Prince Phenom Donna Grantis Comes into Her Own

Donna Grantis' debut album, 'Diamonds & Dynamite,' is a diverse mix of atmospheric, in-the-moment playing that brilliantly showcases her impressive six-string talents.
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“There’s nothing quite like the sound of two electric guitars through two loud amps,” exclaims former Prince guitarist Donna Grantis. “It’s amazing. And for that other player to have been Prince was such an inspiring experience.”

Grantis is best known for performing in Prince’s groups 3rdeyegirl and New Power Generation from 2012 to 2016. After this impressive co-lead work, Guitar Player placed her among “50 Sensational Female Guitarists” in its May 2017 issue. Now, at long last, the Canadian musician is stepping out to release her debut album, Diamonds & Dynamite (eOne Music), which was recorded over a mere two days in Minneapolis.

Inspired by the time Grantis spent working with her musical mentor, the all-instrumental Diamonds & Dynamite is a diverse mix of atmospheric, in-the-moment playing that combines at times with Indian percussion. For the album, Grantis relied on her PRS guitars, including her trusted CE22 nicknamed Elektra, and a stacked pedalboard featuring no fewer than 21 stompboxes. The album flows with blazing riffs and ambient guitar tones that make eloquent use of effects, including an EBow. “It has a very specific sound,” she says of the device, “so it’s one of those things where using it in the right context is amazing. But it really is such a unique technique and sound that it works best to create ambient effects. And against the tabla, in particular, I thought I created a really meditative vibe.”

What was it like producing and leading the band for Diamonds & Dynamite?

It’s been awesome. I have a lot of experience being a bandleader and musical director, and it’s a role that I really love. This is the first time I’ve released music as a bandleader after having spent a few years working with the greatest bandleader, Prince. I really learned a lot from him, and I tried to apply it to this new project, including how to get the best out of each band member, teach them their parts and really see through an artistic vision.

What musical project were you last working on with Prince?

We didn’t have a name, but we jammed a few times at Paisley Park. We took some standard songs and really played them out and experimented a lot with sounds and musical direction. This album is an extension of that exploration.

What else inspired your musical direction on Diamonds & Dynamite?

I’ve always loved rock guitar, and I’ve always had a passion for improvisation. I feel like blues is really my foundation, and I studied jazz, so I’ve been interested in the combination of both of those genres. When I was playing in 3rdeyegirl, the song “Recollections,” from the Miles Davis album Big Fun, was played on the P.A. as fans took their seats. That song and album opened up a whole new world of music for me. The records that Miles put out during the ’70s — his “electric period” — really resonated with me. It’s such a fabulous mix of jazz-improv with a rock and roll attitude. I wanted to make a record in that direction.

Did you have any specific goals when you went into the studio?

I wanted us to be prepared enough that we were ready to play but still unfamiliar enough that there would be a fresh attitude, so that what would be captured was our first instincts. It’s more natural that way, and there is a sense of urgency in trying to create something on the spot that moves you. I really wanted to keep everyone on their toes, including myself, so that we would not be too comfortable, and I wanted us to listen to each other and react.

Your songs take the listener on a journey and feel very visual.

Cool. Thank you. I love that. I love how instrumental music can create really unique visuals for different people.

The title track is so diverse. How did you structure that song?

“Diamonds & Dynamite” features two contrasting sections. I wanted to write something that was very reflective of my life at the time, and the song matches that. In many ways, 2016 was a challenging year for me, and I was pregnant with my first child. So when it comes to the composition of those two contrasting sections and the song title, that’s the inspiration behind it.

The song starts out with drums and tabla. I really dig tabla. There’s a heavy rock riff that the band plays in unison, and my guitar solo is over that section. There’s an open vamp with a repetitive rhythm figure in the bass line against an E7 sus chord that the keys solo over, and that represents the “A” section. I wanted the song to take listeners on a journey. It’s really fun to play live. There’s a lot of room for the musicians to listen to each other and interact.

I noticed that you use a lot of guitar bends. How does that sort of expression enhance your playing?

When it comes to bends and trying to be expressive with them, I think that goes back to the blues and the idea of how to take a note and bend it in many different ways to be expressive. Whether that’s a half or full bend, bending up three frets or four frets, a ghost bend, bending two notes at once, or just hanging on a bend for a while and letting it grow into feedback — there are so many ways to treat one note. Albert King is an amazing reference for that.

What’s your approach to creating a solo?

I usually start with a riff or a chord progression that I think would be really fun to play over. I’ll often record it and then jam on top. There are times when I think of my solos compositionally and times when I just want to go for it and see what my immediate, innate reaction would be to play over top of something. Very often I think musicians’ first instincts are their most natural.

What informs your sonic landscapes?

From a compositional standpoint, it’s interesting to have a wide variety of styles over the course of a live performance. As a musician playing onstage, there’s a reaction I feel to those different sections of music and changes based on the vibe. For instance, there are times where I really dig playing on 10, like in the song “Trashformer,” and there are times where I like to create a more ambient vibe. I think those quiet sections can really draw listeners in as well. I try to think about what inspires me when I listen to other people play, and I really dig that variety.

The opening to “Trashformer” has some cool distortion on it, what are you using?

That is an Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff pedal.

Tell me about your pedalboards.

I have a board that has 21 pedals and another with 10, which is my live rig. When I was playing with 3rdeyegirl, we covered material from Prince’s first album all the way up to what was being written at the time. We were only a four-piece band, but it was our job to make his music sound super fat. That’s why I built what my guitar techs call the Starship. It’s three interconnected boards with 21 pedals. [The Starship was built by Craig Pattison Rig Design and includes a TC Electronic Flashback Delay, Vortex Flanger and Hall of Fame Reverb, and a Boss Blues Driver BD-2, Flanger BF-3 and Loop Station RC-30, as well as other units.] I had to access all of these sounds to recreate the music. Whether it was synth lines, horn parts or all the different production sounds that were used over those records, I was tasked with making them sound great and needed a big variety of pedals. When I was in the studio, I recorded the album over two days and used the Starship.

It must have been intense working with Prince. Can you offer behind-the-scenes insight to him?

The rehearsal sessions were intense, but so fantastic. It was such a luxury for musicians to be able to go into the studio every day and play for hours. We’d usually get into the studio at around two o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d be there anywhere from midnight to 6 a.m., jamming and working through arrangements, transcribing, recording, improvising. It was just an incredible experience.