In 1999, Liv Warfield moved to Portland from Peoria, Illinois, and quickly transformed from track star to karaoke fanatic to street performer, finally becoming one of the most compelling voices in the local music scene. With smoky, powerful vocals and searing explosions of raw emotion onstage, it seemed she could make a believer out of anyone. In 2009, she made a believer out of Prince (yes, that Prince—the purple one), who recruited her into the New Power Generation, his 15-member touring group. In January, Warfield resumes her solo career with the release of The Unexpected, with a little help from Prince and the NPG horn section.
I always knew I wanted to sing—but was too shy, too embarrassed. When I was little, my parents would always just put on tapes of Diana Ross to keep me quiet, or to keep me from crying. I’d drape myself in long blankets and pretend I was her.
I moved here from Peoria on a track scholarship at Portland State. I was really quiet, and all I knew was sports. And then I got to Portland and just created a new life. Within two weeks, I went skydiving. I felt like I could do anything.
I’d never heard of karaoke before, and a friend of mine convinced me to go to the Galaxy. The first time I sang, I was so scared that I turned my back to everybody. But then I became obsessed. I would go to the Galaxy almost every day from 8 p.m. until 4 in the morning. I would keep a little list of songs on me. Over time, it became more and more theatrical, with wigs and costumes.
One time at a place called the Candlelight, I saw Linda Hornbuckle. I sat back there and thought, “This is what I want to do.” She brought me onstage to sing, and I had to turn my back to the crowd again. Since then, she’s been like a mother figure to me. And that’s when I started searching for people to be in a band with me.
I love what I do, but it’s a real hustle. When I got started, I’d dropped out of school, and for a while I was sleeping in my car. I would go down to Saturday Market really early to sing and sell my CDs. I wanted to do anything just to be heard.
When I perform, it feels like freedom—a sense of excitement, fireworks, like I’m more inspired than ever. I want to stir up something that hasn’t stirred up inside—an emotion, a nerve. I want people to leave the show feeling moved by the music, like I spoke to them.
Four years ago, a friend told me that Prince was looking for someone for the New Power Generation, and that I should send a video of me from PDX Pop Now. Two months later, I got a call. The woman said, “Prince likes your video, and would like to meet now.” The world completely stopped. I went to audition, and we sang by the piano with him. I was harmonizing with two other girls, and it all just clicked. I melted when I heard him play. I couldn’t even believe I was there.
From the moment I met Prince, he was extremely generous. People don’t understand the magnitude of his light and how generous he is with it. He has definitely taught me how to be a better performer. The first time I had to rehearse with the band, I was really nervous. There were so many songs to learn in three days! He came in, and I was singing all timid, and he came up to me and said, “I can get someone else in here real quick.” After that, I was just singing from the rafters. He just brings it out of you. But I don’t have his stamina. He’s just not human.
Regardless of where I go, Portland is always home. Portland is the birth of me singing. Before, I didn’t know who that person was onstage. Now I do. I’m getting closer to knowing who I really am.