Published May 05, 2016It's only been an hour since the world found out we lost Prince when the time comes for this interview. It's a devastating blow to fans and artists alike, including Laurel Sprengelmeyer, a.k.a. Little Scream. The Montreal-based singer-songwriter is supposed to talk about her ambitious and excellent new record, Cult Following, a concept album that Sprengelmeyer actually made with Prince as a reference point, both in practice and inspiration.
"I'm still trying to figure out the appropriate response," Sprengelmeyer tells Exclaim!, still processing the news. "I think I'll wear some purple crepe or a purple armband so people know I'm in mourning."
A few minutes later, she decides she'll paint her guitar purple.
Sprengelmeyer wanted Cult Following to be her Purple Rain: "If Purple Rain was done by a Midwestern girl with more of a folk upbringing," she says with a small laugh.
It's a lofty goal, but it wasn't the success Sprengelmeyer hoped to mirror; it was the spirit and creativity, the heart and sound of Purple Rain that shaped her vision. She even mixed three of Cult Following's songs with Prince's longtime collaborator, producer David Z.
"We mixed it with him at Sunset Studios in L.A., in the very room where they had mixed Purple Rain, because we were using very specific drum sounds in a couple tunes," Sprengelmeyer says. "We were 100 percent referencing Prince and Purple Rain in terms of the sonic bridges between songs. But, like I said, kind of a weird folk version. I'm still a little bit in denial. I'm stunned."
Though she didn't end up using those mixes on the finished record, Prince's influence remains on both Cult Following and Sprengelmeyer.
"I only got to see him once, this year, and I'm so thankful," Sprengelmeyer says. "He played the Bell Centre, and I had really good seats in the front. It was incredible. It's just so inspiring to see what he could do, how well he could do it and all of the emotion he put into every song he was playing, you know, 20 or 30 years after he'd written that stuff. He was still living inside of it in this way that's really incredible. As an artist and as a person who tries to even vaguely attempt something like that, it is just astonishing. The more I try to get into it and become a better musician and a better songwriter, the more deep my appreciation becomes."
The depth of Sprengelmeyer's growth as an artist is evident on Cult Following, the long-awaited followup to her 2011 debut, The Golden Record. Inspired by a brush with an "intentional community" in northern Brazil that was teetering into cultdom, Sprengelmeyer began thinking about all the ways in which cult-like devotion manifest in society.
"I was thinking more about the cult of relationships and how deep we get ourselves in there," Sprengelmeyer says. "Our beliefs and our external structures, like religion, our beliefs about what makes us survive. Also, our beliefs about our relationships and what makes us just close our eyes to what's actually happening. What happens when your belief is shattered, the different layers of that, and the different journey you have to go on when those things are challenged."
As the record embraces its bleak journey, a certain clarity emerges. The songs get more beautiful but more painful, beginning with Sprengelmeyer's duet with the incomparable Mary Margaret O'Hara — "the one collaborator on the record that I approached as a fan, who wasn't just, like, a friend" — and sinking further still through songs with titles that help tell the story: "Wreckage," "Someone Will Notice," "Silent Moon." The final track is chilling but peaceful, transcendent and hopeful, the fog has lifted.
"I did go really deep into a fog, into a world, and got kinda stuck in it even," Sprengelmeyer says. "I was quite deep in it, and when I finally mixed and mastered it and could close the chapter on it, I was like, 'Ahh, I'm released from that world!'"
She imagined the record like one of those pictures of a crystal-filled caverns: dark and mysterious, but with the shiny, sparkly stuff to invite people inside.
"Almost to trick them," Sprengelmeyer laughs. "I wanted to pull people into this journey. We start off with the elation of a moment, but in that elation is the seed of this suffering and the loss that comes afterwards and it's all related, it's two sides of the same experience. For me, they were all linked, and it didn't feel honest to rest in any one of those alone."
Now that Sprengelmeyer herself has emerged from Cult Following's "fog," she's able to look back on the record that consumed her life for two years. She can hear what it was trying to tell her, its secrets no longer obscured by the actual process of making it. In crafting this record, Sprengelmeyer says she's learned to accept who she is as an artist and a human — something that Prince himself has been modelling for the world from the very beginning.
"I have a very intuitive process, and embracing the contradictory characteristics that I have, trying to be true to that — even if it makes it confusing to some people, or harder to market — that's who I am and that's what I make, and just being able to embrace that more fully and censor myself less. Just being cool with who I am," she says with a laugh. "That sounds lame, but it's true."
Cult Following arrives on Friday (May 6) via Dine Alone/Merge. Check out "The Kissing," featuring TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, below.