Prince’s ‘Clouds’ Reminds Us to Log Off Once in a While
Prince's concerns about the internet went far beyond commerce. With "Clouds," he was joined by British soulster Lianne La Havas in an examination of the way human interaction is shifting from real connection to carefully curated web connectivity.
Something clicked between these two artists, and once again it breathed new life into Prince. He'd found another real-time muse for what became a high-concept moment on 2014's Art Official Age.
"When life's a stage in this brand new age, how do we engage?" La Havas sings, before informing us in a voice over that Prince is just thawing out after having been cryogenically frozen for decades. That would explain a lot, from his wistful desire for face-to-face relationships as they once were, to the vintage feel of "Clouds." Then there was the fact that all of it arrived as part of Prince's long-awaited return to Warner Bros.
La Havas, however, was something new. She quickly became a regular presence in Prince's life, despite having just debuted with 2012's Is Your Love Big Enough?. He first came across this youthful British singer-songwriter via an internet performance that same year, but didn't meet her in person until she mounted an American tour in 2013. Prince invited La Havas over to jam at Paisley Park Studio, and they hit it off. Next came a series of shared 2014 dates in the months before Art Official Age appeared. (She also collaborated on "Affirmation I & II," "Way Back Home" and "Affirmation III" from this project.)
"He heard my music, somehow, two years ago and decided he wanted to meet me," La Havas told Gigwise in 2014. "So, after a show in New York, I went to Paisley Park, Prince's studio outside of Minneapolis. We listened to music and had crudités and tea. He had PG Tips. It was surreal."
La Havas had arrived at the perfect moment, as Prince's longing for a new collaborative sounding board met up with her fizzy folk-soul style. Next, they performed a thrilling eight-minute medley on Saturday Night Live together, with "Clouds" as a highlight. That set the stage for Prince's most memorable intersection with La Havas: a gig at her home in Leyton, east London.
They'd been chatting on the phone when he revealed plans to tour the U.K. "I said, 'Oh you should stop by my house – casual like," La Havas later recalled. Prince's reply: "How's February 4?"
He held a press conference at La Havas' house, announcing a series of dates to promote Plectrumelectrum, his first album with 3rdeyegirl. Then, after installing his own stage, lighting and smoke machine, Prince performed in La Havas' living room. (He also converted her bedroom into his personal dressing area.)
Later, producer Joshua Welton remixed "Clouds," developing it into a distinct track driven by a portion of La Havas' vocal; this new song, titled "Mr. Nelson," appeared on 2015's HITnRUN Phase One. But her partnership with Prince more often felt like a throwback to how the music industry once operated, back when real-time collaborations were the coin of the realm, rather than ProTools edit jobs.
Watch Prince Perform "Clouds" on "Saturday Night Live"
"Clouds," then, was the perfect creative vehicle for these two – and with a timely message, to boot: Instead of storing our passions on some remote server, Prince argues for romantic gestures that are far more visceral. (Perhaps nowhere else does the title of this album provide greater context.) For La Havas, that simple message – "Clouds" encourages us, above all else, to be present – played out in real time.
"Honestly, I just really enjoyed his company. When I worked with him, it felt like I was really special. He actually just said, 'Why don't you come to Minneapolis for the weekend?'" La Havas told CBS in 2016. "Then I ended up lending my vocals to the album, and I was so excited and still am. Every time I hear it or think about it, I just still can’t believe it happened."