In celebration of Wendy & Lisa’s brilliant ‘Girl Bros.,’ released 4 September 1998, I decided to re-post a blog I wrote in 2014 about how the album has guided me through tremendous loss and how the music endures all these years later.

October 1998. 

I had just moved to Burbank, and was getting settled into my tiny but wonderful apartment a block or so away from Disney Studios, where I had recently begun a year-long writing fellowship program. Not too long after arriving in LA, I had already identified the wreckastows I would haunt to get my music fix and expand my ever-evolving CD collection. One of the new CDs I picked up—and certainly one that I had eagerly awaited—was Wendy and Lisa’s Girl Bros.

Now.

Anyone who knows me, knows how I ride for Prince. We’ve been down since the early ‘80s, when I was entirely too young to be listening to him, let alone singing along. Ninety-nine percent of the time I didn’t know what he was talking about anyway, although that didn’t assuage my mother’s consternation (honestly, I’m still not sure I understand everything he was talking about back then; a friend of mine and I were just wondering the other day who exactly was masturbating in “Darling Nikki,” and what role the magazine played in it all. But that’s for another conversation, at the end of a very late night). But along with my childhood idolization of Prince came first a fascination with and, shortly thereafter, a deep admiration for Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. As members of the Revolution, they figured prominently in Prince’s songwriting, composing, arranging, and performance—arguably more so than other members of the band at that time. While I don’t have absolute proof, I have frequently surmised that they were largely responsible for the sweeping arrangements that characterized much of Prince’s work from Purple Rain through Parade; his post-Revolution oeuvre, after Wendy and Lisa’s departure, offers a markedly different musical perspective which seems to make it more than obvious how their sensibilities influenced him. And naturally, you hear his influence in much of their solo work (particularly on 1989’s Fruit at the Bottom).

So it naturally follows then that I would take a keen interest in Wendy and Lisa’s post-Prince releases. With their self-titled debut in ’87, W&L pulled off a relatively straightforward pop album that coincided perfectly with my tween-aged musings. I spent many a Saturday afternoon dancing in front of the mirror in my bedroom, singing along to “Waterfall” and “Sideshow.” “Stay,” which I honestly believe is one of the most perfect songs ever written (the guitar solo gives me chills to this day), spoke of unrequited affections merely hinted at in my lived experience to that point; and when I found a vinyl maxi-single of “Honeymoon Express,” which featured the slick and funky “To Trip is to Fall” on the b-side, I put my young producer skills to the test by recording myself singing “Honeymoon” over the instrumental. Like, background vocals and all (thanks, dad, for the sweet karaoke machine!).  

By the time Fruit at the Bottom dropped in ’89, I was in high school, and it, too, seemed a perfect soundtrack for that era of my life. That cassette, along with the Batman soundtrack, Sign O’ the Times, Parade, and a copy of The Black Album I’d recorded from a friend’s vinyl over one of my sister’s Bob James tapes (oops), stayed in my book bag all school year and in heavy rotation on my Walkman. This incredibly funky album remains the Prince-yist  of Wendy and Lisa’s body of work (“Are You My Baby” and “I Think It Was December” being the most obvious nods), but what made it even more intriguing for me was the fact that it featured all women musicians (Jesse Johnson makes a special appearance on “Satisfaction”).

1990’s Eroica was quirky and a gorgeous sonic departure from the first two albums. Released during the seeming resurgence of 60s psychedelic and protest music (this was, after all, the commencement of the first Gulf War), the album found its way into my collection alongside Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and a bunch of Jimi Hendrix tapes I ordered from Columbia House Records. A bit more cerebral and sophisticated, it took me a little longer to fully appreciate the work in its entirety, although songs like “Strung Out,” “Crack in the Pavement,” and “Turn Me Inside Out” resonated pretty quickly. My best friend used “Why Wait for Heaven” at a critical point in his production of LeRoi Jones’ Junkies are Full of Sh*t for his senior directing project, which opened that song up to me in a new way.

In the years following Eroica, while W&L did not release any new studio material they swiftly established themselves as one of the premier composing teams in Hollywood, scoring films like Dangerous Minds and Soul Food, and TV shows such as Crossing Jordan, Heroes, and Nurse Jackie (Emmys and the ASCAP Shirley Walker Award would follow). 

Which brings us, albeit perhaps somewhat anachronistically, back to 1998, and Girl Bros, and what it has taken me 17 years to fully comprehend about the album.

I remember reading in early reviews of Girl Bros. that the album was inspired by Jonathan Melvoin, Wendy and (her twin sister) Susannah’s brother who had died of a heroin overdose in 1996. I’d also heard or read that the song “The Love We Make” from O)+>’s Emancipation was also inspired by Jonathan’s death, and of course in reading the liner notes inside the Girl Bros. CD it was clear that the album was dedicated to him. What I missed, however, in those first listens—from the first track, “Reaching One,” to the final track, “I’ve Got No Strings” (made famous in Disney’s Pinocchio, and which takes on a whole other energy and direction when voiced by an adult woman)—was grief. Because, see, to that point in my life, I had never truly experienced grief. When my maternal great grandmother, Mama Brock, died when I was in high school, I was deeply saddened. That loss mattered. When my maternal grandfather, my dear and wonderful Papa, died on New Year’s Eve 1999, my heart broke. It ached not only because he was gone, but because I watched my mom, my aunt (her sister), my Granni (their mother), and so many of our family members experience that loss. Still, it was a different kind of thing. Great grandparents and grandparents are at an age and stage in their lives when you understand that they will be gone soon, so from my perspective and that generational distance, I could more easily incorporate that loss as something that happens in the grand scheme of things. It isn’t that their deaths did not count as significant, it’s just that they made sense.

28 June 2009.

In one of the most extraordinary twists of fate in the history of twists of fate, Wendy and Lisa performed a rare string of shows in Los Angeles, and as soon as I found out about it I ordered a ticket. Mind you, I lived in Dallas. But my sister, Dawn, was an American Airlines flight attendant, so a quick trip to LA would be relatively simple to pull off thanks to her flight privileges. And wouldn’t you know it, when I arrived at Largo the evening of the show, the seating lottery placed me smack dab in the front row. 

The show was incredible. I think I started crying the moment Wendy, Lisa, Susannah, and their band stepped out onto the stage. Stanned all the way out. 

And then, they got to “Jonathan.” By now, anyone familiar with the Girl Bros. album knew that this song was obviously about their beloved brother, and in listening to it on numerous occasions since getting the album I’d always understood the sadness and loss the song spoke of. But that night, watching Lisa struggle to get through the first verse, and then watching Susannah break down in tears midway through, and then Wendy playing through the song even while Lisa and Susannah wept…that was the moment I began to understand the grief. I remember reflecting that night on how I could not even begin to comprehend what it must be like to lose a sibling. As the youngest of 5, I imagined my sisters and brother and I would all grow very, very old and even more cantankerous together.

And then.

20 December 2009.

My eldest sister, Dawn, died by suicide. And that day, every single song on Girl Bros. became the story of my life from that moment on.

I’d always loved the elegant, lush arrangement of “I’ve Got a Big Bowl of Cherries,” and the melancholy in the lyrics; I’d always cranked “Reaching One” sky high, grooving to the opening sleigh bells and digging the backing vocals and harmonies; I’d always been somewhat haunted by the imagery of “Bring You Back,” as it reminded me of the images evoked in Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.” But after my sister’s death, those songs—and every other song on the album—told an entirely different story.

With each subsequent listen to Girl Bros., the grief reveals itself to me, makes itself plain and clear. It has become kin, in a way. In the five years since my sister’s suicide, I have yet to write the songs I thought I’d write to deal and to heal. And yet, in every song I’ve written since she died—and specifically, most if not all of the songs I’ve written since 2012—there is so much grief hiding in plain sight. The chords I instinctively go to drip with it; the words I choose are heavy with it. Cleverly disguised as songs about romantic love, these songs of mine are all somehow connected to that place in me that is still raw and wide open.

Still, Girl Bros. is not an album you throw on so you can sit with the lights out and slip down deep into darkness (no, for that, you put on Meshell Ndegeocello’s Bitter). What makes it such a glorious experience is that, not unlike grief, which often comes in unexpected waves even long after the initial shock of a loss appears to have subsided, the album embodies the emotional highs and lows that come along with grief. It neither ecstatically uplifts nor completely deflates you; rather, it gives you room to dance, to reminisce, to fall apart, to move forward, to question.  

They say that grief brings with it many gifts, which tend to reveal themselves over time. Girl Bros., for me, stands out because of the many ways it addresses grief, loss, and sadness both directly and through inference. In a similar vein, extending somewhat from the ground broken by Girl Bros. and certainly offering a variation on the theme (replacing grief caused from death with that which emerges at the end of a relationship), Wendy and Lisa’s most recent album, White Flags of Winter Chimneys (2008) offers more space to explore grief and loss. In particular, the opening track, “Balloon,” and the album’s closer “Sweet Suite (Beginning at the End)” possess an emotional heft that explores territory similar to its predecessor. The songs’ dark qualities sit there, quietly hanging, but present. 

As I continue to navigate my own grieving and healing process, music remains my primary source of comfort, and Girl Bros. is certainly my go-to whenever I need a release through song. And for me, that’s all the time.

—Rhonda Nicole

On the 5th anniversary of Prince’s passing, I’m revisiting the words I wrote just hours after the news broke in 2016.

Paisley Park, 2021 (photo credit: Rhonda Nicole)

“So here I sit in my lonely room, looking 4 my sunshine…” 

11:01AM, Thursday, April 21, 2016. It’s quiet. I’ve turned off the TV to shut out the annoying noise that is ABC’s The View, but can’t seem to shush the phone calls, text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts. I should get off social media for a minute. But then, FOMO. And we are all experiencing this moment together. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through…” this thing called…

What the hell?

This is the piece I never thought I would write. This is the day I never thought would come. And according to the dozens of tweets I’ve just scrolled through, apparently I am not alone. We all believed him to be immortal, not because he was super-human, or even a god (although perhaps he was, at least of the musical sort). But just because he was Prince, the prototype of badassery and “I do what I want.” So, in that case, he absolutely could have lived forever, or at least, outlived the rest of us. 

“But sometimes, sometimes, life ain’t always the way…”

Where to begin? How to encapsulate this unbearable moment and wrap it in rainbows? How do I tell the story, which began for me at 9, when I truly stepped into this musical world that would, throughout my entire life, be home?

“Yesterday I tried to write a novel, but I didn’t know where 2 begin/so I laid down in the grass trying 2 feel the world turn…”

I’ve written so much about Prince. I’ve actually written pretty much that exact sentence before, just last month. To say that his music impacted, influenced, inspired me almost feels reductive, overly simplistic. To attribute my own (significantly less impressive but rad none the less) musical abilities to his work seems trite and cliché, especially since everybody and their mama can spin a similar yarn. Locating a musician who has lived/worked/created during Prince’s lifetime and who was not deeply moved by Prince’s music is the stuff of needles and haystacks. Sure, there are some, and quite a few millennials with whom I’ve spoken who “don’t get it,” but they are far outnumbered by the music creators and music consumers who cite Prince as the G.O.A.T.

“U think ur special, well so do I…”

My first time experiencing Prince live was in 1998, the Jam of the Year tour at Starplex in Dallas. It was a hot summer night and my seats weren’t the greatest, but what a night it was. From there, I would rock out with Prince another 20 or so times over the years, the most recent—and, unbeknownst to me, last—time being his Piano and a Microphone show at Oakland Arena. I drove from Burbank to Vegas in the summer of ’99 to see him at the MGM Grand; that was the night some drunk girl threw up on my shoe, which ultimately led to the usher moving me up just a few rows from the front. A few years later, at the One Nite Alone after party at a club in Dallas, I nearly threw up on Prince’s foot, which was posted up on a monitor as he played; I hadn’t eaten anything other than a bag of peanut M&Ms and there was way too much bass resonating through my body, and I got dizzy. Thankfully, I fled the scene before there was a scene to be seen. At another after party in Dallas, this time following one of his Musicology shows, I was in my zone dancing to the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” when my cousin, David, discreetly mumbled to me, “Don’t turn around, but Prince is watching you.” To this day I honestly don’t know whether he was, but it was a small gathering of folks (a security guard referred to us as “Prince’s people when he led us up to the party) so it’s totally possible. Erykah Badu and her mama, Ms. Queenie, were there, too. I caught a string of 3rdEyeGirl shows here in the Bay Area, one of which happened to fall on the night we got word that one of my best girlfriends, Nefeterius, had died. That night, when Prince played “Sometimes It Snows In April,” I felt my heart fall out of my body. I missed the Purple Rain tour and the Lovesexy tour due to my age and my mama being like “nah,” and would’ve given anything to have traveled to Europe to catch the Nude tour in the early ‘90s. Still, every show was a transformative moment. I was never the same woman I’d been walking into the venue at the end of the night. 

Since 1984, there has not been one moment of my life that has not been/could not be illustrated by a Prince song. I’ve shared with friends over the years, and somewhat more publicly recently, how the song “Purple Rain” always reminds me of my parents’ divorce, in part because of the movie’s and album’s cultural prevalence at the time and also because of the music’s emotional qualities. “She’s Always in My Hair” is my and my best dude, Reiland’s, song. I don’t even remember why or how that came to be, but when ever we hear it we both exclaim, “It’s our song!” Cloudy days in Paris listening to “Moonbeam Levels,” sitting on my bed a few days ago reading and learning the sheet music for “Do U Lie?,” covering “Head,” “Girls and Boys,” “Kiss,” and snippet of “The Rainbow Children,” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” with Montrose during our gigs at Brooklyn…So many songs. So many songs. So many songs.

Coming of age listening to “Darling Nikki,” “Adore,” “New Position,” and so many other songs that were way too mature for my young ears, and that awkward moment of realization decades later when you’re like, “DAAAAAAMN! That’s what he was talking about?!?!?” Ha! “Tambourine” means what?!?!?! 

“I never wanted a typical life…”

Smuggling new Prince tapes into my room so my mom wouldn’t know…but she always knew.

Pressing my earphones deep into my ears to hear every detail of a song, and discovering layers upon layers of harmonies and all kinds of interesting stuff happening in the production.

Allowance money spent at the wreckastow. Bill money spent on concert tix. 

Party mixes and slow jam mixes.

Wishing the #genpop fans would stop yelling “Sing ‘Purple Rain!’” at shows because, inevitably, he would. 

Laughing at that girl at the DNA show in San Francisco who said to me in the bathroom, “I wonder when he’s going to play the hits,” to which I replied, “Oh, honey, he’s been playing them all night…”

Wendy & Lisa.

Jill Jones.

Vanity 6.

Apollonia 6.

The Family.

The Time.

Taja Sevelle.

Sheila E.

Elisa Fiorillo.

Carmen Electra.

LiV Warfield.

Andy Allo.

Mavis Staples.

Mayte.

The Revolution.

The NPG.

3rdEyeGirl.

Madhouse.

Mazerati.

The Artist.

“Prince esta muerte…”

He killed off older versions of himself in the video for “7,” embraced an unpronounceable symbol as his name, declared himself dead on the cover art for the Come album, and forced us all to be in conversation about identity and truth. He emancipated himself from what he believed to be a business relationship that had run its course, and showed the rest of us how artists could, in fact, share our work with anyone who wanted it direct from the source. He followed his own path to faith and decided not to perform certain songs anymore because they no longer fit the person he was becoming. He championed independent artists and uninhibited artistry, proclaimed the internet “dead,” and was a master class in brand and self-preservation. He was almost exclusively without rivals, as is evidenced by the lyric from his song “Don’t Play Me:” “my only competition is well, me in the past.” He encouraged us all to love, to dance, to fuck, to pray, to live, to question, to answer. 

“In the beginning, God made the sea/but on the 7th day, he made me…”

Hours have passed since the world first learned that the seemingly immortal Prince had reached the end of this thread, and we’re all still spinning, struggling to make sense of something that feels like a glitch in the matrix. The rumor mills swirl with speculation about the cause of death, the Obamas have expressed their sorrow for such a tremendous loss, and low and behold, MTV is actually showing (Prince) videos for the first time in who knows how long. I am, like so many others, waiting for this part of the dream to end, where we awaken and discover we all just had some kind of bad trip.

“Power 2 the 1s who could raise a child like me…”

I always knew I would meet Prince. When I was much younger, I imagined him showing up at my school (why the hell he’d do that, I don’t know) and taking me on tour straight from class. As I got older and began my career as a singer/songwriter, I figured our paths would cross creatively somewhere down the line. We would write some songs, sing some songs, rock the hell out, formally. In more recent years, I intuited that our meeting would be excessively low-key: A wassup nod, and then we’d sit and have a brief but funny and probably snarky conversation, and that’d be that. I’d try to remember to tell him that I learned about harmony from listening to his music, and to be as un-fan-girl as possible about that detail. Maybe our paths would cross again, maybe not. 

This past February, after his show at The Paramount in Oakland (which I didn’t attend), a relatively small crowd gathered at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco for the after party. When Prince finally arrived, he strolled cooly out onto the stage, and happened to stand right over me. He looked out across the room, and as I tilted my head upward to see him (I was just below the lip of the stage), he glanced down and flashed a smirky smile. I returned the smirky smile, winked, then turned my attention elsewhere. So I guess, in a way, that was our meeting. That was our wassup nod. That was our hello.

“Excuse me, but is this really goodbye?”

The fact that March 4, 2016 was my very last Prince concert is that jagged little pill Alanis spoke about. It was a beautiful night, of course, but it was a solemn and mellow night as well. There is a part of me that wishes it had been a night of working up a black sweat and staggering home with my shoes at war with my feet, but it was quiet, pensive, gorgeous. It was that sensuous last dance, even if we didn’t know it.

Having lost my dad just a little over a month ago, I’m at an even greater loss for words as my thoughts and memories run amok. I want the tributes and the essays and the articles to flood my timeline, and I want to make them stop so this won’t be what happened today. 

“The only love there is, is the love we make…”

Some people scoff at the idea that millions of people would grieve and deeply mourn the passing of a person they never knew in real life. This is often the case when celebrities and public figures die, especially in this age of social media and 24/7 news cycles. And in the case with musical artists, there is always someone waiting in the wings to offer their insights as to how “overrated,” “irrelevant,” “-ist” (sexist, racist, etc) blah blah blah that person was, in their opinion. But it’s in moments like this when we realize just how powerful music is, how it connects us. I said in my piece about Prince’s Piano and a Microphone performance, “music is the tie that binds.” Just as my parents and their generation remember where they were when they learned about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or JFK, we can recall with laser-sharp accuracy where we were when we heard that Kurt and Pac and Biggie and Michael and Whitney had slipped on through to the other side. And now, Prince. 

Reflecting on the hundreds of songs Prince gifted us with throughout his career, I personally cannot choose just one as my favorite; far too many mean far too much to me and chronicle my life in significant ways, so depending on the day, it could be any number of tunes. But if I were forced to pick just one, it would be “Moonbeam Levels.” Listening to it earlier today, the final verse took my heart and ran for the hills:

“Says he’ll never keep diaries 2 learn from his mistakes/instead he’ll just repeat all the good things that he’s done/fight 4 perfect love until it’s perfect love he makes/when he’s happy, then his battle will be won…”

That’s what his music was. Perfect love. And we, too, are transformed.