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In Focus: William Prince

April 11, 2023 2:55 pm GMT

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Wearing a black baseball cap and a busy, Hawaiian-style shirt, William Prince sits in a room flooded with light in his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Behind him is a painting of jazz musicians in a nightclub, and as you’d expect, the inevitable piano and guitars.

He is a proud Canadian, but more importantly a proud Peguis First Nations man, sporting an eye-catching tattoo of their flag on his forearm, and explaining what it means: “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow, the trees will remain.”

Since winning a Juno award for his first album, his career has taken off in both Canada and now further internationally. This year, alongside extensive touring Prince made his Grand Ole Opry debut and is now about to release his fourth full-length album, Stand in the Joy, produced by Dave Cobb.

Eager and open to talk about everything, Prince joined Holler to share the joy.

Being an outsider – a Canadian and First Nations artist doing it your own way – what are the pros and cons?

Getting across the border without visas is about the only privilege that comes with being First Nations these days. I’m very thankful for that! We often have to work that 50% extra to be taken seriously and seen in the same light. We’re reconciling with a lot of old stigma and challenges in our community that are still very present. Add being Canadian on top of that and it’s a head-scratcher that I’m constantly playing through my insecure thoughts all the time. Will I crack the mountain? Will I make it? Worry and comparison and all those things, they just steal the joy away.

I started out playing music because it brought me joy, and it continues to do that. So I’m going to lean more into those things and be grateful for where I am, because I know there are a lot of people working hard who’d love to be in my position; putting out more records, finding an audience and getting to play bigger and bigger shows. Standing in the joy, that’s what this record is about. Choosing to see the good, to be positive. When we are grateful there’s not as much room to be anxious, sad, worried and doubtful.

What makes Canadian country and Americana distinct?

I think Canadiana, North Americana, is close to our folk community in Canada. If you’re a Canadian country or folk singer, the community shrinks down to a memorable cast list quite easily and we’re all trying to make an impact in the States. We have some of the greatest songwriters and bands, yet we’re still almost looked at as an asterisk or an aside.

How has your music being featured in the TV series Yellowstone helped you?

That was a really cool thing to be a part of. I’m not much of a TV watcher, and Twitter essentially pressured me into watching the show, because so many people saw the song and loved it. So I finally became a Yellowstone fan and, immediately after, watched all the episodes. It was sweet to see my song in a father-son scene with the legendary Kevin Costner, in an old ranching show. If my dad was still around he’d be ecstatic about that.

How did you get Dave Cobb involved in producing the new record?

Dave and I have been working together since he was in Nashville, and this is our first full-length record. The War and Treaty had just finished up there in Savannah when I showed up, and he’s building a whole new scene there. He’s very direct and intentional, there’s no fluke, we’re not stumbling into things. He has five or six ideas going at a time, then we execute and it’s conducive to making good quality, strong music. It’s nice to have someone who says: this is great, let’s roll with it now. He’s a self-starter and finisher; he wants to get things done and is always onto the next thing, in a good way.

What inspires you to write – do you have a place or a muse?

I’m not a sit-down, formal songwriter. I try to pick up the guitar and do something musical every day. I love it when the story really hits me and almost writes itself out of thin air. You have to be open to receiving – I’m just a vehicle for messages that are given to me.

Do the songs come fast?

There are songs I’m working on that have been around for years, and ones that just write themselves. I’m thankful for those; it feels like weeks of work done in minutes. Then I have free time to go golfing! I think as I get more balance in life it’s going to provide more of those songs, because all I used to do was obsess about writing and feel bad if I wasn’t doing more. I’m learning to do less, so the quality can always be going up.

You’ve previously discussed going to therapy. Has it helped your songwriting? Did it open up a conduit to write straight from the heart?

I’ve always written straight from the heart. What therapy did was allow me to lay down some of the baggage I’ve carried that could’ve been blocking my potential. It taught me to be easier on myself. Striving for perfection is such an exhausting task and nobody is capable of it anyway. I just want to write what’s genuine, to make good songs.

Therapy allowed me to open the door and see beyond the brush, look further into the good things that will continue to happen, rather than fixating on the things that hurt me leading up to this. It was very freeing. To open this doorway, to set a boundary between things that used to cause me grief and pain and instead stand and live my own life that I’ve made with my family, my son, my career.

Tell me about finding your voice and that distinctive baritone? Were you in the choir?

I grew up playing music in the church country band. My dad was a pastor, mom sang and we were kind of a family band who would take it to the Sunday service. I had no formal training, I don’t read music any more; I used to when I played more piano. Now I play more by feel because I know the guitar well enough.

It was tough to trust my own voice. It took a while to find it and realise I’m not so much an alto or soprano or pop singer, voices you’d hear on the radio. When you don’t hear one that sounds like yours – especially when you don’t see a lot of indigenous or First Nations performers – you can feel insecure. So it was really leaning into all the stuff that I thought would make me an outcast that has brought me to this place of being memorable.

You’ve turned the whole thing round, haven’t you?

Yes. And that’s truthfully the easier way to live; being myself, and writing the songs I write. I’m actually in the middle of a huge, existential crisis today, so I love that we’re talking about this! I’m thinking about everything that flows, everything that’s cool and comes from being inspired by music. I just finished a weekend watching some really great artists - Noah Derksen, Field Guide, Winnipeg artists that have big album releases. I think of the great direction that music is heading and sometimes it makes me feel dated in what I do. But I remember that I’m keeping something alive and contributing, and I calm back down!

As the audience expands and the music reaches more people, I feel like I’m on the right track, I’m doing what I was intended to do. It was a really intimidating, scary thought at one point to just go full writer. To just sing songs. My day is filled with dreaming up songs and being here at home when I can for my family, and getting to share the message. I love both parts of it. It’s two different worlds, writing and performing, and I get to live both of them all the time so I’m very fortunate.

Tell me about the song ‘Tanqueray’, which is half-spoken.

I say my songs are sometimes like TED talks set to a musical background. I like that you’re crediting me as more of a singer than a talker, because I always joke that I’m just talking anyway, but ‘Tanqueray’’s story was important to tell clearly.

What would you say if somebody came up to you and said, “How did you meet the love of your life?” We all, if we’re fortunate enough, get to tell that story at some point. It’s pretty close to the story of me meeting my soon-to-be wife. Those early moments of being together and discovering one another, telling each other all our secrets, falling for each other, then making the decision to choose one another every day.

‘Tanqueray’ represents not only good old London dry gin, but that early drunken feeling of falling for someone. When you think: I’m in this party and I don’t want it to end. I love that feeling, that burst of excitement, and I wanted to tell that story as true to form as I could.

Who was ‘When You Miss Someone’ written about?

This record shaped up to be a long love letter to my wife. It’s a blessing to mean that much to somebody, that when you’re apart you long for them. It’s missing my son on week three of the tour, wishing there wasn’t still two weeks to go. That’s the blessing of being successful. I’d rather him miss me because dad is away on another successful tour. So it all ties in, my family are the loves of my life and when you miss someone it can be all consuming, that’s the beautiful longing.

Is your recollection in ‘Young’ of a Metallica cover band a true story?

That’s my 15-year-old self, growing up in Peguis, Manitoba. Those first rock band dreams on a really inexpensive amp and guitar, learning my best Metallica, driving around the reserve listening to great music and imagining one day, if I could play on a big stage, and I choose this path, will it lead to a life of joy or hardship? It’s all those anxious teenage worries. And I don’t know if I would’ve gotten here without that hunger and dedication.

You sing of “giving blood, hooked up to a record machine”. Do country songs allow you to be more honest?

That’s just making records in general – my lifeblood on tape, sharing my innermost fears and questions. It’s remarkable I get to make a living doing it; that there’s enough care in the world for what I’m doing. I wonder if I should put up a wall for that more – there’d be more mystery, less access – but it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I sing about things and people I love, so it’s going to sound pretty meta, like I’m walking through this person’s life and I intend it that way.

Your song ‘Goldie Hawn’ also speaks of Joni Mitchell and Georgia O’Keefe. Why them?

Their qualities… the singsong, do-it-your-own-way nature of Joni Mitchell. The timeless, modern beauty of Georgia O’Keeffe and her works. And Goldie Hawn for her loyalty. Amidst what could be deemed the fake world of Hollywood, she seems genuine, she’s always been herself, and it’s refreshing. Incredible women in history who remind me of my partner. This is what love looks, sounds and feels like to me. And I am a feminist!

Finally, is there a benchmark album by another artist you strive towards?

I’m always chasing Harvest Moon. Neil Young and I have done some dates together and I find him fascinating. I only started listening to Neil in my twenties, and when I got the gig opening for him it took over my being. I was always retroactively listening. He’s made a number of albums I’m over the moon about, but that one is a crafted masterpiece. It’s an album that will never be forgotten.

I’m searching for that too, he was such a star when that came out, but I feel like that record I’m putting forward now is very definitive. I spent the first decade wondering if I belonged and almost half apologising for being here, when I now realise that I do. This record marks the step into a whole new decade of trusting my voice and my song style, and leaning into it rather than doubting it. When you look back over time this record will be one of the standouts, for sure.

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Written by Helen Jerome
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