Interview with Singer Naomi Almquist of Prinze George

I have a guilty pleasure for ladies covering hip-hop and R&B songs. During a 2am youtube jaunt, I came across the cover Prinze George did of “Tuesday” by ILOVEMAKONNEN. The video features Naomi Almquist (vocals), Kenny Grimm (guitar), and Isabelle de Leon (piano). I was first blown away by Naomi’s voice and the simplicity of the song, but also by the fact that the video is of three friends, singing, playing music, dancing, and having fun doing what they do. I listened to the rest of their album and watched all the accompanying videos and danced around my apartment happily imagining parties I used to have with my girlfriends where we shamelessly danced around for hours. My experience with music is often shallow, I might listen to a new album, then shuffle it out of my mind to be replaced by the next thing. My experience with Prinze George however was different. Something about Naomi’s voice makes me feel warm, and the music itself nostalgic. When I reached out to Naomi for this interview her warmth transcended the division of the time and space of a computer screen, and I felt like we were hanging out, doing what we do.

Have you always been a singer? Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing and how that might have influenced you creatively?

I have always loved music and enjoyed singing. My mother is an opera singer, and both of my parents are music enthusiasts. The Beatles, the Beach boys, Joni Mitchell, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Irish Instrumentals, African music, some country, classical music, you name it, it was playing in my house. I also grew up in the 90s right outside of DC in PG County and went to public schools, so hip hop and r&b , top 40 pop, and pop punk/rock were always playing in my headphones during my childhood. I loved everything, especially female singers I could sing along to.

Growing up the daughter of a singer definitely influenced me creatively. When you have a parent who you inherited a trade or a 'gift' from, it makes you feel a sort of pressure to do it. That can be good and bad, the pressure was motivation for me to develop my instrument, but I was a very rebellious kid and didn’t want to totally follow in my mom’s footsteps just because I could, so I majored in Psychology and thought I’d be a psychotherapist or speech therapist. I did minor in music and continued songwriting in private, but composing was sort of my secret thing I did when no one was around for the majority of my life, and not something I thought I would ever do professionally until I started working with Kenny. It’s probably part of the reason I still have terrible anxiety every time we perform.

You play in a band called Prinze George. First, how did you come up with the name and get together with your bandmates?

Kenny came up with the name, it’s where we grew up, where we met, it’s probably where we’ll end up. We have got a huge network of friends we grew up with, a lot of them are still here, most of them are artists or work in the county in education or politics. It’s a unique place to grow up. Until the recession, it was the wealthiest county in the US with an African American majority. Since the recession, that has sadly changed quite a bit, but it still remains a diverse place to grow up, and that is an invaluable experience to us. It’s affected who we are, who our friends are, what we listen to, what we read, how we think. Isabelle (bandmate) actually grew up in Montgomery County about an hour away, but she went to college in PG County at the University of Maryland, which is how we met. We were looking for a drummer a few years ago and she saw a flyer we posted on campus. We thought she was a catch in every way, so the rest is history.

For those who haven't heard your  album, how would you describe the music?

The music is electronic pop, with a blend of acoustic and electronic drums, guitars, bass/other random instruments. Vocal samples make frequent appearances in the production. We do tend to focus more on solid songwriting first, opposed to beginning a song by obsessing over sounds, but it is different every time. Sometimes a vocal sample will inspire an entire song. All that really matters to us is that our songs stand on their own when you strip away the production, which is crucial for us.

It seems like Prinze George is about to blow up...or IS blowing up. What was the process like to establish yourselves as a band? What kinds of difficulties have you encountered?

It’s funny because most people think that “blowing up” is this like; instantaneous fame explosion phenomenon that it isn’t. It’s a long and gradual process, especially for certain artists. I know we got lucky at the beginning because of timing and the internet. We were in NYC, and the second single we released under this brand new project sort of 'blew up' because of the blogs and hype machine. There were 200 industry people at our first show. That is insane and lucky in a sense, but it happened so quickly that our live show wasn’t ready to live up to the hype. There was visibly less industry interest after that first show. Because of the internet, artists are “blowing up” all over the world every 15 seconds. It took us a second to learn that REAL success exists far beyond hype machine and the internet; that it’s about a lot more than a million people having listened to one of your songs. Real success is: do you have a manager? A booking agent? Are enough people showing up to hear you play consistently? People have to show up to your shows in real life if you are to make it professionally. People have to want to represent you in order for you to get representation. It took us a year just to build our team in New York. We were running from our day jobs to meetings and vice versa until we found the right people. We took another year to make our first album. That is nothing compared to so many other bands that struggle for 10+years before getting recognized for their work, but it’s also not an overnight thing.

I love all of the visuals you guys have created to accompany the music, as well as the super chill cover sessions. Can you talk about your aesthetic process?

Thank you!!! Color and sound have been at the forefront of my aesthetic vision for this project from the beginning. Two of my best friends are stylists with impeccable taste, and one of them is a visual artist and does creative direction for us. They have both been helping from the very beginning with all things visual. I love fashion, always have. I’m also a huge Jack White fan, and I just always thought it was so brilliant what he did with the color scheme for the White Stripes. I still think of the White Stripes anytime I see red and white together. Using visual conditioning to create an association between a particular artist and a particular color palette is so powerful and cool. There is so much identity in that. I knew that white and pink were connected to the music, and also light greys and neutrals. White is pure energy and reflects light; it also looks amazing on everyone.

What kinds of things do you do to stay motivated/chill/have fun?

We are all obsessed with food. Wine is important to all of us. Isabelle likes whiskey, Kenny loves beer, Champagne is me. We all drink strong coffee, coffee is important. We run. We watch movies/the occasional excellent TV show and read books. Sometimes we write terrible songs for fun. We laugh a lot, we are all very silly and do not take ourselves too seriously in life. Isabelle  loves to ski. Kenny still plays weird video games...I love to be naked/dance around nearly naked for hours.  I think when you are creative, everything inspires you because all of it is input.

Who are some ladies you admire creatively/musically?

Lauryn Hill is my number one forever. My brother used to play the cassette tape of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in our basement when I was like 8, and I was completely and immediately obsessed with it. I still am. Emily Haines of Metric was a huge influence on me in high school as was Feist, Joni Mitchell, Alicia Keys and Regina Spektor. Female singers that were also songwriters were the ultimate to me, and Lauryn is on a pedestal because she made political art that wasn’t corny (hard to do) and could sing as well as she could rap. While playing guitar. She’s the queen.

So I'm sure you’ve heard about the lawsuit between Kesha and her producer from Sony and the outcome that favored the record company and failed to protect Kesha’s rights. What is it like as a female working in this industry? Do you ever face sexism or misogyny?

Yeah, the Kesha suit is really sad. The music industry is nuts, and I honestly do not know how single female acts navigate it alone. It’s so much easier to navigate label/mgmt deals when you have a partner so there is someone on your side so you don’t get locked in crazy long contracts. The industry is set up for the artist to fail, so you have to be careful and thorough before signing anything. It’s so obvious that Kesha just wants to create music and get out of that contract and away from that guy. It’s disgusting the way our society is conditioned to victim-blame. Women do it to women too, and it’s so gross. I have been fortunate enough to have a male partner in all of this, it makes everything so much easier. Sometimes I get less eye contact than Kenny does in meetings with new industry people, or I get cut off/interrupted, or guys say dumb shit like “So do you like, cut through the mix live? Because I’ve never heard a girl like, REALLY cut through the mix live”. You know what though? I do not care and refuse to complain. It honestly does not matter. I am a white woman, and my partner is a white man, and we are so privileged to be doing this and to work with people who respect both of us equally. Our drummer is Filipino, and my best friend/our creative director is African American and often travels with us, so I tend to be far more preoccupied with their comfort level/protection than I am with my own.

What does feminism mean to you?

To be honest, I’ve been a feminist since I was like 11, so the idea of ‘being a feminist’ isn’t particularly revolutionary to me personally. I don't know a single weak woman. It’s like…duh. Of course we should all be feminists. It’s just more mainstream now, which is great and also super annoying. It’s great because there is more awareness now, more dialogue, women are rising up and empowering one another and letting their armpit hair grow and not apologizing for who they are as much as the older generations had to. The reason it annoys/frustrates me is because a lot of my fellow white ‘feminist flag waving’ ladies don’t actually live out the feminist ideology to include and lift up women of color; who need feminism more than anyone else right now.

All photos courtesy of Prinze George by Joilyn Jackson