Nile Rodgers on his production, his philosophy – and why he believes you should ’embrace failure’

Nile Rodgers is a perfect first subject for MBW’s new series, talking in-depth with the World’s Greatest Producers. But he’s also not quite right.

He ticks the titular box, of course, having helped sonically shape plenty of classic albums and huge hits, including David Bowie’s biggest selling LP, Let’s Dance (1983, over 10 million units sold) and the record that launched a pop phenomenon, Madonna’s Like A Virgin (1984, over 20 million).

But to reduce Rodgers a mere ‘producer’ is a bit like describing Paul McCartney as a ‘bass player’. I mean, sure, one of the best, but it’s not exactly the whole truth, is it.

In Rodgers’ case he is also the founder of Chic (and still leader of The Chic Organisation), he’s a phenomenally successful songwriter, a hell of a guitarist – and, in 2011, he wrote one of the best artist autobiographies ever, Le Freak.

Oh, and he’s also Chief Creative Adviser for Abbey Road Studios, an adviser to one of the most talked-about music companies of the modern age, Hipgnosis Songs Fund (run by his manager, Merck Mercuriadis).

As quibbles go, though, this is minor and entirely positive. I mean, if you had an hour to chat with Macca about playing bass, you could think of more than a few questions, right?

And so it is with Rodgers on production, as he tells MBW about how the role of a producer has changed, the lessons he’s learned, the stars he’s worked with and the significance of Sugar, Sugar by The Archies…

What does a producer do?

Let me go back to the first time I ever heard someone explain that. Someone asked Quincy Jones, ‘What’s the primary job of a producer?’ And Quincy said, very readily, ‘He fixes mistakes.’

Now, even though that was a gazillion years ago, in a strange way, I still think that he’s right. Because if I walk into a studio and everything is perfect, what the hell do you need me for? Why am I there?

“That’s really what the record company is paying you for; they want you to keep the train on the tracks.”

So, my basic job is try and make sure that the mistakes are kept to a minimum.

That’s a harsh way to explain it, because it’s a hell of a lot more than that, but at the end of the day, that’s really what the record company is paying you for; they want you to keep the train on the tracks.

Where do you see the balance between the technical side of a producer’s job and the more emotional, personal, almost psychological side?

I think they’re both equally important. Let’s take someone who is technically really proficient at what they do. In fact, let’s take David Bowie; the quality of his vocals, throughout his life, was consistently brilliant.

He was a terrific singer, and it’s interesting that people don’t think of him as a singer as much as they think of him as a performer, or an artist. But his vocals are actually quite extraordinary and it takes him no time at all [to record them] because, at heart, he’s a really, really good singer.

“You have to figure out a way to become that artist’s best friend and confidant – and then still make music.”

So, in the case of working with someone like David, what was the most important thing I could do as his producer? Well, at that time he was quite depressed. He had been released from his record label after making a record that was actually genius – Scary Monsters, Super Creeps. He wasn’t being rewarded for his forward thinking.

Now he wants to go completely opposite, he wants to do a gigantic pop smash. He told me in confidence that he’d never tried to do that – but when I got to know him I realized he was always trying to do that!

So how do you balance something that you know in some level is the truth, but on another level is something that they’re quite embarrassed to admit? You have to figure out a way to become that artist’s best friend and confidant – and then still make music.

You have to say, ‘I understand who you are as a person, who you are as an artist… now let’s make the music that reflects that thing you just revealed to me, that you have never revealed to the world.’

How important is it to actually like the artists you produce?

For me, it’s really important. In fact, I can’t think of a single artist I’ve worked with who I didn’t absolutely adore.

I think maybe I’m conditioned to be that way. I was socialized as a child to always care about other people, that’s how I was raised. So, when I meet an artist, it’s something that naturally happens, I just start to like them, no matter how ‘out there’ they might be.

“I can’t think of any artist, no matter how difficult they were, who I don’t adore.”

I’ll use an extreme example: I adore David Lee Roth. People wonder why, because they might have seen David in a different way, they might talk about this disorder or that disorder: I love him! David Lee Roth calls me on the phone and I am the happiest man in the world, because all I think about is the time we spent together in the studio, and they were some of the most wonderful times of my life.

I can’t think of any artist, no matter how difficult they were, who I don’t adore. The most difficult experience I think I’ve ever had was working with Jeff Beck, someone I absolutely idolize. But I love him, he’s one of my favourite guitar players who ever walked the earth.

Where in your view does production end and A&R begin – and within that, how much interference have you experienced from record labels when you’ve been producing?

The thing that’s really difficult for me in regard to A&R executives, is that, as many hit records as I’ve had – and I’ve had really, really a lot when you think about it! – I’m always swimming upstream, I’m always going against the tide.

If you look at my career, and all the big hit records I’ve had, I still never get the chance to work with an artist like Beyoncé, or Rihanna, when they’re really happening. I only get artists of that calibre when they’re on their downswing – or if I catch them on the upswing.

“I’m always swimming upstream, I’m always going against the tide.”

Think about it: the luckiest record of my life, with Madonna, when we signed the deal, she hadn’t sold 300,000 units [of her debut album]. But somehow, while we were waiting to get started, her records broke big and it was like, Holy cow, now I’m riding a hit.

Same with Duran Duran, when they thought Seven and the Ragged Tiger was over and done, but I did a remix of The Reflex and it wound up being the biggest hit of their lives – and it breathed new life into the album, which ended up being the biggest of their career.

Those things are strokes of luck. Even with David Bowie, he didn’t have a label [during the recording process], and we end up doing the biggest selling record of his career.

What is your reaction when a label does try to have its say? Would you rather it was a closed off relationship between you and the artist?

I’ve been incredibly lucky in that record companies have rarely interfered, and the times when they have interfered, it’s usually been for the good.

With Madonna, the guy who interfered [Warner A&R exec Michael Ostin] brought us Like A Virgin, the record nobody wanted, and ended up being my best friend for life. He became my family. When Bernard died, it was him that I called.

When Chic were red hot, you were given the choice of producing any band on the label, including the Rolling Stones, but you chose the unheard of Sister Sledge; why was that?

We knew how to make records from the ground-up, but that was the only way we knew how to make a record. We didn’t know if we could teach someone else how to do that.

With Sister Sledge, we could superimpose them on our production, superimpose our vision on them, because they hadn’t made a big impression on the market at that stage. They existed as an entity before we came into the picture, but we could take them to the next level.

“Any artist, no matter who they are, I always try and make their next record, not their last record.”

That’s been my philosophy right from the beginning. Any artist, no matter who they are, I always try and make their next record, not their last record.

I believe we’re all on an artistic arc, so I look back, forensically, at how they got to where they were before they met me, and then at how we take the next step. I get to know their past to an incredible degree, but I never want to rehash it.

You talk in your book about the balance between a producer being there to service an artist and work for an artist, but also getting your ideas across and making sure you have a meaningful input – how do you maintain that balance, and all stay friends?

It’s about what I describe as the DHM – Deep Hidden Meaning.

Once I understand a song on a granular level, no matter what it is, that gives me the power to interpret it the way I believe it should be interpreted, based on my conversation with the artist, based on my forensic analysis of the artist, and based on the market.

When I understand things on a granular level, when I understand the DNA of a song, an artist can talk to me about interpreting that song in any different style.

What’s been the biggest change in production, and the role of a producer, during your time in music?

I think the biggest thing has been the fact that artists have started to recognise the importance of producers. When I was younger, because of the way the music business was designed, the person who came up with the basic elements of a song, was considered the writer.

Now, if it was in today’s world, everything on that Bowie album, I’d be a 50% writer. Everything on the Duran record, I’d have equal shared writing credits with them. And that would be fair.

“if it was in today’s world, everything on that Bowie album, I’d be a 50% writer. Everything on the Duran record, I’d have equal shared writing credits with them.”

If you take away what I did on Let’s Dance… purrrlease [laughs]. I mean it would be totally different; he wrote a folk song! That’s not arranging; I re-wrote Let’s Dance.

And in today’s world, you get credit for that, it’s not even a question anymore.

So do you think George Martin would be getting a few Beatles co-writes in today’s world?

Are you kidding?! Are you kidding?!! Absolutely.

As great as they were, can you imagine those songs without George’s contributions?

What would your advice be to a young producer just starting out now?

I think the main thing for me, and I don’t know if this goes across the board, but I believe that you need to learn to embrace failure.

If you embrace failure, that means you love what you’re doing and you will continue to do it; hit or miss, you’ll still continue to do it, because you love it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve even been given and who from?

I had a very strict jazz guitar tutor, and he told me that any song in the Top 40 is a great composition. I said are you kidding me?! I started singing Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and I said, ‘You call that a great composition?’ He said, ‘Absolutely’.

I asked him, ‘Why would would you say something so absurd?’ He said, ‘Oh, you think that’s absurd? That record has been No. 1 for three or four weeks now. Are you telling me that those millions and millions of people who put it there are wrong, and you, Nile Rodgers, are right?’

“As an artist, your main job is to communicate with people.”

What he was saying was that as an artist, your main job is to communicate with people. And at that time, Sugar, Sugar was doing that better than any other record.

Two weeks later I wrote Everybody Dance.

What’s been the most fun production job of your career?

It would have to be Let’s Dance, which was really fun. Or the second Chic album, which has Le Freak on it. We believed in ourselves at that point.

Which has been the most challenging?

The most challenging, meaning it took the longest amount of time to do, was Notorious with Duran Duran (1986). And that’s because, coming off such an enormous success, to lose two of the band members was devastating.

Oh my God, I had to think of every possible way to fix that situation. I had to think of what I could do musically, so that their fan base, which was enormous, would accept only three of the guys. Because with a group like Duran Duran, it’s not just based on their music, it’s based on who they are, what they look like, their personalities, you know: I love John, well I love Nick, I love Simon… How do I fill in those gaps?

“I think Notorious is an incredible album and incredible work of art, but it took forever to do it, because it took so long to work out how to do it.”

To me, the way to do it was to make a music statement that was beyond any musical statement they had made to that point; to make it seem like the break-up of the band was artistic and natural and was actually to do with a musical evolution, because people will accept that rather than hear about how the drummer wants to spend more time with his family or whatever.

I think Notorious is an incredible album and incredible work of art, but it took forever to do it, because it took so long to work out how to do it.

What was the single most important contribution or decision you made in the making of Let’s Dance?

Persuading David to have my guys play on the record. I did a demo with him in Switzerland with a bunch of jazz musicians and he thought that was incredible. I said, David, you think that’s incredible, wait until you hear my guys!

Is it easier or harder to work with a superstar artist who is very strong willed?

I like artists like that.

Artists who are incredibly headstrong and know what they want are the most fun people to work with. Because if I disagree with them, I have to really work hard to convince them; I have to have great reasons. And after a while, if I can’t convince them, then you know what, they’re right; it’s their album.

Like I said to Madonna, when the record comes out, it’s gonna say [booming voice] MADONNA! [squeaky voice] produced by Nile Rodgers – it’s all about you, it’s not about me.

Who would you love to produce that you haven’t yet?

That’s really hard to say, because I’m working with so many people who I love right now. Honestly, I’m having the best time of my life.

You’re heavily involved with Hipgnosis these days, what is your mission there?

Well I’m an adviser, so I advise! I think this song is right for the catalogue, that sort of thing. I’m the chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame here in the United States, and my long-term goal is to have the role of the songwriter respected as it should be, because we haven’t had a raise in 75 years – and that is outrageous, because without our songs, there is no music industry.

So, while we’re working on the Hipgnosis fund, we are proving that songs are a new asset class and they are just as viable as gold and oil, possibly more so.

“We haven’t had a raise in 75 years – and that is outrageous, because without our songs, there is no music industry.”

Look at the [stock] market right now, and how crazy it is, and it’s going to get worse – and we’re only one point off our [share price] high. And for 49 of our 52 investors, Hipgnosis is their best performing stock. Think about that.

We Are Family, which Bernard and I wrote in 1978, is worth more today than it was yesterday and it will be worth more tomorrow than it is today.Music Business Worldwide

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