More than 40 years into his legendary career, Bruce Springsteen is still breaking new ground: He and the E Street Band recently played their first ever concerts in the South African cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and then hit, again for the first time, Perth and Adelaide in Australia. The Antipodean run of shows saw Springsteen play a staggering 129 different songs over thirteen nights, including surprise covers such as a Nebraska-esque reading of Lorde's "Royals." Even given Springsteen's incredibly high standards, its been a thrilling series of gigs. We caught up with Springsteen at his Auckland, New Zealand, hotel room where he spoke about his latest shows, High Hopes, his upcoming EP, his choice of live covers and his songwriting process.
On your Australian tour, you chose Australian songs to play. Barry Gibb even tweeted that you brought the Bee Gee's "Stayin' Alive" "back to life." You really got inside the lyric. What was your process for that?
We said, "Who's the biggest Australian act in the world?" The Bee Gees. On my playlist I have a huge disco section — I like disco music from the Seventies a lot. The Bee Gees made great records and "Stayin' Alive" was simply a great song. The lyrics are in our wheelhouse. I told Steve [Van Zandt], "Tomorrow night, 'Staying Alive,'" and he goes, "You got me on that one. I don't know how we're gonna do it." And Tom Morello said, "I don't want to have any other ideas. Because I want to see how you're gonna pull that one off." Steve's going, "I can't imagine it." I go okay, I'm not going to be able to sing it where they sang it, so I have to think about Marvin Gaye on What's Going On and Trouble Man and I'm thinking of blaxploitation pictures. I thought, if I bring this thing down to my key and I play it like a blues, this is inner-city blues; it could slip right on to What's Going On. I had to find my voice in it. I got the lyrics up on the computer and just started to sing it. When it sounded believable to me I knew we'd be fine. It was like, "Okay, I can be this person in this song."
You really are pushing the envelope with the whole idea of what a rock concert should be. You're learning new songs on the day of the concert. In Brisbane you added an eight-piece string section and played The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Are you trying to broaden the boundaries?
No, we're just kind of doing what we've always done. I tried to bring a few things back: storytelling, which I stopped doing for a long time. I don't do it every night, but it's something you make up on the spot. I kind of brought that back a bit. I just wanted to do something different for Brisbane because we played the other three records, and we'd been having a great time playing stuff from The Wild, the Innocent. I also was very wary because I knew we didn't really hit [Australia] until 1985. I assumed there would be a lot of people who didn't know the record at all.
You said something in Sydney, with regards to playing your music live, about how you and the band "have to do it, and it has to be done."
Most musicians are musicians because they have to be. Bonnie Raitt used to come back and always tease me. She said, "Boy's got something in him. It's gotta come out." That's the case. The case is you have to do it. Why would you play for three hours and 45 minutes or something? Gotta do it. It's gotta be done.
You once said that the hardest thing was preserving the will. That was in the Nineties, but you obviously preserve the will really well.
Maybe it's hard for some people, but I got enough bad things running around my head; it remains incredibly medicinal and centering. Retaining the will to do it, once you commit, once I book this show, you may be backstage, you may be tired, you maybe want to go to sleep, but that walk, whatever it is, 25 yards from the dressing room to the stage, it's never failed me. Something turns on between those two points.
You've said that with your records, the opening song basically sets up questions that are answered through the rest of the album. High Hopes came together from various sessions, but it feels very cohesive.
Things come together. The Seeger Sessions record came together over a decade. And it sounds completely cohesive. As your work life gets longer, ten years isn't that much. So material that I made in a ten-year span is recent material for me. That's like I made it yesterday. It's gonna have a lot in common with itself. This was just a lot of music I had around that I really liked that I wanted to release. Amazingly, the key to it came while we were down here. We were in Sydney and Tom suggested we play "High Hopes." It sounded very good, [Producer-engineer] Nick DiDia happened to have a studio. We recorded like "Just Like Fire Would" the same day. Suddenly we got these two songs that sort of have life in them. I have this other group of songs I'm carrying around, and suddenly Tom is present, and alchemy happens. That's how this record came to life.What I like about the record is it's not particularly conceptual. It's a group of good songs. I think it plays easily like that. It's easy on your ear, and even though there's some very big songs on it — "American Skin" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I enjoyed it — it was not heavily fought over. That's one of its charms. It was just kind of done relatively quickly.
Just to get an idea of your songwriting process might be, a song like "Harry's Place," a Rising outtake that deals with gangsters, secrets and deception — was that a case of you wanting to tell a story and finding a tune to go with the story?
No, "Harry's Place," I started to write and I said I like the writing I did on The Wild, the Innocent. What if I was going to try to write something like that now? It initially started out as just me on the piano. [Producer] Brendan [O'Brien] heard it and I believe Brendan may have turned it into this rhythmic piece and made the sound that's very compelling. It's a very hard sounding thing for us.
A song like "Hunter of Invisible Game," that is a great title. Did you get the title first and work backwards?
I wrote [the title] down years ago, and I don't remember a lot about it except I said, "That's a nice title." I wrote it down and it sat there. Then I did more reading of other things. And I started to get into this sort of post-apocalyptic idea. The idea of these travellers in the wasteland, and what's the guy trying to do? He's trying to hold onto their humanness, their humanity in all of this ruin. That was the idea. That's who this guy is, the guy who is hunting out remnants of what makes the spirit. It was one of those songs that came together a certain way and I didn't think much about it when I wrote it. I put it away. Now it's probably one of my favorite things on the record. We played it the other night for the first time and it seemed to have some impact.
You're releasing a 12-inch vinyl EP, American Beauty, for Record Store Day on April 19. There are four previously unreleased songs: the title track, "Mary Mary," "Hey Blue Eyes" and "Hurry Up Sundown." What can you tell us about it?
It's got some nice things on it. This is material from the past decade. Some were demos that I never cut. I believe "American Beauty" was a demo I made that I didn't end up cutting with Brendan. I believe "Hurry Up Sundown" was the same thing. The other two songs, one was cut for maybe Magic or Working on a Dream and they're just good music that didn't get onto this record, and was sitting there. I thought it's a nice time to support the record stores, which are dwindling and get some new music out at the same time.
You've toured Australia twice in a little over a year and this has been your first trip to New Zealand in a decade. Europe has been massive for you. It must feel pretty good to be so well received away from home?
The shows are very emotionally successful. They're just these incredibly communicative events that occur. We're outside of our own country, so there seems to be something heightened about it. I guess what I basically feel is that in Europe, rock music as a form for the discussion and expression of ideas and events of the day has retained its currency. It has done less so in the States. It's been co-opted there by pop and hip-hop and a lot of other fabulous forms. But it's kind of taken the hegemony away from rock.We have a fabulous and supportive audience in the United State's that's been with us for many years. I love playing to them.For some reason, perhaps in Europe and maybe in Australia also, I don't know, but [rock] seems to be very alive and vital as a form to write about the day's issues. It may have something to do with the different levels of popularity we have outside of the country at this moment. It's basically our form, and it's just fascinating.
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This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Bruce Springsteen Q&A: On Top Down Under