Liv Warfield didn’t make it past the first audition for “American Idol.” She almost flunked her tryout with Prince. But he gave her the kind of coaching that Simon Cowell doesn’t offer on the first encounter.
“We were rehearsing in L.A. and Prince said, ‘If you’re not going to open up, we’ll find somebody else,’ ” Warfield recalled of her 2010 introduction. “It was a Sly and the Family Stone song. When I finally opened my mouth, he turned around: ‘There she is. I think I’ll keep you.’ ”
Warfield spent the next six years in Prince’s world. She sang backup for him and opened his concerts. In turn, he served as executive producer on her 2014 album, “The Unexpected.” Now she’s returning to Minneapolis to perform Saturday at the Dakota Jazz Club with two other singers from Prince’s court, Judith Hill and Shelby J.
The trio hatched the idea when they were in the Twin Cities for the official Prince tribute concert in October.
“Prince always said you need to stick together,” Warfield pointed out. “I wanted to make sure that all of us could stay strong and somehow help each other. This is a way for us to heal and to continue a legacy, which he’d want for us.”
They did two shows in January at B.B. King’s in New York. They’ll be backed by members of Warfield’s band plus NPG saxophonist Keith Anderson. They’ll offer solo numbers as well as tunes as a trio.
For Warfield, who is in her mid-30s, the all-star marathon tribute at Xcel Energy Center in October was highly emotional.
“There were highs and lows, for sure,” she said recently from Portland. “I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I had my eyes closed. It’s really hard for me to deal with death in general. But the celebration was wonderful just to be amongst everybody who he’s been around — NPG, Morris Day and the Time. That was a history lesson for me.”
Warfield said it took her six months or so after Prince’s death in April before she could return to a creative zone. “I’m starting to be OK with my feelings,” she said.
One thing that sparked creativity was her band opening in Los Angeles for Heart, the Rock Hall of Fame group from Seattle. That led to songwriting with Heart guitarist/singer Nancy Wilson and a new side group, Roadcase Royale.
“It’s a cool rock ’n’ roll project that I’ve always wanted to do,” said Warfield, who’s best known as a soul and R&B singer.
Roadcase Royale has recorded a half-dozen songs and will make its debut March 25 at a Rock Against MS concert in Los Angeles. The group offered a song called “Get Loud” for the Women’s March in January.
Sports, not singing
Warfield grew up in Peoria, Ill., totally involved in sports. From the time she was 3, she participated in gymnastics. At 15, she became consumed with track and field and earned a scholarship to Portland State in Oregon as a heptathlete.
Even though she’d never sung in church or a school choir, the church-going Warfield knew that music was her calling. She’d always kept a journal, at her mother’s advice. When she moved to Portland as a teenager, she met some friends who helped her express herself.
Her route was karaoke, singing Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston songs as well as such classics as “My Funny Valentine” and “At Last.” When she was 21 or 22, she slept outside the Houston Astrodome to audition for “American Idol,” where she got a thumbs down.
Warfield regrouped back in Portland, singing in local bands. Two friends conspired to help her land an audition with Prince by submitting a YouTube performance of Warfield singing the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” when he was looking for backup singers.
“Prince was more confident in me than I was in myself,” she said. “I learned to be a performer. I learned for my ears to be open. I learned about the outside world and how to exist in this place and space. He said, ‘Learn more about the history of you, the history of people.’ He was the biggest teacher.”
Warfield penned songs and played them for Prince. He gave her the green light to record in Portland instead of his Paisley Park even though he was the project’s executive producer.
In one conversation, they talked about her ability to sing R&B, jazz and rock ’n’ roll with equal authority. Prince asked if she had a song about that topic. She shook her head. He said: “Let me get back to you.”
“In two weeks, he called me and he didn’t say anything. He just put the phone up to the speaker. He gave me his version of the song ‘The Unexpected.’ ”
Back to Paisley
Warfield last saw Prince in December 2015. She didn’t get a chance to see any of his solo piano shows in early 2016. She hasn’t talked to Hill about her ill-fated flight with Prince from Atlanta to Minneapolis a week before he died. Prince passed out on the plane, which made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., where he was given shots of Narcan.
“I don’t even talk about it. I don’t want to know,” she said. “We just continue to do the music. That’s what it’s about. ‘P’ would always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ Let’s just move forward.”
Warfield will be back in the Twin Cities in April to perform at Paisley Park as part of the celebration that Prince’s family is staging. It’ll be her first time at the Chanhassen complex since Prince died.
“I’m tired of feeling sorrowful,” Warfield said. “I want to celebrate life. Being in Paisley was like being in a bubble. The outside world didn’t matter. It was a safe place, a safe haven for me, for my creative emotions. I want to go to Paisley and create.”