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Nothing Compares 2 Them: Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Liebrum 

Wednesday, Jan 6 2016
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Every friendship has its origin, but for Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, their bond has always been more of a trio: the two of them plus Prince. Attempting to isolate Rudolph and Lieberum's friendship from their shared affinity for the Purple One is simply an impossible task.

"I don't remember us ever not talking about Prince," Rudolph says.

While they officially met at UC Santa Cruz — when Lieberum asked Rudolph to join her band — they contend they were likely separated at birth. It is perhaps the only way to explain their dual fascination with the artist born as Prince Rogers Nelson. They know all the little nooks and crannies of his vast catalogue and share a habit of spontaneously thinking up harmonies to any song they hear.

It is their mutual fandom that has spawned Princess, their musical tribute to the magic of Prince. Fans of Rudolph's work on Saturday Night Live may wonder if this endeavor is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, given her memorable turns as larger-than-life versions of Beyoncé, Oprah, and others during her years at Studio 8H. The truth is that there is nothing insincere about Princess.

Lieberum will never forget the night she and a friend wept uncontrollably because her friend's older sister attended the Purple Rain tour while she and a friend wept uncontrollably because they weren't allowed to go. Rudolph's first Prince show was in 1988, during the LoveSexy tour, which she attended with some girlfriends while her dad chaperoned. Even before that show, Rudolph recalls going to a friend's house to watch a Purple Rain tour VHS tape, memorizing all of Prince's moves.

"All those little live nuances — that's the best part about Prince," she says. "The way he plays his own songs."

Rudolph is no slouch as a musical performer, either. SNL often used her voice in sketches, and when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler returned to host the show in December, they invited Rudolph to be in an infomercial sketch where her inebriated character slurred her way through "The 12 Days of Christmas." She also got a chance to perform another holiday classic: Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" in a scene-stealing turn in Netflix's recently released A Very Murray Christmas. Rudolph emailed back and forth with director Sophia Coppola, suggesting song ideas. When they hit on Love's track, Coppola brought her in to perform with Paul Shaffer at the piano.

"We did it on the day," she says. "We just rehearsed it right before we did it. It was insane and it was magical."

Watching Lieberum and Rudolph perform Prince's works is a magic all its own. While Princess remains focused on Prince's early output, the duo recently attempted "If I Was Your Girlfriend," their first post-Purple Rain song.

Deciding which songs to perform is an elaborate process. Rudolph and Lieberum will often start with what the latter describes as "weird demo versions" of songs that they find, which they'll subsequently sing together before evaluating the results. Some songs are automatically a fit, while others may be revisited: Lieberum remembers that when she and Rudolph first tried to work out a version of "Something in the Water," the song didn't feel quite right, but later Rudolph found a demo and they now regularly perform it at their shows.

Given Rudolph's time in the spotlight and the group's undeniable talent, it should come as no surprise (except perhaps to the star-struck ladies of Princess) that Prince himself has taken notice of the band. Rudolph fondly remembers a plane ride they shared after his SNL performance.

"It was like a dream come true," she says. "Like if I had dream, it would be that I was sitting a row away from Prince on a six-hour plane ride and he couldn't go anywhere. I was in heaven."

But meeting him as one-half of a group dedicated to his music was something else entirely. One night, Rudolph and Lieberum were invited to visit Prince's fabled complex outside of Minneapolis, Paisley Park, after performing a benefit show put together by Bobbie Z., a long-time member of the Revolution. The two had heard rumblings that Prince wanted to meet them, but it wasn't until 3 a.m. that the official word came down. Rudolph was pregnant, and she and Lieberum had a flight to catch in the morning, so they opted not to go.

"We kept saying, 'We did the right thing. We wouldn't have been alert and awake when we saw him,'" Rudolph says. "And then when we got home, my husband picked us up at the airport and he said, 'What were you thinking?! You're idiots!'"

Fortunately, their regret was short-lived. Performing with The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Princess delivered a blistering rendition of "Darling Nikki." They even did the backwards portion from the studio recording, something Lieberum says the two of them have always done only for fun. Rumors reached them that Prince had their performance on his DVR and enjoyed showing it to friends — in the world of Prince, there are lots of rumors and rumblings — and when Rudolph and Lieberum trekked down to Anaheim to see him on tour, they found themselves almost immediately whisked backstage.

"He just walked out, and he was so sweet — he was like an old pal," Rudolph says. "He gave us hugs, and he had a big smile on his face. He just looked at us and then he said, 'How ya'll going to do the backwards part?'"

Rudolph and Lieberum stuck around for the second show, which they took in from a purple couch off-stage. They sound giddy when discussing what that moment was like, a feeling they do their best to replicate when Princess closes each show with a soaring rendition of "Purple Rain." Rudolph calls the song a unifying experience. While she acknowledges that the lyrics aren't necessarily expressing a sentiment of unity, she finds that the music itself brings everybody together. Leaving the stage after a recent Princess performance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Rudolph found herself overcome with emotion. Thinking about all of the awful things happening in the world, she remembers discussing with Lieberum how healing their rendition of "Purple Rain" was for her.

"That song allows you to dig deep," says Rudolph. "It's just so beautiful. And selfishly, singing it, it's like really cathartic. It feels so good to sing that song."

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About The Author

Zack Ruskin

Zack Ruskin

Bio:
Zack was born in San Francisco and never found a reason to leave. He has written for Consequence of Sound, The Believer, The Millions, and The Rumpus. He is still in search of a Bort license plate.

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