Susan Rogers needed just one more lucrative gig to go back to school.
It wasn’t that she didn’t already have a hugely successful career. She cut her teeth as a studio technician with David Crosby and Graham Nash after dropping out of high school, and was hired by Prince as staff technician in the early 1980s.
He quickly promoted her to engineer, a rare opportunity for a woman in the recording industry. She helped Prince craft some of the biggest albums of his career, including Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times and The Black Album. She then went to work with the likes of David Byrne and rap artist Tricky.
As she approached the age of 40, however, she began hearing a relentless call to follow another path and learn more about the natural world.
“That calling was persisting and getting louder and louder and wouldn’t leave me alone,” said Rogers. “It felt an awful lot like the calling I felt to be in the music business when I was a kid.”
To heed that call, however, she needed a hit record. That’s when the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies approached her to engineer their album Stunt in the late 1990s.
Rogers could only give them three weeks between other gigs. They accepted and that was all it took to get most of the recording done.
“When you work with those guys, they’re such good players, so experienced. They know what they’re doing,” she said.
Stunt turned out to be the hit she was looking for – a breakout success for the Ladies, leaving Rogers with a hefty royalty cheque.
So she left the music business, graduating from high school at the age of 44, and followed by a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota. Then it was off to McGill University to complete a PhD in music cognition and perception.
“It turns out audio engineering is not all that different from neuroscience. To study it well, you have to really love systems, mechanisms and processes – the knee bone’s connected to the shin bone – that kind of thing.”
Now a professor of music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rogers will share stories from her long career in the music business – as well as insights from her research on the interplay of music and psychology — in two virtual presentations for the University of Alberta on Oct. 16.
Sponsored by the U of A’s Department of Music, the first presentation is entitled Prince: The Man Behind the Women. The second, Getting ‘Record Ready’: Music Psychology for Record Makers, is hosted by the Sound Studies Institute.
There will be much to discuss in her Prince presentation, she said, given that the deluxe box set of Sign O’ the Times was just released late last month and she’s been busy with media interviews.
“There are 94 pieces of music on there,” she said, many of which Rogers helped produce. “It was during a very prolific period for Prince.”
Her Prince lecture will illuminate his “working methods, genius for production and arrangements, the intersection of his life and art, and some of the fun we had,” said Rogers.
“Man, if ever a man marched to his own drummer, it was Prince. He truly was an island in terms of managing his own career and his own artistic output, for better or worse.”
He was a legendary control freak, driving his team so hard they rarely slept. But he also respected the talented women in his creative life, said Rogers, including percussionist and singer Sheila E, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and pianist Lisa Coleman.
“My job as his engineer was to just keep the current flowing in the water,” said Rogers. “He knew I was a Prince fan; he knew I loved his music. So when I did disagree with him about things, I could say it and he’d listen.”
As an expert in music cognition – and the myriad ways in which music satisfies the reward system in our brains – Rogers said there’s one question every professional musician and record producer needs to confront.
“Why on earth would anyone enjoy listening to your music? Of all the music available to them, why yours? What’s it going to do for someone that they can’t do for themselves?”
When making records in a competitive marketplace, so many musicians don’t consider the consumer’s side of the equation, she said.
“They don’t think about the phase when people are actually listening, what’s happening when people are listening.”
Rogers was scheduled to appear in person at the U of A last spring, but COVID-19 derailed those plans. She was initially invited by the chair of the Augustana Campus Department of Science, Peter Berg, a passionate Prince fan since the 1980s.
“I bought all the records, and then I saw the name Susan Rogers on some of them,” said Berg. When the remastered version of Purple Rain was released, he noticed Rogers had written the introduction in the liner notes.
“I thought, wow, she seems like an amazing person,” said Berg, and after discovering her Canadian connection to McGill, decided to email her out of the blue.
“She agreed to come here right away, never having been to Alberta,” he said. But after COVID hit, she agreed to do it online.
To register for Prince: The Man Behind the Women, visit the event web page.
Getting ‘Record Ready’: Music Psychology for Record Makers will be livestreamed Oct. 16 at noon.
| By Geoff McMaster
This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s online publication Folio, a Troy Media content provider partner.