I Wanna Be Your Cover: Hello Death on Prince

Folk four-piece Hello Death will stage a presentation of the work of Prince for the Alverno Presents’ Uncovered series. We asked band members to pick one Prince song that really connected with them. Here’s what they had to say.

Alverno Presents’ Uncovered series gives Milwaukee-area musicians and artists a platform to reinterpret the oeuvre of a heavily influential musician’s oeuvre. Previous muses include Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Patti Smith and Stephen Foster. This year the folk four-piece Hello Death will stage a presentation of the work of pop music icon Prince. The two artists couldn’t sound anymore different, which makes this unusual pairing even more interesting. But Hello Death won’t tackle this project alone, as the event features contributions from Klassik, Chris Rosenau, Jayh Johnson, Kavi Laud, New Boyz Club, D’Amato, Mark Waldoch, the Tontine Ensemble, Maria Cree Myles and Oedipus Tex.

One of the greatest selling points of the Uncovered series is the opportunity to see how an artist effected fellow musicians and how that influence is captured on stage during the reinterpretation. Before their performance this Friday at the Pitman Theatre, I asked the members of Hello Death to pick one Prince song that really connected with them. Here are their responses:

Marielle Allschwang (guitarist, violinist, singer): I’m drawn to (and usually get pretty emotional listening to) “Free” (1999) because of its paradoxes. It’s anthemic and melancholy. We hear the full range Prince’s incredible vocal abilities – from falsetto to deep to rough and impassioned. It opens with a military march and ends with a “We Are The World”-like chorus. There’s something sinister here in this nod to nationalism, democracy, and individual freedom. Prince begins with a series of unnatural imperatives: “Don’t sleep ‘til the sunrise,” “Don’t cry unless you’re happy/ Don’t smile unless you’re blue…” On the one hand, these directives are limiting, psychological contortions, but on the other hand, they’re transgressive, encouraging behavioral dissent that flies in the face of expectation.

And then there’s the most paradoxical imperative in the chorus: “Be glad that you are free” can be received as admonishing and sincere. Are we really free? Regardless, just “be glad for what you’ve got,” right? Be glad you’re better off than the “many [who are] not.” Prince presents an entire critique of capitalism and our endlessly complicated history in one song.

The album 1999 has a double-whammy for me, as “Free” immediately leads into “Lady Cab Driver,” which has a chant that is a spiritual odyssey in itself – a kind of Prince prayer – through an implied sex act, traveling from aggressive, dominant and punishing (“This is for the cab you have to drive for no money at all”) to a universal, cosmic ecstasy and understanding (“And now I know”). It hits such an essential nerve and has such a great groove. And the lyrics are impeccable. It was important to me to include it somewhere in our performance, and thankfully we found a great spot for it.

Nathaniel Heuer (bassist, guitarist, singer): When I was 14 years old, one of my best friends died in a house fire. He was the drummer in my first band and his death has informed countless decisions in my life. I didn’t realize until much later that “Sometimes It Snows In April” reminds me of him. It’s a beautiful song about things ending too soon. It may be ironic or perfectly fitting that there are no drums in the song. Either way, it conveys many emotions I can relate to and ends with the most bittersweet line, “Love isn’t love until it’s past.”

Erin Wolf (pianist, keyboardist, singer): I was 4 years old when the album came out, and I remember many of the songs on it being all over the radio—Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Prince, etc. That was 1984. And when you’re 4, songs begin to really stick; that wobbly, metallic guitar in the beginning of “Purple Rain” really pulled my ear for whatever reason and by the song’s end, it was a completely different animal—really emotive. Before I was 10, I was more into R&B than most types of music and I feel like it started with this song. Also, I’ve heard this particular Prince song more than any other and have not once gotten tired of it; even with it being on a CD jukebox where I bartended that whenever it got played (and only this song), it would skip (and skip and skip) and we’d have to reboot/fix the jukebox, after each play—totally worth it.

Shawn Stephany (guitarist, lap steel player): Prince Uncovered is my first real immersion into Prince’s music so I don’t really have a relationship to his songs to call upon here. But I can say that, through this process of reinterpreting his songs, I have a growing respect for him as a song writer…and as a guitarist, the man can shred.

Hello Death reinterprets the work of Prince as part of Alverno Presents’ Prince Uncovered on Saturday, Oct. 17 at the Pitman Theatre, 3431 South 39th Street. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $25.

As a lead-up to the event, there is also a free screening of Prince’s 1984 full-length feature film Purple Rain at Transfer Pizzeria Café, 101 W. Mitchell St., on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.



Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.