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Nothing Compares 2 U: The Full Story Behind Prince’s Incomparable Love Song
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Nothing Compares 2 U: The Full Story Behind Prince’s Incomparable Love Song

Written by Prince and made famous by Sinéad O’Connor, Nothing Compares 2 U is a landmark song of love and loss. Here’s why.

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For a while, Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U was one of the most famous songs people didn’t realise were covers. The Irish singer had made it a worldwide hit in 1990, and it remains her signature tune, but the song had actually been written six years earlier by Prince, who had initially given it to The Family, a side-project band whose sole album Prince had also largely written and recorded the music for.

With both Prince and O’Connor having since died tragically young, Nothing Compares 2 U now stands as an epitaph for both artists, unique in their separate ways but forever connected through what’s now considered to be one of the best love songs of all time.

This is the story of how Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, and why the song continues to resonate with listeners seeking comfort during times of loss.

Listen to the best of Prince here.

The writing: “I was amazed at how beautiful it was”

After checking out his pop rivals The Jacksons on their Victory Tour – jetting out to see the siblings perform at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas, Texas, on 14 July – Prince returned to his recording base of Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse, in Eden Prairie, just outside Minneapolis, to continue work on The Family’s album. Coming out of him so effortlessly it was like “a sneeze”, as Susan Rogers put it, the lyrics to Nothing Compares 2 U were written in under an hour, after which Prince tracked the majority of the song in just one recording session with Rogers at the warehouse.

“I was amazed at how beautiful it was,” Rogers told Uptown magazine ten years later. “He took his notebook and he went off to the bedroom, wrote the lyrics very quickly, came back out and sang it, and I was very impressed with it.”

The inspiration: “It’s not like he said: ‘Babe, I wrote this song for you’”

In his posthumously published memoir, The Beautiful Ones, Prince revealed the childhood experiences that would inspire such songs as Nothing Compares 2 U. Describing the “late-night calls and pleas” his mother would make to his father after their separation, and how he and his sister, Tyka, were recruited to ask their dad to come back home, Prince reflected, “I think that’s why I can write such good breakup songs, like Nothing Compares 2 U. I ain’t heard no breakup song like I can write… I have that knowledge.”

Now regarded as one of the best breakup songs of all time, Nothing Compares 2 U came to embrace a range of losses. As well as drawing from his own family troubles, Prince infused the song with some of his feelings about his relationship with Susanah Melvoin. Yet though Melvoin has conceded that Prince “maybe” wrote the song about her, and that “it felt personal” at a time when they were “going through our own thing”, she herself has remained circumspect about claiming Nothing Compares 2 U for herself, telling Charles Waring, of SoulAndJazzAndFunk.com, “It’s not like he said: ‘Babe, I wrote this song for you.’”

Speaking to Rock & Soul magazine shortly after the release of The Family’s album, Jerome Benton, Melvoin’s bandmate in the group, felt that Prince had actually written the song for him, after Benton had broken off an engagement with a girl who wanted him to quit music and move out to Los Angeles. “I was hurting when we broke up,” Benton said, adding that he “used to go to Prince with all my problems, so Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U about the way I felt”.

Susan Rogers, however, traced some of Nothing Compares 2 U’s lyrics to an altogether different kind of bereavement. “It’s not a pained, ‘Help me, baby,’ track,” she told The Guardian in 2018, explaining that the emotive lyric “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard/All died when you went away” was a reference to neither Melvoin nor Benton, but to Prince’s long-time housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni, who’d had to leave Prince’s employ when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. “It would have been Sandy who planted those flowers” at Prince’s home, Rogers revealed, before clarifying that “there was no romantic relationship” between the two. To Uptown magazine, she elaborated, “He never used to get very close to his employees, but I know he must have been feeling something for her… I think that he was missing her.”

The Family’s version: “I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school”

Having recorded his guide vocals over a sparse synth soundbed taken at a funereal pace, Prince called upon The Family’s saxophonist, Eric Leeds, to add a solo he initially requested in the style of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band member Clarence Clemons (“I gave him an Eric Leeds solo, and he dug it,” Leeds later told Uptown). When it came time for Susannah Melvoin and Paul Peterson to record their final vocals, both singers knew they had to bring their A-game.

Soon to be seen singing backing vocals on the Purple Rain Tour, and to make her presence felt – as both singer and inspiration – on Prince’s Parade and Sign O’ The Times albums, Melvoin had yet to take the spotlight on any of Prince’s songs. “Usually, my vocals were designed around what he needed me to do,” she told The LAist’s culture show The Frame in 2019, around the release of the Originals compilation album, which featured Prince’s guide version of Nothing Compares 2 U. “And as a background vocalist, you learn to be part of the band – you don’t stand out,” she continued. “This particular song was the first time I really use my voice on a track.”

Speaking to SoulMusic.com, Peterson said that, even though he put “the same amount of love into every single track” on The Family’s album, he “knew that the meaning and the poetry behind” Nothing Compares 2 U “was special”. Talking to The Guardian over three decades on from contributing to the song, Peterson recalled first hearing Prince’s recording on a cassette tape while sitting in his mother’s house, in Minneapolis, and realising that he would have to go “deep” to pull out what Prince’s lyrics – and guide vocals – demanded of him. “I was told to learn Prince’s inflections, his emotions, and the melody line,” he said. To embody the song so completely, Peterson continued, “I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school.” In a fitting coda to a song whose heartbroken protagonist is “willing to give it another try”, Julie and Peterson would later rekindle their relationship, and the pair eventually married in the early 90s.

Sinéad O Connor’s version: “First take, it was all there. It was perfect”

The Family’s self-titled album was released on 19 August 1985, on Prince’s own Paisley Park label. With Prince finalising his Parade album and preparing to fly to Nice, in France, to film his second movie, Under The Cherry Moon, the group were left without their guiding light and, after just one gig, at Minneapolis’ First Avenue – the venue where Prince had debuted much of his Purple Rain album back in August 1983 – Peterson quit the band. The Family may not have found an audience far beyond Prince’s fanbase, but, five years on from the album’s release, Nothing Compares 2 U would resonate beyond measure with a young Irish singer working on her second album.

In a retrospective piece, The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla considered the audacity of a relatively unknown artist deciding she was going to claim a Prince song for her own: “Sinéad O’Connor saying, ‘I’m gonna steal a song from Prince,’ is like Nicolas Cage saying, ‘I’m gonna steal the Declaration Of Independence,’” he wrote. The Bangles (Manic Monday), Chaka Khan (I Feel For You) and side-project groups The Time, Vanity 6 and Sheila E had all had hits with Prince tracks – but those had been songs Prince had gifted, rather than been asked to relinquish. But when Sinéad O Connor, along with Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper, co-producer and engineer Chris Birkett and future Simply Red collaborator Gota Yashiki (Stars, Blue, Love And The Russian War) refashioned Prince’s lovelorn ballad into a dramatic pop masterpiece, it was, Harvilla noted, “A hostile takeover. Sinéad embodies this song on a molecular level.”

In Nothing Compares 2 U, O’Connor had heard an emotional truth that would allow her to unleash her own committed performance of the song. “It’s called bel canto,” she told the BBC of her singing style, adding, “It’s a bit like the Stanislavsky acting method – you have to find emotional stuff inside yourself that you can use.” Talking to Sound On Sound over 20 years later, Gota Yashiki explained how, determined to give O’Connor the backing her voice deserved, he’d built upon a basic track he’d created with an Atari computer and an Akai S1100 sampler, and finished the song at Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row Studios, in London. “I did some overdubs – a little drums and playing keyboards for a cello part,” Yashiki said. “I wanted to be really sure that everything felt right, and this meant the strings had to sound natural, which I think they do. I played all the parts.”

Manning the recording console, Birkett’s challenge was to ensure the equipment could handle the full force of O’Connor’s voice. “She would stand away from the mic when singing quietly and then scream right into it,” he told Sound On Sound. “Some of it was distorted because she was yelling into the mic when the gain was up to try to capture her quiet vocals.” And yet, Birkett marvelled, O’Connor delivered her otherworldly vocals in just one go – including a double-tracked part: “First take, it was all there; I didn’t have to touch it… It was as if this was meant to happen.”

Listening to the finished recording for the first time, Chris Hill, then the head of O’Connor’s record label, was immediately overcome with emotion. “I actually started crying,” he told Mojo magazine. “I just sat there with tears in my eyes.”

The video: “I should let this happen”

Released as a single on 8 January 1990, Sinéad O’Connor’s version of Nothing Compares 2 U racked up platinum sales and went to No.1 around the world, helped in no small part by one of the best promo clips of the 90s, if not one of the greatest music videos of all time. Interspersed with footage of O’Connor walking around Parc De Saint-Cloud, in Paris, the majority of the clip, which was directed by John Maybury, a filmmaker who’d cut his teeth on the video for Pet Shop BoysWest End Girls single, consisted of a painfully intimate close-up of O’Connor as she sang. This framing of O’Connor’s face, seemingly floating in a deep, unfathomable blackness, became one of the defining images of the decade, thanks in part to the singer herself being moved to tears during the performance.

Unwittingly echoing the circumstances that had led Prince to pen the song’s “All the flowers that you planted” lyric, O’Connor later revealed that she had been thinking about her own deceased parent when she sang the line during the video shoot, and that, though she hadn’t intended to start crying on camera, she decided in the moment, “I should let this happen.” An abusive upbringing at the hands of her mother had left O’Connor with unresolved trauma after her mother died in a car crash when the singer was 18. But, O’Connor later wrote in her memoir, Rememberings, “Every time I perform [Nothing Compares 2 U], I feel it’s the only time I get to spend with my mother and that I’m talking with her again. There’s a belief that she’s there, that she can hear me and I can connect to her.”

O’Connor’s visceral performance connected with millions around the world, and the Nothing Compares 2 U video won three awards at the 1990 MTV Music Video Awards, including Video Of The Year, making O’Connor the first female artist to win in that category. At the end of the year, Billboard magazine named the song #1 World Single in their inaugural Billboard Music Awards, establishing it as a perennial entry in greatest-songs lists by everyone from Rolling Stone to Q magazine, VH1, Pitchfork and Time.

Looking on, Nothing Compares 2 U’s originators felt both pride and a twinge of neglect over the part they had played in the song’s creation. “I was so used to not hearing it that way,” Susannah Melvoin later told SoulAndJazzAndFunk.com. “I wanted to say to everybody: ‘Wait a minute, we have our version – you should hear our version!’ But I ended up getting to know [O’Connor] later on and I was flattered that she and her mates were digging our record.”

Prince’s versions: “It’s incredible the amount of people’s lives that song has touched”

Prince was on a very different creative track when Nothing Compares 2 U became a worldwide hit, but as he prepared to tour his own global smash, 1991’s Diamonds And Pearls album, he added the song to his setlist, reframing it as horn-drenched duet from an old-school soul revue. Issued in 2023, as part of the Diamonds And Pearls super-deluxe edition box set, a full concert film of the warm-up show Prince staged at his Glam Slam club in Minneapolis, on 11 January 1992, sees him and his New Power Generation singer Rosie Gaines trading lines that are by turns pleading and flirtatious, Prince playing it for laughs when Gaines makes a seemingly unexpected entrance – another powerhouse vocalist staking her claim to the song.

Nothing Compares 2 U would remain in Prince’s set throughout the Diamonds And Pearls Tour, and a different live take from that era was issued as a US promotional single on 18 November 1993, in support of his three-disc compilation The Hits/The B-sides. From then on, the song would become a live favourite through to his final tour, Piano & A Microphone, with Prince and Gaines even recapturing their undeniable chemistry onstage at his Paisley Park complex during a New Year’s Eve celebration broadcast on 31 December 1999 as Rave Un2 The Year 2000.

The legacy: “It has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know”

Following Prince’s shock death, aged 57, on 21 April 2016, Nothing Compares 2 U once again offered solace, this time for a grieving fanbase reeling from the loss of an icon. On 4 May, at 6.07pm Eastern Time, radio stations across the US teamed up for a global simulcast of the Hits/B-sides recording of the song, choosing the time in a nod to the original lyrics, marking exactly seven hours and 13 days since Prince had been pronounced dead at Paisley Park. Two years later, on 19 April 2018, the version Prince had recorded for The Family, complete with his guide vocals, was released, in a new mix featuring guitar and drum parts, which finally allowed fans to hear how he’d sung the song when he originally recorded it in 1984. Accompanied by a promo video compiled from rehearsal footage filmed at the Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse, the release briefly turned the clock back to a time when Prince was at the peak of his powers – a rock immortal building his legacy as one of the most influential musicians in history.

Five years on from the release of Prince’s recording, Sinéad O’Connor was also found dead at a tragically young age – 56, just a year younger than Prince. As fans sent O’Connor’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U back into the UK charts the day after news of her death broke, the song couldn’t truly have been said to belong to anyone anymore; by now, a global community had claimed it for their own, embracing it in their time of need.

This community extended to Prince’s peers: Aretha Franklin had recorded Nothing Compares 2 U for what became her final studio album, Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, while Madonna performed the song as part of a tribute to Prince at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, before being joined on stage by Stevie Wonder for a run through another one of the best Prince songs, Purple Rain. When sharing an impassioned acoustic performance of Nothing Compares 2 U the day after Prince’s death, grunge pioneer Chris Cornell wrote that the song “has a timeless relevance for me and practically everyone I know”, before hailing Prince as an “unequalled artist who has given all of our lives so much inspiration and made the world so much more interesting”.

“It’s incredible the amount of people’s lives that song has touched,” Paul Peterson told the New York Times of Nothing Compares 2 U. Admitting that he had once “felt like I had ownership in that song even though I didn’t write it”, the singer, who reunited with his former Family bandmates in 2011, under the name fDeluxe, had come to acknowledge that the song had outgrown all of them: “I was just thrilled to be a small part of that.”

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