Susan Rogers was Prince's sound engineer on albums including Purple Rain and Sign o' the Times. It was four years of her life that left a huge impression, she tells Tony Stamp.
Susan Rogers was working as a studio tech for Crosby Stills and Nash when she got the call. A musician known as Prince, still in his early twenties, had put out an ad for a technician, and was specifically after someone from New York or Los Angeles. Susan fit the bill. And what’s more, she was already a huge Prince fan.
She got the gig. And soon found herself transitioning from technician to studio engineer.
“In the normal working world that never would have happened” she tells me, “technicians were typecast as people who worked behind the scenes and didn’t make an artistic contribution. When I went to work for Prince, once the studio was up and running, he had me put up a tape, and I expected an engineer to walk in. Then he asked me to put up a vocal mic, and I asked him ‘who’s going to record it?’, and he said ‘you!’”
Susan is talking to me at Roundhead Studios in Auckland, where she’s been invited to take part in SongHubs Sphere, mentoring and producing New Zealand talent. The previous night I’d seen her regale an audience for several hours with stories about the Purple One. She worked with him a long time ago; between 1983 and ’87, but it’s a period of her life that has, understandably, left a big impression.
“I was a companion skill set. Prince was so deep in his talent that he didn’t need a producer. He didn’t need other songwriters. The people that he had in his life (during the period I knew him), were ideally suited to add something to his repertoire that he did not have. I was in charge of quality control; in charge of shaping sounds so the story was captured in the way he wanted it captured. I had a skill set that he didn’t have.”
At her seminar the night prior Susan told a story about one marathon studio session that lasted ninety six hours. It ended when she told Prince she literally couldn’t stay on her feet anymore. That was the longest stretch, but it wasn’t unusual. When the creativity was flowing he could go for days at a time, and it was her job to ensure that his output made it to tape.
Susan is often told how fortunate she is to have worked with such a great artist, but it must be said that Prince got pretty lucky too.
“All these years I have been aware of how fortunate I was, and grateful that these events happened to me. But after his passing, when I began doing interviews, I started counting the number of ways I added what he needed, and I realised there were a lot of ways.
“He liked working with women. One of the reasons he liked it was we would not challenge him for that alpha dominant position. The man just didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with that; with anyone competing with him. Women were less inclined to compete for dominance in a professional situation.
“I had the skillset he needed and then some. I had the stamina to stay up all night. And then two other things: I’d been a Prince fan since the very beginning and had all his music. And I knew his frame of reference – I listened to the same music he did. So he could reference any RnB or soul band, and I knew those references.
“To find all that in one person would’ve been pretty hard”.
The marathon bouts of recording were mainly due to Prince’s huge creative output, but they fall into context when you consider the pressure he was facing. I ask Susan if he was feeling any from Warner Brothers.
“Can you imagine what it would feel like” she responds, “to be a poor kid who had to leave home at age fourteen because your mother remarried a stepfather who was cruel to you and would lock you in a room? Dad wouldn’t take you in; you had to live with a best friend when you were fifteen years old.
“You’ve got nowhere to go, so you go to a recording studio owned by Owen Husney, and he lets you sleep in the studio. You get to learn how the studio works, and start making your music, the music you’ve been writing since you were a little kid. And you get signed to a record deal through some good providence and a little bit of help.
“The next thing you know you’re twenty three years old, and you’re a millionaire. And you’ve got employees.
“And that kid (and let me go ahead and call him a kid, ‘cause he was), had a powerfully strong work ethic.
“When he was puzzled by a business decision he would say ‘we put bread on people’s tables’. He always said ‘we’. Meaning the work we’re doing; the things we’re making. ‘We need to keep this train running, ‘cause people are depending on us’.
“He took his work very seriously. He was a working man more than anything else, and what he loved most about making records and being in this business was the actual work.
“So of course he felt the pressure. It had to have been enormous.
“When this happens to a young rock star, this is the point where they often slide into drugs or bacchanalia or bad behaviours, and their lives can spin out of control. They almost WANT them to spin out of control because they can’t hang on. [Things are] moving so quickly.”
Susan now has a doctorate in psychology, specialising in music cognition, and works as a professor at Berkley College of Music. So looking back she has a unique vantage point to assess Prince’s creativity.
“His creativity came very quickly, and unlike most of us, the gate didn’t close. Literally – it’s a brain structure on the right hemisphere, and when we’re creating there’s an inhibitory circuit that gets opened, so that the brakes are not on, so that ideas flow.
“So as soon as we get an idea we go ‘ah ha’, and then for cognitive efficiency that circuit closes- the brakes kick in, and then you go from art to craft. So you go from thinking what you were going to do, to now doing it.
“But with Prince, his craft was so impeccable he needed a new idea quicker than most. His ‘gate’ stayed open longer, and could reopen after closure much quicker than anyone else.”
Prince is the rare pop star who became so ubiquitous he infiltrated most of our lives. He’s remembered less as a man than a deity. I ask Susan for a memory of him at his most human.
“I’m tempted to say ‘in the studio’, because he was doing the thing he loved the most, but that would be an egocentric answer, because I pretty much only saw him when we were recording. There were exceptions, you know, he had parties and things like that, we’d go to the movies together, ride around in the car listening to music…”
I comment that the idea of Prince going to the movies is something of a novelty.
“Oh we had so much fun! He would rent out a movie theatre. I remember [seeing] “Ferris Buellers Day Off” and “Terms Of Endearment”. The whole crew would go.
“I remember him yelling funny things at the screen a couple of times, but it didn’t happen that often. He didn’t need to own the room.
“He’d throw parties and we’d play pool and ping-pong. He was loving, and he was fun and funny, but bear in mind, all the people he was surrounded by were getting a pay check from him.
"So there was a power imbalance. He knew it, we knew it. And it was awkward, ‘cause you love this man so much, and you know he loves you, but you keep a barrier between you, so you can maintain the reason why you were there. Which was: to work with him.”