comes from living through them and eventually writing them. I’ve also learned to be careful. Be careful who you give all your earthly days to, because they’re twice as long when they give them back.
Your songwriting is all about the storytelling. What makes a good story, and what motivates you to share your stories with others?
People make good stories. Life is too fascinating to have to make anything up. If I can’t stop thinking about it, it’s a story worth telling. The Carny was like that. The story of my buddy Jord working for a carnival. That song could’ve had 12 more verses.
What inspires your songwriting, and what’s your process?
I’m inspired in the quiet. When I’m done viewing and listening. I’ll usually think of a phrase or something based on a blur of the day, record the words in my phone, strum my guitar a while until they compliment each other. From there I’ll properly record a verse and chorus and begin listening to it to lock in some kind of feel. When you repeat the same thing a hundred times it can stray from the original feel. I often forget new songs immediately until I hear them on my phone again. Words are in constant stream in my mind. It’s like catching fish with your bare hands. You have to be patient and almost sit without moving. Things need to be real quiet before anything happens with me.
“Thank God writing good songs is hard” – Mary Gauthier
Do you prefer writing or performing? Why?
Both are equally rewarding for different reasons. Writing represents solitude for me. I can disappear for hours. Performing is company and reaction. I love when people pour their hearts out to me when they feel connected to a song and how it moved them. It’s so endearing and real. From my solitary to theirs. Something that didn’t exist until I made it so affects another human being. I love that.
Your singing voice is so unique and memorable. Is it something you consciously work on, or does it come naturally to you?
I’ve always had a low voice. My dad’s and grandfather’s were even lower. They were all baritone church singers. When I was first discovering singing I based it on tenors or sopranos, the higher radio voice that needs to cut through the mix. I sounded awful as an imitator. I finally relaxed and gave into the voice I was given. My dad’s. I often say this voice is my dad’s and I carry it around. He’d dispute that and say I made his better.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
Wyatt is my focus right now. My family is really important to me. We spend a lot of time together. My mom, sister, her partner and my nieces are at the centre of my comfort, so I try to be with them when I’m not on the road. I love driving and listening to music. I play music on the radio in Peguis in the mornings. If I’m not making music I’m often performing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
I wish my dad had time to write a book. He was full of so much wisdom. He encouraged me to be funny when I was kid. “Be funny, but don’t be a clown. Girls don’t want a clown.” That stuck with me forever! That’s one of those “trust me” dad moments that I’m forever thankful for.
“It ain’t the singer it’s the song.” – Scott Nolan
This hit me so hard when I heard it the first time. I used to worry my voice was too low, my words were too slow and that I looked terrible in the photos of performances. It was a terrible hang-up for a long time. You know what’s attractive? Confidence in one’s self. I feel confident in my songs and folks are starting to feel them. That’s incredible to me. Great songs will take you anywhere you want to go.
This summer you had the opportunity to share the stage with some of the greats at Winnipeg Folk Fest’s Native North America showcase. Tell us a bit about the experience and what it meant to you.
I must admit that that experience became huge to me as it was happening. I was unfamiliar with the music of Willie Thrasher and Willy Mitchell until the album was given to me. Willie Dunn blew me away and I was brought on to kind of fill his place with Son of the Son. David Campbell’s song Sky Man and The Moon is so powerful. I performed that one as well. They trusted me enough to interpret and perform. To meet these trailblazers and hear their stories before they performed was truly an honour. They were the nicest guys you could ever meet. I thought they’d be fragile old men. Sheesh, these guys were ready to party from the get-go. We shared a lot of laughs and they bestowed all the wisdom they could. Duke Redbird moved me to tears with his poetry. Like an ocean of hard truth slamming against me. I saw their hardship and perseverance. It was a milestone performance for me for sure.
What has been your biggest struggle or challenge, either personally or professionally?
Acceptance. I’m trying to accept all the great things as an indication of me being on the right path. I’ve always had the patience for it, it’s shaking the idea of “this could go away at any moment” I need to deal with.
What advice would you give to young singer/songwriters trying to make it in the music industry?
If you want to write great songs listen to great songs. Start from the beginning. Imagine a time when music was just being shaped and respect the trailblazers of it. Be polite, courteous and patient. Grace will take you a long way in this industry. Stay away from singing competitions and be true to what comes out of your heart. It’s up to you to align your experience and words in a way that fulfills you. Honesty goes a long way, but so does tact. Jealousy has no place here. Your time will come, so when others are hitting it big around you, respect their journey and stay focused on your own. Everything is cyclical and the more you embrace change and what feels like hardship, the stronger your music will be.
You recently signed a deal with Paquin. Tell us a bit about the decision to partner up and what you expect from it.
Paquin started keeping tabs on me about a year ago. Jeremy (Giacomin) was a genuine fan of my music and helped me get shows just because he wanted to. They saw me at Winnipeg Folk Festival and that kind of cemented the idea that I was seasoned enough and ready to invest in. I knew one day I’d have to relinquish some control of my career to others if I wanted it to expand my audience. Nathalie Kleinschmit of Prairie Mix artist management took me on to help with the paperwork, and from there Paquin was a natural fit. We have a whole operation running between management, agency and Song Shop Records, where I record. This feels like success to me. Paquin has starting booking me festivals and tours. It’s really sweet to let the team handle business while I write, perform and focus on my son. It’s an exciting time. Shows are like the lives you get in a video game to keep playing. I have a few lives now.
“Get out of the music business and get into the [William Prince] business…” Scott Nolan quoting and altering great advice from Fred Eaglesmith.
What are you currently working on, and what’s coming up for you in the next year?
I’m working on a number of things musically. I just released a recording of Ring of Fire on Feb. 6 in celebration of what would have been my dad’s 67th birthday. We loved that tune. Currently, I’m writing a collection of songs that will accompany a short film about the life of John Ramsay, an Aboriginal hero who helped a group of Icelandic settlers near Riverton in 1875. It’s a remarkable story.
I’m JUNO nominated now! I’m heading to the JUNO Awards at the end of the month and performing for JUNOFest. Then I’m heading to the UK in May to play The Great Escape Festival, Toronto for CBC Music Festival and all across Canada for the folk festival season. I’m also super excited to be playing Tonder Festival in Denmark with the likes of Lucinda Williams and John Moreland in August. The year will finish off with some shows out west and a small tour before Christmas break.
There’s also one major thing in the works that my management will be announcing at the end of March. We’re really thrilled about it. We’ve spent the last year forging the relationship between Prairie Mix and Paquin. Now we’re confident we’ve found the right people to join efforts with south of the border.
Also, Wyatt is seven months old now! He grows more vibrant and handsome each day. He makes life worth living.