Between his work as a TV actor, radio host, record label owner, producer, and, of course, as Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist in the E Street Band, it’s no surprise that Steven Van Zandt — who records music as Little Steven — has let his solo career fall to the wayside over the past few decades.
That’s all changing May 19 with the release of Soulfire, Van Zandt’s first solo album in nearly 20 years. “It all happened so fast that I didn’t really have any time to think about it,” the 66-year-old singer-guitarist tells EW during a week of promotion and rehearsals with the newly reformed Disciples of Soul, the 15-piece band he’ll be taking on the road this summer.
Soulfire is largely made up of songs Van Zandt has either written or helped produce for other artists throughout his 40-plus year career. “I don’t wake up every day and just write to write,” he says, explaining the album’s retrospective focus. “I only write with purpose.”
Lately, for Van Zandt, that’s meant either writing music for his television show Lilyhammer or an occasional one-off co-write with some of the young garage rock bands signed to his label, Wicked Cool Records. Several of those more recent songs appear on Soulfire alongside revised versions of older Jersey Shore classics like “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” a 1977 Southside Johnny soul-rocker written by Van Zandt and Springsteen, exclusively premiering below.
EW recently caught up with Van Zandt to talk about his new album, his creative partnership with Bruce Springsteen, and how he’s created his own genre.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the basic premise of your new album?
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: It’s real simple: It’s me covering me. At the same time, I put elements of my roots on this record that I never have before. There’s a doo-wop song, there’s a blues song, there’s jazz inside of the R&B James Brown song [“Down and Out in New York City”]. So there are a lot of elements that make up my music that I’ve never put on one album before. It’s a nice reintroduction of myself — to me and to my audience.
How did the album come together?
Last year I was asked to play a blues festival in London and I said yes just for the hell of it. Playing these songs for the first time in 20 years was quite a revelation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this stuff is not like anything else. It’s really something different. It’s some sort of strange hybrid that I developed through the years. I realized, “Wow, I kind of created my own genre here.” So for this album, I wanted to go back to that, to the beginning, to where I started, which was that soul-meets-rock thing that I created with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and then continued with my own first album. I went back to that thing which I thought was most uniquely me.
Was it strange to record songs like “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” that you had written yourself decades ago?
Some songs are just carved in concrete and that one stayed pretty much the same. It wasn’t until the ending of that song that I found a way to do a couple of new moves. It’s a deceptively simple song, and you realize that the simpler a song is, the more difficult it is to sing because there are not a lot of places you can go, so you have to make those few notes really count. There’s very little room for improvisation, and I found that discipline fascinating. It gave me even more of an appreciation for Southside Johnny.
Do you remember writing that song with Bruce Springsteen in the late ’70s?
It was time for a Southside record and we were all kind of living together back then. Bruce had that riff, and that’s basically how I collaborate. Somebody will have a riff or a line or a melody or a chorus or a title, and then I just finish the song. Looking back, I wish me and Bruce had done more together, honestly. It was just a song here, a song there, whatever we needed at the time. Of course, Bruce was busy doing his own thing, and at the time you don’t think, “Wow, we really should work together more often.”
In the early days, both me and Bruce kind of did the same job. We were both bandleaders, songwriters, guitar players, and lead singers, so there wasn’t a whole big need for us to work together. We didn’t exactly have that co-dependency that makes for great songwriting teams.
Do you coordinate with Bruce before embarking on a big ambitious solo album and Disciples of Soul tour?
Bruce likes to be spontaneous. You never know what’s going to happen, but I don’t wait around for anything, I just keep moving and try to intersect when I can. I talked to Bruce about this. I was like, “You’re not going to go out every year, right? Whenever you don’t go out, I’ll go out from now on.” Bruce told me that we were taking the rest of the year off with the E Street Band, so that’s when I started this whole project.
What type of space do you think exists for the genre of Steven Van Zandt in 2017?
You want everybody to like your work, but when you look at what’s fashionable or trendy, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t exactly fit. Once in a while, things sneak onto a radio format for whatever reason, but these days, the record is really just a script for the live show. It’s really been that way even with Bruce’s stuff. Guys like us come from that old school place of making albums that tell stories or have a certain theme or feel or mood. So, we work for ourselves. We want to satisfy our own artistic ambitions, and then you hope the world likes it.