Bruce Springsteen’s 2020: I swam. I kept busy. I made an album

Bruce Springsteen: ‘Immediate is always exciting, exciting is good. So you get a freshness.’ Photograph: Danny Clinch
The Boss talks about his lockdown experience, reuninting with the E-Street band and his new record Letter To You
 

Bruce Springsteen is looking fit and well as the screen pops into life. Sitting in the same home studio in New Jersey where just about a year ago he recorded his 20th studio album, Letter to You, with his longtime musical comrades, the E-Street Band, he laughs a little sheepishly when our Zoom host, Scottish journalist Edith Bowman, wishes him a belated 71st birthday.

I suppose celebrating birthdays is not high on his agenda, especially when Springsteen is here to tell us about an album and an arthouse documentary prompted by the death of an old friend.

The Zoom interview featured a small number of journalists from all over Europe. Questions were submitted beforehand and channelled through Bowman. Springsteen was joined for a time by Thom Zinny, his main audio visual collaborator in recent years. Zinny directs Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, the ambitious film of the recording which, for now, will only be available to view on Apple TV.

No matter how many times you’ve done it, you’ve always got the anxiety, can I do it again

Zinny also made a film to accompany Springsteen’s wonderful 2019 release, Western Stars, a solo collection with orchestral settings and very few E-Streeters in sight. In fact, the last time the E-Streeters and their boss played together was in 2016 and the last time in the studio together was 2014’s High Hopes. 

So what was the catalyst for these two projects?

“I felt like I wanted to do a record with the E-Street Band,” says Springsteen, “but I hadn’t written any E-Street Band songs in about seven years. That happens sometimes. I’d written a lot of other music, made Western Stars and Wrecking Ball but not music that was specifically written for the band. So no matter how many times you’ve done it, you’ve always got the anxiety, can I do it again, because you don’t know whether that particular muse is going to visit you or not. 

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in his home studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey in November 2019. Photograph: Danny Clinch/Apple
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in his home studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey in November 2019. Photograph: Danny Clinch/Apple

“So over the summer [of 2019] I visited a friend of mine [George Theiss] who was very ill. He and I were the last two members of my first band [The Castiles]  left alive. And he passed away a few days after I saw him, which sort of left me remaining as the last surviving member of my very first band. Which felt rather unusual. Most of the other guys died rather young. So I began to write with that as my background referring back to incidences as far back as when I was 14 and as present as to today. (Last Man Standing was the first song he wrote for the album.)

“The record stretches across a wide swathe of time, takes in my first band, takes in my current band and takes in what I learned in between. Between 17 and 70. So the record addresses those subjects, of loss, the joy of playing, the wonderful life of making music as part of a rock n roll band, the strange sort of brotherhood that you get let into at a very young age that means 45 years later you are still playing with some of the same people you went to high school with. I don’t know many other jobs where that happens.

‘No, this is for you. I’m giving this to you.’ And I looked at it and it looked like a pretty nice guitar

“It was just an experience that inspired the writing on the record and in about ten days I wrote all the songs. Then I had the band come in and we recorded them in five. We did two songs a day, three hours a song, and at the end of five days we had a record.”

And there was another crucial difference compared with previous albums – Letter to You was recorded live, all the band playing together in the studio, the years apart surrendering to warm familiarity. It is a wonder watching them all ease into a groove.

“Live is always immediate,” says Springsteen. “Immediate is always exciting, exciting is good. So you get a freshness. You make your entire record and before you get tired of it it’s done . . . you get a spontaneousness that doesn’t have to be contrived at a later date, that’s just there naturally, and there are places on the record where the arrangement just took off and started to write itself. The end on If I Was a Priest or the end of Ghosts, where the band just kind of morphs into some different song structure.

“And those are things that just happened when we played . . . And to keep the vocals when you are playing that almost never happens. You are always rerecording the lead vocal. And so I tried with one song and it wasn’t as good. So I said that’s it. I’m not even going to try with the rest of them.”

George Theiss’s death obviously had a profound impact on Springsteen and the overall direction of the album. But the actual writing of the songs was prompted by a strange and fortuitous event after he had performed in his Broadway show one night. (The show, Sprinsteen on Broadway, ran from late 2017 to June 2018.)

“Coming out of the stage door there is about 20 feet to the car. And there are fans out there every night. I got to the car and there is a guy standing there with a guitar. I’m used to people being there with guitars, sign this sign this, so I just said man, I don’t sign any guitars. And he says ‘no, this is for you. I’m giving this to you.’ And I looked at it and it looked like a pretty nice guitar.

“We talked for two seconds. I think he said it was a very finely made guitar, and I just took it and got in the car. I brought it home and set it in my living room. It sat there for quite a while, beautiful wood. I strummed it a few times, excellent sound, played excellently.

You can’t live in a society where if you are a person of colour you are in danger of being shot on any day of the week

“And I said jeez, this is a really comfortable guitar to play, and I picked it up and over the next 10 days practically all the songs for the album poured out. So it was a nice little piece of magic, that that guitar was holding all those songs in there and by the time I picked it up in 10 days I had the album.”

Well, not quite. Springsteen went back to his earliest days to find three songs (If I Was a Priest, Janey Needs a Shooter, A Song for Orphans) that he had sung in his famous early 1970s audition with the legendary Columbia A&R man John Hammond. Refurbished with care, they sound wonderful. As does Rainmaker, from the early noughties.

“I believe I may have written Rainmaker when Bush was president,” Springsteen says. “It sort of fits Trump better because it’s about a demagogue.”

Speaking of whom, he declares with unconcealed fervour that “Donald Trump will lose. Joe Biden will win. And the long national nightmare will be...well, I don’t know if it’ll be over but he’s going to be gone. I’m sure of that.” He says he believes the US will hold together regardless of the tensions and differences right now and that there is actually a lot of “positivity”. 

“Black Lives Matter is a very positive movement. It’s mostly peaceful. When it evolves into violence it is not good for anybody.” The movement has helped move civil rights in the US in a “more humane direction, a direction history is demanding. You can’t live in a society where if you are a person of colour you are in danger of being shot on any day of the week over some small infraction or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s time in the United States for that to stop.”

How has he coped with the pandemic? 

“Well, I’ve got to find something to do because if I do nothing I’m not anybody’s friend . . . I have to have something to on a daily basis, I’m just not good with unstructured time. That’s not how I thrive. So we were lucky. We cut [recorded] the album two or three months before Covid hit. Once Covid hit I could still work on it with two or three guys in the studio and get it finished. Same thing with the film . . . so luckily we had all of that to work on.

“And I’m always looking out for another project – I’ve several other things going. I’m just going to try to stay busy. That’s the best medicine for me in the midst of all of this.” Those projects presumably include his own radio show, which in Ireland is available on Radio Nova.

It’s a world of value, of code, of honour, fun and joy

And what cheers him up? 

“I’m a naturally cheery person.” He laughs. “What cheers me up? That’s a good question. Wait a minute. Vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate; that cheers me up. Hanging out with [his wife] Patti, she’s a lot of fun. So that cheers me up. When I see the guys, when we played, that’s deeply satisfying and a lot of fun. Playing cheers me up. Making a record cheers me up. Making this film cheered me up. It’s fall here but I go swimming in the ocean until late in the season cause I’ve always enjoyed the ocean. So a good dip in the October ocean wakes me up and cheers me up.

“I’m a beach rat. I grew up on the shore, the wind and sand and surf, and though I don’t surf anymore, I did for quite a while. The ocean and that part of the natural world always brightens me up. And then my kids cheer me up . . . so it’s just life going on.”

Finally, Springsteen talks about House of a Thousand Guitars, one of the standout tracks on Letter to You.

“It’s probably my favourite song because it attempts to define the world that I attempted to create with my audience and my listeners from the beginning. It’s a world of value, of code, of honour, fun and joy . . . And that’s a world I create when I walk onstage at night and my audience walks through the door. We live in that world for two or three hours and then we leave and take that world with us and hope that it sustains us for as long as it can . . .

“The House of a Thousand Guitars is the house we built, and within this house these things matter and it is part of our primary responsibility to give life and to give light to this house. And in doing so we light up our little corner of the human race. For a positive, creative, spiritual experience whose energy can then go forth into the world and hopefully make things just a tiny tiny bit better.”

Thom Zinny’s film Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, shot in black and white, works brilliantly in two complementary ways. First, it is a classic fly-on-the-wall approach. Lots of brotherly offbeat shots in the studio, comparing notes, close-ups, embraces, key moments, shared triumphs.

The second layer are Springsteen’s carefully constructed and softly spoken intros into songs set against sweeping autumnal cinematic landscapes and images, moving and still, from the past, including many references to the late lamented Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici.  

Bruce Springsteen in his 1948 Ford woodie on his property in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey in 2017. Photograph: Bryan Derballa/ The New York Times
Bruce Springsteen in his 1948 Ford woodie on his property in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey in 2017. Photograph: Bryan Derballa/ The New York Times

At the beginning it looks like a bunch of old men trooping into an elaborate men’s shed – they are all either side of 70 – but very soon the alchemy takes shape. Says Zinny: “I can’t really put into words, but it’s magical, the E-Street Band arriving all at once, Patti [Scialfa] and Bruce arriving, the band coming together. Then this thing happened. I tried to really stay out of the way and capture something that I can’t put into words, which is the beauty of that relationship, [manager] Jon Landau, the power of these words . . . so I just tried to be present in the moment.”

 Springsteen says the cameras never got in the way. “We had a very simple rule, which was the record comes first, the recording comes first, the musicians come first. It was, Thom you can be here, just don’t get in the way of anything. And Thom and his crew are so good I don’t remember them getting in the way of anyone once.“

 He adds that the spoken sections are important. “They work as meditations on what you are watching. So you’ll be about to see something and there’ll be a short meditation on the essence of what that is. And then it will be in action in front of your eyes.”

He says that the film falls somewhere between a documentary and an art film, adding that Zinny “has an inner guiding mechanism that always leads him to the most essential aspects of what we’re doing”.

Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is released on Columbia Records on October 23rd. The companion film will be available on Apple TV on the same date