From the athletic fields at Peoria Notre Dame to the stage with Prince, LiV Warfield has always put her heart into her work.
Like everything else in her life, the way LiV Warfield chooses to spell her first name — the lowercase “i” bookended by capital letters — has purpose.
It’s “because I am just a small part of it all,” she explained. “Everything else is bigger than me.”
That may be a healthy perspective in any endeavor, but it’s pretty much essential if you’re to thrive on a high-level stage and survive with your soul intact.
And Warfield is thriving. The Peoria native is a critically acclaimed R&B singer and songwriter, a protégé of the late icon Prince and former collaborator with groundbreaking rock guitarist Nancy Wilson of Heart. She currently performs in Cabaret Zazou’s “Luminaire,” a high-energy extravaganza of music, acrobatics and visuals at the Cambria Hotel in Chicago’s Theater District. She’ll do a concert there on Feb. 7 (tickets at 312-488-0900).
Now living in the Chicago suburbs, Warfield, 43, frequently visits Peoria to hang out with family and get her fix of Avanti’s cuisine. Her visits are mostly on the down-low, but she wowed an enthusiastic audience at the Scottish Rite Theatre and looks forward to performing again in Peoria.
Among the Scottish Rite audience that night was John Cummings, former track and field coach at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where Warfield starred as a sprinter, hurdler and jumper in the mid-1990s. Cummings recalls Warfield and a couple of classmates singing for Mass one day their senior year.
“Oh, my goodness, she had a great voice,” Cummings said. “LiV was a stupendous athlete, probably the best athlete I ever had. She still holds the 100- and 200-meter school records. But that voice … I had no idea she could do that. And then to make it her profession.”
She almost didn’t, though.
That school Mass was the first time Warfield recalls singing in front of people. Her father, Owen, was a deacon in the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ, and in their devoutly religious household, secular music was largely discouraged. But her mother, Bessie, had a performance video of the great Diana Ross, and young Olivia was mesmerized, watching it over and over.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but nobody else did,” Warfield said.
She would sing quietly in her room at home, never loud enough for her parents or older brother to hear.
“My mom came to the Mass and was like, ‘What’s going on? You never sing around us!’ That was the first time I dared to step out of my comfort zone,” Warfield said.
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1997, Warfield briefly attended Danville Area Community College and Bradley University before accepting a track scholarship to Portland State. There, her enthusiasm for athletics waned and a classmate introduced her to karaoke bars. Before long, another friend invited Warfield to The Candlelight, a popular Portland music spot. That’s where she met the late Linda Hornbuckle, known as “the number one soul sister in the Pacific Northwest.”
“She played the ‘C Room’ every Tuesday. It was my first time seeing a live band,” Warfield said. “I’d go every Tuesday night, and one night, Linda gave me the mic. I sang with my back to the crowd. She said, ‘Honey, you can’t sing with your back turned.’ So, she turned me around, and every Tuesday after that, she worked me up.”
Warfield blossomed. She put out feelers for musicians and formed a band. They got a gig at Jimmy Mak’s, a Portland jazz joint. More engagements followed.
LiV’s brother, Lawrence, was the first in the family to travel to the West Coast to see her. He was blown away. Their parents followed.
“It took them a minute to process what was going on,” LiV said. “But from then on, my life has been just very beautiful and full of surprises.”
The whirlwind was only beginning. Warfield cut an album of original tunes that drew positive reviews. Then Prince saw a YouTube video of Warfield and her band, the Warfield Experience, performing the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter.” Next thing LiV knew, Prince was on the other end of a phone call, inviting her to his Paisley Park estate in Minnesota.
Warfield spent eight years singing with Prince, five touring with him and the New Power Generation. During that time, she continued to write new songs, and in 2014 Prince produced her second solo album, “Unexpected.” That same year, she gave a rousing performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Two years later, Prince died.
“I was stung. I didn’t know how to process it, and I just checked out,” Warfield said. “That man is energy. It just came off him. Working with him and being around him were the best lessons in my life.”
Ultimately, it was Prince’s advice that helped refocus her career. She needed to look forward and make music. And more.
Warfield says her calling is “to move people lyrically.” Her performances transcend simple words, for Warfield is more than a singer. She’s a total artist, opening her soul on stage and letting it all go.
“Maybe a little of that is rooted in the church, through tears and praise,” she said. “Ten toes down to the ground is where I have to be planted, rooted in what I’m saying. I don’t sing anything I don’t feel, so I have to be rooted in it.”
Those roots include Peoria and the LenaBlu Foundation, named for LiV’s late great-great aunt Lena Warfield, who tinted her hair blue and painted the world with a beautiful spirit. The foundation strives to build stronger communities by raising money to provide opportunities for young people through the arts.
LiV calls her Aunt Lena “the catalyst for me when nobody but she knew I was singing. She said, ‘If this is what you want, dear, I support you 1,000%.’
“Sometimes, that’s all it takes. I want to be that kind of person.”