This month, legendary Prince engineer Susan Rogers was honored with the 2021 MPG Outstanding Contribution to UK Music Award. Having worked on some of the late, great icon’s most celebrated albums (Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times and The Black Album), she would go on to work with the likes of David Byrne, Tricky and Barenaked Ladies, and is currently a professor in music production at Berklee College of Music. Here, Rogers tells Headliner about her formative years, working with pop royalty and why she’s leaving the art of making records to a new generation of studio pros…
“It turned into a vocation as a means of escape,” Rogers tells us as we discuss her initial steps into the record-making business. “I made an unwise decision when I was 17 years old. I got married, left home and the person I was married to was physically abusive and very jealous of music – he didn’t like me playing records and knew I was attracted to music. It was pretty bad, but when I was 21, I escaped. And the escape velocity launched me immediately into the thing I loved more than anything else, which was record-making. So, I started studying electronics and recording techniques, which educated me enough that I could get my first position repairing consoles and tape machines at a place called Audio Industries in Hollywood.”
She may not have known it at the time, but the skills Rogers would accumulate during this period would lay the foundations for a career that would see her emerge as one of the most revered technicians and engineers in the industry, eventually landing her a role with not only her favorite recording artists, but one of the most influential talents music has ever seen.
“It was a spring day in 1983 when the chief technician at Westlake Audio called me and said, “your dream job is waiting for you, Prince is looking for a technician”! He knew Prince was my favorite musician. He was just coming off the 1999 tour and was poised for superstardom and wanted a full-time tech to move to Minneapolis. As soon as I heard about it I said, ‘tell him his search is over, because that’s my job’!”
Notoriously demanding and exacting in his standards, Prince’s working methods have become the stuff of legend. Demanding round the clock availability and dedication from all of his staff, Rogers’s role was among the toughest in the business.
“He was a huge presence,” she says. “A small man with a huge presence. Our first conversation happened after I’d been working with him for about a week. I’d been working in his basement studio and had installed a console, repaired a tape machine, but I hadn’t met him yet. The first time I did, he came walking down the stairs asking me questions and giving me instructions. He then told me when to come back tomorrow and turned to go, and a voice inside of me just said, ‘don’t let it start like this’. So I stopped him and said, “Prince, I’m Susan Rogers,” and stuck my hand out to shake his hand. And he smiled and shook my hand and bowed and said, “I’m Prince”. He was so taciturn and quiet, but he had so much energy. And his virtuosity with his instruments, both in terms of his ideas and their execution, were extraordinarily high.”
After more than four years and a string of critical and commercial hits, Rogers felt that her time working with Prince had reached a natural conclusion.
“I worked three tours of duty during that period,” she laughs. “I worked three times as much as most people would, if we’re measuring by hours, so it wasn’t sustainable. The natural ending came after Paisley Park Studios finally opened in 1987. I was in Los Angeles working on postproduction for the Sign o’ the Times concert film and he was in Minneapolis. I was on a date one night and Prince paged me. I wasn’t around and that was unacceptable to him. He flew out and confronted me the next morning, and said I couldn’t do this. I told him I had to have a life, too. We just reached an impasse.”
Following her hugely successful time with Prince, Rogers would go on to make acclaimed records with a diverse range of artists, before paring back fully on her role as an engineer and entering the world of academia. As a professor at Berklee College of Music, she is revelling in her role as a mentor to new talent, essentially passing the baton onto a new generation of recording professionals.
“Most popular music is by, for and about young people, and it’s young people who should be making it,” she concludes. “I’ve had more than enough outstanding opportunities to make records, and as much as I love it, it’s time for the youth of today to be making records. I love teaching them and sharing with them but taking jobs from them I wouldn’t do.”
You can listen to an extended version of this interview at Headliner Radio.