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Interview: Grammy Award-Winning Icon Nile Rodgers

One of the music industry’s legends on his decades of success and keeping time

In 1980 Nile Rodgers received his first Grammy nomination—as a songwriter on the Sister Sledge hit “We Are Family.” A year later he received another with “Upside Down,” which he produced for Diana Ross. As awards shows go, he wouldn’t win—until 2014. That year, his collaborations with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams (the track “Get Lucky” and album Random Access Memories) would take home three trophies. In between (and since), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r has collaborated on tracks with everyone from Madonna to David Bowie, Disclosure and Keith Urban. His life is storied; affixed to decades of inspiration and collaboration. From his first band Chic’s iconic “Le Freak” to Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Rodgers has crafted music that’s a true celebration of life. A conversation with him, at this year’s “Tune of Time” performance—accompanying the release of Bulova‘s Limited Edition 60th Anniversary Grammy Timepiece, hosted by the Recording Academy—revealed his beautiful zen and zest.

For anyone whose career successfully spans decades, one has to wonder where reinvention and inspiration come from. “It’s the fact that I am curious as hell and want to do more,” Rodgers explains to us. “I love playing. I love learning. I love being challenged. I just can’t help myself.” And he won’t stop any time soon. “Someone was talking about retirement. Elton John is announcing it—his last tour. Clapton said something similar. I can’t imagine not doing this unless I physically or mentally could not. Even if there’s no real audience. I know I can at least attract 20 or 30 people. I used to play on the street, I was a busker. I had an audience there and I was fine.” Even the way Rodgers speaks emphasizes his love, with an enviable passion. “I am naturally shy,” he adds, “but if you put the guitar in my hands I come to life.”

Collaboration is one of Rodgers’ continued successes and he insists his role hasn’t ever changed. “I still approach it the same way. Even though the cast of characters may change, my role and my perspective has always been the same. I am fairly old school so when I work with someone like Mura Masa, or Anderson Paak or Náyo or Bruno Mars we have a blast—we really just have so much fun. I learn about how they see the world of music. And that’s fun too.”

As he is wont to do, Rodgers delves into an anecdote that stuns. “The first time I worked with Avicii, it was so comfortable. He was exhausted, he had just played a show the night before in Las Vegas. He had come through the studio. I was actually supposed to meet Prince but somehow we got our wires crossed. Prince stayed in Las Vegas. Avicii came to Los Angeles. Prince also sent this group that he was managing. I said, ‘Hey do you want to sing on Avicii’s new record? I wrote the song. I called up Adam Lambert. He came over and sang on it, too. I just started steering the ship. When Avicii woke up the next day, there was a song in his inbox.”

As far as new talent goes, Rodgers can’t stop speaking highly enough of Náyo. “No matter how many ideas I gave her she would just sing them over and over again. It reminded me of when I was working with Madonna. Madonna was just tireless. No matter what I gave her she would do it and never complain. I had so many ideas for her.” It’s the same now. “With Náyo, sometimes I just wanted to hear her execute it. For her to show me that she’s the greatest singer on earth.” He’s also working with the artist Anais Aida, who taught herself to sing. “I made myself do it,” she explained to him of her almost impossible vocal range—something that inspires him wholeheartedly.

For years now, Rodgers has also been involved in the watch world. He reasons this from a unique position of passion. “I love watches,” he begins, “because I love time. Metronomes were so important to me. When I learned to play, some of my earliest teachers and instructors, they made my life revolve around the metronome. Our band’s time was so great because of this. I have heard live recordings of our band. I was like, damn you could set your watch to that stuff.” Rodgers has developed a mastery of time. “It is something that you practice, if it’s important to you. I did not know how instrumental it would be to the development of my career. Our whole career was built on groove and I’ve done tracks where the drift factor from the first note to the last is so minimal that is amazes me. It’s infectious.”

Bulova, as an official Grammy partner, developed the aforementioned watch to give to winners only (though another limited edition version is for sale). The dial is made of the same gold material that’s used on the Grammy statuettes, grammium alloy. When the brand approached Rodgers, he immediately wanted to participate because of their 140 year history. “I started traveling at a very young age,” he says. “The first time I traveled back from Los Angeles, I flew into LaGuardia. We flew over on a prop plane and we were stopping every couple of hundred miles. I remember arriving at LaGuardia and seeing a Bulova advertisement immediately. It’s left an impression in my head since I was seven-and-a-half years old. It’s a New York City brand.”

For the longest time I thought the Grammys just gave out lots of violins to kids at schools

The Grammys, like all awards shows, are far from perfect. Rodgers, a member of the Recording Academy, offers advice to his critical peers. If they aren’t pleased with the results, join up because it’s an organization of musicians and songwriters for musicians and songwriters. Otherwise, if it’s not relevant to them, they shouldn’t worry about the outcome. He adds with a smile, “I never got involved because of the statue, I joined because of MusiCares. For the longest time I thought the Grammys just gave out lots of violins to kids at schools. I got given a flute and I couldn’t believe I was allowed to take it home and get better.”

Bulova’s limited edition 60th Anniversary Grammy timepiece collection is available for purchase only at Macy’s Herald Square and The watch retails for $1,150.

Images courtesy of Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images


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