Nile Rodgers speaks to the souls of a million strangers

SXSW hosted a keynote panel with composer Nile Rodgers at the Austin Convention Center

“When I was younger, my jazz guitar teacher, who is the single greatest influence on me—other than Bernard Edwards—asked me one day why I was studying with him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m studying with you because I want to play at concerts, I want to make records, I want to compose, do big orchestral works and films.’ He said, ‘Really? Is that the only reason why?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Oh that’s no problem, you could easily do that.’ I said, ‘Wow, really? How? And he said, ‘Play better,’” said Nile Rodgers.

Nile Rodgers is a legendary Grammy award-winning composer, producer, arranger and guitarist. He has released numerous hit records over the last four decades. He has greatly influenced popular music—he has over 200 production credits to his name. Rodgers has produced hit records for David Bowie, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Maroon 5, Britney Spears, Sam Smith, Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Michael Jackson and many others. He is also the co-founder of CHIC, one of disco’s greatest bands. On March 15, Nile Rodgers held a keynote panel at the Austin Convention Center as part of the SXSW festival.

Singer-songwriter Mobley opened Nile Rodgers keynote panel with an energetic performance. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

The panel began with a performance from experimental pop singer-songwriter Mobley. Originally from Austin, Texas, Mobley opened with an energetic performance. He jumped high up on the stage and as he landed slammed on his drums. His high energy on stage, along with his talent, made for an unforgettable performance. Mobley will no doubt be a big star in the near future.

As Rodgers took to the stage, the press swarmed to the front row to get close-up shots of him. Rodgers began his speech by telling us anecdotes on how he discovered success in the music industry. “They told me that they wanted me to talk to you about discovery. ‘Really,’ I said. Discovery? My whole life has been about discovery,” Rodgers said.The musical legend began performing as a classical musician. “I played in the symphony orchestra at the various schools that I went to,” he said. Rodgers never touched a guitar until he was 15. “But I could read music pretty well,” he said. “This gave me a huge advantage—when I started playing guitar, I was a really good music reader from the jump. That helped in my career because guitar players are notoriously known as bad music readers, even though they are amazing players.”

In the 1970s, Rodgers’ got his first job working for the children’s television show, Sesame Street. “I auditioned—they wanted a kid who could read the music for ‘People in Your Neighborhood,’ and ’Rubber Duck,’” he said. Rodgers read the music charts during the audition and got the gig, which set him off on an immense journey of musical and personal discovery. “The great thing about music is that it’s probably just like the universe. We’re just like planetoids, asteroids, just out there spinning around and we’re bumping into stuff. And as we bump into stuff, our trajectory changes and that’s what happened to me,” Rodgers said.

It was in the early 70s, during his gig on Sesame Street that Rodgers met Bernard Edwards, who was a record producer, bass player, singer-songwriter and a fellow member of CHIC. “Bernard Edwards was amazing. He was such an incredible musician,” Rodgers said. “He had such a fine ear, and I decided that I wanted to go on the journey with him.” Rodgers then formed a band with Bernard Edwards called The Big Apple Band. Both Edwards and Rodgers also worked as back-up musicians for a vocal group called New York City. “We had one hit record called ‘I’m Doin’ Fine Now.’ It did well,” Rodgers said. Eventually, the band became The Jackson Five’s opening act, which solidified Rodgers’ lifelong friendship with Michael Jackson. “We became friends forever,” Rodgers said. “I kept bumping into all these wonderful people, and my life just kept expanding. I found that I wasn’t intimidated by stars. I was comfortable with them, and I had some kind of innate talent for being able to communicate with them,” he said.

Whether Rodgers is in the recording studio, conducting a symphony orchestra or producing music for multiple artists, all he wants to do is help as much as he can. “There’s a certain love that I have for that musician, for that situation, because I think that music is the voice that I speak with,” Rodgers said. “And when I am working for you, I try to help amplify your own voice. I try to help you become better than you were because that’s what my teacher used to always do to me.”

A great musical influence for Rodgers was his jazz tutor who tutored him when he was around 15 years old. “I just idealized this dude. He was incredible, such a great musician. His knowledge of harmony was just amazing—he taught me how to play that way. That’s the essence of my style,” he said.

During the panel, Rodgers told an anecdote about the day he complained to his jazz tutor about having to perform top 40 records during a show. “I’ve got to play these bullshit songs like, ‘sugar, sugar, ohhh honey honey’—it’s all lame stuff,” Rodgers said, recounting what he’d told his tutor. Rodgers said his jazz tutor answered that any song that sells and gets to the top 40, top 20 or top 10 is a great composition. Rodgers then asked him, “how can you call, “Sugar, Sugar” a great composition?” “And he said something that changed my life. He said, ‘Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.’” Rodgers said this quote was so profound to him. “I wanted to learn how to speak to the souls of a million strangers—it woke me up to the power of what we call pop music,” he said.

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