Ingrid Chavez: Spirit Child (A Slight Return) (Part 1 of 2)
by Miles Marshall Lewis
From 1985 to 1993, Paisley Park Records filtered many different genres through the kaleidoscopic, idiosyncratic prism of Prince—from pop to jazz to hiphop to R&B, arguably even spoken word. During the 1990s, films like Slam and Love Jones, series like HBO’s Def Poetry and poet-actors Liza Jessie Peterson, Sarah Jones and Saul Williams all marked the importance of spoken word as a newfangled genre, a remix of what was once simply known as poetry. Speak-singing breathy vocals over atmospheric dance beats, 26-year-old Mexican-American poet Ingrid Chavez could have inspired an entire movement of slam poets to come with her September 1991 Paisley Park debut. Instead, the oddly titled May 19, 1992 went commercially overlooked. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chavez had moved from Georgia to Minnesota in 1986, eventually meeting Prince in a Minneapolis bar and sparking a friendship. That fateful December 1, 1987 rendezvous at Williams Uptown Pub became infamous in Prince lore as “Blue Tuesday.” He cancelled the release of The Black Album that month and started work on a spiritual album inspired by their relationship: the following spring’s Lovesexy. Simultaneously, Chavez penned 21 poems for a poetry album Prince proposed. Between ’88 and ’91, Chavez appeared on Lovesexy (billed as the Spirit Child), played opposite Prince as the heaven-sent love interest Aura in Graffiti Bridge and collaborated with Lenny Kravitz, writing the number one hit “Justify My Love” for Madonna.
May 19, 1992 featured the Prince-produced singles “Heaven Must Be Near” and “Elephant Box,” and the Michael Koppelman-produced “Hippy Blood,” a truly underrated standout. But nothing charted, nor did her album, and she rode her disillusionment over the recording industry up and away from the music biz. Former Paisley Park Records president Alan Leeds remembers Prince’s preoccupation recording the ill-fated debut album of Carmen Electra at the time: “While he’s making his Carmen record, I’m fighting in Europe to keep Ingrid Chavez alive because I actually believe there’s something there. Prince comes in my office with one of the demos of the Carmen Electra tracks. He looks at me and says, ‘I bet I make Carmen Electra a star before you make Ingrid a star.’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Dude, it’s your label! Now we’re gonna compete? And by the way, you signed Ingrid. I inherited that. I’m trying to make lemonade with what you signed, and now you want to have a contest? Meanwhile, you’re spending millions of dollars on a girlfriend who can’t sing!’ ” Already a young mother, Chavez married—to former Japan lead singer David Sylvian—then divorced after many years and returned to music during the Myspace era following a decades-long hiatus. Now on the cusp of releasing the brand-new studio album Memories of Flying (with its Prince tribute single, “You Gave Me Wings”), Ingrid Chavez sat down at the Soho Grand Hotel in Manhattan to speak about Blue Tuesday, May 19, 1992, her return to the posthumous paisley universe and more.
soulhead: What made you relocate to Minneapolis way back in 1986?
Ingrid Chavez: I was in Georgia. I worked at Greenbriar Mall at the Merry Go Round. I was in a band with a friend of mine, Steve Snow. It was called China Dance. He was like a mentor to me. Before I met him, I was listening to a lot of Prince music. But then I met him and he really introduced me to David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Cure—this whole other thing. He kinda helped me to develop a style that was unique to me. ’Cause he was a pretty unique character himself. So we had our band, and we moved into this candy factory in this bad neighborhood in Atlanta. We left and came back and all of our stuff was gone. All of our gear, all of our stuff was gone. He was from Minneapolis. So I sold my car and we just left everything behind and moved to Minneapolis, to the northeast side.
soulhead: Tell me about China Dance.
Ingrid Chavez: It was just me and him. We were recording, we were not playing yet but we were getting ready to. We got a big enough space where we could start rehearsing.
soulhead: At what point in your life did you first decide music was for you?
Ingrid Chavez: Not in high school. I fell in love with Prince’s music. I always wrote and sang, but never really thought about going for it as an artist. It wasn’t until Purple Rain and that whole period. I think it really inspired a lot of people. A lot of musicians can go back to that period and say, “That’s where I decided that’s what I’m gonna do.” So it is where I started, and then I met Steve. Maybe if I hadn’t met Steve, I would’ve been more influenced by that music as an artist. But my path went a different way.
soulhead: How’d you meet Steve Snow?
Ingrid Chavez: At the Greenbriar Mall! It’s funny because he came into the store and there was picture of me and my little boy. I had him when I was 19, so I was like this young mom. There was a place where you could get your photos taken at the Greenbriar Mall. So we’d go down there one day and I had a picture of him sitting down with him on my lap, this cute little baby. It was taped up under the counter. And the story goes from [Steve’s] side that he came in one day and was like, “She’s going to be mine one day.” And so he would circle through until one day I was working. And it was pretty instant, the connection. But he was how I ended up in Minneapolis.
soulhead: Tell us how you met Prince.
Ingrid Chavez: We used to go to this club in Minneapolis called Williams, and it was on Tuesday nights. The only thing going on Tuesday nights was Williams Pub. Downstairs was like a regular bar. Then you had to walk through Peanuts if you walked through that bar. Upstairs they had a small dance floor, and that’s where everybody was on Tuesday night. So one night, I was supposed to go with some friends. I almost didn’t go. But then I got dressed and went. And shortly after I got there, Prince had arrived. I could see that he was watching me. He didn’t look happy or something. So I wrote this note. The note’s famous now, but it said, “Hi. Remember me? Probably not, but that’s OK, because we’ve never met. Smile. I love it when you smile.” And I gave it to Gilbert [Davison]. He had me come over and sit with him. That was when he used to wear the little heart mirrors. And so he took it off and put it on me. And he was like, “What’s your name?” And I said, “Gertrude.” And I said, “What’s your name?” And he said, “Dexter.” We chatted for a little bit, but it wasn’t a whole lot of conversation then. He asked me what I do and I said I was a musician. And then he asked me if I wanted to go take a drive to Paisley Park. So I said yes. He had me sit in the front seat with Gilbert. It was a Ford Bronco. All of them drove the Ford Broncos back then, that was the car. [laughter] You were in Minneapolis; you needed a car that was gonna handle the snow. So he sat in the back seat and asked me to put the mirror down, so we could see each other like that. He didn’t really talk much, he just watched me. He said, “Can I see your hands?” and I put my hands back. The only thing I remember him saying on that drive back was, “I’ve never seen hands like these.” Then I was like, “OK. I don’t know what that means.” [laughter] So that was that. And then we got to Paisley Park. He wanted me to meet Susan Rogers. He actually put me in a room and there was just a candle. I just hung out there, like, forever. I’m like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” My memories of Paisley are from that period. I came in and I met Susan Rogers. I don’t remember the conversations really. I think we just spoke like, “What do you do?” But that’s all I remember about that evening. I know that Prince disappeared, he had brought me in to meet Susan Rogers, and at some point I was back in reality.
soulhead: Did you record anything that night?
Ingrid Chavez: No. Not that day. I met him on December 1st. ’Cause I still have the original tapes with the dates and everything on ’em. So I think December 8, like about a week later, he was like, “Well, let me see what you do.” So I came in and all I had was an electric guitar that someone had given to me that I didn’t really know how to play. I don’t know how to play; I could do some things. So me and the engineer put together two tracks. One was called “Reason Enough” and the other one was “Cross the Line.” And they just had me with backwards vocals and backwards guitar stuff. I think we had a little tambourine going and maybe another percussive instrument. It was very simple. And [Prince] goes into “Reason Enough,” and “Reason Enough” gets really dark. I just remember he was like, “OK, can I hear it?” And I remember him listening to it, his eyes were so big. [laughter] I was like, “Is it OK? Oh my god, I just really freaked him out. This is way too weird for him.”
soulhead: Too weird for Prince himself, which is probably pretty weird.
Ingrid Chavez: Yeah, I know. But apparently not, ’cause he wound up using that piece. So that was that. We hung out. My birthday was in January 21, so we went through Christmas. We were hanging out in Paisley Park and everything. But at some point, he gave me the calendar. I wrote 21 poems. “We’re gonna make a record.” I was like, “OK.” I came to the point where I had my little book of poems. We went into the studio and he put me in the vocal booth on the mic and he was in the sound booth. He would say, “OK, what’s the name of the poem?” I’d say, “ ‘Whispering Dandelions.’ ” And he’d be like, “OK,” play around with some sounds. And then he’d be like, “OK, just start.” And we went through all the poems, at least most of ’em. And that’s the way that record sat for like a couple of years. And there is that album somewhere in Paisley Park that’s just me and him. It’s just really sweet, that experience with him.
soulhead: Do you have a personal copy of it?
Ingrid Chavez: I do, yeah.
soulhead: Explain to me about the onset of frustration, in terms of the album sitting around.
Ingrid Chavez: Things kinda started falling apart between me and Prince; he was getting ready to go on tour with Lovesexy. He invited me to see them rehearse and he was like, “I really want you here, your part in the middle” and everything. And then they went on tour and it was just sort of like everything just drifted apart. I didn’t hear anything. And so I started another band called Skyfish.
soulhead: How did Skyfish start?
Ingrid Chavez: I met this guy Richard Werbowenko and we started a band. He played guitar. I was into the Cocteau Twins and all this other kind of music. The backwards vocals. All of my records have that element because I love that halting kind of thing. The funny thing is, when Prince got that cassette, he had somebody go and buy every one of ’em. That was every record store in all of Minneapolis. He bought them out so they didn’t exist anymore. I don’t know why. He’s that guy. We were performing and we had put together our cassette.
There was a jazz club right uptown on Lyndale and Nicollet, that’s where I lived. It was the upper crust, and I lived on top of a barbershop that had a roof. It was kinda near the corner, but I could see the jazz club. And one afternoon I saw Prince. He was with Duane [Nelson]. I was just up on my roof and I was like, “Did Prince just…?” He went in and Duane was standing outside waiting for him. I got my Skyfish tape and ran down and handed it off to Duane. Literally within a day or two, I came home and my house was completely filled with white flowers. It looked like a wedding or something.
He called me, he said, “I want you to hear something. I want you to hear ‘Heaven Must Be Near.’ It sounds like spring in Paris.” So I guess he just got re-inspired. And he said, “Let’s make this record.” He got Levi [Seacer Jr.] to produce some of the tracks, he produced some of the tracks. He had had Michael [Koppelman] do a couple of tracks, but he put me and Michael in the studio at Larrabee Studios in California. We had two days. We wrote, recorded, mixed those two songs, “Hippy Blood” and “Little Mama.” Prince, I think he knew I wanted to produce something new, and that I also wanted to sing on a track, so he made that situation happen. He really liked Michael. He didn’t tease Michael like he teased a lot of other people. [Engineer] Chuck Zwicky got teased all the time. He didn’t tease Michael that way because he really liked Michael.
“Heaven Must Be Near”
soulhead: How was your working relationship with Alan Leeds?
Ingrid Chavez: He was so supportive, and even when there were times when there might’ve been some kind of, like with me and Prince, disagreement about anything, Alan was always like, “I got you. Don’t worry about it, I’m gonna work this out” or whatever. I remember just being in his office and just being like [puts her head down]. I saw him at the first PRN Alumni for the first time in many years. It had been 20 years since I had returned to Minneapolis. It was so sweet to see him.
soulhead: How did you get cast in Graffiti Bridge?
Ingrid Chavez: That was Craig Rice. It was Prince who would have called to ask me if I wanted to do it, but it was Craig who said, when they wanted to replace Kim [Basinger], Craig was like, “Why don’t you give Ingrid a shot?” There was the “Heaven Must Be Near” video, so he already knew what I looked like on camera. The scene that they made me rehearse was the drunken scene. [laughter] I was like, “Oh god… Of all scenes.” I never acted again after that because it’s not what I’m interested in doing. I was, like, no good.
END OF PART 1
Check out Ingrid’s latest single, “All The Love in the World.”
Check out the other volumes in this series:
Miles Marshall Lewis has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ebony, Essence and many other publications. His work has appeared in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, and elsewhere. He’s also the author of There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram. Check out some of his work for soulhead.