After Prince’s death last year, 3rdEyeGirl guitarist Donna Grantis and her music executive husband, Trevor Guy, had to decide where to live. They ruled out a return to their hometown of Toronto. They tried Los Angeles for a while and even tested New York City for two weeks.
They ended up in Minneapolis, choosing the Uptown neighborhood last fall after a few years in Chanhassen. Now they have a 5-month-old boy and a new band, simply called Donna Grantis, which will make its debut Friday at Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club — the same venue where 3rdEyeGirl gave its first performance.
Over dinner at an Uptown restaurant last week, Grantis talked about her new band, her influences and, of course, Prince. She’s still sporting her long brown hair with the left side of her head shaved, but her makeup and clothes are less flamboyant than in the 3rdEyeGirl days.
On how she put the band together:
Starting last fall, Grantis scoured the internet (that’s how Prince discovered her in 2012) and hung out at shows in search of players from the Twin Cities.
She saw keyboardist Bryan Nichols playing in a jazz duo at the Icehouse. She approached him that night. “He’s an artist, bandleader, session player and plays in a number of bands including jazz and Dead Man Winter. Technically, he was well rounded and a fan of Herbie Hancock. This is perfect.”
Nichols suggested drummer J.T. Bates, whom she already had her eye on.
She remembers watching Bates play at First Avenue: “I could tell he was great at playing both jazz and rock. That was an important skill set that I wanted, especially out of the drummer.”
Bassist Cody McKinney was another recommendation from Nichols. “I reached out to Cody with a set list that I call my ‘electric playlist’ of songs that really inspired the direction of this new project,” Grantis explained. “He replied saying that the list was basically his CD collection.’
Grantis discovered tabla player Suphala by googling “tabla” and “Minneapolis.” At a rehearsal for last October’s Prince tribute concert at Xcel Energy Center, Grantis asked NPG drummer Michael Bland about Suphala.
“Michael said he’d jammed with her a number of times on just drums and tabla and he said, ‘We were doing some odd time signatures and I had trouble keeping up with her.’ At that moment I thought, I want her in the band.”
For three days in January, the five musicians jammed on some Grantis compositions and the bandleader knew she had found her new group.
On the group’s sound:
“It’s improvisational,” she said, searching for the right words. “The influences are Prince, Mahavishnu Orchestra, anything from Miles Davis’ electric period in the early ’70s, Jeff Beck’s ‘Wired.’ My roots are in the blues. I’m a rocker at heart. At the same time, I love jazz. Compositionally, the music is jazz-influenced and there’s a lot of room for genre-bending.”
The group will have had 10 rehearsals by Friday’s gigs. But Grantis learned from Prince that a lack of preparation can lead to a sense of urgency and freshness.
On recording plans:
The group cut five Grantis compositions at the Terrarium studio in Minneapolis in one day in January. They plan to record more tracks in August to round out an album. Grantis is not certain if they will opt for an independent release or try to work with a record label.
On what she learned from Prince:
It’s a long list. He taught her things like how to play funk guitar and possibilities with effects pedals. Other things she picked up from observing him, such as how to be a bandleader. Business-wise, he underscored the importance of controlling what happens to your music. She admired how his artistic vision extended to all areas — not just music but also fashion, lighting, graphic design, stage production and even social media.
Most important, Grantis said, he instilled the notion of giving 100 percent at all times. “Every time you stepped onstage, whether it’s just us rehearsing or 10 people or 40,000 people, the idea was everyone playing at our best every time.”
On her first guitar:
When she was 13, Grantis badgered her dad to buy her an electric guitar. He offered a deal: If she could play an entire song on acoustic guitar, he’d get her a new instrument.
“For some reason, I choose ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ which was eight minutes long,” she said with a giggle. “When you’re a teenager, you don’t think about that kind of stuff. That scored me my first electric guitar.”
Her first song on electric guitar: AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
On her early musical influences:
Her older brothers turned her on to Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Her first concert was Van Halen.
On her introduction to jazz:
It came when 17-year-old Grantis was teaching blues guitar at a summer music camp. There she heard two live jazz musicians, and a friend at camp gave her a mixtape cassette featuring fusion guitarist Scott Henderson of Tribal Tech and bebop sax legend Charlie Parker. She then began taking jazz guitar lessons and later earned a music degree in jazz performance from McGill University in Montreal.
In Toronto, she fronted a jazz-fusion trio called Donna Grantis Electric Band. One of her compositions from that group — “Elektra” — was rearranged by Prince as “Plectrum Electrum” for 3rdEyeGirl. In fact, it was because he saw a YouTube video of Grantis playing in her band that he invited her to Paisley Park.
On how many guitars she owns:
“I think 13,” she guesses. That’s four acoustic and the rest electric.
On the future of 3rdEyeGirl:
Each of the three women is busy with her own project. Bassist Ida Nielsen returned to Denmark and is touring Europe with her own band, promoting her new album, “Turn It Up.” Drummer Hannah Welton, who had a baby last year, recently released a new single, “Women’s Intuition,” with her husband, keyboardist Joshua Welton. They moved back to Chicago.
Grantis talks to both regularly. As for their future together as 3rdEyeGirl, the guitarist sounds vague: “There’s always a possibility.”