Becoming the protégé of a mega superstar like Prince is no small feat, but singer Liv Warfield beat the odds. Her new album The Unexpected is just that: a delightfully surprising, soulful treat—and Warfield’s labor of love, with Prince serving as executive producer and lending songwriting contribution to two songs.
While Warfield is no stranger to working with big-name artists (she’s also performed alongside the likes of B.B. King, Al Green and The Roots), Prince is the one who took Warfield under his wing and helped the singer reach her highest potential. The Unexpected is the shining achievement of the duo’s dynamic partnership.
One could say a little bit of luck and a whole lot of talent brought the two together for a chance meeting. When a friend of Warfield’s got wind that Prince was looking for a new backup singer, she decided to send a YouTube clip of Warfield performing The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” at PDX Pop Now to Prince’s management. Warfield says she didn’t expect anything to happen after the clip was sent, and was shocked when she received a phone call a few months later asking her to come to Paisley Park Studios, Prince’s multi-million dollar complex near his hometown of Minneapolis. Warfield remembers trying to keep her composure during their meeting, where the two just got to know each other and played music together. She describes the almighty Purple One as “humble” and “amazing” and further says, “It totally changed my life, meeting him.”
From there, Prince personally asked Warfield to be a part of his legendary backing band The New Power Generation, where she has remained for five years. “Before I joined the New Power Generation, I thought I was an okay, maybe good singer; I thought I knew what I was doing,” she says. “Then I was like, ‘Oh! Okay, this is how you really get down’ … my ears are open now.”
Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Warfield grew up in a sheltered Pentecostal household. The daughter of a deacon of the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ, Warfield says there wasn’t a lot of secular music around the house, and she found refuge in listening to R&B artists like Etta James and Whitney Houston in her bedroom with the sound turned down low. Warfield says she was finally able to find her voice and just be herself when she moved away from home to Portland, Oregon on a track scholarship to Portland State University.
It was here that Warfield knew she was destined to follow her passion and become a singer. She left athletics behind and focused on getting her burgeoning career off the ground. Warfield started out performing in karaoke bars and at open mic nights. Soon after, she began hanging up posters and signs to get the attention of fellow musicians who might be interested in starting a band. From there, she began singing in hip-hop acts and immersing herself in Portland’s local music scene. “I was like a sponge,” she says. “All this music was so new to me that I just wanted to be a part of this band, any band. I wanted to be in a hip-hop band, I wanted to be in a rock band, I wanted to be a part of anything [where] I could sing or just … be a part of the scene.”
Warfield says Portland’s robust roster of talented musicians had a lot to offer in the way of advice and encouragement. Specifically artists like “Portland’s Queen of Soul” Linda Hornbuckle really rallied around Warfield and pushed her to sing with bands as well as start her own. Warfield says she owes a lot to these musicians for giving her the courage to make it on her own.
In 2006, Warfield released her debut, Embrace Me. The soft, understated elegance of the album gives comparisons to Jill Scott and Sade. It’s a project Warfield says she created as an effort to try to find herself as a songwriter. If Embrace Me comes off as soft and vulnerable, then The Unexpected is the complete opposite—vibrant, spontaneous and a force to be reckoned with. Infused with rock, soul and funk, The Unexpected is the album of an artist who’s fully come into her own and is not afraid to let go. While Prince executive produced the LP, Warfield says she was given a generous amount of autonomy—all tracks were produced and written by her and her alone with the exception of the title track and tantalizing slow-jam “Your Show” where she had Prince’s help. Other noted gems include the electrifying soul-funk jam, “Why Do You Lie?” Warfield says these tunes mostly play off classic Blaxploitation films like “Shaft” and “Cleopatra Jones and The Casino of Gold.” “I wanted to create a musical experience that could easily accompany those movies,” she says.
Yet, all in all, Warfield’s biggest inspiration for The Unexpected is the live music experience, which is why she decided to record the entire album completely live with NPG. “I really wanted to show another side of me… the real side of me, the real live side of me,” she says. “The recording process became easier because this is how I perform live. I didn’t want everything to feel so perfect. I just wanted it to feel real; I wanted it to feel soulful, and I wanted you to hear every emotion in this album. That was important to me.”
And in the end she succeeds. The Unexpected perfectly showcases Warfield’s talents as a songwriter and performer. The album also provided Warfield the opportunity to be fearless, something she says Prince had a significant hand in teaching her. “[Prince has] just really encouraged me to go outside the boundaries and push for what I want,” says Warfield. “He’s taught me so much … but if anything, he’s taught me to just step out and take chances. I learned to be an amazing performer watching him, like … watching him on stage with NPG is incredible. The energy is magnetic, it’s such a force.”
Warfield is not shy when it comes to her dynamic stage presence, too, and it’s something that needs to be witnessed first-hand. Her performance of “Why Do You Lie?” on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in January was chill-inducing and would make the most seasoned R&B performer swoon. Expect more of that when she goes on tour.
“I want people to just feel live music again, feel the instrumentation, hear the horns,” she says. “So many people say this music can’t be played on the radio, well … I believe it can just like The Gap Band and Earth, Wind and Fire used to. That music hits the heart, it hits the soul, and I just want to bring that back.”
Catch Liv Warfield live:
4/6/14 – New York, NY @ B.B. King Blues Club and Grill
4/13/14 – Washington, DC @ Howard Theatre