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Turnitup: An Interview with Ida Nielsen

Ida Nielsen

Ida Nielsen has gone by several names, including Ida Funkhouser and Bassida, but one thing has always stayed consistent: her rock solid funk style. The Danish bassist was building her own artistic empire with her band and a pair of solo albums when Prince handpicked her to be his bassist. Starting in 2010, Nielsen toured the world with The Purple One in his New Power Generation band as well as the all-female trio 3rdEyeGirl. Sadly that came to an end with Prince’s untimely passing earlier this year, but his spirit will continue to live on through her music.

“[Playing with Prince was] a huge gift and as the most magical musical journey ever, and an on-going learning experience beyond all imagination,” the bassist says. “I am eternally grateful for having had this time with him.”

Nielsen learned a lot during those six years, and much of that comes through on her brand new album, Turnitup. Grounded in old school funk, each track has tinges of hip hop, reggae, and world music for a huge sound and hooks that will stick in your head. Nielsen will also be taking the show on the road with a handful of European dates.

We caught up with Nielsen to get the scoop on the new album, lessons from Prince, and her new Sandberg signature bass.

We’ve been following you for several years, back when you were posting videos as Bassida. Of course, once you joined Prince your whole trajectory changed. How did that come about?

That was back in 2010, which must have been right after you posted those videos. It’s amazing because I still don’t know how he found me. He saw some videos I had on Myspace. I asked him but he never told me who it was that told him about me. It was like a secret all the time.

I got a call out of the blue from a woman who said she was his manager and that he would like to invite me to Minneapolis for a jam. I thought she was absolutely joking [laughs]. She said, “I’ll call you right back,” and then she didn’t so I figured someone was pulling a prank on me. Then two weeks later it was arranged and I went to jam with him. I met Prince, we jammed, and then he said, “We’re going on a tour. Wanna join?” It was pretty amazing.

Prince and Ida Nielsen

What was working with him like? I imagine it must have been intimidating.

Of course it was, because I was a huge fan before I met him. It was my dream to play with him. When I first arrived, he was really nice. He could tell I was nervous so he asked me about my bass and stuff to make me go into nerd mode and relax. He was really sweet.

One parallel I thought was interesting between Prince and yourself was that you’re doing almost all of the playing on your new album. Do you feel like you picked that kind of thing up from him or is that just how you work?

Well, it was a little bit of both, I would say. I always played a lot of stuff myself, but just to record with him and watch him work, I learned so much. For a period, we had the NPG Big Band where he put me on guitar. I could play a little bit of just the funky riff stuff, but he totally taught me how to play guitar [laughs]. I got to learn guitar from my absolute favorite guitarist. It was actually my plan to have him to play guitar on some of the tracks for my album, but we never got around to that.

What other ways do you think working with him influenced the new album?

Ida Nielsen: TurnitupIn many, many ways. Whenever I record, I keep a little voice in the back of my head that says, “What would Prince have done?” I was in the studio with him so much, so now I always have that in mind. It’s hard to even begin to describe how much I learned.

I learned to play tight. He was so tight about making space in the music. There’s always a lot going on in my music, and I’m trying to clean it up because I know that’s what he would do. Not that I wasn’t playing tight before, but he taught me to not play all the notes in between that we bass players normally do. It’s a little bit like a drummer who is always rolling on the snare instead of keeping a tight, simple beat. Prince taught me to keep it simple. With my own stuff, I make everyone else play simple so I get all the space! [laughs]

The first time I was in the studio recording with him, I was in shock because I found out he doesn’t use a click track. I was like…what? [laughs] When you hear every record it sounds like there is a click because it’s so tight. It’s all about locking within the band and getting it that tight and I feel like that’s what it’s all about. I love the whole idea of, “we don’t actually need a click. It doesn’t matter if the tempo goes a little up or down as long as the energy and the life is there.” Obviously, though, I used a lot of programming on my album and he used drum machines and stuff like that.

Even later on when we recorded the 3rdEyeGirl album, we had no idea that we had recorded an album. We thought that we were just putting up new songs for reference. We were all standing in the same room so all the amps were playing and all the drums were done together. There was no redo of anything. He had the plan the whole time to make an album. Even for a reference recording, you don’t want to make mistakes because you can’t correct it afterwards. So that keeps you on your toes, doing it the old school way.

With that said, I also like to do what I did on my album: program drums and have drums on top of that plus playing some tight instruments, too.

The new album has a very fun sound, and I really love the opener, “Heart of Stone.” How did that song come together?

You would think the lyric would be about someone or something, but that’s what I recorded last. I started with the melody and the chords. I did the chorus first and I just didn’t want to make it to poppy. It’s got a pop, samba, kind of disco vibe, but I wanted it to have a little more meat on it for the verses. I wanted the verses to be funky, and I like to use funny stuff mixed in. I used to play in this world music band, so that’s where all these exotic sounds come from. I think it’s really funky and fun, so I put it with the beats.

There are some slower grooves on the album, but overall it’s got a very positive vibe. Is that something you were going for or do you think that’s just part of your personality coming through?

I think it’s just my personality. I’m not thinking about it too much. I’m just doing it. I’d love to say I’m really deep and thinking about the lyrics, but that’s not really the case [laughs]. I make the music first and then make it fit, though of course I try to find something that makes sense with the music.

You have a tour coming up. A lot of the time, bass players don’t get to be the band leaders. Is it daunting for you to take a whole band on the road?

A little bit, but I did it just before I got the gig with Prince. Those videos you mentioned were my first time doing it. It’s hard work and not something you normally do as a bass player. For years before that I was playing all sorts of other stuff. I thought I was pretty good at playing funky bass, but no one wanted to listen to it here in Denmark. So I figured, “I’ve just got to do my own thing.”

It was hard, but then Prince saw it. I feel like the lesson of that was that you should just go for it.

Because I had that experience, now it’s a little intimidating again because it’s the first time in six years that I’m going on tour with my own band. Last time I did it, I feel like I did it out of the love for funk music. I just wanted to do it and something beautiful came out of it. That’s why I feel like I can’t really go wrong. I’m going to keep playing my music. If people like it, that’s wonderful. If they don’t, I’ll still have a good experience with it. I have my friends in the band and they’re awesome, so we’re going to have lot of fun playing.

What’s the deal with your new Sandberg signature bass?

We tried to make one a couple years back, but I was in the States and Sandberg is in Germany. I didn’t have the chance to try it out, so we held off. Now I’ve had the opportunity to go there, which was been really fun. They have a space for trying pickups, so I tried all sorts of different pickups in different combinations. I could move them so I could see where they should be on the bass for it to sound different ways. That was fun to try, even though I found they sounded best in a pretty standard position.

Sandberg Ida Nielsen Signature Bass

I feel like you can’t get a bass that sounds good for everything. I wanted a bass that sounded good for funk and for rock, because that’s what I was playing. I wanted something that would sound best with 3rdEyeGirl, Prince, and my own stuff as well. I think it sounds like that. It’s also very pretty [laughs]. The pickguard is actually a piece of fabric between plastic plates. It looks so beautiful, but it makes it a little thicker than a normal pickguard. If you play some of that Victor Wooten-style fast stuff, it makes it a little easier. I had to get used to it, but you don’t feel it when you play normal stuff.

Who are some the bass players you’ve been listening to lately?

In the whole process of making the album, I wasn’t listening to much else. For bass players, I feel there are so many that I love that if I mention one, I have to mention them all. One of my heroes is Larry Graham… Well, I guess I have to list them all now [laughs]. Of course, Prince was a phenomenal bass player. Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey, Rocco Prestia, Jaco Pastorius, Esperanza Spalding… Then there are guys I know personally like Andrew Gouché and MonoNeon. Those guys are amazing. I love to hear skilled musicians, even though they do stuff where I think, “I’m never going to be able to play that.” It’s beautiful.

Ida Nielsen Band 2016 Tour Dates:

Aug 25Cultuurpodium BoerderijZoetermeer, Netherlands
Aug 27FermatenHerning, Denmark
Aug 29Amager BioKøbenhavn, Denmark
Aug 30Fatter EskildÅrhus, Denmark
Sep 2Old Fort, Stone TownZanzibar, Tanzania
Sep 7The Underworld CamdenLondon, United Kingdom