For our interview about his sophomore release, Reliever, roots singer-songwriter William Prince requested we meet at The Nook, the same Sherbrook Street diner where we had our first sit-down interview more than four years ago.
● Friday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 16, 3 p.m.
● West End Cultural Centre
● Tickets $35 at Ticketmaster (only Sunday matinee available)
"I guess I’m a creature of habit," Prince, 34, says in his now-signature baritone voice.
But while the location is the same, most other things are different for the Peguis First Nation-bred, Winnipeg-based Prince. In contrast to his 2015 debut, Earthly Days, the rollout for Reliever is backed by a label and management team who have built up some buzz — including a recent performance on CBS This Morning Saturday and an online profile on Rolling Stone Country — as Prince looks to ride the powerful momentum created by his first album.
Last time, he was just concerned about having physical CDs to hand out to people and was filled to the brim with optimism that Earthly Days could be the key to opening career doors.
As it turns out, that optimism was not misplaced. Earthly Days resonated strongly with fans and critics alike, who melted at the richness of his work, both in terms of his distinct vocal quality and the emotive storytelling he employs. It earned him a Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album and paved the path to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as a campaign with credit-card giant MasterCard and multiple opening slots for Canadian music icon Neil Young (including one at Centennial Concert Hall, a career highlight for Prince, especially as it fell on his birthday), as well as being asked to perform at events such as the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he inducted folk legend Bruce Cockburn.
"I’m a bit lost in the awe of it all," says Prince, 34. "It all equates to a certain comfort now. I just feel like within what’s happened, it has put parts of my mind at ease, you know? Wondering if I was on the right track and of course where it could potentially go."
The pace of the last few years has been a bit relentless, but you won’t catch Prince complaining. He says his work schedule has been as steady as he ever wished it could be.
"Truthfully, I really enjoy it. For all the time I sat still and worked and waited, it’s nice to kick it into motion this way," he says. "I worked so hard for that first record and I had a moment the other day when I held the new record in my hand for the first time... this is real, it represents so much real time, so many hours."
Reliever is a sweet and soft collection of 11 songs put together both in Winnipeg — with longtime collaborator Scott Nolan at his recording studio, the Song Shop — and in Nashville with Dave Cobb, who has also worked with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile, among other A-listers in the country and roots scenes.
Though the music itself is minimal in its instrumentation, it’s dense in its content, full of personal revelations and anecdotes that offer a soothing perspective on a Prince’s bustling life.
"I’m really happy with the songs, and I feel confident about them and where they came to life — the two places are quite special," he says. "I didn’t go all the way Nashville and I didn’t quite leave Winnipeg. It’s a nice blend and it sits in a way that I’m really proud of. I think it’s a really honest representation of the way I’m hearing and feeling music right now, so that will at least always be accurate.
"That’s one thing I’ve learned from Neil (Young), is the eras of your sound and career, and feelings and words and structure — the way I’m building right now sounds like Reliever. And because of the time I’ve had to create it, it allowed for a nice scope over a few years of collecting. I think the last year and even up to this week has been collecting for something new... I’m excited, and I think it’s just another stone to get to an even bigger, brighter place of clarity with how I’m feeling about things and processing."
Just a few months before Earthly Days was released, Prince’s father, with whom he shared his passion for music and storytelling, died; Reliever, then, began to take shape during that difficult time, but, as Prince says, it was also the time of his "greatest growth."
Prince also became a father and has found inspiration in that major life change, saying his son is one of his greatest sources of strength, and reminds him to keep his humility intact.
"You can’t know it until you’re there with parenting, putting so much of yourself in another place because you’re focused on caring for someone else," Prince says.
"I’ve been excited to be a dad forever; I was ready for it. It softens me up, allows me to be happy and understand not everything is the end of the world.
"I was struggling the last time we sat down, personally struggling, and it’s gotten to a point where music found its way, almost to its max potential for the time being, so I was ready to take on some personal relief," Prince continues. "I think focusing a bit on that the last little while is bringing out some of the best stuff.
"Not everything needs to be born of damage and created in chaos. I was a bit worried to become complacent in comfort, but truthfully, it just allows me to see things a little clearer."
For any artist who has had a successful debut, the fear going into a followup is often rooted in replication — will the new album be able to match the positive feedback of the previous one without merely repeating the types and tones of songs?
These thoughts did cross Prince’s mind on more than one occasion, but he has found comfort in the substantial growth he’s had as a person and a performer. His reignited optimism is pointed in the direction of the fans, who he hopes will continue along this journey with him.
"I think about that all the time," Prince says of the dreaded sophomore slump. "I won’t rely on baritone forever. It’s all about musicality, it’s about growth and that’s what people that have come on board for the first part will be interested to see.
"There’s no tragedy in this record, there’s just testament to resilience. It helped me. I think I was more afraid back when I was thinking of Earthly Days as, ‘Is this even necessary? I hope nobody minds that I’m making this record — I just have to do it for me.’ And now to have any kind of returning audience that I’ve worked for over the past few years, that’s something new. I’ve always written for myself, truthfully created a record I wanted to listen to... that’s simple enough.
"If anything, I’m backed by a number of events, some that we’ve discussed, that help secure who I am."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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Updated on Thursday, February 13, 2020 at 11:04 AM CST: corrects show days