Belfast Telegraph

Chic star Nile Rodgers on working with his heroes, how playing in NI reduces him to tears and why Van Morrison doesn't deserve his grumpy reputation

Ahead of his concert at Belfast's Waterfront Hall in June, the funk legend tells David O'Dornan that, despite his well-publicised battles with drink and drugs and beating cancer twice, music is the one thing that never lets him down

Nile Rodgers with Sir Van Morrison in 2014
Nile Rodgers with Sir Van Morrison in 2014
Nile Rodgers produced Madonna’s 1984 hit Like a Virgin
Chic in 1977, (from left) Bernard Edwards, Norma Jean Wright, Nile Rodgers and Tony Thompson
Nile Rodgers has worked with David Bowie
Nile Rodgers has worked with Mick Jagger

Nile Rodgers is quick to debunk a music myth that has existed in the industry for decades - Van Morrison's long-held reputation as a curmudgeon.

The New York-born king of funk met Sir Van at an awards ceremony in London a few years ago and the pair instantly hit it off. He even made the Belfast Cowboy smile.

"What was funny about that was that everybody always told me that he was grumpy and this and that, but we had a fantastic time," Nile told the Belfast Telegraph.

"He and I had so much fun talking together about music. You have to remember, I'm an older chap, so I know a lot about his music and music in general, so we had a lot of things that we just agreed on.

"Maybe it was just the mutual admiration society that we didn't know existed between us."

After enjoying such an instant rapport, the opportunity to work with 73-year-old Van the Man is something that Nile would relish.

He said: "Believe me, if somebody would suggest something, especially if he would suggest it, I would be honoured and we'd have a blast.

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"Just think, we only met one time - one time in all the years that we both have been in the music business. We met one time, we sat down, we had a blast together.

"And everybody's going like, 'Look at how much fun those guys are having, they are sitting there laughing and joking like they are old friends' and that's almost how it always works.

"I mean, look at my relationship with Robert Plant now, it's so wonderful. When I was a kid, I looked at Led Zeppelin like they were gods, and now he's like one of my buddies."

Nile is enjoying a new wave of success in his career thanks to a series of high-level collaborations, not least his huge hit Get Lucky with Daft Punk in 2014, one of three tracks he recorded with the dance act.

The 66-year-old has been making hits since the late Seventies with Chic - disco favourites Everybody Dance and Le Freak among his best known - but after the band split up in 1983, he spent the best part of 30 years in the background helping some of the biggest names in the business enjoy success: David Bowie with Let's Dance, Madonna with Like a Virgin and others, from Mick Jagger to INXS and Duran Duran.

But it wasn't until his link-up with Daft Punk that he re-emerged from the shadows and has been touring ever since, and will be playing Belfast's Waterfront Hall on June 4.

Nile Rodgers
Nile Rodgers

He said: "This has happened to me and I think most artists' lives are like it, it's kind of cyclical. I had my first period of success when Chic first started, people don't realise this, we had all those hit records in just two-and-a-half years.

"Our first record came out in 1977 and after we had two number ones in 1979 that was it. It just ended with this whole 'disco sucks' thing.

"And it ended for us and the only thing that brought us into the Eighties was that we had a deal with Diana Ross, and that was the first deal we had with a superstar.

"I would say probably 95% of all the music that I've ever created has been the result of a chance meeting. I'll meet somebody at a nightclub, or a dinner, or an awards ceremony.

"That's been right from the beginning. Diana Ross came to a live show. We were playing in Los Angeles, a friend of ours brought her to the show, and she came backstage and said 'Wow, that was really cute'. But it led to a lifelong friendship.

"I think what's really crazy is that I have much more fun playing live than I have ever. Now I have a blast playing live - we would do the show for free."

Remarkably, that buzz lasts for Nile a long time after he leaves the stage - he says he feels an emotional connection to Northern Ireland that can sometimes bring him to tears.

He explained: "The great thing for me about us gigging in Northern Ireland is when we first gigged in Belfast and then we also gigged in Derry and other places.

"Once we started to hang out with people and just hear about history and stuff like that, it was fantastic for me and the level of appreciation for music is just incredible.

Nile Rodgers on stage at Glastonbury 2017
Nile Rodgers on stage at Glastonbury 2017

"Honestly, I don't want to get corny, but every time I come to Northern Ireland to play I always wind up crying.

"I sit in my room, I listen to music, I listen to stuff that I haven't heard - I don't know, I'm just that kind of guy,."

Perhaps the appreciation from Northern Irish audiences that he mentions might be due in some part to music fans being starved of big-name acts coming to town, not least during the Troubles, and that we are now grateful to the many artists from around the world who include us in their tours.

"You know what? You've touched upon something that really touched my heart, these are stories that people tell me," agreed Nile. "I don't know if they are telling the truth or not, but it winds up touching my heart.

"I spoke to a gentleman and he was telling me a little bit about history and he was saying how we have a song that we've written for Sister Sledge called Thinking of You.

"He said that, back when there was a lot of trouble going on, or conflict, or whatever you want to call it, he said that that song was the sort of truce song. They played Thinking of You and it always let people on the other side that I'm thinking of my family that I may or may not have contact with.

"He said that they would drive down the street with trucks with those horn-type speakers and play Thinking of You and people would feel really great and they'd know that they can go visit and it was almost like putting out the white flag."

Nile adds: "And I would hear stories like this and I'm going, 'What are you talking about?' This was a song I wrote for Sister Sledge and it was about their family and it was truly about me and Bernard (Edwards, his late Chic bandmate) thinking about each other and our relationship.

"And the guy was saying, 'Yeah, but that's what we can feel through the music, the same kind of love that you had for your friend and your family was the same kind of love that we have when we heard that song'.

"It just always touches me."

He has lived a colourful life that has seen him win battles with drugs and alcohol (the sober star joked "I lost my privileges"), as well as twice recovering from cancer and continuing to enjoy a career revival. Surely he feels blessed?

"I don't think of it as religious or anything like that, that's not where I'm coming from," he explained. "I've come up with my own phrase for it, I call it 'hippy happenstance'.

"Believe me, you talked about Daft Punk and Get Lucky, you know that's a song that I talk about, I use that as a segue on stage for real-life experience about when I was going through my first bout of cancer, which was actually quite deadly and very serious at the time.

"I got a phone call out of the clear blue sky from Daft Punk, whom I had met some 20 years before.

"And now out of the clear blue sky we get together and we write a song that talks about getting lucky and it was just the right healing that I needed, it was going through my period where I had a very long recovery process, a very long healing process the first time.

"I put out my life story at exactly the same time when I was going through cancer recovery.

"As a matter of fact, when I ended the book I ended it by telling my mum a lie, because once I told her that I had cancer and I was dealing with it, she was so distraught that I had to lie and tell her I was misdiagnosed because it was breaking her heart.

"And I couldn't believe that then, eight years later, I get the second form of cancer, but music is the thing that gives me the real reason to get up the next day.

"It feels like that's the turbocharger in my engine, because music is the one thing that seems to never let me down," he says.

"That doesn't mean that you always get hits, because I don't look at having hits as the part that inspires me - I like doing the work. I think hits are something that happens as sort of a by-product of hard work and luck and doing a good job."

  • Nile Rodgers will play the Waterfront Hall in Belfast with his band Chic on Tuesday, June 4. For further information and tickets (£36-£39.50), see https://www.waterfront.co.uk, or contact the box office on 028 9033 4455

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