Nile Rodgers was in the middle of a conversation with a friend at dinner, he recalls, when he jumped up and excused himself. "I stopped her and said, ‘I really have to apologise, a song idea just came into my head. I have to write this down’," he says.
Rodgers ran from the dinner table to his room, took out as sheet of blank music notation paper and wrote a song called Scars, which was inspired by his two cancer operations. His dinner conversation had had nothing to do with his health, but looking around the restaurant he had suddenly been overcome by the thought that "we all have scars… you’re going to meet someone who thinks your scars are beautiful".
Scars remains unfinished and he is not yet sure what will come of it. But for the legendary musician, composer and producer, it is an example of how the creative process is "everywhere". "You just have to tap into it," according to Rodgers.
Most creatives would burn with envy to hear tales of artists plucking inspiration from out of the blue. At first glance, it might seem that simple for Rodgers, whose career spans five decades during which he has produced songs for the biggest names in music, including Diana Ross, Madonna, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Daft Punk.
Speaking in July at a Promax industry event, Rodgers strolled on stage with his guitar, periodically interrupting his keynote to strum a few chords from one of his hit songs, such as Chic’s Le Freak. Creative inspiration seems to seep from his pores.
But in an interview with Campaign, Rodgers admits his creative process is often just as difficult and absurd as everyone else’s. "The first thing I write always sucks," he says. Much like the scars from his surgeries, "it’s horrible, but then it becomes beautiful".
An encounter with another music legend transformed the way Rodgers viewed his own creativity. The Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who has created more than 500 scores for film and television, once told Rodgers he commits to writing music every morning, no matter how awful it sounds.
"He said to me, sometimes two people who may seem the most unlikely couple meet and are bonded for life," Rodgers recalls. "So whenever you write something that you think is a bad motif, maybe what’s really wrong [with it] is it just hasn’t married yet. It hasn’t met the right partner."
Morricone looked for perfect pairings between his compositions and films, and Rodgers has done the same with his own collaborations. Recently he has looked to a new type of partner: brands.
Last year, Rodgers launched Nile-Evoke, an agency that helps marketers with branding through music strategies. The budding company has so far worked with A+E Networks, Turner and Maybelline New York. At the time of the launch, Rodgers said: "I believe the future of music will be with brands."
Rodgers himself has composed music for many TV ads including Nike and Budweiser. Artists resistant to working with brands are "really old-school", he says. "[Advertisers] could help break artists, and you could build brand loyalty because of symbiosis."
Despite prizing an artistic sensibility, Rodgers claims that Nile-Evoke puts data analysis at the heart of its work: "I love data – are you kidding me? It’s probably the old hippie in me, but I love data because I love to prove them wrong sometimes. Data says to me, ‘Nile, this is a fact’. If you accept it, then maybe as an artist you’ll approach the music differently."
Branding, advertising, data: these disciplines were foreign to Rodgers when he started out on his career. Now, at the age of 65, he doesn’t see this new venture as a creative reinvention but, rather, a continuation of one thread that can be traced back to the earliest days of learning his first chords.
"I love challenges. If you said to me, ‘We can’t do that’, I’d go, ‘Really? Watch this’," he says.
For all his stubborn ambition, Rodgers attributes as much of his success to embracing the unexpected and making those surprising connections. He tells the story of writing a song decades ago while tripping on LSD and stumbling through New York City’s Central Park.
"I got to the edge of the park after what felt like 200 days and wrote a line that went: ‘At last I am free/I can hardly see in front of me.’" Years later, those psychedelic scribblings became Chic’s song At Last I am Free.
"That wound up being a big song in my life," Rodgers says. "But when I wrote it, it was like a joke to me." That experience was early proof to Rodgers that creativity is all around us.