The Creationists

Creating Sign O' The Times with Susan Rogers

December 16, 2020 Steve Waxman Season 3 Episode 3
The Creationists
Creating Sign O' The Times with Susan Rogers
Chapters
The Creationists
Creating Sign O' The Times with Susan Rogers
Dec 16, 2020 Season 3 Episode 3
Steve Waxman

Prince fans will instantly recognize the name Susan Rogers.  She is the stalwart engineer that worked beside Prince during the commercial peak of his career from Purple Rain through to Sign O’ The Times

By the time Susan had come to work with Prince he was already being referred to as a musical wunderkind thanks to five critically acclaimed albums including 1999, which had just become his first record to enjoy total and complete crossover from R&B to Pop, peaking at number 9 on the Billboard Top 200. The first project she worked on was his commercial blockbuster, Purple Rain. But, despite critical acclaim, chart topping albums and universal admiration from his musical peers, Prince had not yet felt that he had made a statement album. That all changed in 1987 with the release of Sign O’ The Times.

Read the full interview at imstevewaxman.com

The expanded box set of Sign O’ The Times is available now and is well worth the journey for anyone interested in great music, whether or not you’ve been a Prince fan your whole life.  In addition to the studio gems Susan talks about in this episode, there is a live recording of the Sign O’ The Times tour in Utrecht in the Netherlands which captures the incredible power of Prince live in concert.

Please follow The Creationists podcast on Facebook and Instagram

The Creationists is mastered in post production by Paul Farrant.



Show Notes Transcript

Prince fans will instantly recognize the name Susan Rogers.  She is the stalwart engineer that worked beside Prince during the commercial peak of his career from Purple Rain through to Sign O’ The Times

By the time Susan had come to work with Prince he was already being referred to as a musical wunderkind thanks to five critically acclaimed albums including 1999, which had just become his first record to enjoy total and complete crossover from R&B to Pop, peaking at number 9 on the Billboard Top 200. The first project she worked on was his commercial blockbuster, Purple Rain. But, despite critical acclaim, chart topping albums and universal admiration from his musical peers, Prince had not yet felt that he had made a statement album. That all changed in 1987 with the release of Sign O’ The Times.

Read the full interview at imstevewaxman.com

The expanded box set of Sign O’ The Times is available now and is well worth the journey for anyone interested in great music, whether or not you’ve been a Prince fan your whole life.  In addition to the studio gems Susan talks about in this episode, there is a live recording of the Sign O’ The Times tour in Utrecht in the Netherlands which captures the incredible power of Prince live in concert.

Please follow The Creationists podcast on Facebook and Instagram

The Creationists is mastered in post production by Paul Farrant.



I clearly remember the first time I heard Prince’s single “1999.” I had just graduated from New York University and the song was blasting out into Washington Square Park while a guy roller skated around his boombox.  I was already a fan but I soon considered the album 1999 the best of his career. I had no idea that the best was yet to come.

Prince fans will instantly recognize the name Susan Rogers.  She is the stalwart engineer that worked beside Prince during the commercial peak of his career from Purple Rain through to Sign O’ The Times

By the time Susan had come to work with Prince he was already being referred to as a musical wunderkind thanks to five critically acclaimed albums including 1999, which had just become his first record to enjoy total and complete crossover from R&B to Pop, peaking at number 9 on the Billboard Top 200. The first project she worked on was his commercial blockbuster, Purple Rain. But, despite critical acclaim, chart topping albums and universal admiration from his musical peers, Prince had not yet felt that he had made a statement album. That all changed in 1987 with the release of Sign O’ The Times.

* * *

Steve Waxman:  So, how did you first come to be working with Prince?

Susan Rogers: I’m from Southern California. In 1978 I left a very abusive marriage.  I got married when I was seventeen and it was very abusive.  I got out and escaped and I started my career.  I moved forty-five minutes away to Hollywood and started studying, studying audio electronics and studying to be a maintenance service technician so that I could have a place where records were being made. So that I could be involved in this music business, making records. I just loved records so much and I’m not a musician and I wanted to be a part of it somehow.  That seemed to be an indisputable passcode. Gender was an issue back then, as it is now.  You just didn’t see that many women engineers.  You certainly didn’t see any women producers. But, I wanted to be in the room and being an audio technician is indisputable. The machine doesn’t care whether you have an X or a Y chromosome there.  Just fix me. So, I began my career in Hollywood and worked for a company called Audio Industries Corporation and I was a service technician for MCI consoles and tape machines in the greater Los Angeles area. It was fantastic but after a few years I went to work for Crosby Stills and Nash at their Hollywood studio as their maintenance tech. But then the audio professional grapevine lit up with the news that this upstart, this Prince fella who lived in Minnesota, was looking for a technician and they wanted someone who was willing to leave Hollywood and move to Minnesota and be a full-time tech for this guy who many of the techs had never heard of. But, as soon as I heard about that job, I knew that it was meant for me. He was my favourite artist in the world.  He especially enjoyed working with women.  He asked for a technician and not an engineer and that's what I was. So I did an interview, got the job, packed my bags and off I went.

Steve Waxman: What record would that have been after?

Susan Rogers: This was after 1999. So, he was just coming off the 1999 tour. He didn’t tour Controversy.  Not in California, anyway. But, I had seen him on the Dirty Mind tour.  I had seen him on the 1999 tour.  I was such a huge fan.  I had all of his records. He really was my favourite artist. And he came home from the tour and he had big plans. So, when he came home from that tour, he was twenty-four years old. It didn’t seem all that young then but when I think of it now. Anyway, he’s twenty-four years old and he’s planning something utterly outrageous. He’s planning his sixth major label album.  Who does that at age twenty-four? Very few people. And, more audacious than that, he has just received the green light to do a semi-autobiographical movie of his life. (laughs) He’s twenty-four! And Warner Brothers just believed in him so much, they just said ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ So he had already started the process of the Purple Rain movie and he had already started the process of the album and knew he needed a full-time tech to keep his home studio running and to help facilitate these two endeavours.

Steve Waxman: I feel like I need to share with you my Prince story. 

Susan Rogers: Oh, yes.

Steve Waxman: I first became aware of Prince, I was going to NYU and my friend, Lory Gardner had a Dirty Mind poster up on the wall of her dorm room and I was like “Who is that?” “Oh, it’s Prince.  You have to listen to that.” And she put the record on and from that day forward, through the entire of the 1980s I listened to Prince, one way or another every single day of the 1980s. I was doing a podcast interview a couple of days ago for somebody else’s podcast and they asked me what my favourite song of all time was and I said “1999” and, by the way, in my estimation, Sign O’ The Times is the greatest album ever recorded. And that’s the reason I wanted to have this conversation with you because the era you worked with Prince was really interesting to me.  Not just in terms of the songs that he was writing because I think that songs that he was writing were incredible but the sounds that he was putting on these records were so unique as a pop artist and I wanted to find out the story behind some of the choices that were made because he influenced so many people and yet nobody could ever sound like Prince. 

Susan Rogers: (laughing) Yeah, well that was a little bit deliberate. I remember one time, I was trying to encourage him to do what everyone else was doing and get an SSL, a Solid State Logic console that we could have automation and we could do automated mixes and we could have more control over our sound.  I’m trying to persuade him and he said “We don’t sound like anybody else, Susan.  We’ve got our own thing.” And he took pride in that. I’ve used the word audacious already but he was.  And yet, you know, there are folks in the arts that can only get so far on boldness.  Boldness needs to be calculated.  It needs to be strategic. You can’t just go out there and shock or be unusual just for the sake of being unusual. It needs to be strategic.  As the years go by and I’m exposed to more and more young people, because I teach at Berklee and I’m surrounded by young musicians, and as I’ve worked with other artists, with each passing year I’ve become more aware of just how unique Prince was.  He was extraordinary in so many ways.

Steve Waxman: In my opinion, Purple Rain was the culmination of everything he had done up to that point. In terms that it was the perfect album in that it capsulated everything he had done as an organic artist as well as an electronic artist. And then from Purple Rain through the next two records, at least in my ears, he seems to become sparser.  He started to strip back instruments.  So, I’m curious, before we get to Sign O’ The Times, in the studio, when you guys are sitting in the studio and you’ve come off Purple Rain, which is massive, and is a massive pop record, do you know, or does he know that he’s making a particular album or is he just recording music and then deciding what a record is?

Susan Rogers: He’s just recording music and deciding what a record is.  So, the way most people would do it, back in the olden days, today’s technology makes it possible to do it differently, but how we used to do it, you’d be touring your latest release and near the end of that tour you’d have to start thinking about transitioning to coming off the road and going into writing mode. And after writing mode, after you have a batch of songs, you sit down with your management and  your label and you find a producer and then you go into rehearsal and you do pre-production and then you make an album and when you’re done with that album you go into rehearsal for the tour and you start the whole process again. But, in those days, when everyone was working like that, Prince wasn’t. He needed to be recording everyday. So we recorded at rehearsal and he recorded at home.  He had a home studio. And we recorded when we were on tour, on the Purple Rain tour.  We were always either booking a studio for after the show or we were working with a mobile truck.  So he’s recording all of the time. And because he’s recording all of the time, there’s no definitive start to an album.  There was a definitive end point, of course when you finally sequence the record.  Which we sequenced albums many times and then he’d live with them for a couple of days and then take them apart and come up with a new sequence and new songs. But, anyway, you didn’t know when a record started.  What he was looking for was a concept.  Was a perspective. He loved albums more than singles.  He really spent so little energy on singles.  It was almost as though he didn’t care. That was why for the Around The World In A Day album he didn’t even pick one. He let DJs play whatever they wanted to play. What he loved making was albums and he loved the notion of the listeners having an experience that would have a beginning, a middle and an end. So he’d be kind of fishing for a theme.  For a notion. For a color scheme that would accompany the next record.  For a look.  For a worldview that would be the right move in the arc of his career. For Sign O’ The Times, that was a bit of a protracted effort. So, after he came home from the south of France from doing the Parade album and the movie, Under A Cherry Moon, he started an album called Dream Factory and the Revolution were featured on it. The Revolution broke up so he re-began the next process and started working on Crystal Ball. And we did quite a lot around this theme of Crystal Ball. He and Susannah (Melvoin), their relationship was getting more and more tense and Sheila E.’s band was coming into the fold.  Sheila’s band, from Oakland, had a different sound than Wendy and Lisa brought to Prince.  They brought the LA sound.  Sheila’s band were tougher and funkier.  So he had to have a record that worked well with that band behind him on tour.  So, gradually, the ideas that had been bubbling under the radar for Dream Factory, for Crystal Ball, found their way into music that was expressed on Sign O’ The Times. You mentioned earlier that you thought that Sign O’ The Times was the greatest album ever made. You’re the second journalist this week that said that to me. So I think that  a lot of people share that opinion.

Steve Waxman: I remember the first time I listened to the record.  As each song went by, I was amazed.  But it was at the end of “The Cross” that I made the proclamation to myself that this was the greatest album of all time. Because I’m a rock guy and “The Cross,” I’m not religious but I took it for what it was, meaning wise, it was so powerful in the way it built up. And, to me, it was so bold in how spare it was with the guitar and the sound of his voice.  And then when the song picks up at the end I was like ‘This is important.’ That’s what it felt like.  This is important and it made the whole album feel important.

Susan Rogers: Oh, that’s a wonderful way of describing it. I think that your instincts are spot on there. When we recorded that song, I got the sense that he thought it was important. You know, I’ve heard that Thelonious Monk said “The genius is the man who is most like himself.” Prince was so perfectly and sublimely himself. When he recorded, he tried so hard to make a direct connection with those listeners. That’s one of the reasons that enjoyed doing his vocals alone in the control room. Because, when there was no middle man, when he could sing directly, privately to his listeners, he was uninhibited and his vocal performance didn’t have to be filtered through another set of ears before it got to his listeners. So, I have said, I believe this is correct, he’s one of the most honest lyric writers you’ll ever know. He told you what he wanted you to know. Now, it was the full truth because so many songs were written and recorded and they ended up in the vault.  There was a lot that he kept to himself. A lot that he kept private. But, what he did share, you best believe that he meant what he said. These records were not calculated to necessarily dominate the Billboard Hot 100.  Not the singles chart.  He was deeply interested in albums and he was deeply interested in expressing himself to a core fanbase who wanted to hear from him. So, that did make him a very honest performer. The day that we did “The Cross” I was so surprised that he kept that drum track. I mean, the drum track just speeds up appallingly. You can have dynamics without speeding up. It just goes so fast and I thought ‘Okay, rewind the tape, we’re going to do that again’. And he was happy with it. And he added the other instruments and he was totally happy with it. And I’m thinking ‘I’ve never seen this before from Prince. I’ve never seen such an appalling lack of time on any Prince songs. This isn’t Prince.’ And yet it was Prince.  It was, as you picked up on, important.  And he was trying to let you know, ‘Here is what I believe. Here’s what I feel.  Here’s what I think. And, yeah I’m going to speed up because I don’t care about the rules right now.  I’ve just got something I want to say.’ And he said it.  And after we did that song he was in such a good mood.  He was so happy.  Now that happened fairly often when we did work.  He’d relieve something and he’d be in a good mood. But that was one that stood out to me because the atmosphere around Sign O’ The Times was not as youthful and energized and excited as it was around Purple Rain. It wasn’t as giddy as it was around Around The World In A Day. Because Around The World In A Day was done before Purple Rain was released for the most part.  We didn’t know how Purple Rain was going to do. It just felt right.  And the Parade album, he was  more accomplished.  But on Sign O’ The Times, now he’s approaching the age of thirty. Now he needs to make a man’s record, not a boy’s record. He can’t be talking about “lust,” he needs to talk about “love.” So, he’s maturing.  His worldview is maturing. And he’s well aware that rap and hip-hop are going to be dominating. They'll be dominating the charts now and he doesn’t do rap and hip-hop. So, it’s a man’s, I wouldn’t say swansong but a man establishing his legacy or in hopes of establishing his legacy.

Steve Waxman: Did he articulate to you before he went into the studio - he started with the drums on that track, right? 

Susan Rogers: Mmm hmm.

Steve Waxman: Did he articulate to you, before he recorded the song, what it was he wanted to accomplish so that you knew what kind of sounds he wanted this to be?

Susan Rogers: Mmm, no.

Steve Waxman: Even the sound of the guitar was particular.

Susan Rogers: The way it would work was, he would either call me if I was home asleep or he’d have someone call me and usually wake me up, because I usually only got a few hours of sleep. So it would be you weren’t ready for it but the phone would ring and it would either be Prince or it would be someone who worked for him and if it was Prince he would tell me what he wanted set up and I’d have a notepad and a pencil and I’d write everything down.  Now, if it was someone from the office who called, I’d get to the studio and sometimes, if it was the home studio, I would find a note sitting on the console. I even have one of them that’s in my bag of memories. A note on the console that said that we want acoustic drums or electric drums or we want this bass tone, we want this guitar tone.  We want acoustic piano or these keyboards. And, on the note that I have that's sitting in my closet, he says “We need a long reverb for the snare. For the piano,” he said, “We want a big big sound for the piano as opposed to a small percussive sound.” A big sound for the piano and blah-la-la-la all these things and down at the bottom he says “The faster you work, the more I can get done.” And then the last sentence is “Save my blood pressure, please.” So, his favourite way to work was to not communicate. And that’s why he would keep the same engineers around for such a long time because if you knew his methodology, and he seldom experimented with methodology, if you just could get the sounds that you knew he liked, that would work for him, he could come in and he could go from instrument to instrument to instrument without having to have a conversation. So, he was never likely to share his thoughts on what we were hoping to achieve sonically or emotionally or musically. He would say “This is the gear I need” and he would take it from there.

Steve Waxman: I heard the story of the recording of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and what’s funny about it, and I would like you to relay the story, because for me, as a listener, from the very first day I heard the record it’s like ‘Wow, this sounds like it was recorded underwater.’ So, if you could explain why it sounds the way it does.

Susan Rogers: Ah, jeez, yeah.  That was a day in the life of a technician. So, we’re at home in Chanhassen, Minnesota in Prince’s new house on Galpin Rd. in Chanhassen, which was just down the street from where Paisley Park Studios would ultimately be built. And a year or so before, he had ordered a custom built recording console from a fella named Frank DiMedio out in Los Angeles.  DiMedio made the best analog consoles in the world, arguably. But Prince loved the one that DiMedio built for Sunset Sound so he wanted the same thing.  So he commissioned Frank to build it and it was taking too long.  With Prince everything had to go so fast. So, at some point, Prince just said “Get that console and that guy on a plane.  Get them to Minnesota and get this guy to finish the console here in my home studio where I can watch him everyday.  I want this done.” He was so impatient. We had just come home from the south of France and he was so impatient and he just wanted it done.  So Frank and the console came out and we spent that time doing the final implementation and soldering and installation and all that and we tested it and it looked great. It was flat from DC, direct current, all the way up to 70K.  I mean this thing could swing some current.  It was just gorgeous.  I had never seen anything like it. Frank gets on a plane.  He goes home, but it was quite hasty. So, the next morning, I don’t remember who called me but I get the call. ‘Come to the studio. Prince has got a song.  Hurry, hurry, hurry. Set up this, that and the other thing.’ And he comes in and he can’t wait to record. And as soon as we start with the drum machine I’m recognizing, oh, something’s wrong here. I don’t know what it is but the console shouldn’t sound like this, there’s no high end.  And I’m thinking ‘Okay, well, he’s going to stop.’ Because just like with “The Cross” he hears this of course so he’s going to stop.  Right? He’s going to give me a minute to look to see what’s wrong. He didn’t stop! I remember, when my niece was born, the first time they were feeding her solid food, her mother and her aunt didn’t know how much food a baby eats so they just kept feeding her and feeding her and feeding her and she ate the whole jar. And they thought ‘What if she wants more?’ So they opened another jar and she wouldn’t stop eating. And it reminded me of that because he just wouldn’t stop recording. And we went through all of the instruments. He’s doing the vocal and with each passing instrument I’m thinking ‘This is getting worse and worse and worse.’ I’m sure that it’s going to tape like that.  We’re listening to the output of the tape.  This is bad.  It sounds like it's underwater. And he would not stop and I thought to myself ‘If I stop him, he’s waited so long to do this. He ‘s so happy right now. He’s just in his happy place. And this is turning out great.  This song is amazing. I can’t stop him.  I can’t stop him.’ So I didn’t say anything. And he kept going and we finally printed a mix and he gave me some instructions and then he said “I like this console. Kinda dull.” And then he left the room. And I thought ‘Oh my god. I am so relieved.’ And that was so funny.  And sure enough, I grab the muti-meter and I look at the power supplies and there are two power supplies, one for the positive and one for the negative in an analog console like that and one of the power supplies had gone down. So we were swinging only half the current that we would normally swing and that was going to affect your high frequencies. But, it was okay.  One of those happy accidents because the song came to him in a dream.  And in this dream, lyrically, he meets someone.  He meets someone who’s intriguing. And yet, it might lead to a sexual interaction but he’s saying “Okay, I’ll take a bath but I’m leaving my pants on cause I’m kinda going with someone.” Now, in his life right now, in his relationship, he and Susannah were living together and they were engaged. And he had made this commitment to her to be with her exclusively as you do when you get married. And there was tension there. He was not sure that he could do it. And that found its way into his dream. ‘I’m going to stay true to my word. I said I would be faithful.  I’m going to be faithful but this is tough.’ When you think about the lyrics in that song, he goes to a restaurant, this is a young black man from Minneapolis who goes to a restaurant and says ‘Yeah, let me get a fruit cocktail.  I’m not too hungry.’ A fruit cocktail! (laughing) No this is in a year when the Bloods and the Crips are shooting it out in the major cities in the United States. Where young black men his age are joining gangs and terrorizing people and there’s carjackings and all kinds of stuff going on and this guy’s going to a restaurant and saying ‘Oh, I think I’ll have a fruit cocktail.’ He was so unique and so okay with himself.  So okay with who he was.

Steve Waxman: You brought up the gangs and, actually, that ties into “Sign O’ The Times” because as flippant as he might be he was obviously completely tied in to what was happening around the world. And “Sign O’ The Times” was a call to all of us.  I mean, again, as I mentioned, “1999” was very specific and, you know, ‘Let’s party before this all ends.’ And in “Sign O’ The Times” he’s talking about ‘This world’s on fire.’

Susan Rogers: Right. I love the line “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” That was Rock Hudson. And for anyone who was young and sexually active at that time, AIDS may have been someone else’s problem a few years back but it was abundantly clear that it was everyone’s problem now. And that was pretty scary. So there was AIDS and Susannah Melvoin has told the story that there was an earthquake in Los Angeles where she and Prince were staying in a hotel and he was really and literally and figuratively rattled by that earthquake. Being from Minnesota, he wasn’t used to that. That earthquake was pretty scary. And then there was the gang violence right outside our doors.  And there was the Challenger that had just exploded. And then there was the coming tsunami of a sea change in music.  As popular music always does.  It changes every few years. And not only is there a sea change in music but his life is changing. The Revolution is on their way out. His relationship may, or may not, last. That’s kind of scary when you realize ‘You know, if I was going to marry anyone it would be you and I don’t think I can do it.’ A lot of changes going on in his life at that point which would lead him to reflect on what it means for himself and for others. 

Steve Waxman: When you are not involved in pre-production, because I guess these songs are just happening right in front of you as recording is happening, at what point are you cognisant of what the song is?

Susan Rogers: Well, you have a sense of what it is, surely, before the lyrics go on. There seemed to be three kinds of varieties and the ones he did the most easily, the ones that just came out like a sneeze were the more uptempo dance tracks. Typically, in the days of The Revolution, we would record those at rehearsal. They were just so much fun and we had a recording set up at rehearsal so the individual band members would come up with their parts and Prince would be the band director and we’d do this fun stuff. These fun, fun dance jams. And he could do that by himself.  He was a genius at programming a drum machine so you got the sense from the get go the mood of this song.  He wouldn’t usually write those in advance.  He’d have chord changes.  He’d have a riff. He’d have a groove.  But half way through he’d stop, make a cassette of it, take it out to the car, take his notebook, he liked writing lyrics in the car, and he’d sit in the car, write lyrics, come back in, do the vocal and we’d wrap it up. But, for the bigger, more important songs, often he will have written them before we came to the studio. Especially piano ballads. They would have a melody and a chord progression and they’d have a full set of lyrics. So, as we began approaching them, whether it was on acoustic drums or drum machine, he knew in advance.  The lyrics would be sitting right there and I could see it too. We knew what this song was going to be about and how it’s going to come together.  I can now be dialing in reverbs and compressors and limiters and delays and sound effects as the song is coming together. Knowing what he likes, I know the safe zone of pulling in sounds he will find appealing and I can add a few novel things but you couldn’t do anything that was experimental because you couldn’t slow him down. Often though I wouldn’t know what the topic was until I heard the vocal. And after he would do the vocal, I would come back into the room, and that's when you begin the embellishment on a track. And you let it turn a corner, if it’s going to turn a corner. If it’s going to end up in the vault, you finish it up quickly. Put it away.  But, if it’s an important song, we’d spend a lot of time going through different patches and different timbres and different tones.  Not experimenting, the way we’d do with other artists.  He knew what he wanted. But refining, I suppose would be the better word to get that song to be all that it could be.  He didn’t want to let a good one get away so he’d slow down and take a little extra care with it.

Steve Waxman: So, a song like “Hot Thing” that is just a full on jam, did that start with a drum machine or was that one of the tracks that was written in rehearsal?

Susan Rogers: Now, that one in particular I do not remember. I remember “It” and I remember “Forever In My Life.” Drum machines, fairly similar setups.  Done at home.  “Hot Thing” I honestly don’t remember if we did that at Sunset Sound or if we did that at home,  It was pretty much all Prince though.  I do know that.

Steve Waxman: And then brought in the horns later?

Susan Rogers: And then the horns came in later.  Eric Leeds was a very big part of the Sign O’ The Times album. So, with The Revolution going out and Sheila E.’s band coming in, Eric was such a good musical partner for Prince. Prince loved his ideas and prince would often call Eric to the studio, give him suggestions for a horn part, or just let him take it.  And then Prince would leave and Eric and I would work together as Eric layered horn parts. Sometimes he knew he wanted trumpet so he’d bring in Matt Blistan as well. 

Steve Waxman: So, I am curious.  I know that he handed in to Warner Brothers Crystal Ball as a three album set and they said “You’ve got to cut this down.” So I’m wondering, how much of this was on Crystal Ball?  I’m also wondering how many of these songs may have existed earlier on or were these all written around the same time?

Susan Rogers: So when Prince was conceiving of Crystal Ball, and the same as when he was conceiving any record that he ever did, you always think of four to six songs that are going to be the kernel, the seed, the main songs, the message on that album. Just as if you’re doing a television program. You’ve got your main dramatic scene but your other scenes are of course just seque scenes that have to tie the narrative together. That;’s how he thought of albums. So, once he knew what the main songs were, the other songs would be chosen to complement that kernel, that seed. A main song, surely, was “Crystal Ball.” But when that came off the table, other songs that complemented that like “Witness 4 The Prosecution” and “Big Tall Wall” and “Train,” which I love so much, a lot of things, “In A Large Room With No Light,” those had to come off the table. It wasn’t until he recorded the song “Sign O’ The Times,” I believe, that he knew what his next record would be. I think that he was searching a little bit prior to the recording of the song “Sign O’ The Times” but that song, it seemed obvious that you could build an album, and a concept album to boot, around this song. Other songs that were important on Sign O’ The Times were “The Cross” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Adore.” And, for reasons that were a little more calculated than he normally does, “U Got The Look.” I think that at some point he started to worry that he might not have a single and he was going to need one.  At least the Parade album had “Kiss” and that was a successful single for him. Around The World In A Day didn’t have a single so we spent a lot of time on “U Got The Look,” I think, in hopes of getting that one over the finish line. And then he pulled an oldy out of the closest and that was “Strange Relationship.” We had been working on “Strange Relationship” for years at rehearsals and various places just trying to figure out what’s the best treatment for this song which was unusual for Prince.  He didn’t normally do that.  But he finally came up with what he thought was the canonical version of “Strange Relationship” in an effort, in part, I think, to make the album, perhaps have a single and maybe appeal to more listeners. And, perhaps, “Housequake” was intended to be a single as well.  It didn’t work for me, personally. Nor did, well, I love “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” it’s one of my favourite songs.  I love the soulfulness of it.  But he asked me, in the control room, if I thought that it should be released as a single and I foolishly said “yes.” I thought it would work on R&B radio. I thought it was soulful enough. But I was naive.  I didn’t realize that that lyrical message was not going to fly as a single.

Steve Waxman: It’s interesting what you said about how calculated “U Got The Look” was because I love all of the songs on this record, but that one always seemed like a bit of an outlier because that was the one song that did sound calculated.

Susan Rogers: We had started with it and it was originally one of those slower jams. It was lower and funkier and I was liking it very much.  We spent a lot of time on it and then, typically if you spend a lot of time on a song with Prince and he’s unhappy with it he’ll just shut the door on it and the tape goes into the vault and we forget about it.  But, in this case, he did something unusual. He wasn’t willing to shut the door on this one. So, after working on it for two days, we stripped the whole top line, kept just the drum machine, sped up the tape and reapproached as a more dance / pop tune. Oh, and I forgot to mention that you had mentioned earlier about pulling old material in order to complete Sign O’ The Times and that was “Slow Love,” which had been in the vault for a long time and “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man.”  Those were older songs that we pulled up just to be the segue pieces that he needed to tie the main songs together. I think at this point, near the end of the album, he was tired because this was now the third album he had put together and he didn’t normally do that. And that’s why he’d rather pull up some old stuff from the vault then to have to write new material. 

Steve Waxman: One of the things that I always loved about Prince was that he had a lot of different voices that he sang in. Obviously he could sing like a motherfucker.  He could really belt it out. He had a really soulful voice.  Often he would sing in monotone which I always found fascinating because I can’t sing at all and I was like ‘He’s giving me hope.  He’s giving me hope that there’s something there!’ And then there was Camille, this alter ego. Do you have any recollection as to when Camille showed up?

Susan Rogers: Yeah, I have a little bit of a recollection. Around this time, Susannah and I would be hanging out while he was doing vocals because he would do his vocals all by himself in the control room and I would be waiting on the other side of the door. If we were at home or if we were at Sunset Sound, that gave Sisannah and me a chance to talk and have fun.  And, I remember at one point, we were drawing.  She had been drawing quite a bit.  She had drawn a mural in the den in his home and that’s where the line came from in “Crystal Ball” that says “While soldiers draw their swords of sorrow, my baby draws pictures of sex all over the walls in graphic detail.” Sex! And it wasn’t sex.  It was these two nymphs.  Just nymphs.  You know, fairies.  They just kind of look flat chested and they’re usually sort of nude or they're wearing some kind of gossamer see-through gown and they’ve got the wings. That’s what it was.  Not sex.  But, anyway, Susannah and I drew pictures and we drew these figures and I remember putting “x’s” for the eyes because I always thought that that was funny how they did that in cartoons sometimes.  If you were rattled you’d have “x’s” for your eyes. And we showed it to Prince and he really thought it was funny. He really liked that “x’s” for the eyes thing. I think that he began germinating the idea of having a band that was led by a figure that was kind of ghostly.  You weren’t sure.  Was this male or female? Is this person alive or dead? Is this a ghost?  Is this a nymph? What is this person? Where the word “Camille” came from, I don’t know but just around that time, Jesse Johnson came to the home studio with his album Shockadelica to play it for Prince.  Prince absolutely loved the title. Shockadelica.  He loved that word. It turned out that Jesse had no song called “Shockadelica” on his album so Prince said to him “Where’s your song “Shockadelica”?” And Jesse said “Well, no, it’s just the name of the album.  I don’t have one.” So Prince sent Jesse home and we took off the tape we were working on. We put up fresh tape and he starts a dance track and, in no time at all, he’s written this new lyric, “The lights go out, the smell of doom is creeping into your living room, your bed’s on fire and your fate is sealed and the reason is Camille, Shockadelica.” So, when we’re working on Sign O’ The Times, remember with his other recent previous albums there’s been a movie that goes along with it. So Parade is built around Under A Cherry Moon and the ideas that go with that movie.  And Purple Rain, of course, goes with its movie. And he’s kind of batting around the idea that maybe there will be another movie for this next album and what should it be about. Who will be the antagonist?  Who will this other band be because The Time is no longer together So I think he was playing with the idea of having this band called Camille.  It never came to fruition.  Nor did the Coco Boys.  On the expanded Sign O’ The Times release you’ll hear a song about the Coco Boys.  That was another alter ego, maybe another band who could tour with him and could maybe be featured in a movie.

Steve Waxman: So, how did you end up leaving?

Susan Rogers: Hmm. Well, we had had over four years together and I sometimes call it a tour of duty.  It was not stressful in the way that soldiers experience, you know, but it was a tour of duty in that it’s stressful and there was no other life other than this. You’re working, especially someone like me who spent more hours with him than most. The others would receive their instructions from him in brief meetings and then they’d go and carry out these instructions. But, as his engineer, I was with him every day for countless hours. So I had no personal life. I had no family life.  I had no social life.  It was difficult.  To get dressed and fed.  To maintain a home. Because I had so few hours to myself. It felt like a tour of duty where I am in service to something greater than myself. And I was very happy to do that.  I was very grateful. But it was difficult.  So, when Paisley Park Studios finally opened its doors in July of 1987, we’re working on two different projects at the same time.  He’s at home working on Madhouse 16 with his new staff engineers there at Paisley Park and I’m out in Los Angeles doing post-production on the Sign O’ The Times concert film. And, as I’m there working, I met a guy. A well known hollywood technician who was an expert at film sound and was working with me at Ocean Way Studios out there in Los Angeles. And we were kind of attracted to each other and I went out on a date. And I was out. This was back in the years when you didn;t have a cell phone with you but you had a beeper and I turned mine off cause I was on a damn date. And, apparently, Prince tried to reach me and he couldn’t. And he flew out from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and the very next morning we met on the soundstage. I got there first with some tapes.  He walked in a little bit later.  He made a bee-line for me. He walked straight towards me. He pointed at an empty vocal booth. “You. Me. Vocal booth. Now.” I went into that booth and he said “I tried to reach you last night. Where were you?” And I said “I was out.” And I don;t remember the exact words but the upshot of it was that he and I realized that the social contract that we had agreed to when we agreed to be employer and employee was temporary.  Anybody can quit a job. Anybody can fire an employee. You agree to do it by mutual consent and he needed some who would be like what he had always had. Available 24/7, 365 days a year no matter the day.  No matter the circumstances. To serve that train that he was the conductor of. The engine of his creativity ran so hot that you had to serve that to the exclusion of everything else. And I was acknowledging that I did that but you can only do that for so long.  This isn’t sustainable. And we both realized, if this is going to be how this is going to go then we’re incompatible.  So it ended kind of the way it began with us agreeing.  We began by agreeing that we are “this” to each other and we ended by agreeing that we can no longer be “this” for each other. It was sad but it was kind of inevitable. I maintained good relations with him afterwards,  When clients would hire me to work at Paisley Park Studios and I would see him there. It was always warm and loving and it felt good.  He kept good relations with folks that used to be with him.  He didn’t burn bridges. As a general rule.

Steve Waxman: So, you went on to do a lot of production work over the years. You had some nice success with Barenaked Ladies’ Stunt album.  What was that like for you?

Susan Rogers: Oh, that was just a highlight of my life.  I love those guys. They invited me, as you do with producers, you select someone. You say “we choose you.” And I was very excited to be working with them but I only had three week, I think it was.  Maybe even two weeks. It was short.  I was in between projects. I had contracts signed.  I was coming off one record and I was going on to another one. And so, in January of 1998, we went to Austin, Texas.  Arlyn was the name of the studio and we worked really quickly. I think that it was two weeks in the studio and one week prior to that in pre-production in Toronto where we could just zip through the songs fairly quickly.  What mattered then was to access ‘What are we trying to do? What do we need this record to do out there in the marketplace? How do you want to change from what you’ve done before?’ In the case of this record, what they said “What we’d like to do is to appeal to American listeners.  We’ve sold a lot in Canada but we want to have a hit single in the States.” So I set about working with them and bringing a little bit of that ear to what they were doing. They’re such great players.  They’re so smart. They’re so funny.  They’re an absolute joy to work with.  I regretted that I couldn’t finish the record with them but they were in good hands with David Leonard.  David Leonard and I had the same manager.  David finished up vocals and guitars added a rougher edge to it and he mixed it. So, together, we’re all pretty proud of the work we did. Those guys were on fire at that time.  They’re so brilliant and they were really at the top of their game then. 

Steve Waxman: Can you explain to people the difference between an engineer’s responsibility and a producer’s responsibility?

Susan Rogers: Think of it like the director and a cinematographer on a film. The engineer is responsible for the sound of the album but the producer is responsible for the performance gestures and for the arrangements. So, a director will work with a script, just like a producer will work with a script, these songs are written. And the producer and the artist will decide the function of a record out there in the marketplace of ideas.  Who will be its audience? Are we going for singles or are we going for album glory? Are we going for a new market or are we trying to keep the market that we have? Are we trying to pick up more men in the audience? ‘You know this audience is pretty female heavy.’ Or, are we trying to pick up a younger crowd?  What is its function in the marketplace? And then, based on those conversations and what your goals are, then you choose the form that will serve that function. So producers are in charge of people on a record. We listen to performance gestures.  Every performance.  And we access it in terms of how good it is versus how it could be or should be. You're  always accessing when you hear a performance ‘is this good enough?’ And if it’s not, what do we need to make it better. And is this the person who can make it better.  Maybe this drummer just doesn’t feel this groove. Maybe this bass player just isn’t capable of playing that bass that I need.  Do I need to hire another bass player or do I need to change my ideas about what kind of bass player I need. So you're concerned with the meta picture.  The engineer  then is responsible for the flow and how the sounds will serve that vision. Will the sounds be clean or distorted? Are you going to emphasize the low frequencies?  The mids? The highs? Is it going to be wide frequency or is it going to be narrow? Similar to how a cinematographer would frame a shot. So, let’s say you’ve got a movie and in the script it calls for a couple to be fighting. Think about how you frame it. You’re close up.  You're on her. You're on him. And you’re going back and forth. The viewer is going to get a sense of how this fight is going like a ping pong match. Back and forth, back and forth.  But if you dial that camera back a bit, open the lens a bit and you frame both of them in the same shot, now you’re seeing their bodies in relation to each other.  Who leans in and who pulls back. Is she afraid of him? Is he being aggressive towards her? Is he afraid of her?  You’re seeing the relationship together.  Then, if you pull back the camera even further, well now you see their apartment.  Now you see the view outside their window. Now we see the pictures on their mantle piece. Now we get more of the back story.  The framing of the shot is so important in terms of how we direct our attention. How we, as listeners, direct our attention.  Should we be paying attention to the vocals? Should it be the rhythm section? Should it be the chord progression or the harmony? That’s the difference.  It can be done and I’ve done it. I did it with Barenaked Ladies and pretty much all of the artists that I’ve produced, I also engineered it as well. But at that point, my engineering was so up to speed that I could do it fairly automatically. 


You had mentioned something earlier that I’d like to come back to about Prince because I thought that this was very insightful.  You had mentioned about how his arrangements were getting more stripped down after Purple Rain.  And, I think, the moment that had happened, I don’t know if I’m wrong or not, but one moment when that happened was when he changed up “When Doves Cry.” I was recently sent the original version of “When Doves Cry.” And when he originally did “When Doves Cry,” it was really thick and heavy on the bottom.  The electric guitars were distorted and heavy. The bass was heavy.  The rhythm was heavy. It was a very rhythm heavy track. But these lyrics and the melody on the top, they’re singing about when doves cry. And the melody, in itself, is fairly rhythmic. You mentioned monotone but its not a great verse melody “Dig if you will a picture,” dah, dah, dah. Not a great melody.  The melody is merely a setup for the release.  The release is the chorus. “This is what it sounds like, when doves cry.” But he doesn’t sing a chorus. He plays a chorus. Dink, dink, dink, dink, In the original version of the song, he didn’t have that lead line. He didn’t have that hook. He was smart enough to realize that this song was just bottom heavy and he realized, first off strip off that heavy guitar, we don’t need it. I’m talking about doves and crying here.  You don’t need to go roar. And he’s listening to the track and he realizes ‘Nor do I need the bass.’ The bass is simply doing the rhythm part.  Let the drums do the rhythm and let this keyboard be our chorus melody. Let the lyrics tell the story. So you can take fewer parts and let each part carry more weight. So rather than casting a lot of people in a movie or a play, sometimes you can rewrite that play with just three or four actors. Although, if you do, each actor is going to have to carry more of the weight in the story. They have a bigger job to do. That’s the perspective of a producer.  

Steve Waxman: I want to share with you that as a child I became fascinated with creativity while watching a documentary on Picasso.  They had placed the camera behind an easel and you watched Picasso create from the perspective of the canvas.  It was incredible to watch as his drawing took shape and changed during the creative process and that is exactly what you described when talking about “When Doves Cry.”

Susan Rogers: Yeah.  You’re constantly walking that tightrope between form and function. You can make the form anything you want it to be just like if you’re building furniture or designing buildings.  You can make it anything you want it to be within your imagination. But, the weirder you make the form, the more limited will be its function. A beanbag chair is a chair but because it's such an unusual form, it will only work in limited contexts. So, it’s the same thing with music. You’re constantly deciding how much innovation or novelty is the right amount. And how much ambiguity in your art is acceptable. One of the big things that a producer does is access the lyrics to understand ‘Yeah, I know you know what you meant when you wrote these words but sometimes your listener just doesn’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’ And what we need to do as listeners is we need to relate what we’re hearing to us. Prince was smart enough, and he knew this. He said about his audience “It’s not me that they’re interested in.  They’re interested in themselves.” He was absolutely correct. He was merely serving as a template for people’s fantasies.  He was serving to be the fantasy of the boyfriend you’d like to be with or the creator you’d like to be or the dancer you’d like to be or or the singer, the player or the writer you’d like to be. That’s what all art does for us. It reflects, or it tries to anyways, reflect some truth about ourselves, our own psyches. 

I’m very excited about the Sign O’ The Times box set. There are gems on there for Prince fans.  “Witness 4 The Prosecution” for me, personally, I love so much.  And “In A Large Room With No Light,” one of my favourites. And “Train” which I love so much. There’s great stuff on there.  And, another thing that’s cool, speaking of creativity, is hearing the two different versions of “Witness 4 The Prosecution.” Hearing the two versions of “Forever In My Life.” The earlier version that he did sounds like a man on his wedding day.  It sounds like a man so happy. So optimistic.  He might as well be holding a bouquet of flowers. The future is just so bright.  But on the version I did with him a little bit later, when there was some doubt in his mind about whether he could sustain this relationship, it’s more somber in tone. “There comes a time in every man’s life, when he gets tired of fooling around. Juggling hearts in a three ring circus.” He didn’t sound like ‘Wow! This is gonna be great!’ He sounds as though he’s thinking ‘This is going to be hard.  I’ll do it. But it’s gonna be hard.’ And hearing the difference in those two outlooks is of interest to folks who are interested in creativity. For folks who are interested in what you release and what you leave in the vault. What you want people to know about you and what you;re not ready to say just yet. This will be interesting for Prince fans for sure and I hope it picks up a lot of new fans.

Steve Waxman: It’s funny you say that.  I had a short conversation with Tom Petty back in 2014. I said “I’ve been a fan from the very beginning and I just think that it’s amazing that you’ve released as many albums as you have and you don’t have one shitty song on any of your records. And he just looked at me and went “We don’t let anyone hear the shitty songs.”

Susan Rogers: You know, Prince had a thing, he would hold up three fingers, you know, in a “W” sign. And when we’d be working on something, and we’d record and we’d get halfway through, and he’d realize ‘Nah, this isn’t good,’ he’d give me the “W” sign.  It stood for “weak.” And so, when he’d hold up those three fingers it meant take a sharpie, go to the tape box, draw a big “W” on it, circle that “W” and he would say, the first time he taught me it, he said “This is weak. Write that on the box and remind me never put up this tape again. So, yeah, there was stuff that ended up on the vault that were just ideas that weren’t fully realized or were bad ideas. He was certainly capable of them.  But, pound for pound, I don’t know of anybody who was more consistently productive and at such a high level as what he was. 

* * *

After the success of Barenaked Ladies’ album Stunt, Susan decided to leave the music business and earned a PHD in Music Cognition and Psycho Acoustics at McGill University in Montreal. She is now a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. 

 

The expanded box set of Sign O’ The Times is available now and is well worth the journey for anyone interested in great music, whether or not you’ve been a Prince fan your whole life.  In addition to the studio gems Susan talks about in this episode, there is a live recording of the Sign O’ The Times tour in Utrecht in the Netherlands which captures the incredible power of Prince live in concert.