Try lumping Jeff Beck with Madonna, or putting Duran Duran in the same sentence as avant-gardist Laurie Anderson, or maybe David Bowie with Al Jarreau. Not only does Nile Rodgers have a way of doing that, but part of his secret is skipping sleep. Among the world’s most in-demand record producers, Rodgers – also a song-writer, guitarist, arranger and leader of the brilliant funk band Chic – has been up for just on 48 hours when we speak on the telephone.
“Since I was about five-and-a-half years old I’ve only required about two or three hours’ sleep a night,” he explains. “Like last night I didn’t sleep at all, and I’ve had a super-productive run.”
That was finishing two singles from Chic’s new album, while other “runs” across the last 40 years included producing for Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, with Australia’s INXS, Kylie Minogue and Tina Arena also in the mix, along with a steady stream of new artists.
“Look at a guy like Sam Smith, who’s a big star now,” says Rodgers. “When I first worked with Sam he was a guy sitting in the corner of this studio when we did some songs with Disclosure. We worked on [the hit] Together, and it was amazing. We wrote the song right there. We’d never met each other before and it was all done in one day.”
He has no set production methodology beyond helping artists to define, refine and realise their intentions. “Staying open is imperative,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a full orchestration, and one person in the ensemble makes a mistake, and the mistake is like really cool, and you go, ‘Whoa! What was that?!’ That’s why I love working with live musicians all the time, because it’s their powers of interpretation that you’re also hiring.”
Rodgers is the only surviving founder of Chic (“and yet I was the most reckless hippie, druggy kind of guy!”), a band that epitomises his core ethos of combining pop melodies, jazzy harmonies and funk rhythms. “I started out as a classical musician, and I became really engrossed with jazz,” he says. “My family were beatniks, so good friends of my parents were people like Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone. But once I defined my style as a sort of funk/dance guitarist I wanted to speak with that voice, even though my roots are jazz-based, so I am always trying to add complicated chords, with the greatest example probably being Let’s Dance.”
Rodgers not only produced David Bowie’s biggest-selling album, he completely reimagined the hit title track. “I was lying in my bed at David’s house in Switzerland,” he recounts, “and he came into my bedroom and was so excited, he was like, ‘Man, I got this song! It’s a great idea!’ And he sang the song for me, and I sat there looking at him, and I was puzzled, because he had told me we were going to do a hit album, and when he sang Let’s Dance it sounded like a folk song. Now, granted, this is David Bowie, and he looks at the world a little differently than most people. So I listened, and it didn’t sound anything like a hit, and I thought, ‘Maybe he’s testing me to see if I’m some kind of sycophant.'”
Instead of piling on the praise Rodgers suggested he write an arrangement, and, having hired a studio and some Swiss jazz musicians, they recorded it. “David had never heard my arrangement until these guys played it,” he says. “He sang exactly what he had been singing, and it melded perfectly. We only had to play it once, and he was like, ‘You’re right! It works as a funky song!'”
However good the raw material, artistry and production, Rodgers emphasises that commercial success is primarily down to luck and promotion. “Even though I’ve had a huge amount of hits,” he says, “I’ve had way, way more flops. So everybody calls me a hit-maker, but really I’m a flop-maker – with a few hits thrown in!”