Donna Grantis is bringing a rock ‘n’ roll attitude to jazz
Brad Barker is JAZZ.FM91’s music director and host of Afternoon Drive.
Donna Grantis has been a hired gun for the likes of Shakura S’Aida, Kellylee Evans, Kardinal Offishall, Amanda Marshall and more — then, in 2013, she caught the ear of Prince.
The guitarist from Mississauga, Ont., was asked to play with the legendary artist’s band, and she did so until his passing in 2016. Now, Grantis has a debut solo recording out called Diamonds & Dynamite.
She joined us here at JAZZ.FM91 to talk about how she discovered her love of the guitar, how while in university she was discouraged from playing the music she liked and, of course, what it was like to audition for Prince.
Before you picked up the guitar, what was some of the music that you first got in your ears that made you even start to like music?
My older brother had a great record collection of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Guns N’ Roses, even. Slash is a really soulful, bluesy guitar player.
Do you remember hearing that stuff even before you played guitar, and feeling some type of energy or connection with the guitar-playing?
It all came together around the same time. My older brother had an acoustic guitar at home, and one summer I thought I’d pick it up, learn a few chords, and I looked up the tab to Stairway to Heaven, and the rest was history. I was totally hooked.
That’s like a million stories of people picking up the guitar. They don’t usually end like yours, but they certainly start that way. Generationally, that kind of music was clearly in the past, but for you it was something you connected to?
It really resonated with me. And not only that music, but listening to Zeppelin and Hendrix really inspired me to dig deeper and check out who their influences were. And that’s how I got into Freddie King, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, B.B. King — you know, all the Kings.
You went to McGill. Were you sitting there with your combo playing Blue Bossa at McGill?
I absolutely was, yeah.
Did you know what the road map would be for you as a musician? Did you have visions of what your career would be, or were you taking it step by step?
At the time, I knew that I wanted to make a living playing guitar, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about jazz while still having all these other musical interests. I didn’t really know how I would put it all together, but I was following my passion of playing.
Sometimes when you’re at a jazz school, there can be some snobbery around different forms of music. Was there any of that that you had as a rock lover in that environment?
Absolutely there was. The first gig I played at university, at the Upstairs Jazz Club, was with a combo. A teacher was in the audience, and we played Equinox. My instinct was to step on my overdrive pedal and go for it, and improvise a solo. And afterwards the teacher said to me, “Do you want to be a rock guitar player, or a jazz guitar player?” I didn’t know the etiquette. And for sure I was told, “You can’t listen to that stuff.”
What year was this?
This was in the early 2000s.
It’s so late-period. There’s so much music to investigate at that point. For someone to put boundaries around it, it doesn’t make any sense.
I understand it in retrospect, in terms of, if you really want to learn bebop you’ve got to immerse yourself in bebop. But more generally, just in terms of inspiring young musicians out there, follow your passions. Follow whatever kind of music you’re interested in, and go for it. Music is supposed to evolve.
I know Miles Davis’s electric period was really important to you. Tell me a bit about how that music got to you — because in some ways I think your album represents that period.
Prior to hitting the stage with Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL, on Prince’s direction the song Recollections from the album Big Fun often played in the PAs as fans entered the venue. Big Fun is an album recorded by Miles in the ’70s during his electric period. That album just opened up a whole new world for me of similar records created during that time. There’s a rock ‘n’ roll attitude on those albums, and it’s just crazy because I feel like throughout all my formal education, I didn’t know about this music. It was just in the last several years through Prince that I’ve been introduced to this amazing repertoire of music.
For contrast, what were some of the guitar players while you were in school that were being pushed forward as the guys you should check out?
Fabulous guitar players, of course. Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass.
Did you identify that and take on any of that style?
I really did. I really love Kenny Burrell’s playing, because he’s really bluesy. That really resonated with me.
So is that the thread that you need in your ear, to have it connect with you?
I think so, and one of the really cool things about the guitarists that recorded with Miles is that they used effects pedals. It’s almost like a painter painting with different colours, the ability to play music with all sorts of different tones. Put a wah on there, put some overdrive, put an octave effect on there. It’s really fun.
One thing I’ve got to ask you about is not just playing with Prince, but just the audition process seems like it would be as petrifying as anything could possibly be. How did it work? Can you bring me in the room?
I got a short list of songs to learn, and that was it. I really didn’t know it was an audition. I thought it was just a jam. When I arrived at Paisley Park, I met up with Ida (Kristine Nielsen), the bass player in 3RDEYEGIRL, and Hannah (Welton), the drummer … and I remember walking into the sound stage at Paisley Park, which is a giant room … and we just set up our gear and got down to it.
Are you fine through the process? You’re not overly nervous, you’re just happy to be there and ready to play?
Well, I think there were two things running through my mind. One is that if you really start to think about, “Oh my gosh, I’m here with Prince.” That can be counterproductive. I always just try to focus on the music. And there’s a lot to think about, so it can really keep you preoccupied with parts, technique, feel, tones, making eye contact with the musicians and really playing the music as it deserves to be played.
After that initial jam, then we got more songs to learn. We went back to a hotel and shed those tunes, came in the next day (with the) same process, and then at the end of the day, we had another list. That went on for about a week or so. At the time I thought, “Cool, let’s learn some more songs,” without knowing much else. Pretty soon after that, we had a repertoire and set lists. Then we played on Jimmy Fallon, and that’s when we realized that we were called 3RDEYEGIRL. We didn’t even know until he introduced us. 3RDEYEGIRL was sort of an ambiguous term. Was it us, Prince, a piece of art, a bootlegger, a group of fans? Then we realized we’re 3RDEYEGIRL.
After that, did you have to go back and learn the entire repertoire?
We learned hundreds of songs. Not the entire catalogue, but hundreds nonetheless. We would always be given more tunes to learn. Sometimes, we would practise a set list for a particular gig, and then at soundcheck we would be given a list of new songs to learn, to be performed that night.
Was it exhilarating, or was it daunting?
So did that muscle of learning material at such a pace, that must serve you well as a musician.
It’s an amazing skill to develop, and of course the more you do it, the easier it gets … And nobody wanted to make a mistake in front of Prince.
What happens if you do make a mistake in front of Prince?
Oh, boy. You know what, you’d just avoid it at all costs.