This song tells the story of an intriguing little girl named Cynthia Rose, whose quirks include wearing different color socks and always standing in the back of the line. But the most interesting thing about her is what she had for breakfast every day:
Starfish and coffee Maple syrup and jam Butterscotch clouds A tangerine And a side order of ham
Cynthia Rose is a real person, and that's her real name. Prince's musical cohort (and girlfriend) Susannah Melvoin went to school with her and told Prince all about her. Together, they crafted the lyrics, with Melvoin earning a songwriting credit.
The memories of Cynthia Rose that formed the lyric are from when she was 12 years old and in 6th grade - the last year Susannah Melvoin (and her sister Wendy, also a Prince associate) went to school with her. That's the year their teacher was Ms. Kathleen, who would greet the kids one by one as they entered the classroom.
According to Susannah, Cynthia was a very odd duck who lived in her own little world. She was weird, but of the 25 kids in the class, she was the only one who really stood out. In 2016, Susannah Melvoin launched a Starfish and Coffee website, where she wrote: "Cynthia never had much interest outside of her own personal space, so watching her was an unedited version of what was going on her head."
What Cynthia really claimed to have had for breakfast was "starfish and pee pee." Prince took the liberty of changing it to starfish and coffee.
Melvoin wrote: "Cynthia would also reveal what she had for breakfast. Consistently it was starfish and pee pee. I never understood the combo meal. Furthermore, as a consequence nobody else could. Here it seemed like the dealbreaker for most kids. Above all the kids in our class had no interest in how Cynthia came to get her morning breakfast. I considered it tender and funny, and listened to her tell me anything she wanted to say whether it was firmly planted on earth, or from her planet of tender-hearted people who love numbers and draw smiley faces."
The story of a wildly eccentric, boldly artistic individual who no one really understands is certainly one Prince could relate to. After Melvoin wrote down the story for him, he went into his recording studio with his engineer Susan Rogers and completed the song.
To understand just how a little girl could have starfish and coffee for breakfast (or butterscotch clouds), requires an open mind:
If you set your mind free, baby Maybe you'd understand
Many songs about mind-expansion (including P-Funk's) have drug overtones, but "Starfish and Coffee" uses childlike wonder as the conduit.
In 1997, Prince performed this with The Muppets when he was the special guest on the show Muppets Tonight, which ran for two seasons (other guests on the show include Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks and Paula Abdul). In the bit, Prince is asked to sing a song about the breakfast menu in the Muppet commissary.