Interview: Nile Rodgers: “A Legend”
Songwriter, composer, arranger, record producer, guitarist, musician and one of the coolest people on the planet, Nile Rodgers is currently on tour and opening for Cher. An iconic legend, Rodgers is considered the “Father” of contemporary music, production and music arranging. Often helping new artists rise, he is one of the most well respected individuals in musical history.
Aside from the fact that Rodgers has helped and influenced artists everywhere, he’s also written, produced and sold 75 million singles and 500 million albums globally. He is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a three-time Grammy Award winner and currently is the chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also Chief Creative Advisor for the famous Abbey Road Studio.
Rodgers has worked with and touched the lives of artists including David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga, The Sugarhill Gang, Mick Jagger, INXS, George Michael, Diana Ross, Grace Jones, B52s, Bryan Ferry, Christina Aguilera, Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams and countless others. He wrote and produced songs that changed the world like “We Are Family” for Sister Sledge, “I’m Coming Out” for Diana Ross and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which became one of his biggest-selling tracks.
Rodgers’ brilliance and massive career feels nothing short of miraculous and mind-blowing when one attempts to grasp the diversity of his talent. Growing up in the midst of addiction around him, and struggling to overcome his own, he was always musical. He began to perform at age 17 and hasn’t stopped since. I caught Nile just before he got on a plane in England.
Louder Than War: You’ve been performing since you were 17. Have you had your ultimate stage fantasy, and if not, what would have to happen to make that come true?
I would have to say that my ultimate stage fantasy is almost impossible, because typically I’d want to play with someone you cannot play with. Someone deceased. When I became a professional musician, either I wasn’t in their league yet or they were older and had passed away. I would love to have played with Cab Calloway. Back in the day, I’d have loved to be part of something like that. As a matter of fact, we were so romantic about that era that CHIC is based on the whole jazz age. When we did the album with “Good Times” on it, we did a song called “My Feet Keep Dancing.” We actually have the Nicholas Brothers tap dancing on the record.
How cool is that?
It is cool. It’s great. That is the era that I wish that I could’ve played in. It just seems like so much fun, so crazy, so wonderful. But, I mean, how could I not believe that I’ve had great stage moments? I’ve played with everybody from Prince to Parliament, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, the B-52s, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton—I’ve played with so many great people. Any one of those artists could have fulfilled the fantasy. One night we played with Elton John. I always make a joke every time I see him. I say, “If I hadn’t stopped, we’d still be playing.” That was three years ago. He didn’t want to get off the stage, he wouldn’t stop playing. I said, “Come on, we’re done.”
I recently saw George Clinton, and he pretty much did the same.
Tell me about it! I’ve played with him. Many times.
How do you choose your projects? I mean, you’re probably the most famous musician on the planet, so what inspires your decisions when selecting a project?
Typically I meet somebody. We just like each other, and somehow that meeting turns into a record. I’ll give you a great example. Two days ago I met Noel Gallagher for the first time. I was an Oasis fan, but I’d never had a chance to meet him. So I’m in the studio, and Noel was right next to me. I’m the chief creative now at Abbey Road. So I was at Abbey Road recording, and Noel and I started talking.
He said, “Hey Nile, check this out… here’s my tribute to CHIC.” He played this song with a CHIC kind of groove. I thought, “Wow, who would ever have thought that Noel Gallagher would write a song with a CHIC kind of groove.” Then I asked him to call me, and I suggested that we play. Then I suggested we call Johnny Marr. So I called Johnny Marr, and we picked a date that we could do this, and it happened just like that.
Last night, Vin Diesel came into the studio. We never realized we were brought up one block away from each other and went to the exact same elementary school. I couldn’t believe it. He came into Abbey Road to sing. Then he gave me his whole background, and we knew all the same people. Just because I’m a little bit older, we didn’t hang out. When you’re 15, you don’t hang out with a seven, eight or nine year old, just because of the age difference at that time. Vin’s the same age as Madonna. If we were in the same elementary school, I would’ve been in the sixth grade, and he would’ve been in the first grade. A sixth grader doesn’t hang out with a first grader. But we’re past all that now!
You’ve written a bunch of soundtracks: “Coming to America,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and so on. Have you ever been asked to portray a character in a film? Somehow, I see a cool serial killer hiding behind that super smile.
I was in one movie for VH1 where I played a record company executive, but I’m not really the acting type. However, I am writing a big musical, which is based on my life story. I’m having my third meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber when I come back to the UK.
How fun is that?
We’re having a really great time together. He gets it. It’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t have believed that it would come together like this in a million years.
If you can have me ask you any question in the world, what would you want me to ask you? Just remember you have to answer it, too!
Do you wish that the day was 48 hours long? The answer would be yes. I’d like to do even more work than I do now, which is already an extraordinary amount.
You’ve done nearly everything. You’re a songwriter, singer, producer, arranger, you’ve won Grammys, you’ve played with or produced or written for everyone on the planet. So is there anything left that you haven’t done that you’d still wish to do?
Write a Broadway show, which I’m doing right now. It still hasn’t come out yet, so I still have to finish it.
How do you feel about people who imitate your sound and style?
I’m completely flattered, because when I started playing, I was imitating other people until I developed something that felt like me. I grew up as a classical jazz musician, and when I started to play pop music, I couldn’t be satisfied with just the way that regular guitar players play.
That was not inspiring to me. So I developed this sound where I wrote music that is dependent upon my knowledge of harmony and inversions and voice leading and stuff like that. I don’t play guitar like the typical guitar player. I play more like a jazz guitar player, but I’m still doing pop music.
It works exceedingly well for you.
It seems to work. I mean, it’s working pretty good.
If you could go back in time when you first started to record, the technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Well, obviously, if we had today’s technology, we may have approached things differently, but that’s a tricky question. The audience… and I don’t mean to sound like an age chauvinist, but I could just prove it scientifically by what people consumed back then. The audience then was more sophisticated when it came to listening to compositions, because of what the songs were like. In the old days, songs were much more complicated and sophisticated.
Now songs are pretty much based on loops and things like that. They’re very primal and simple. We think more in terms of the lyrical content in today’s world than about all of the orchestral musical elements that it takes to make a record. You had to go to a professional recording studio to make the record when I was a kid. You couldn’t make a record on your laptop at home. There was no such thing as a laptop. I bought one of the first musical computers, and it cost an absolute fortune, a quarter of a million dollars. You had to be rich already to do that. We were buying it to aid the process of recording things that were still very antiquated compared to the processes we use now.
Computers in those days were really expensive. We were just using mine to help us explore different sounds and different things we could import into our environment without having to hire someone every single time we had an idea. In those days, without your own computer, you’d have to hire someone else to see if your idea was a good one.
The music industry has changed so much. Most artists today stay relevant for about 40 seconds. How do you manage to stay relevant all these years? What’s your secret?
I’m not a music snob. I like music, and I like the challenges, so I’m always working with people that are either up and coming or people that will never be known, but are just talented. I’ve learned a lot from new artists. The average age of artists that I work with is probably about 26. So that means that I work with a lot of artists in their teens or 20 years old. Obviously I still work with artists in their 40s and 50s, but that’s rare.
A great friend who passed away—Avicii—the first night I met him, we decided we were going to work together. So I work with a lot of young DJs. I have maybe 20 records coming out this year that are all done by people whose average age is around 25.
Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered?
I just want people to come out to the show and have a good time. Our live show is so much fun. If you’re hearing CHIC for the first time, you will know every single song that we play. When I say that, I say it with total humility. I’m so grateful that I’ve had so many hit records, even though people don’t realize it. I have a really blessed life, and now I’m the chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Congratulations on that. That’s a really big deal.
Yeah, it’s a really big deal! I take it very seriously, and I’m really proud.
I sometimes feel like you are the most guarded secret in the world. There is no one that doesn’t know your name on earth; however, there are many that don’t know all of your accomplishments.
That’s not true.
I feel like people don’t exactly give you credit for everything you’ve done. I’m glad you’re writing your life story; let me put it that way.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.
Main photo © Melanie Smith, Billy Hess portrait shot.