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Phone interview recorded September 26, 2011

Very few have ever been able to attest to being amongst his stable of mainstays. Los Angeles native Susannah Melvoin is one of those lucky denizens. As the twin sister of Prince’s long time musical cohort Wendy Melvoin, Susannah was afforded the rare opportunity to climb the purple ladder as a de facto member of his band The Revolution. Her stint in Prince’s short-lived concept group The Family remains one of the most celebrated highlights of her career. Their sole 1985 eponymous album remains a revered favorite of critics and music enthusiasts alike. Now after more than two decades apart, Susannah reunites with three original members of The Family – Eric Leeds, Paul Peterson (St. Paul), Jellybean Johnson – under the moniker fDeluxe. Rico Washington catches up with Susannah during a stop along their busy tour schedule to discuss the new album, the break up of The Time, and peculiar delicacies…like starfish and coffee...

Rico 'Superbizzee' Washington: Hey, what’s going on, guys? This is Rico a.k.a. 'Superbizzee' for, and I have on the line with me Miss Susannah, formerly of The Family and presently of fDeluxe.

Susannah Melvoin: Hello, y’all! It’s me, ready to play this record that’s been in the making and in the kitchen for a long time stewing.

RSW: I’ve been hearing about it from Paul and it sounds exciting. Can you tell me a little about fDeluxe?

SM: The band itself is all members formerly of The Family—as you know, there’s four original members—but we’d decided to go in and make this record… well, we didn’t go in to make this record—one record and then hit the road and not think about it, no history involved. We had this one show a few years back, it was a fundraiser for Sheila E.’s Lil’ Angel Bunny Foundation, and we got together to play. She asked a lot of the former Paisley Park bands to come up and do this, and it was a great night. Everybody showed up. And when Paul and I finished onstage with all the other members of the band we felt that we needed to do it again. There was no thought about in what context are we going to do this again. So Paul had flown out… I want to say a couple months after that show, and we went into the studio and had such a fulfilling, nutritious, funny time and recorded some songs. It just happened naturally, and we thought, “It’s time to go do this.” Let’s put it this way: 80% we made this record for us, and the 20% was definitely for this fanbase that has been extraordinary and patient and fun and totally loving and arms open to this music that moved them back then. And so with all the history that Paul and I and the other members have had musically we just came to the party with an arsenal of life experience and made this record.

And the music itself is something that’s so in us—it is the bones of us as musicians. We love funk music, we love the movement, we love the changes, we love the spirit. And there was nobody telling us that we couldn’t, so we said, “Well, let’s do it.” That’s how it happened, and it took us a couple of years because we recorded this in my garage on a Pro Tools rig and then we did all these overdubs everywhere across the country, and it was only when it was time… When we did the show I’d found out—shortly after that, maybe a couple weeks—that I was pregnant with my second baby girl, so we took some time for me to do my mommy season, which has been really important for what I brought to the project as well is that I’ve got to that place in my life where the music was far more important to me than pushing my name. There was no ego involved, the reason for this was all spirit—it wasn’t anything other than that. And then we slowly did this. We were just talking about this, that we just didn’t stop and hard work does create the good luck, it doesn’t go the other way. And we just kept going and going and going and here we are. Here we are, and we’ve made a record that we really love.

We’re astounded that people are responding and having a good time with us, because we have included our fans through this. They have been crucial to our recordings and the communication; they’re involved with us. And because the industry is not what it was and it’s not like we were looking to get out there and manipulate anybody to listen to the record or buy the record at some point, it was a great opportunity as pioneers now. Everybody’s just trying to figure out how their music is going to be heard. It was great for Paul and I to involve everybody, and the motivation and everybody’s cheerleading us, so we just kept going and here we are. We’re pretty happy, and performing and loving it, and we hope everybody else does. Have you heard the record?

RSW: No, I haven’t. I’m anticipating it, man. I know that you guys are coming to New York in October, so I’m going to be there at the Joe’s Pub show, front and center.

SM: Oh, cool. Oh, good. Well, I hope you like the record—we’ll get you the record. We love it. And this is something I’ve actually said before: back in the day when that record was recorded it was a very fertile time for all the players that were involved in the Paisley Park stuff, and when The Time dissolved, Paul—who was like a child prodigy anyway: the man can sing and play any instrument, like all of his family members—and then there was Eric and then there was me—I’d been singing background for all of the side projects. And it just was like, “Well, let’s get this band together. Let’s play.” We all wanted to play. Prince went in and was the author of this book, we were the characters that played out these parts. But we never got to finish the story, so that’s part of what we’re doing here is that we have—as the characters in this book—we’ve taken the book and finished it, although the author of this is definitely Prince. He started this; this is his, the beginning story of it. That’s where we’re at—we wanted to finish it and we wanted to do it with our love and our commitment to it, which we had at the time, but it just didn’t happen that way. It was fine, but here we are now.

RSW: Absolutely, and I think that’s the most important part: that you guys are still doing it and have the fortitude to come back and finish that book. But let’s rewind a little bit back and talk about the inception… well first of all, tell me a little bit about where you’re from. I think you’re from Los Angeles, correct?

SM: I’m from Los Angeles, yeah. I was raised in a musical family, and my twin sister is Wendy [Melvoin]. My father is a brilliant jazz piano player/composer/arranger and my mother is a self-taught bass player. Interestingly enough, my brother was a child prodigy. He at 12 was composing symphonies, it was just crazy, and my sister and I were like, “We’re never gonna live up to that, Dad.” But it was a whole other thing: Wendy and I took our musical influences and buried ourselves in it. We were the kids that were pirating radio stations in the early ‘80s and trying to find all the 12-inch dance mixes of things that were on the radio and putting them on tapes and huddling in our rooms and listening to the most… I listen to music now, I don’t know what the equivalent some of the kids would be listening to now; but at 10-years-old listening to Weather Report and The Mothers of Invention and Bela Bartok and then Aretha, Stevie… it was just all over the place, it was all over the map. Wendy and I found ourselves going through high school saying, “Well, we know what we want to do. Whether or not we’ll be able to do it is one thing.” When we graduated high school, we went from there. It was like, we just want to play. We wanted to do what my dad did; we wanted to do what my brother did…

RSW: Now when you say your brother, you’re talking of Jonathan who was with the Smashing Pumpkins, correct?

SM: Yeah, and Jonathan was actually in the first touring band of The Family. We had hired him for the other keyboard player because he was a genius keyboard player, so he was the second keyboard player onstage with us. You can actually see him online, there’s two guys playing in our band… it’s kind of hard to look at that video: young and spirited folks out there! But my brother’s in there and it’s so beautiful to see him back there and know that I’ve got some footage of my bro doing his thing. So yeah, my brother.

RSW: So at what point did you and your sister cross paths with Prince?

SM: Really early on. My father being a studio musician at the time knew Gary Coleman, and that’s Lisa Coleman’s father. They were session players; he was a percussionist and my father was a piano player and arranger, and they were on sessions all the time here in Los Angeles. We all grew up together; we’ve known them since we were 2. It was just families with families. And I think when Wendy and I were in high school, 11th grade, we heard that Lisa got this gig with Prince. And we were calling, “What’s it like? Are you having a great time?” Wendy and I couldn’t believe it; we thought that Prince was the shit. He was the guy. We were listening to “For You” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”… we just couldn’t believe it. It was like, “This is the coolest thing we’ve ever heard.” And I think it was right before 1999 came out, Wendy was on the road with Lisa. She was playing guitar in the hotel room and Prince was walking down the hallway and heard her playing, and just happened to not be making soundcheck. So he asked my sister to come up and play on soundcheck, and that was it. She got the gig.

And I want to say that six months later I was working for Quincy Jones as a singer for him. I had auditioned for this a cappella band, it was sort of this R&B version of Manhattan Transfer, and I was the only white girl who made it. I was, “Yes! I made it!” There were all these girls that had auditioned for this thing and I went in with an Aretha track and I got a call that said, “You got it.” But within a few months Prince was coming to our house—Wendy and Lisa and my house—and Wendy played him the demo I had done for Quincy, and he said, “Do you want to come and play in this world?” Do you want to come to this side, basically? And for me and for Wendy, being so young—we were 19—we were honoured and freaked. We were like, “Okay, not only is Lisa doing it but now we’re going to be doing it?” That’s how it happened, and then he worked with them for years and years and years. And as you know, Wendy and Lisa were his muse, and I have to say to a certain degree I was part of that because of my musical lineage and how I could communicate musically with him. So it just went from there.

RSW: Wow. So then we fast-forward to 1984: The Time comes out with their most popular album, ICE CREAM CASTLE, following “Purple Rain”, and everything just kind of falls apart from there.

SM: Right.

RSW: How does The Family come into play and how were you put into that mix?

SM: Well, like I said earlier the band dissolved and we were all players with him—we had all played—and although Paul had not done anything outside of The Time, Eric and I had, and he knew Bean since they were children—I think [since] they were 11 or 10 they’ve known each other.

RSW: You’re referring to Jellybean Johnson?

SM: Yeah, Jellybean. They were childhood friends. And Jerome was not working at the time and he was very close to Prince, and that’s just how it happened. It was like we were in the room, none of us were working and none of us were playing to the capacity, I guess, we could be playing in, and it was just Prince and his genius was like, “Let’s do this. Let’s put this together and I want Paul to be the lead singer on this record.” The next record was supposed to be me singing—it was going to be like, Paul does the first record with lead vocal; the second one was going to be my lead vocals. And that’s why this record has a combination of both: it has my lead vocals on it and it has Paul’s lead vocals on some of the songs, so it’s a combination of that. But that’s how it happened.

RSW: That’s interesting. I don’t think many people know that fact about the continuation of The Family and the possibility that it was going to come out with your lead vocals on it. But I guess the question that most people want to know is what happened, because it was a great concept. It’s arguably one of Prince’s best side projects and it’s an album that people hold close to their hearts

SM: Yes, and I do too. It was collaborative, it wasn’t just Prince, and that was what was so interesting about those projects at the time. He had written these songs, but the production was David Z, Bobby Z’s brother, and Eric did all the horn arrangements, Paul and I produced our own vocals. I was the one who got Clare Fischer to do the strings on it because Prince and I had been listening to the RUFUSIZED record [by Rufus & Chaka Khan] and my father had worked with Clare Fischer many, many times. And I wanted to put strings on it, Prince wanted to put strings and I said, “Let me call Clare.” So it was wonderful to be able to go to the studio and be the producer of that. Again, that was part of the impetus why we wanted to finish it, because we were so involved. A lot of people don’t know that, they think we were just hired and that was the end of that. It wasn’t that—it wasn’t that at all. He was the author for sure, but these characters definitely played themselves out very importantly in this thing. Did I answer your question? I don’t know.

RSW: Almost. I was just trying to figure out why it dissolved.

SM: Oh, it dissolved because… I don’t know what Paul may have told you, but Paul got offered to do something and he couldn’t refuse it. As a young guy, as talented as he was, we weren’t getting paid, and Paul was going to get paid big. And I understand—

RSW: When you say you weren’t getting paid do you mean at all, or just not as much as you should have been getting paid?

SM: Not as much as we should have been paid, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. And I say that because you were put on salary—you didn’t get paid and the salaries were below minimum wage. You were doing it for the love. And I was happy and cool to do that. Paul had a family, even young like that, and he’d been getting calls from people at A&M who were saying, “We want you to come out here and produce this record,” or “We want you to do a solo record,” and it was like, how could you refuse it? Young guy who had all that talent, he just went, “Okay, I’m going to do that.” I didn’t blame him at all for it. As a matter of fact no one really did, and I don’t think Prince even to this day was wrecked about it. It was just, “Let’s get on to the next.” And again that’s kind of the beauty of it, because here we are now. Nothing fell apart in a negative way. It all just had to stop, and here we are picking it up 20 years later. It’s kind of beautiful in that way.

RSW: Absolutely.

SM: It just happened the way it was going to happen, it’s like life on life’s terms and you just get on with it. We were playing, we all worked, and it was just, “Okay, on with the next, love you.” And I’ve been friends with Paul since then, we’ve been close. I’ve been close to everybody.

RSW: Now one other question I wanted to ask: Prince is one of the artists that’s really famous for his B-sides. Are there any Family B-sides in the vaults that have not been heard yet, or did you guys start working on the second album and that’s stuff that no one’s ever heard?

SM: Well, believe it or not I think that “Misunderstood” is out there as a bootleg somewhere. It’s a song I did for Prince and I didn’t want him to put it on the record. We were going to put “Misunderstood” on this record and I don’t think I did a good job on that song, I don’t think I was happy with it, and I asked Prince “Can we just keep it off for now and we’ll put it on the next one after I’ve redone it?” and he said okay. I know that’s out there and I do think there’s another track that Paul did, and I can’t remember the name of it… I don’t know, I can’t remember. There was a couple of them.

RSW: Were they ever released?

SM: No.

RSW: All right. So I guess the next question that I wanted to ask is, after the album came out and started to make its rounds, the video came out for “The Screams Of Passion”; did you guys ever go on an official tour?

SM: No. We had rehearsed for a year to go out on tour but we did one gig, and right after that gig Paul left. We did one gig after rehearsal for a year. There were a few people that were pretty disappointed in that, I gotta say—Jellybean was really disappointed in that, more so than even I was. We put so much time and energy into it and so much rehearsal time to get it down and go out there with guns blaring, but again, I can only look at the good side: that we played so much together—we did that whole year, day after day after day—that when we got back together again it was second nature. We just went right back into it. So I just see the good side of it.

RSW: I guess I want to talk a little bit more about your involvement with the Prince machine. You’ve received some songwriting credits on some songs that he’s done. What is the songwriting process like with a guy like Prince, who’s seen as kind of a control freak character?

SM: It’s pretty insular. He does it himself, for the most part. In terms of what I did with him, “Starfish and Coffee” was my childhood. I actually went to school with this girl named Cynthia Rose and I told him the whole story, and we were sitting at the kitchen table and we wrote the story. After writing it he was like, “I’m going to go downstairs in my studio, hang out here for a minute.” And it was two hours later he came back up with the track and a guide vocal, and that was it—that’s how that worked. In terms of the other things I would do with him, he would leave me alone in the studio with his engineer and we would do all the background vocals we needed to do and I would arrange them the way it had to be done, or he would send a track here in L.A. and I would go in the studio and I would do what I had to do on it. I want to say that the songwriting process that he did with Wendy and Lisa was the most inclusive. He was so inspired by them and their musicianship that he let go of the reins a lot with them, and for him that was a lot back then. But I don’t know that to be true with a lot of other people… maybe Sheila, I’m not even positive about that.

RSW: That’s really interesting that you mention that, because it’s kind of a direct contrast with the interaction between the characters that Wendy and Lisa played in the film “Purple Rain”.

SM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, but again, that’s like… behind all the smoke and mirrors there’s always something else there that’s running it. They were hugely influential. Wendy and Lisa and myself were his friends, we were his really good friends and there’s always going to be drama and conflict, but back in those days we all could work it out. I think even more so with Wendy and Lisa he just really was like, “Here, take this and do this, and we need these arrangements, and here’s this song and what do you think?” He did a lot of the writing himself, but he’d give bones of things and then he’d hand it off to Wendy and Lisa, or he’d do the same thing with me when it needed vocals. He’d say, “Here, go for it.” Like there’s a song called “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”, and he sent the track over to me and just said, “Do your thing on it,” and that kind of thing.

RSW: Now was that an actual live song? Because it sounded like something that was recorded in concert.

SM: It was, but none of the background vocals were.

RSW: Okay, gotcha. Thanks for clearing that up. So tell me a little bit about the stuff that you did post-Prince, because I know that you went on to work with Wendy and Lisa when they got their deal with Columbia and then you also worked with your husband, Doyle Bramhall, on his album—he had a great album that came out on RCA that I absolutely loved, and you were a prominent part of that group as well.

SM: Yes. Yeah, I wrote all those records with Doyle. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve written some songs and people have covered them. I’ve worked with Seal, I’ve worked with Madonna, I’ve worked with Eric Clapton, B.B. King—I’ve been really, really fortunate. For the last fifteen years though, talk about a family affair: I was on the road with my husband, I was in his band—we had this band called Feng Shui and Edith Funker, we turned it back into Edith Funker, with ?uestlove and Erykah Badu, my sister Lisa, James Poyser, Mike Elizondo, DJ Jazzy, myself… we had a badass band. We had done that and it’s all been a family affair, it’s been great.

RSW: That project was really talked about in the rumour mill and people were really anticipating that album from Edith Funker. What happened to that project?

SM: Life. I wish it would have come through, but that’s life. I don’t know, it just got put away.

RSW: Did you guys ever record anything?

SM: We did, we recorded two songs. They were great… did she (Erykah Badu) put it on a record? Maybe she put “Annie” on one of the records.

RSW: Well, I know she did a little version of it in one of her videos, but I’m not sure if it appeared on an album, not that I know of.

SM: Right. No, that was actually going to be for this record, that full version, “Annie”. And then there were other songs. That’s life.

RSW: Wow. It sounds like your life story has just been amazing beyond words and I’m so glad that you guys are back in the saddle doing this record, fDeluxe. I’m sure the tour’s amazing, the live show’s gonna be amazing; Paul just got finished telling me that people had flown out from all corners of the globe to see the first show that you guys did. So I’m really happy that you guys are doing this.

SM: It’s crazy, I’m just so blessed. I’m so honoured that people are really supporting this. We’ve got people who’ve come out and said, “What can we do to help? Can we be a part of it?” And they’ll do it for free and it’s like, “Oh my God, can I cook you a meal? What can I do?” It’s just that kind of a thing—it’s really mom and pop. And anyone is welcome; it’s that kind of a thing. It’s not a hyper-choreographed show, it’s a musical show and yes, we all bring our own individual things to it so there’s the excitement of it. But it’s not gimmicky. I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just say that we’re all pretty fully realized humans, so we get up there and do what we love and laugh a lot. And that’s no joke—we laugh so much it’s stupid. For me, if you can laugh and work, you’ve got me forever.

RSW: Wonderful.

SM: Forever. Yeah, it’s true.

RSW: It sounds like that’s a testament to the impact that this album that came out in 1985 still has on people. It just resonates. And I guess it’s something that’s unexplainable, but would you care to explain it?

SM: You just did. Here’s what my instinct is: when you get a group of people together who are really thoughtful, funny, loving, supportive, talented folks and they’re all in the same room together, you’re going to get something pretty special. There were no jokers, it was just really incredibly talented people; incredibly lovely people, just really gracious. And everybody shined, everybody has their time, everybody feels heard; it just works. It’s a democracy in its most beautiful way: it’s for the greater part of the group, it’s not any one thing. As it is now; I do think that even back then when we would be together it was just like I said—beautiful people, really talented, and great music. And it sustained. I’m sure you could say that about back in the day with an old Sly record, or you could say that about a Steely Dan record; you could say it about an Allman Brothers record. You get the talent, you get the people who love it and you get something authentic. Whether you like the music or not, it rings true. So I think that it rang true, to make a long story short—it rings like truth.

RSW: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, Susannah. I’m going to let you guys go so you can get ready for your show tonight. Kick ass onstage, and I can’t wait to see you guys next month in New York City.

SM: I can’t wait. Make sure you come up and say something, because I’ll have to remember who you are, okay?

RSW: Absolutely, I will. I’ll have my Family album in tow.

SM: Oh, beautiful, okay. You take care, and thank you, and I’m going to go put my eyelashes back on.

RSW: Wonderful. Have a great show.

SM: Okay, baby.

Washington, DC native Rico “Superbizzee” Washington has contributed to magazines and media outlets such as Wax Poetics,, and Rolling Out. The former XLR8R magazine staff writer/ columnist and music editor for Free magazine has composed liner notes for CD reissues for albums by Change, Chocolate Milk, and Natalie Cole. He lives and works in New York City.

About the Writer
Rico "Superbizzee" Washington is a Washington, D.C. native and has served as music editor for Brooklyn-based Free Magazine and was a staff writer and columnist for XLR8R Magazine. His work can be found in Wax Poetics, Art Nouveau, and He lives and works in New York City.
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