The first time Portland, Ore.-based soul singer Liv Warfield met Prince, he reached out, shook her hand and asked if she was hungry.
“No,” she replied.
“We have dessert. You sure you don’t want dessert?” Prince asked.
“Nope,” she reiterated.
Warfield wasn’t hungry for dessert. She was after something sweeter.
It had been three years since Warfield independently released her debut album, 2006’s “Embrace Me,” and her career was at a standstill.
“Things weren’t happening the way I wanted them to,” says Warfield, who was considering quitting music. “I was patient but my patience was starting to run thin.”
Then Prince came calling. In 2009, one of Warfield’s friends heard that Prince was looking for another singer to join his backing band, New Power Generation. Warfield didn’t think she had a shot, but the friend did, so he sent Prince’s people a YouTube clip of her singing The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
Four months later, Warfield was walking through the hallways of Paisley Park Studios near Minneapolis with Prince in front of her, offering dessert and the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I kind of describe it like a Spike Lee movie,” Warfield says. “Everything else was moving but me.”
She tried to subdue the star-struck fangirl in her head and focus on the task at hand: “OK, straighten up, snap out of it,” she told herself before the audition. “You gotta sing, Liv. Remember why you’re here.”
She got the gig and, after five years of Prince tours, her patience has paid off. In February, Warfield, 34, stepped back into the spotlight with the release of her second album, “The Unexpected,” which was executive produced by The Purple One.
“He gave me free rein to do what I wanted,” Warfield says, noting that Prince didn’t actually sit in on the sessions. “Anytime I was frustrated and needed help writing and arranging he was [available] to give input and ideas. He was a mentor.”
Warfield and her core band — a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and two backup singers — recorded the album in Portland with the aid of New Power Generation’s horn section. (Warfield’s show at the Howard on Sunday will feature her band, plus the 11-piece NPG Hornz.)
While “The Unexpected” is influenced by Prince — “I love heavy guitar riffs, but it got enhanced when I was around Prince,” she says — the album is a showcase for Warfield’s powerful voice and sound, which has evolved considerably from the jazzy R&B of her 2006 debut. There’s the heavy guitar rock of the Prince-penned title track, the bluesy stomp of “BlackBird,” the retro soul stylings of “Stay — ‘Soul Lifted’ ” and the funkified “Fly.”
“I really wanted to make sure it was my sound, it represented [my band] and it represented all the things [Prince] taught me,” she says. “I wanted him to be proud of it.”
Between gigs with Prince, Warfield has been promoting the new record with live shows and TV appearances. (After she performed “BlackBird” on “Late Show” last week, an astonished David Letterman remarked, “Cancel show business. It’s over! This is it! This is all you want!”)
While Warfield is slowly gaining fans, pop radio play continues to elude her.
“That’s kind of my big issue,” she says. “Some [DJs] say there’s no songs that could be played on the radio. [But we] can be played on the radio. Maybe switch up the formula a bit — there is a room for us.”
Perhaps pop radio just needs to catch up to Warfield?
“I like getting people’s respect a fan at a time,” she says. “Not pushing the songs down anybody’s throat. It’s genuinely, naturally happening as it should.
“I’m patient,” she adds. “I can wait it out.”
After all, it’s gotten her this far.
When Liv Warfield told Prince she wanted to name her album “The Unexpected,” he got to work on this guitar-driven track, which sets the tone for the record. Prince even recorded his own version (with his other backing band, 3rdEyeGirl) that Warfield describes as “quite spectacular.” For her version, she “wanted to take a Tina Turner approach to it.”
“Stay — ‘Soul Lifted’ ”
This throwback, horn-enhanced soul track was originally written five or six years ago, before Warfield met Prince. It evolved over time, with the NPG Hornz parts being a key addition. “They kind of painted a picture of what I was trying to say,” she says. It’s also the track Warfield most thinks deserves radio play.
Warfield and Prince co-wrote this seven-minute epic, which Warfield says was inspired by Isaac Hayes. “I kind of like to keep [the songwriting process] sacred between him and I,” she says, “but just know that it is pretty dope.” R.G.
Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; Sun., 8 p.m., $29.50-$32; 202-803-2899. (Shaw-Howard U)