Among certain Prince enthusiasts, Susan Rogers is a legend. She engineered almost all of Prince’s recordings from his prolific, mind-bogglingly inventive mid-’80s period (she began working with him in 1983, as he was putting together Purple Rain, and left in 1987 after the recording of the legendary Black Album). To match Prince’s stamina, she regularly worked 48-hour days (not weeks, days) and put her life on hold to capture his near constant stream of creativity over the course of five fruitful years. And to hear her tell it, she loved almost every second of it.
Rogers is more than Prince’s former right hand—she’s a scientist, a mixer, an audio-electronics technician, and a producer in her own right (with the profits she made off Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” she was able to pay off her mortgage and pursue her PhD, according to The Guardian). She is also the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory.
But the subject of Prince comes up again and again for Rogers, who has been very active, almost evangelical, in the press since his 2016 death. “It feels like doing him a good service, like it’s important,” she told me by phone last week. “He’s an important American.”
You can listen to Rogers talk about some of her experiences working for Prince in this video she shot for a new Berklee web series:
Rogers and I talked for about an hour last week—our wide ranging conversation covered aspects of Prince’s creativity, his famed vault and the current mining of it by his estate, his conduct as an employer. But I also talked to Rogers about her own experiences in the industry and how it feels to have a large part of her own legacy defined by another artist’s work. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: I know that you’ve been very accessible to the press, regarding your time spent working for Prince, especially recently. I wonder why.
SUSAN ROGERS: I feel like I owe it to him. I was well treated when I was with him, and I got a career out of it. I want the next generation to know about him. I want them to know what a great musician he was. It feels like doing him a good service, like it’s important. He’s an important American.
Did you feel differently about talking about him with the press before he died?
Oh yeah, of course. [My thinking was:] he needs to talk for himself, and he needs to decide what information he wants to release. Of course, that’s the artist’s first right. But after he’s gone—and all of us, [those who knew, loved, and worked with him] talked about it and thought about it very carefully. I’m a scientist, I love the truth, so if I can help fill in the story of who he was as completely, as honestly as my memory will allow, that’s what I wanna do. Feels like the right thing to do.
It seems to me like Prince was the master of the self-edit, not just in what he released, but also in preserving a mystique about himself. I do think there is a philosophical question as to how much mystique there is to be preserved in the wake of his death, how much of his unreleased music should be released now.
I’m so glad you’re going there, because I have really thought deeply about it. I didn’t want to just go blindly without a philosophy to guide me, and I assume that others who are working with his legacy feel the same as me. Here’s what I came to: Prince was really, really smart. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And I’ve had the personal experience of watching him erase the tapes that he didn’t want released. He had to have known that after he passed away, all of [his unreleased work] would be accessible to people. He could’ve done that editing in advance, he could’ve wiped stuff out, and knowing him, he would have.
My best hunch is that he was okay with this. My best hunch is that he was okay with being known in a different way after his passing. The secrecy, the enigma that he cloaked himself with, served his professional goals. It served his image. He needed it. But after he’s gone, there’s no need for that. So now we have a new mandate, and I firmly believe that the mandate is to understand him. I could be completely wrong, but he didn’t leave instructions, so that’s just my best guess.
My own personal thesis is that the tapes that ended up in the vault were not in the vault because they’re lesser musically or instrumentally, they’re just not as good lyrically, or in some cases they’re as good lyrically but they’re statements that he didn’t want to release. He didn’t want people to know about them just yet. He may have personally thought they weren’t as interesting. I’m thinking of things like “Splash” or “Sexual Suicide” or “Witness for the Prosecution.” All this fun stuff we would do that was killing musically. “Data Bank” was fun stuff. Lyrically, those things weren’t deep enough for him. He regarded his albums so highly, he would choose something like “Tamborine,” which is more innovative lyrically, on the Around the World in a Day album, than he would another funk piece that was just silly lyrics.
Did you engineer every single recording he did during that time that you were with him [1983 to late 1987]?
There were some exceptions, but most I did. I was his full-time employee, and he recorded every day, so that meant getting up in the morning and going wherever he was to do work. And that work would be making records at home or in Los Angeles at Sunset Sound, or it would be going on tour. Often he would record in studios after the show, or he’d record in a mobile truck, or he’d record on a movie set. When we were in the south of France [for the filming of Under the Cherry Moon], we had a mobile truck from London come and just be parked on the movie set so I could be doing editing and mixing, and he could be recording during those two-hour-long lunch breaks. Sometimes he went out to Sunset Sound, and he left me at home to take care of things, like work with the Time, or work with Bonnie Raitt in one instance, or do that kind of work, but for the most part, I was with him everyday and we were recording together
Did he let you know that you were doing a good job?
He did. In fact, [one] night, when I was up all night—it might’ve been 4, 5 in the morning, and I’m all by myself at the warehouse, and I’m wiring [a new console], he came down with Sheila E. And he wouldn’t give us direct praise, it wasn’t his style, but he’d give you indirect praise. And then he said to Sheila, in front of me, “Susan is the only one who gets me. Susan knows what I’m about.” And I knew, I can read between the lines, what he’s saying is, “Thank you, I appreciate this.” But he couldn’t say, “Thank you, I appreciate this.” So you have to say something with some hyperbole. I knew what he meant.
Was there a downside, though? Was he completely even, or did he ever lash out and argue?
Oh yeah, he could be a real asshole, and he knew it, by his own admission. If he was in a bad mood, one look from him would peel paint. But he wasn’t the kind of petulant rock star who threw things and was destructive. He wasn’t unpredictable in his anger. He was unpredictable in other things. He’d decide all of a sudden, wake up in the morning and decide he wanted to go to Paris that afternoon, or wanted to play a show at First Avenue. But it’s not like his anger could turn on a dime. It’s not like he was in a good mood and next thing you know he’s in a bad mood. He wasn’t like that. He was stable emotionally. When I knew him, he was 25, 26 years old, and the pressure that kid was under, and he handled that all by himself.
So sometimes he’d be in a really dark mood. And when he’d be in a dark mood, he’d get really quiet, and really terse, and those days were terrible. They were just awful in the studio. And I remember one of those days, he barely said a word to me. And then he asked me to wait outside while he was doing a vocal. And he knew he was being an asshole, so I had my things and I went outside, and he stopped me and he says, “Don’t worry, I still like you.” I’m like, “I know, Prince, I know. You’re great.” I think this is one of the reasons why he liked working with women. I think a lot of us women have an emotional IQ where we find that tolerable. Like, “Yeah, okay, I understand what you...I understand you’re off-limits right now, on a human interaction level, and that’s okay. If you need to work, you need to work. Let’s just do this.”
I read that he hired you specifically because you’re a woman.
You never talked about it directly?
It was a bonus. I had five things I’ve identified that I had going for me, that made him lucky to have found me. One is that I was female. But the most important thing is that I was well qualified.
He asked his management to find him a technician. This is the story I was told. He said, “Get me someone from New York or L.A. I don’t want anybody local, I want someone who really knows what they’re doing.” But I was working in Los Angeles, I had been for some time, so I was an L.A. technician, really knew my stuff. I was female. I was a huge Prince fan. I had seen him play live so many times, had all of his records, I’d been into him from day one, from the first album. And the other thing was, I knew what street he lived on. I listened to the same music he did. I had the same Sly Stone records, Parliament records, James Brown records...I knew the musical street and his musical frame of reference, because I had the same records. That was the music I enjoyed. And then last but not least, I could match him with stamina. I could stay up. So, to find someone who had all those qualities was very, very rare...it’s very rare to have female engineers, but it’s even more rare to have female maintenance techs. It didn’t occur to me until he died, I mean, all this time, I thought of myself as how lucky I was to go to work for him, but in talking about our relationship, I’ve come to realize he was pretty damn lucky to get somebody who was pretty well-suited to work for him.
Did he pay you well versus the industry standard?
Oh yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was generous. His employees, like me, we got a weekly salary, and I’m happy with mine. It was good. Yeah, he was generous.
When people talk about the vault, so much of it has been circulating in bootleg form. Can you give any sort of estimate on what people haven’t heard? Is there stuff like “Electric Intercourse,” which it seems like nobody even knew there was a studio version of that before it was released officially last year? Is there an abundance of stuff that even the most diehards don’t know about?
The most diehards, in their own words, what they said to me, through a very memorable Skype conversation: “We have everything.” I have come to learn that they have basically everything. There’s a group of super collectors who have been exchanging tapes for a long time. The quality of these tapes is in many cases, most cases, really bad. Really, really bad. Copy of a copy of a copy of a weak cassette to begin with. But there’s way more out there than I ever imagined in my life, in my wildest dreams. But that’s the core circle. What the periphery of those circles has heard, I really don’t know. I’m clueless about that. When I first started giving interviews, I assumed that there was 50, 60 percent of the material in the vault that people had never heard, but I was really naive. I had no idea how deep the collectors’ market was. I also had no idea of the leaks. I know some of the people responsible for those leaks. It’s a crying shame, but they were members not of Prince’s inner circle, but the first circle around him who managed to leak a lot of material during the ’80s and ’90s, and that’s a real shame.
There was a rumored full album that he was working on between 1999 and Purple Rain; it was not Purple Rain but described as the sequel to 1999. That sort of thing doesn’t exist? There aren’t full albums, full musical statements, to your knowledge?
No, he didn’t work like that. Albums came together through some trial and error. So he was always recording, unlike most artists, he was always recording. When he believed he had a cogent album, a cogent statement, he’d have me or Peggy McCreary or whoever was working, he’d sequence Side A and Side B of a record. Sometimes we’d get it mastered, at Grundman Mastering in Hollywood and we’d listen to side A and side B, and quite often then he’d take it apart. He’d pull songs off, put them back in their original boxes, and then at a later date when more material was written, sequence another album. So albums were always coming together and then coming apart. Each record contains a kernel, a seed, of the most important songs on the record. Other songs are then chosen to complement that seed. So for example, on Sign ‘o’ the Times, the core songs are of course “Sign ‘o’ the Times,” “The Cross,” “U Got the Look.” Maybe “Housequake,” but songs like “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and “Slow Love,” “It,” and “Forever in My Life,” those are just segue scenes to tie together the main action of the album.
In my opinion, there was a pretty steep drop-off in the quality of Prince’s writing and production—I’d say there was before 1996 and after 1996, though I know fans disagree on the precise time of the drop-off (or whether there was one at all). Do you agree with that? And if you do, do you have any theories as to why?
That’s common. And Prince wasn’t common in many ways, but he was just like everybody else in that sense. There’s another thing going on as well that I only came to realize recently. I’ve been giving invited talks recently on the neurobiology of creativity, and it’s not my main area of focus as a scientist so I’ve had to do some research on it. And I uncovered something that I felt was kind of interesting. When we talk about creativity in the brain sciences, there’s really two kinds. There’s the creativity that occurs as a flash of insight, and that’s usually where a mathematician or a scientist lives. So a mathematician will have those big equations on the board, and just be staring at them and staring at them, or a scientist will be just puzzling and puzzling over something, and then suddenly: “Aha!” You have that “Eureka!” moment, and your genius comes in a flash of insight. That’s the creativity, and the rest is the craftsmanship, just massaging that equation to see if it supports your insight.
But the other kind of creativity is the one that unfolds over days, or weeks, or months, or even years. That’s the kind that writers and sculptors and painters and most musicians employ. So when musicians write a song, you usually have the basic elements, you’ve got the chord changes, the melody, the lyrics. And then they’ll demo it, and then they’ll take a long time in the recording studio to change the arrangements and get that work just right. So it’s small bits of creativity over a long period of time, to get that work just right. But Prince was unusual in that he was much more like a mathematician. The reason he had to work so many long hours and work so quickly is, it was like he could hear an entire song, the arrangement and everything, completed in his head. And we’d have to work really fast so it wouldn’t escape his head. So we’d go drums and bass and keys and guitar and vocal, bam bam bam bam bam. He’d finish that up in 24 hours, so he’d be done, he’d get his usual four hours of sleep, then we’d go again. And again and again and again. So that degree of output for such a long time, just like any mathematician, is bound to diminish in time. It’s just bound to diminish. Those circuits don’t fire as fast as they once did, as we get older. So as he got older, again in keeping with the work of most scientists and mathematicians, he began building on the work he had laid down when he was young. Now I think a lot of other musical artists you can probably find examples of that, slow growth is real growth. And they have their youthful artistic expressions but they’re slowly adding to it and building and refining it. I just watched a documentary on David Bowie recently, he seemed like he was one of those kinds of artists. A slow, methodical artistic thinker. But Prince was more spontaneous and quick. So I think his original ideas burnt out faster. And then of course there was, on that parallel track, his personal life. There was the disappointment, and the tragedy of losing his child, he was just having a rough time in the ‘90s I think, slowed him down.
Why did you stop working with Prince?
Well we’d had a long tour of duty, and a few things converged. [His studio] Paisley Park, the doors were finally open in 1987, so now for the first time since I joined him, in Minnesota, at home, we could have more than one studio going. So now we could have a staff of people, and Paisley Park hired some second engineers. Now there were people to take over and I didn’t have to work those long nights. But really what it came down to was that I had had no personal life going on for five years. I hadn’t seen my family. I was all about him, about serving him. I couldn’t sustain that anymore; I needed to have an independent life. And he recognized that. Our way of working together had come to an end, with Paisley Park’s doors open. It was a natural time for me to transition into my new career, and for him to move onto a new working style with other people.
We talked about your mission of talking about him now, but to have your legacy just completely intertwined with his, to the degree that when people ask you questions, myself included, they’re asking questions about somebody else. Is that a little frustrating or dehumanizing or pigeonholing at all to you, as a human?
Oh, no no no. Not at all. It was such a rare privilege to work with him. And remember, I joined him as a Prince fan. So I understand what Prince fans wanna hear. Every minute that I was working with him, I was aware of how lucky I was. And what I was getting to see and what I was getting to hear. So of course I understand that other people would be curious about that: “Tell us where you’ve been, tell us what you saw, tell us what you heard.” It’s a joy to share that remarkable thing, because it was remarkable to get to observe someone who’s such a rare bird.
The difficulty for me, and I know Wendy and Lisa talked about something similar, is talking with us today about our time with Prince, is asking us to visit a time when we were young, we didn’t know much, and when I talk about those times, that puts me psychologically back there in that place, where I’m young and I’m just trying desperately to keep up and do a good job and not make any mistakes. But today, I’m nearly 62 years old, I have a PhD, I’ve produced hit records, I’m an awarded teacher, I’ve got lots of accomplishments. So the person who’s talking with you today is a different person from the person who saw and knew Prince. It’s extremely important, when I talk about Prince, that I respect how time has changed things, and I try to be as accurate as possible talking about him from that time, from the ‘80s. “That’s what I saw, that’s what I think, that’s what I felt then.” It would be so so easy to revise history. It would be so easy. And it would be really easy to put my ego in there. It would be really easy, for all of us. I’m determined not to. None of this is about me. This is about him.
Being a woman sound engineer is relatively rare. Have you dealt with misogyny? How evident was it that those cards were stacked against you while you were doing your job?
There were enough people who wanted to work with women and sought them out, that for 22 years in the music business, I did quite well. I rarely encountered misogyny. I encountered it, but the men who believed that women weren’t as capable of other men, they didn’t go looking to hire me. So if I got offers to record an album or produce an album or mix an album, to work with people, it was because people were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. ‘Cause they wanted me. So I had really good times. I also am not the kind of women who attracted trespassing. I don’t know why. But I did not attract some of the stories that we hear about in the #MeToo movement. I don’t know why, I’m not like aggressive, I’m not mean. [Laughs] Maybe my demeanor suggested, “This woman wouldn’t know if you were flirting with her if you spelled it out.” Really, I was so focused on the work. I had great times with wonderful men and wonderful women in the business. There were a couple of stories that involved unwanted advances, but being a 100 percent honest, they ended up okay. The advances were unwanted, I said, “No, no, that is not welcome.” In those cases, the man took no for an answer, and it ended up being funny. It ended up being a good story. So I don’t have traumas associated with the music business.
Now that said, I’m pretty sure that there may have been more that one occasion where I was paid less than what a man would have been paid for the same job. And I’m pretty sure that had I been male, I would have been known as a superstar engineer at the very least. Because of the halo that is around especially white men, just this halo effect, the white male nerd would be poster boy for engineers. I’m white, I’m a nerd, I’m a true engineer in that I have an engineering type mind, but being female, I didn’t fit the mold. So I think my career probably would have been a little different if I were male but I have no way of knowing that, it’s just a guess.
Do you have any theories as to why there were, and still continue to be, so few women doing that work?
Boy, I sure would like to know the answer to that. Here at Berklee, the ratio of women in music production and engineering, the department I teach in, is one or two out of ten. So it’s anywhere between 10 and 20 percent that are female. Sometimes, every now and then, it’ll go up as high as 25 percent. And that’s people who applied to this major. So the majority of women, it’s safe to say, are not interested in pursuing this major. Out of the women who get in, their performance levels are, I think, exactly the same as men. The same proportion of women are excellent, or good, or fair, or not too good—the same proportions as what you find in the men.
I think there is of course that biological constraint. Your career is going to peak, if you stay in it long enough as a record maker, in your 40's—usually your mid-40's. And unfortunately just when you’re getting a purchase on your career, just when you’re getting a name, things are starting to go well, that’s the time when a woman’s eggs are going to expire. And that’s really rough. Men don’t have to deal with that in their 30's, but women have to. We face a biological fork in the road in our mid-30's, when we have to decide whether or not we can fit reproduction into the equation of our careers. It’s an issue for us, but not for men. It’s a tough one, I know a lot of women who dropped out just at the point where their careers were starting to take off. I know women who thought that they would temporarily drop out to have kids, and then they would come back in, and it’s just so tough to get back into it. And then there’s people like me and Sylvia Massy and Leanne Ungar, who opted to not have children. So that we could keep going.
On that note, Berklee has announced it is offering an online Master’s degree program. Susan Rogers will be teaching Psychoacoustics in Music Production.