Nile Rodgers on writing, creativity and collaboration

Writer, producer and disco legend Nile Rodgers shares his thoughts on finding inspiration, collaborating with artists and being resilient when things don’t work out as planned

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Nile Rodgers is one of the most successful songwriters and music producers of all time. In the 1970s, he penned some of the decade’s catchiest disco hits with Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards, including Le Freak, Good Times and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family. The Disco Sucks movement of 1979 prompted a backlash against his music (the campaign was kickstarted by a rock radio DJ in Detroit but led to nationwide hostility towards the genre) – but in the decade that followed, he went on to work with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and Grace Jones to name a few. At one point, the value of music that has flowed through his famous Stratocaster guitar was estimated at around $2 billion.

In 2013, after recovering from prostate cancer, Rodgers worked with Daft Punk on their fourth album, Random Access Memories. He has just finished working with country singer Keith Urban on a new album, has recently collaborated with Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams, Disclosure, Sam Smith and Marc Ronson in between touring and recording a new Chic album and is curating a London outpost of his New York music festival Fold this summer.

As one of the most prolific and innovative people in music, we caught up with Rodgers at TV marketing and creative conference PromaxBDA in Barcelona, where he gave a talk on writing, collaborating and finding inspiration…

“I write every night”

During his talk, Rodgers spoke about having a constant desire to create. “The good thing about my life is I don’t sleep very much, normally about three hours a night, so I’m always creating,” he explained. “I learned from [composer] Ennio Morricone. He told me he composes every day, even if it’s garbage, because he wants to make his brain write music…. I write every night, even if it stinks the next morning, [because] when you do it, it will inspire you. Sometimes, you might have to wait until the inspiration comes, you can’t force it, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to fix something that stinks, than to create from scratch,” he said.

While people often think of making music as a serendipitous process – hooks, lyrics or verses thought up in moments of inspiration – Rodgers describes it as a careful act of editing, rewriting and reworking. Often, he will produce up to 20 or 25 versions of a song before it is ready to be released.”I’m working with Keith Urban right now, and just yesterday, we said ‘I think this sucker is ready to mix’. But we started a year ago!” he told CR.

So what does he do when a song just isn’t coming together? “I just keep working at it,” he explains. “Most people – and I would argue this is the case for almost every creative person – they don’t really that they’re not really writers, they’re actually rewriters. We write something and it’s almost right, but then we look at it again and say, ‘you know what? This says it a little better.'”

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Image: @nilerodgers

Rodgers often refers to Chic’s lyrics as ‘non-fiction’, and while the band’s songs were catchy, memorable and relatable, he says he and Edwards always strived for a deeper level of meaning in their writing. He still draws on his life and surroundings for inspiration and says he is constantly thinking up ideas for new tracks.

“When you’re writing about reality, you have an inexhaustible supply of information and subject matter. It’s just right there. As I look out at an audience, I think ‘I’ve never written a song about a photographer’ for example, but right now, in my head, stuff is going on and I could document that stuff.” When composing a song, he says he usually thinks up the lyrics first, with the words then dictating the melody. “The lyrics are about the reality that I see. Sometimes, that reality is translated into a melodic message but usually, I think of something and then that thing says, ‘it should [sound] like this’,” he adds.

Having worked with some of the world’s most famous artists, Rodgers has some brilliant stories to tell. Speaking at PromaxBDA, he recalled David Bowie showing up at his door one day with a photograph of influential rock’n’roll singer Little Richard dressed in a red suit, stepping into a red Cadillac, an image that informed the sound of Let’s Dance. “He said ‘Nile, I want my album to sound like this’ … and I knew exactly what he meant,” he explained. “That picture [even though it was taken in the 50s] it looked like it could be from the future,” he said, describing the kind of record Bowie wanted to create.

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Image: @nilerodgers

“I love working with artists that believe what they’re doing is precious”

As a producer, Rodgers says he enjoys working with musicians who have strong ideas about what they want a track to sound like, but admits that much of his job involves challenging their preconceptions. “I love working with artists that believe what they’re doing is precious,” he told CR. “They plant their flag in it, they say ‘this is how it goes, and this is how it goes no matter what’ and then if I show them another way, they go, ‘wow, that’s actually cooler.’ That’s maybe, and I don’t want to take more credit than I deserve, but I’ll say that that’s at least 50/50 of my life, if not more. I’ve worked with people who say, ‘this is absolutely the way it goes’ and then we argue, and then it gets heated, and I don’t mean for it to be heated but I’ll just have another point of view, and then I’ll do it, and they’ll look at it and say, ‘you’re right’.”

This isn’t the case with everyone he works with – and Rodgers is quick to point out that not every musical partnership results in disagreement. “Every artist, every personality is different. Some people are very open and malleable when it comes to new ideas. Some people have worked on [their music] a long time and are very set in their ways, and sometimes they are right, and they convince me that they’re right,” he says.

“That’s not to say that when you work with people, there’s always a difference of opinion. Daft Punk is a great example,” he adds. “When we did Get Lucky, I started playing, and because we had never worked together before, they didn’t realise what I was doing … I was looking for all of the variations [of the music] that I would play later on … because whenever you listen to any guitar part that I play, even though it sounds like I’m playing the same thing, I really never play the same thing twice. I make it close, but it’s definitely different. They were looking at me like ‘what the hell is he doing?’ so I explained … they said ‘oh cool’ and then I settled on the part, and they were like, ‘wow that’s great’. Then they said, ‘can you do the same to this? And this? And I wound up doing three songs.”

“Getting to know people through music feels like one of the closest relationships you could have”

Rodgers says there aren’t many people he has worked with that he doesn’t hold dear: “Getting to know people through music, at least for me, feels like one of the closest relationships you could have,” he says. “Even if you were fighting while doing that song, even if you had total disagreement, because by the end of that process, you have so much respect and love for the other person because they’ve helped you create something. And I really believe that.”

After Disco Sucks, he says “no-one would answer my calls, and all I did was make a bunch of cool record” but the following year, he and Edwards wrote and produced Diana “and it wound up being the biggest selling album of [Ross’s] life.”

“Her old record company hated it,” he says. “They said, ‘this isn’t a Diana Ross record’ – we said ‘yeah, it’s not an old Diana Ross record, it’s a new Diana Ross record’ and now, in retrospect, some 30-something years later, I can say it’s the only Diana Ross record that sounds like that. We never did anything like that again, and it was because of the pressure of Disco Sucks. But still wanting people to dance…. There’s nothing that I’m more proud of than that record, and it was something that I knew was the only thing I’d ever write that would sound like that. And it was because of all of this external stuff going on around us. Because it was the beginning of a new decade, it had to feel like a new Diana Ross, even though she was one of the biggest superstars in the world at that time.”

Throughout his career, Rodgers says his ethos has always been to ‘keep on trying’ – an attitude that stood him in good stead after Disco Sucks. “My most influential music teacher told me that I was his best student. And I thought that he was lying to me. I mean this was a teacher I used to pay, he didn’t want me to quit!” he jokes. “But one day he said to me ‘Nile, I want you to think before you answer this question: Why do you pay money to study with me?’ and I said ‘oh, because I want to do hit records and play concerts and I want to be in an orchestra and do films and shows and do everything’ and he says ‘really? You could do that.’ And I say ‘how?’ and he says, ‘be better’…. He said ‘so what if all of those things you want to do as a result of studying with me never happened? What would you do?’ and before he could finish – he was going to say, think before you answer – but before he could get it out of his mouth, I said, “I’d keep trying” and he said ‘that’s why you’re my best student. You’re just going to keep trying, no matter what happens.'”

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Image: @nilerodgers

“Every song we did had a story, it had evolved from a concept to something we could actually market to somebody.”

Canny self-promotion has also played a role in Rodgers’ continued success: at PromaxBDA, he told the audience that almost all of his greatest hits were the result of clever marketing. He secured a record deal for Chic by pretending to be from France, a country associated with “high fashion and sophistication” in the US at the time, despite not speaking a word of the language. (He enlisted the help of his girlfriend, who was from Brussels, to write lyrics). “When we walked into the record company, we couldn’t pretend we were French, but we explained the concept and they got it,” he said. “As of today, I’ve sold over $2 billion worth of music and believe it or not, almost all of it was a result of clever marketing. Every song we did had a story – it had evolved from a concept to something we could actually market to somebody”.

Having a compelling story to is still an important part of selling music today, says Rodgers, but most artists now must also build a following on social media before getting signed. “You can walk in with the greatest record in the world, but a record company won’t sign you without tens of thousands of followers. That’s what they expect,” he says – though he acknowledges that the internet has made it easier for new artists to get noticed and attract a global fanbase.

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Image: @nilerodgers

“I’ve never turned my nose up to technology”

Rodgers says embracing technology has been key to his longevity, too. In recent years, he has worked with dance acts from David Guetta to Avici, experimenting with new EDM technology. He was also an early adopter of Napster (but says he was treated “like a pariah” by some people in the music industry over his enthusiasm for the site, which he used to listen to rare recordings he couldn’t find in stores). “I’ve never turned my nose up to technology. I always embrace it…. Whenever a new piece of tech comes out, or a new piece of gear, we buy it right away just to see what it does. It’s something I’ve been doing since the late 70s. When you listen to the records I’ve done, even though they may be rooted in guitar playing, almost every record has a new piece of tech acting in an interesting way,” he says. His fascination with tech, he says, lies in the ability to explore new ways of making music.

“If you look at some of the cutting edge technology now, it’s what they call modelling, and they design instruments that can’t be physically made: a guitar with a neck 30 feet long, what would that sound like? A computer would know how it sounds because it knows mathematically how many vibrations, how many cycles there would be if the string were that long, and it could make a sound that sounds like that, but if we tried to build it, it would be impossible to play. It’s a cool thing … it increases my musical colour palette,” he adds.

After 40 years in the business, Rodgers remains just as passionate about making music as he was when his songs were filling the dance floors of New York nightclub’s in disco’s early days. Music is a notoriously fickle industry, and success can often be fleeting, but by continuously innovating, and embracing new tools and tech, Rodgers has achieved enduring success – and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. “I’m going to be pushing demos when I’m 70,” he laughs.