Donna Grantis, a former guitarist with Prince’s 3rdeyegirl, is putting her music to work for the planet, alongside Brian Eno’s EarthPercent initiative

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

It was initially a Prince of an idea.

Toronto’s Donna Grantis, the ace guitarist who was a member of the Minnesota wunderkind’s 3rdEyeGirl before his tragic death in 2016, said it was a question that the iconic singer-songwriter posed to the band while they were in a Paisley Park studio that set her on the path to becoming a climate change activist.

“Prince walked in one day and he said, ‘What if  we could use music to teach?'” Grantis recalled Monday in a phone interview. “I wondered what he had in mind – and that’s a question I’ve really been thinking about over the years.

“Now, in the midst of the greatest challenge in human history and arguably the most consequential decade in determining the quality of life on earth for generations,  his question has evolved into a call to action and has been resonating with me more than ever.”

On Friday – Earth Day – Grantis’ call-to-action project, Culture Vs Policy, will release its first single, “A Drop In The Bucket.”

It’s a 10-minute-plus work that uses the spoken words of Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman set to a guitar-dominated soundscape composed by Grantis – and the guitarist promises that plenty of similar collaborations will follow over the next six months.

And if all goes according to plan, the song will be one of many that helps finance legendary producer, ambient music pioneer and Roxy Music co-founder Brian Eno‘s EarthPercent initiative, which asks songwriters to include the planet as a creative stakeholder in the tune so it can collect royalties, which are then dispensed to companies working on the climate crisis.

“EarthPercent is inviting artists to credit the Earth with 1%  or more royalties ,” Grantis explained. “If you think of one person, that amount can be pretty small.  But collectively, since the revenue generated by music worldwide is in the tens of billions of dollars annually, 1% of that is a tremendous amount of money. “

Grantis says that EarthPercent is providing a framework that would allow any artist to participate, and so far artists ranging from Peter Gabriel and ex-R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe to UK synthpop band Hot Chip and T.O.’s own Holy Fuck have committed to the cause.

As for the money – Eno is hoping to raise $100 million by 2030 – it will be distributed to environmental and climate justice organizations in five key areas according to Grantis: greening music; supporting energy transition; climate justice;  legal and policy. change and protecting and restoring nature.

“Grants are vetted by an expert advisory panel,” Grantis further explained, adding that the panel is “a multidisciplinary, multi-generational group of climate scientists, academic researchers, climate communicators, youth activists, community organizers and policy makers.”

While Prince may have planted the initial seed, Grantis concedes she was motivated on a number of fronts to become more of an activist.

“The inspiration for this project was ignited by a host of new experiences,” Grantis explained. “One perspective was from being a new parent: I have two gorgeous kids and a heightened sense of responsibility in ways that I can contribution to climate action. I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, but for so many years I totally immersed myself in all things music and all things guitar.

“But during the pandemic, it was really a moment of pause for me.  And that’s when I really started to dive into learning about the climate crisis.”

Grantis read books, listened to podcasts and watched documentaries concerning different environmental organizations and participated online via webinars, events and programs that she says led her to a deeper understanding of the urgency of the issue at hand.

“To truly address  the climate emergency, we need to address other interconnected systems,” said Grantis. “Planetary health and environmental justice are inextricably linked to human health and social justice.”

When she read the Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac book, The Future We Choose – The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis  from cover-to-cover thrice,  Grantis discovered that “the collective mindset shift needed to really transform to a regenerative ideology” and began formulating her musical approach.

“What would music sound like if I collaborated with scientists and indigenous leaders and activists to amplify their message?” she asked herself.

“What I’m aiming to do is have conversations with collaborators – and out of those conversations,  sample some direct quotes that either really resonate with me or speak to  some of the main issues I’m interested in shining a light on, like how we consider human impacts on the planet and the idea of the interconnection of all things.

“The music will totally be written in response to the words.”

Once she’s gathered enough material, Grantis also intends to tour the show “with visuals and collaborators” as well.

“Music is something that brings people from all demographics together,” she explained. “To really feel something – whether it’s joy, comfort, or belonging – it’s a unifying force.  There’s tremendous potential to accelerate climate solutions by influencing the way people understand and act in relation to human impact on the planet, and I think art and music can help spark this potentiality.  

“Arts and activism have been powerfully connected for decades. Joni Mitchell helped launched Greenpeace in the ’70s with a concert. My favourite bands like Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam have been doing it for decades – and I keep going back to what Prince said.”

How did McGill University graduate Grantis get in touch with Eno?

She had discovered Eno’s 1978 classic album Music For Airports and set about recreating the 16-minute track “1:1,”  initially  recorded on piano and Fender Rhodes.

“I made a solo guitar arrangement of that song with reverb and delay and I posted it on Instagram,” Grantis said, adding that she simultaneously became aware of EarthPercent while learning the composition.

“I thought, ‘how cool – he is putting his climate action efforts right at the intersection of music and climate!’ That is so inspiring!”

A few hours after she posted her version of “1:1” on Instagram, an EarthPercent representative reached out to her, which eventually led Grantis to form a friendship with Eno that culminated in a Zoom chat with him and New York Times music critic Jon Pareles regarding the cause.

In an ironic twist, this is the second time that Grantis posted something online that received an almost immediate reaction from a prominent musician: the first was when she performed and recorded a live version of jazz fusion drummer Billy Cobham‘s “Strata” at the Orbit Room…and we all know who saw that one.

 “I feel super lucky,” she laughed.

Picking up the guitar at the age of 13, Grantis – who was raised in Mississauga – pretty much “lived and breathed the instrument” to the point she was awarded a scholarship to McGill.

“I really wanted to go there because I thought the Montreal Jazz Festival was really cool,” she chuckled. “It was a great place to learn and I studied jazz there.”

 Why jazz?

“I love that it’s an improvisational art form and that blues is the foundation of it,” she responded. “I just love the blues and improvising and thinking about ‘A Drop In the Bucket,’ the blues is very much based off of that call-and-response relationship between the lead singer and the guitar player. 

“In the context of “A Drop In The Bucket,’ I was vibing off of the words of Tzeporah Berman. It’s all about that call-and-response element that is so fun to use as a musician.”

While she’s much in-demand and admired as a musician – she recently played guitar on the new Jane Bunnett and Maqueque album Playing With Fire, Aysanabee‘s critically acclaimed Watin and performed and produced on Shakura S’Aida‘s  Juno-nominated “Hold On To Love,” – Grantis has also made a few technical adjustments to her sound via customized pedals and pedalboards.

“Having a really cool variety of sounds and tones is kind of like having a number of different colours in a paint palette,” she explained. 

“I think it’s really fun to explore those different tones, from gritty fuzz sounds to really crystal clear tones with delay and reverb. There’s what you play as a player , how you play it and also, I think, what is the tone like? What does it sound like? All three of those elements really play off of each other. “

When she was with Prince for 3rdEyeGirl – she also played for a spell in his New Power Generation – she constructed  a pedal set-up she called “The Starship.”

“It was 21 pedals across three interconnected boards,” she noted. “It was such a small group that we had a lot of sounds to cover. 

“Now, with Culture Vs. Policy, I’m making sure I’m covering my bases in terms of the Hendrix-inspired, searing lead guitar tone with fuzz and Univibe and wah. There’s a particular urgency in that tone, which I love and I think lends itself really well to this material.

 “And on the flipside, I have a sostenuto pedal – one that’s typically on a piano, that really lettones ring out and add sustain, and really cool reverbs and delays, which adds a beautiful , cinematic quality that works well in supporting voices and spoken word dialogue.”

 Speaking of Prince, it was during one of his last performances in 2015 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (now Meridian Hall) with 3rdEyeGirl that he refrained from playing the illustrious solo of “Purple Rain” and instead offered the spot to Grantis.

“It was a surprise,” Grantis admitted. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. I jammed that solo when we first played together during my audition at Paisley Park, but (at Sony) he sang the third chorus and then pointed at me to take it.  It was such a special moment and feel like it was such a gift that he threw the solo to me in my hometown. I thanked him afterwards.”

In the seven years to the day that Prince has passed, Donna Grantis still thinks of the musical genius often and contemplates how to best contribute to his legacy. 

She thinks Culture Vs. Policy is a good first step.

“I really do want the focus to be on what an incredible mentor he was and what an inspiration he was,” she said. “He was such a creative force, inspiring and a real teacher musically, but also outside of music. He had an incredible sense of humour and we’d play ping pong and joke around. 

“We’d also have really long discussions about huge issues, about inequality issues, about racial injustice,  about spirituality – and so, my focus is on thinking about how to carry those learnings forward and how to shine a light on his legacy.”