Prince Guitarist Donna Grantis Shines with Diamonds & Dynamite
Canadian jazz/blues/R&B/rock guitarist Donna Grantis had been active in the Toronto music scene for many years when her life changed in 2012. Based on a YouTube video of her playing a Billy Cobham cover, Prince reached out to her to come and jam with him at Paisley Park. This then led her to join Prince’s New Power Generation and 3RDEYEGIRL bands. She played alongside Prince until his tragic passing in 2016. This month, Donna shared about what it means to give your all to your craft, and her latest critically acclaimed album DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE.
Parvati Magazine: One word you used to describe your time with Prince was “inspiring”. You also shared that you always had to be on your toes, and keep your eyes always on him. He could point to you on stage to signal that you were on to play a solo with no advance notice, or wrap up the song or bring it back. How did you handle that initially when playing alongside a huge icon? Were you surprising yourself with what would pour out of you and your development over those four years?
Donna Grantis: Prior to playing with Prince, I worked as a bandleader, band member in a number of groups, musical director and session musician (live and in-studio) for many years. In all of those collaborations, making eye contact with other players and communicating musically with cues was a vital skill, necessary to deliver the best performance both personally and collectively. Whether playing with an up and coming local musician, or a musical icon, I think it’s important to serve the music with the utmost attention, integrity and respect. It was my dream to play with Prince and, in terms of my development over those four years, I was extremely eager and inspired to learn as much as possible.
Parvati Magazine: What was it like to work alongside two women musicians in 3RDEYEGIRL in a typically male-dominated scene? Did you ever feel you had something to prove or portray certain stereotypes as a female guitarist?
Donna Grantis: Working with Hannah and Ida was amazing! In addition to being world-class, phenomenal musicians, they are incredible people and we developed a life-long bond both on-stage and off. I have played with women and men throughout my career. When a listener closes his or her eyes, it’s the music that shines through—not a person’s gender. As a teenager, I realized through my own personal experiences that many people expected less of me as a female guitarist. I also learned that people often assumed I predominantly played acoustic folk music. These perceptions continue to inspire me to work even harder, focus more intensely, dig deeper into the music that moves me and strive to be the best I can.
Parvati Magazine: Let’s talk about your debut album DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE, and specifically the leadoff track with the same title. You spoke about it reflecting two contrasting themes that were happening in your life when you wrote it. What was it about diamonds and dynamite that resonated with you?
Donna Grantis: The term “DIAMONDS” inspires imagery of beauty and strength, while “DYNAMITE”, to me, reflects tumultuous times. I tried to communicate this idea and my feelings at the time by composing two sections: a heavy rock riff and an airy, open vamp over a 7sus chord. Each translates a unique emotion.
Parvati Magazine: You left openings in your compositions for your musicians to improvise on the spot while recording, similar to your experience with Prince. You have said that in these situations of little rehearsal, usually the first instinct a musician goes with is the best. Have you always had a strong musical instinct as your cornerstone to success?
Donna Grantis: My musical foundation is steeped in the blues—a very expressive and instinctual art form. I think so much related to writing, performing and improvising musical ideas is based on instinct. All of the nuances that go into playing a note—the attack, conviction, feeling, dynamics, etc.—all of that is governed by instinct and I try to communicate that expressiveness when I play.
Parvati Magazine: What changed for you when you decided to release a solo album? How did it feel to step into the lead position?
Donna Grantis: It’s liberating and exciting to have total creative freedom and completely see through an artistic vision.
Parvati Magazine: The writing of this album began in 2015. Which songs were the first and last to come together? How did your sound evolve over this stretch of time?
Donna Grantis: I composed a number of pieces—ideas, melodies and chord progressions—in 2015. However, DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE was one of the first complete songs I wrote in 2016, and it set the tone for the album. TRASHFORMER, a collaboration with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, was one of the last. Overall as a writer, during 2015-2017, I was greatly influenced by my life experiences, the things I learned during my time with Prince, 3RDEYEGIRL and New Power Generation, and Miles Davis’s music from the 70s (often referred to as his “ELECTRIC period”). Since then, compositionally, my focus has shifted and I think listeners will hear how my sound has evolved with the next record.
Parvati Magazine: I’m curious to know about your song and play on words title, “TRASHFORMER”, a collaboration with guitarist Mike McCready of Pearl Jam. Can you tell us what prompted this song and title?
Donna Grantis: I was building a percussion stand and bought an old, bent, trashy-sounding Zildjian cymbal. I later realized it was called TRASHFORMER and immediately wrote the main riff. The rest of the song came together pretty quickly.
Parvati Magazine: In your career you have experienced the joys of unexpected openings and also heartache. With that, do you have any advice you can offer to musicians who have experienced setbacks or feeling stalled?
Donna Grantis: In the words of Joseph Campbell, “Follow Your Bliss”.
Best known for performing as co-lead guitarist with Prince in his iconic groups 3RDEYEGIRL and New Power Generation, Canadian guitarist and eOne recording artist Donna Grantis released her critically acclaimed debut album, DIAMONDS & DYNAMITE, earlier this year. “Donna can whup every man on guitar, bar none.” – Prince (V Magazine)