Nile Rodgers: I'm not a cancer expert – I'm not even a Nile expert
At 65, Nile Rodgers is showing no signs of slowing down. Ahead of three Irish performances later this year the man behind some of the biggest dance hits ever tells Joe Nerssessian about surviving cancer twice, caring for his ailing mother and why his music appeals to the young
NILE Rodgers is at the Brit Awards to present the album of the year prize. Ahead of the show he stands gracefully on the red carpet, patiently waiting to have his photograph taken behind pop-rock boy band The Vamps and DJ Jonas Blue. Fans scream as Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby wander past, but Rodgers doesn't flinch. An aura of cool surrounds one of the greatest producers, guitarists and songwriters of the past five decades.
A few days earlier, I catch him on the phone from his home studio in Connecticut. He is remarkable company, even over a crackly line 3,300 miles away. He reels off numerous Miles Davis anecdotes (with a fantastic impersonation) and heaps praise on a number of artists from this side of the pond who he's worked with recently.
But largely the 35-minute conversation is dominated by an astonishingly open discussion about the 65-year-old's latest cancer battle and his ailing mother.
Rodgers was born Nile Gregory Rodgers Jr in September 1952 to Beverley Goodman, who became pregnant with him when she was just 13. Along with his stepfather, Bobby, she was a heavy heroin user and Rodgers left home at 14.
A year later, he picked up a guitar and his life changed forever. An astounding musician emerged, a pioneer of disco, funk and ultimately dance music. From helping David Bowie discover his groove in 1982 to unmistakable guitar on top of a tight bass on Daft Punk's Get Lucky in 2013, Rodgers still has it.
We're speaking ahead of his three Irish concerts in June and a performance at the Royal Albert Hall later this month, where he will take to the stage in support of the Teenage Cancer Trust. He beat cancer in December, making it an easy decision to play the fundraising gig.
His first experience of the disease made it more peaceful this time. In 2010 Rodgers was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer and became vehemently public with his treatment. He started a blog providing almost daily updates, giving birth to an online community. Survivors, sufferers and relatives who had lost loved ones shared stories and messages of support.
He found it beautiful, but also emotionally overwhelming and recalls the death of one friend in particular. This "hot girl who worked at the hippest clubs in New York City'', he says in a typically sexy Rodgers tone. At the funeral, her husband approached Rodgers in tears and revealed he had been reading to her from the blog when she died.
"The last words she heard were mine,'' he says. "The blog helped me to not worry about myself so much but I stopped doing it because people were depending on me more than I wanted them to depend on me. Everyone started calling me and saying, 'Nile, I can't believe I was just diagnosed with this'.
"I'm not a cancer expert, I'm not even a Nile expert. I'm a Nile journeyman novice.'' Pausing, he continues: "It was killing me, it made me feel that I didn't have to walk that journey alone. But then people started to want me to hold their hand through the journey. And that became a little bit painful when people started to pass away, it's just hard.''
It's been 25 years since the last Chic album and over the past four years Rodgers has been promising the aptly named It's About Time is just around the corner. He reiterates that message of hope once again, describing the album as "pretty much finished'' and says his latest task is to find a video director to expand its concept.
In fairness, the delay on the album is understandable. Aside from beating cancer and his production duties with a whole array of artists, Rodgers has also been caring for his mother, who has just been placed in a facility to deal with her stage five Alzheimer's.
"I don't have peaceful days any longer,'' he says. "I wake up every morning and see nothing but a shell of that person I knew. Or I get her on the phone and she can only talk about the most frivolous subjects. This is a woman who was a mega intellectual, it breaks my heart.
"She just wants to be around people. She wants to tell her story. And she tells it over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. But that's what she seems to cherish more than anything, is just engagement.''
He finds himself growing anxious when at the facility and – praising the blessings music has offered him – says he often starts playing guitar to calm the nerves during visits.
Extremely appreciative of his gift, Rodgers has managed to sprinkle his gold dust on dozens of artists. From Bowie to Diana Ross to Daft Punk, his eclecticism is somewhat ridiculous. He's always worked regularly in Britain and Ireland but it seems to have heightened in recent years as he headed to the studio with the likes of Laura Mvula, NAO, Mura Masa and Sigala.
He says he cannot believe NAO – who coined the term "wonky funk'' to describe her style – is not "the biggest star in the world''.
Quietening his voice into almost a squeak, he adds excitedly: "She's amazing. I had her singing all these different ideas for hours and hours and hours and she just didn't stop. It was incredible.''
The oldest of the acts he cites is Mvula, at 31, and I question whether he always surrounds himself with younger creatives to keep his funk-infused finger firmly on the pulse.
"It's no more important to work with them than it is to work with older artists,'' he says, and launches into a beautiful appraisal of youth.
"When I was younger, I didn't think the world was going to implode,'' he says. "I didn't think my mum was going to die. I didn't think I'd have cancer twice. I just thought about expressing myself through music.
"And I appreciated others who did the same, and maybe that's why the music I'm making on the most part sells to youth because the problems of the world don't distract them as much. Or they typically don't spend as much time thinking about it, that's the wonderment, and the great part of being young.
"You can be young and idealistic and when you're doing something, even if that thing may not move the needle, inside it makes you feel like a million dollars.''
:: Nile Rodgers & Chic play Belsonic at Ormeau Park, Belfast, on June 15; Malahide Castle, Dublin on June 16; and Live At The Marquee, Cork, on June 17. Tickets from Ticketmaster outlets.