You may have had transformational or transcendent moments in your life. You may have even had a few monumental triumphs. But you have never been onstage in front of thousands of people and had Prince point at you to take the solo in “Purple Rain.”
“Yes, it was magical,” says guitarist Donna Grantis, BMus’02. You probably get used to extraterrestrial moments like that when you’re the other guitarist in Prince’s band. Once a member of 3rdEyeGirl, Grantis is now a solo artist about to release her debut album Diamonds and Dynamite.
The Mississauga native currently lives in Minneapolis (Prince’s hometown), which may as well be Canada. Couldn’t she live closer to the showbiz action in L.A.? “Sure. But I love the seasons.”
Grantis has been playing since she picked up her older brother’s acoustic guitar at 13. Recognizing her desire and perhaps even her nascent ability, she asked her father for her own axe, and he offered her a deal: learn one song perfectly, and it’s yours. She came back playing “Stairway to Heaven.” Both impressed and chagrinned, dad plunked down the cash for a Series A. “Red, with a maple neck,” she says with enduring fondness.
In models and formative influences, she aimed high. “Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck… even as a teenager, “Led Boots” on (the album) Wired – I couldn’t even get past that song for a whole day!” So she absorbed it, and the styles anchoring them all.
“Jimmy Page is a blues player, and blues is my foundation. Jazz was a natural evolution,” she says. “I love the improvisational aspect of both styles, but jazz has more harmonic possibilities. There’s more freedom, I feel.”
That transition led her inexorably to McGill’s Schulich School of Music and the Jazz Program. She lived in Royal Victoria College. “It was an amazing learning experience,’ she says, “such a cool opportunity to be immersed with like-minded colleagues. It’s a traditional program focused on bebop, which made it fantastic from an educational perspective.” She developed into a technically flawless player who folded soul and melody into her virtuosity.
As Prince began scouting for new band members in 2012, Grantis landed on his radar.Which is how she found herself at Paisley Park with two other gals. “The girls and I, Hannah [Ford, drums] and Ida [Nielsen, bass] set up our instruments, and we were given a short list of songs to prepare.”The songs were “Endorphinmachine,”“Purple Rain,”and the vault track “Cause and Effect.”Prince was on piano. “I didn’t know if it was entirely an audition,” she says, and being on guitar, when they hit “Purple Rain,”“He just let me go for it.”
The only other time she played the solo was in Toronto. She would go on to write the title track to the 2014 album Plectrumelectrum (it was number one on the Billboard Rock Chart), and tour with Prince throughout the UK, Europe, and North America. They headlined three nights at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and played the White House for President Barack Obama and his family.
“It was such a gift, extremely inspiring, and exhilarating to share the stage with him and the band,” Grantis says. “He was an absolute world-class guitarist, vocalist, keyboardist, songwriter, producer and lyricist. He’d mastered all of those, but he was also a master bandleader. It was a thrill every time we played together, whether it was in front of thousands or at Paisley Park just jamming and rehearsing.”
He was also, unsurprisingly, exacting. He rehearsed them six days a week, from 2 pm until the early morning. His musicians were expected to commit changes to memory upon sight and hearing. “Yeah, we had to play back things he showed us on the spot, transcribe songs by ear under pressure against the clock.”
Which is how you sculpt fluidity – how you end up with a band that can shift from Miles Davis to Foo Fighters to Funkadelic on a dime, with the kind of intuitive connection words would ruin. “When we were focused on music, it was a very focused time,” she says. “And then there were times when we would hang out playing ping pong or watching movies.” Prince was also a master at ping pong. “Yes, he always won.”
“Donna can whup every man on guitar, bar none,” Prince once said. Well, bar him, but point taken. What separates someone as technically skilled as Grantis from, say, a hack like me? She laughs. “It’s a lifelong quest, to keep learning and getting better. But to be honest, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
Then, shockingly, on April 21, 2016, Prince passed away. It still feels unreal. “He was an incredible person.”
On a 2013 tour with 3rdEyeGirl, Grantis had met Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready at the Showbox in Seattle, where they chatted, exchanged riff notes and talked about their mutual love of vinyl. In May 2016, Pearl Jam invited her onstage in Toronto to rip the hell out of “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Baba O’Riley.” It seemed perfectly natural to write with McCready for her solo release, Diamonds and Dynamite, and release it on his label Hockeytalkter.
In songs like “Trashformer” and “Violetta,” Grantis is pointing the way forward for jazz fusion. She throws in covers of Miles Davis and Santana in the live show, and notes, “my audiences are a little rowdier than the average jazz crowd.” In a sense, she is back where she started. Her career carries on like an improvisational solo. “That’s what makes it so magical to be experienced live. It’s a moment in time that can never be replicated.”