Wax Poetics - The Epic - Prince
Prince’s trusted engineer Susan Rogers speaks at length about his sprawling epic, Sign “O” the Times, which was recorded between 1986 and 1987—with other, older tracks added from the vaults—a record ultimately created from the ashes of the aborted albums Camille, Dream Factory, and Crystal Ball.
PUBLISHED ONLINE SUNDAY, APRIL 18, 2021
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 67
BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
From your point of view, what was Prince’s mind-set going into the creation of Sign “O” the Times after his Paradealbum a year prior?
Susan Rogers: Well, I really didn’t know what he was thinking, because he tended to not reveal that kind of stuff. I’m assuming that he was proud of the Parade record and the movie. The album was well received, and “Girls & Boys” and “Kiss” were hit singles, so I think his personal outlook was very positive and optimistic, and musically he was looking for the next new thing, meaning new things he could say and new ways he could express a groove, melodies, tonalities, and timbres. These were things he didn’t express on his previous record. His mood was generally like it always was. He was serious, pensive, upbeat, and optimistic. He was a thoughtful person. Things were changing around the camp then. Wendy, Lisa, and Bobby Z. were the heart of the Revolution. Wendy and Lisa were aching to get out there on their own and to express themselves musically. I think Prince was thinking that now would be a good time to make a change. The general consensus within the camp was that this train was going to keep on rolling. It was a mutual decision when Wendy and Lisa decided to leave. His mood and approach was to try something different and to see what he could do. Susannah Melvoin, Wendy’s twin sister, was still around, so that connection was still there to Wendy and Lisa. It caused a little bit of tension, and naturally it would, because Susannah was missing Wendy, and Wendy was missing Susannah. They were really close. Because of that tension, it fueled a creative atmosphere.
It was a funny time to be working with him without Wendy and Lisa. The sorrow of their absence was also felt in the room. The imminent departure of Susannah was coming, because she wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t happy either. They were engaged to be married, but it became clear to them that it wasn’t going to happen. So they broke off the engagement. Sign “O” the Times represented Prince soldiering through a tough time, personally and professionally. There were changes, and it’s hard for people to cope with changes. As an artist, he coped with them by pushing forward and writing his way through it. That can go either way—it can yield some of the best work you’ll ever do, or it can yield work that is self-indulgent, dispirited, and apathetic. In this case, it yielded some of his very best work.
Sign “O” the Times resulted from a combination of three different albums that Prince was working on: Camille, Dream Factory, and Crystal Ball. What was Prince’s overall creative approach during this time?
When we came off the Parade tour [which wrapped up in September 1986], Prince was constantly recording; and as he was recording, sometimes in the arc of that constant process, he would pull tracks together with a concept for an album. Crystal Ball and Dream Factory were both emerging around that time. He was playing around with certain ideas: Will there be another version of the Time? Will there be another band that will be an alter ego that will handle certain kinds of tracks? He had this character called Camille. He wanted to try some new stuff. It’s what any artist does when they’re going fishing for a perspective or concept for their next record. At one point, the album that became Sign “O” the Timeswas a three-record set. While in discussions with Warner Bros., his record label at the time, they were absolutely unwilling to release a three-record set, because it would’ve been too expensive to manufacture and the profit margin wouldn’t have been as high. I can say from personal observation that Prince was unhappy about that decision. He wanted that three-record set, but push was coming to shove at that point. So he regrouped and he came up with a perspective and vision for his next album. It was darker in tone than the Parade record and much darker in tone than Around the World in a Day. I’d say even darker in tone than his Purple Rain record, because this time he was talking about world affairs.
The song “Sign ‘O’ the Times” was about how things were changing in the United States and in the world with AIDS. In the United States, there was gang warfare and poverty. There were things changing with Prince too. His band was changing and his musical style wasn’t as popular as it had once been. Funk dance music was getting the elbow from hip-hop, because hip-hop was coming up through the pop charts. It became clear that a new sheriff was in town [laughs]—this sheriff was hip-hop—and that it was going to rule. It was abundantly clear, and Prince was smart enough to know what was coming. He was also smart enough to recognize that musical styles change. It doesn’t matter how great you are. James Brown’s style went out of favor, the Beatles’ style went out of favor, and the big arena rock of Led Zeppelin went out of favor, so you can kind of predict that it’s going to happen to you too. It will happen pretty fast in the music business. This is what helped give Sign “O” the Times its somber tone.
When did you begin the recording sessions for Sign “O” the Times?
It didn’t have a definitive start date like most people’s albums do. Most people will plan an album, get together with a producer, do preproduction and work out arrangements, book studio time, and go in and make a record. But Prince wasn’t like that. He didn’t work like that. Prince recorded constantly. So things that were coming into fruition may or may not be part of a record. For example, the song “Sign ‘O’ the Times” was recorded when he was in a burst of recording and writing. “Play in the Sunshine” was one of the songs that came along at the very end. “Play in the Sunshine” was really written just to be a segue song to take us from “Sign ‘O’ the Times” into “Housequake.” It was like a tomato on a sandwich. It complemented the meat and cheese. The main songs of this record were “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “Housequake,” “U Got the Look,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Strange Relationship,” “The Cross,” and “Adore.” Some of the other songs were pulled out of the vault. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” preceded 1983; it was an old song. He had me pull that out of the vault so that we could continue working on it by making some changes and then putting it on the record. “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” was recorded with the Revolution live, when we were in Paris. “Slow Love” was another really old song. It was an old one from the vault. It wasn’t a serial, chronological process. There was some old material and brand-new material that complemented those core songs.
Take me through the different studio setups.
He liked working at home and at Sunset Sound Studios [in Los Angeles, California]. At this point, Paisley Park Studios was in its final stages of being built. This was in late 1986 and early 1987. Prince’s options were to record at his home studio on Galpin Boulevard in Chanhassen, Minnesota. It was just up the street from Paisley Park. It was a really nice home, and there was a basement studio that had a large control room and a medium-sized isolation booth right next to it. The piano was upstairs and it was used for smaller projects. We tried to fit the whole band in there once, but it wasn’t big enough for a band. He recorded songs like “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” at home. We did “Hot Thing,” “Forever in My Life,” and “It” there. The other songs were done at Sunset Sound Studios in Studio 3. It was his favorite studio in the world. We did “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” “Play in the Sunshine,” “Housequake,” “U Got the Look,” “Adore,” and “The Cross” there. When we worked at Sunset Sound, it was a big enough room that we could have everything set up all at once. The piano could always be miked, the B-3 organ could be miked and ready and go, drum kit could be set up and ready to go, and he would have his keyboard, bass, and guitars with him in the control room. Because I was his employee, I would be out there working with him engineering these sessions along with Peggy McCreary. Peggy had been an assistant engineer at Sunset Sound for quite a few years, and he liked working with Peggy when she was around. I believe Coke Johnson worked with us on a few of those sessions as well.
The way we would work is, that stuff would be miked all the time. Prince would often come in with lyrics already written, not always but often, usually for ballads. He’d either program the drum machine right there in the control room, or he’d go out and play live drums. If he was playing live drums or programming the drum machine, he had the song basically in his head. He knew where the breaks were, so he’d play an intro, then he’d do a fill that would go into a verse, or he’d play the verse for eight bars, then he’d do a breakdown or a fill that would get us into a chorus. He knew where to put the cymbals at, because he already had the arrangement in his head. After we finished recording the drums, we’d hand him the bass and he’d put on the bass part and he’d put on the basic keyboard and guitar parts. Usually, midway through a song is when he would stop and do vocals. He liked to do vocals alone in the control room, so we’d set up the vocal mic for him. He’d have a patch cord with a piece of tape on it that represented his signal for that vocal mic, and all he had to do was to move it to different tracks after doing a lead, if he wanted to do background vocals. So he did his vocals by himself, then Peggy and I would come back in the room and finish it up by adding the remaining overdubs and getting the song mixed as we went along to then print it and be done for the night. Some songs took a long time. One in particular was “U Got the Look.” “U Got the Look” went through a lot of different permutations. He tried it at different tempos and tried it with different feels. It was unusual for him, but he really liked the track. I think he was feeling like this song was going to be a single. He brought in Sheena Easton at some point. I don’t believe for a minute that it was planned from the beginning. It was just that she was around at the time. We spent three or four days on “U Got the Look,” which was unusual for him.
What was the typical studio routine for you and Prince throughout this recording process?
Like a lot of artists, he’d be up all night. The general modus operandi was we would start, either in the late morning or early afternoon, because in the mornings, is when he would take care of business or any managerial issues he had to deal with. Once he began working in the studio, he didn’t like to stop or be interrupted. So let’s say we started at noon, we’d walk out of there certainly after the sun was up. We’d walk out at nine or ten o’clock in the morning, then we’d sleep for a few hours and resume things again. It was kind of a rotating clock. We rarely started at night, at least not late at night, but it wasn’t unheard of to start at six or seven o’clock in the evening then work all night. His dial was constantly rotating. I could expect an eighteen, twenty, or twenty-four hour workday. It was fairly common to work a forty-eight hour session. It was very common to work a twenty-four hour session. When we were working on “U Got the Look,” it just took daysand days to finish it. I remember, at one point, looking at my watch and I thought it said nine o’clock. I wondered if it was nine o’clock in the morning or nine o’clock at night. When I was staring at my watch, I noticed it was upside down, so then I wondered if it was three o’clock in the morning or three o’clock in the afternoon. [laughs]
When we were working at Sunset Sound, there wasn’t any windows. It was fully contained. There was a lounge and a bathroom, so you could go for days without ever walking outside, if you needed to, and you wouldn’t know if it was day or night because you were that exhausted and the hours flew by. To work with someone who was never on drugs, lazy, or disrespectful, was a great thing. He had a workingman’s attitude toward the work we were doing in the studio. We were constantly being productive. Things were getting done and made. It was an exciting environment where we were watching creative work come together, and I was participating in that process. It was thrilling to be working with him at that time. It was more than enough reason to stay awake. There were no complaints from me. [laughs] Eric Leeds and Matt Blistan [aka Atlanta Bliss] would come to the studio to play saxophone and trumpet. Susannah Melvoin would do some backing vocals, and she was in the studio a lot. Sheila E. would play percussion on some of the songs. For the most part, this album was all Prince.
Sign "O" the Times." v:shapes="image3.png">Sheila E., Prince, and Cat. Promotional photo for the concert film Sign "O" the Times.
Where were you positioned in the studio in relation to Prince?
Well, if he was doing acoustic drums, acoustic piano, or B-3 organ, he’d be on the other side of the glass. For everything else, he was right next to me. [laughs] I was sitting behind the console routing the signal, and he was sitting next to me playing bass or keys. We were right next to each other for most of four years. I was with him on tour, because he liked to record wherever he was.
Did he do any demos for the songs on this album?
No. Not at all. He was unusual compared to other artists. A lot of artists will do demos just to live with it before they commit the arrangement to tape. Prince worked so fast that he wouldn’t waste his time demoing. There were two exceptions for this album though. “Strange Relationship” was a song that the band worked out at rehearsal a lot. He tried a lot of different arrangements at rehearsal. So it really wasn’t demoing in the way we think about demoing. This song was a rare exception. It had been around for a long time. Sometimes, he would pull out old material and redo it. In the case of “Slow Love” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” those weren’t substantially redone from how they were originally stored back in 1982. He basically updated them, and we mixed them.
What were the names of the instruments and equipment you used to capture the sounds for the songs on this album?
When I was working with him, he loved his Linn LM-1 drum machine. It was the early model that preceded the more popular LinnDrum. At home, he had a Yamaha piano. He liked the Yamaha drums as well. On this record, he used the Fairlight CMI, which was a very sophisticated synthesizer. He used it a lot. The only people who could afford it had a large amount of money. I would say the Fairlight was the sound for the Sign “O” the Times record. He was still using his Yamaha DX7. He liked that synthesizer. He wasn’t using his earlier stuff like the Oberheim synthesizer. The Oberheim synthesizer sound defined his Controversy, 1999, and Purple Rain albums. Those albums had a bright, robust, harsh tone. They had a really nice rock-and-roll tone, but he was abandoning those at this point, in favor of the softer tones of the Fairlight and DX7. He was probably tired of the Oberheim. He was still using his same guitar, the Hohner Telecaster. The bass guitars were still the same.
Sign "O" the Times." v:shapes="image5.png">Cat and Sheila E. Promotional photos for the concert film Sign "O" the Times.Sign "O" the Times." v:shapes="image1.png">Prince in concert. Promotional photos for the concert film Sign "O" the Times.
Earlier you mentioned that he liked to record his lead vocals alone. Did he record his background vocals in a similar fashion?
If he was singing background vocals, he’d sing them alone. If it was going to be Wendy, Lisa, Susannah, or Jill Jones doing the background vocals, he’d leave the studio and let us do it on our own. He would leave me alone to do horn arrangements with Eric Leeds as well. He’d tell Eric, “Take it away! Do what you like.” Prince would go to dinner or on a date or to the club, then when he would come back, we’d finish his parts. He was a genius with those backing-vocal arrangements. He really loved those gospel chords. He loved sevenths, ninths, and thirteenths. He was so great at it. He was quick with layering harmonies. It didn’t take him any time at all. He was brilliant at everything he ever did. He’d always say, “We’re going to go to church on this one.” [laughs] On this record, I can think of one exception where he wasn’t especially brilliant, and that was during the making of “The Cross.” The drums on “The Cross” weren’t steady; they were sped up. I thought for sure he was going to redo the drums on it, because he played the drums on it all in one take and it just progressively became faster. It really bugged me, because I thought it was sloppy. I was hoping that he’d redo it, but he was satisfied with it, and he knew what he was doing, so who was I to argue. It was one instance where I thought he could’ve tightened something up. [laughs]
Can you take me through the mixing process for the songs on the album?
The mixing process happened as the songs were being overdubbed. The way most artists do it is they finish the final overdubs and they put the tape away, then they give it to a mixing engineer. The mixing engineer starts from scratch by combining these sounds to turn the collection of tracks into a vinyl record. But Prince didn’t do it this way. He didn’t want to put the tape away until it was done, done, done. So I would be getting sounds when he was doing the last of the overdubs. We would be tweaking the mix as we went along, then all that remained was a few hours of work. We’d polish it up a little bit, then print it. Mixing is kind of like an arrangement. Our mixing process was concurrent with the recording process, unless there was a problem. If there was a problem, we spent a lot of time mixing it. If it wasn’t coming together, the song would probably end up in the vault, or in the case of “U Got the Look,” the song was too good to go in the vault. He started to change things. I remember changing the speed on “U Got the Look” and totally redoing it. At some point, we made it much slower, and at another point, we made it much faster, until we got the final groove that he was happy with.
Sign "O" the Times." v:shapes="image4.png">Sheila E. on drums. Promotional photo for the concert film Sign "O" the Times.
When the album was being constructed, were there any interesting behind-the-scenes stories that took place?
One thing I can say that was interesting is on the song “Forever in My Life.” Prince somehow got off sync, because he was monitoring the track himself when he was doing his lead and backing vocals. When he was doing his backing vocals, he opted to do his backing vocals first and he came in on the wrong bar of the intro. This is why it kind of sounds like a little bit of a round. I haven’t listened to the song in a long time, but I think the backing vocals precede the lead vocals by like four bars. He was happy with it, even though it was an accident. He was excited by it.
“Starfish and Coffee” was about Susannah [Melvoin] telling him a story about a girl [Cynthia Rose] that she went to school with that was cognitively impaired. Prince just loved that story. With Susannah, he wrote lyrics about it. On this track, we used the backwards drums, which entailed recording the arrangement backwards, so we recorded the drums and flipped the tape upside down and overdubbed it from there on out. So that was kind of fun as well.
Did Prince ever mention any artists from this era being his direct competition, or was he completely focused on making his music the best it could possibly be?
I think he was aware of and promoted a healthy rivalry between himself and Michael Jackson. He didn’t talk about any other artists that were his direct competition other than Michael Jackson. He was aware of what Jackson was doing. I don’t think he saw himself having to pass a test of who was better or who was worst because they were two different kinds of musicians. But he was aware that Michael Jackson had things that he would never have. The public adored Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was considered the kid next door that you would love to have as your neighbor or dating your daughter. He had this squeaky, wholesome image. Prince was kind of the scary guy. The guy you didn’t want your daughter dating. He might be trouble.
One time, one of the guys at Sunset Sound told me, “The reason why I like Bruce Springsteen better than Prince is because I think Bruce Springsteen would sit down and have a beer with me, and I’m afraid that Prince would steal my girlfriend.” I didn’t know Bruce Springsteen, but I knew Prince. Prince would never steal anybody’s girlfriend. If you knew him, you would want your daughter to date him. He was respectful and squeaky clean. We used to make jokes about how he would get high off of Coca-Cola, because he didn’t use profanity or drugs. He was as sober as a judge. He was such a respectable fellow. He saw himself in musical competition with Michael [Jackson]. Madonna was kind of sniffing around. Madonna wanted to be like him, but he didn’t want to be like her. He didn’t want to be like any of them. That was one of the great things about Prince. He had a lot of people imitating him, but he wasn’t imitating anybody.
What was the first song recorded for this particular album?
Chronologically, it would have to be “Slow Love” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” because they were done years before the album was conceived. As I said before, the record wasn’t done in any chronological order. As I recall, “Play in the Sunshine” was one of the last songs we did. When we sequenced the record, we needed a song to go between two of the really important songs. It was kind of like a palate cleanser. He would write a song just to put in the sequence, so that the sequence would make sense. That’s why “Play in the Sunshine” was one of the last ones done. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” and “Slow Love” were pulled out of the vault to be those segue songs, just to help finish this record and get it out there, so he didn’t have to write another ballad. He said, “I don’t feel like writing another ballad. I have an old song. Let’s put “Slow Love” on there. Let’s put it on there.” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was a good, long jam that would get us to “The Cross.” It was absolutely perfect for that. Technically speaking, those songs came first. But I know the gist of your question: of the more important songs, which one came first? One of the first songs was “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” It set the tone and mood for this record.
Photograph by Joe Giannetti from the original photo shoot for 1978’s For You, originally intended as the cover and to include flying birds. © Joe Giannetti. All rights reserved.
Let’s delve into the making of some of the songs from Sign “O” the Times.
“Sign ‘O’ the Times” was new for him in terms of tone. It was a little bit new in terms of sound too. He just received the Fairlight CMI, and he was really getting into it. He did the song at Sunset Sound in the control room. The Fairlight was set up right in there behind the console. He did one instrument at a time, like he normally did. I was blown away by the lyrics. It was something slightly new for him. It was a soulful, beautiful performance. It was an exceptional record. Many musicians cite this song as one of their favorites. It was a really impressive track.
On “Adore,” Prince was really hurt that R&B and soul radio stations weren’t playing him as much as they used to. When I was driving around Los Angeles in 1979 and 1980, I was listening to the R&B and soul stations KACE-FM and KJLH-FM, and they were playing a lot of Prince. This is where I first heard Prince after his first record came out. After Purple Rain, R&B radio had kind of given him up. They liked “Kiss” and some of his other stuff, but it wasn’t the normal R&B and soul thing you would hear. He wanted that core audience back. He talked about that. “Adore” was an attempt to get more R&B radio play. It was an old-fashioned R&B and soul ballad. Lyrically, as well as the horn arrangements, the tempo, and everything about it, was R&B. I loved the high voice he put on the track. It was straight-up soul.
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is an homage to the music he loved. He loved Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. Prince had a strong feminine sensibility and those writers are sophisticated in a different way. He valued jazz chords and very poetic lyrics. Wendy and Lisa were fans of Joni Mitchell, but Prince was a huge fan. When he learned about the poet Dorothy Parker, he had a dream one night that was conflating Joni Mitchell and Dorothy Parker. It was a pretty vivid dream. He came running down to the studio, and he wanted to record it right away before it slipped out of his head. We just finished taking the delivery of this DeMedio console at his home on Galpin Boulevard, and we weren’t done troubleshooting it yet. He said, “I don’t care what condition it’s in. If we can record with it, I just want to record now.”
I replied, “Okay.” And against my better judgement, we put on fresh tape, and we did that song from top to bottom. I spent the next twenty-four hours thinking, “What on earth did I do to this?” Because the song sounded like it was underwater. There was no high end. Prince just wouldn’t stop. He kept on recording and recording and doing more overdubs. He didn’t mind it because the song came to him in a dream. Maybe that’s why he liked that underwater, muffled-sound quality to it. I remember when we were finally finished, I made him a cassette. He was getting ready to go upstairs to bed. He gave me some final instructions. Then he said, “I like the console, but it’s kind of dull, isn’t it?” [laughs] After he went to bed, I was able to pull out the voltmeter, and I saw that one of the two power supplies were down. It would be like a car running on half of its power. Once I fixed that problem, the console was great. It was another one of those happy accidents that he didn’t mind at all.
Cat on guitar from “Sign ‘O’ the Times” single.
Being that you were his right-hand person during this time, it was obvious that he trusted you with handling his overall sound. What was it like working alongside him while crafting this album?
I came to him as an audio technician to repair his equipment to keep it running. He expected that, after everything was hooked up and running properly, that I was going to be his engineer. I came to his camp without any engineering skills. I knew how to use the equipment, but I wasn’t an engineer. An engineer is more of an artist. So he taught me his sound. I learned from him what he liked. I learned what EQ, reverbs, delays, and signal processing he liked. I became very adept at getting his sound for him. What were really the constant themes for me were gratitude, appreciation, and a strong determination to do everything humanly possible to facilitate his work. It mattered a great deal to me that I stayed up longer than him, because he would go to bed, and I’d be in the studio pulling patch cords, putting all the wires away, and making copies of things. I would routinely get fewer hours of sleep than he did, because I had to be the last one out and the first one back in the studio. I tried really, really hard to be what he needed. I wanted to serve this man that I admired and who I knew was a genius and did great work. My attitude back then was, “Just let me keep up. Don’t make any mistakes. Just keep this train rolling.” [laughs] It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with him. I recognized that we were doing great work and it was selling and he was popular. I was young just like he was, but I had no preconception of how history would view him. I thought he was great, but I came in thinking he was great. I knew we sold a whole lot of records and so did other people like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and other bands that were coming up, like U2, and became huge. So I had no way of knowing what would happen thirty or forty years later. All that mattered to me back then was to get these records made.