A Conversation with Rick Springfield
By Clay Howard
“Jessie’s Girl” was a huge hit for Rick Springfield in 1981. It also won him a grammy.
Springfield had been in the music business for 12 years by this time. He had already enjoyed success in his homeland of Australia as a member of the band Zoot, and had visited the coveted Top 40 charts in the USA with the No. 14 1972 hit, “Speak to the Sky.” He even had a cartoon series on ABC in 1973. This when there were only three networks, and not very many people got anything on network television.
Rick Springfield has sold more than 19 million albums and written and performed 17 Top-40 hits.
However, It has never been “cool” to be a fan of Rick Springfield. Probably due to the “General Hospital” thing, who knows?
It may not be “cool”, but I will bet you that “Jessie’s Girl” is present on more iPods than other song from the top 100 of 1981. My point is this, the staying power of “Jessie’s Girl” and numerous other Springfield songs, like “Love Somebody” and “What Kind of Fool am I?”, demonstrate something that the harbingers of cool do not want you to realize: A good song is a good song. Whether the writer of the song is a daytime soap-opera star or a Dylan devotee from the Jersey shore, a good song is a good song. By the way, Springfield not only released hit albums in 1981, his latest release debuted at No. 28 in July 2008.
All this is simply to introduce a conversation I had with Mr. Springfield recently. In it we discussed his new CD, Venus in Overdrive; his thoughts on the state of the music industry, illegal downloading and whatever else I could squeeze into 30 minutes.
Rick, Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, and congrats on the success of the new CD, Venus in Overdrive, which debuted at No. 28 on the Billboard album charts.
Thanks, I am very, very excited about it, and happy with the way it came out.
I have read that you recorded the CD in 32 days. Does that include the writing of the record? Did you write it in the studio?
No, No. I wrote it with my bass player, Matt Bissonette. This is the first time I have written an album with someone else, so it was a fun shared experience. We would write on the road. We wrote for about a year, and got it all together and recorded it took 32 days, which for me is a miracle. The last one took 11 months!
With it being your first time co-writing an album, can you describe the writing process?
We just sat down… like with “What’s Victoria’s Secret” (the new single), we played five nights in Milwaukee, and we stayed at this Hotel called the Pfister, that is actually haunted. We were in one of the haunted rooms and pulled in a little recording rig and just started playing, started writing and came up with the track. Then we took it away and worked on it separately, to work up melodies and lyric ideas and things like that. You know, sometimes one would take the lead, sometimes the other would take the lead.
One thing I noticed in listening to the new disc, is how each of the tracks would easily slide into a radio playlist… that is if radio actually played new songs from established artists.
There almost seems to be a double standard…a station builds their listening audience on the older songs of an artist like yourself, then ignores your new material.
Well, we’re getting play on this one, for “What’s Victoria’s Secret,” which is truly astounding to me. I can’t believe it, you know, but radio is definitely different. There are the ones who play your old stuff, but there is no real room on their playlist for new stuff too, cause they play classics. I understand that. But definitely radio has fractured and fractured, and fragmented and fragmented until no one knows where to turn (laughs). That’s why the iPod is such a huge hit, because if radio had been like it was, you know, where people could hear a great mix of music. That is what people hear on their iPods , that great mix that you used to hear on the radio. It wasn’t just 12 tracks played over and over or only oldies.
On the same note, the only tours that make money are the established acts like you. For example, if the Stones go out, they are the top-touring act of the year, yet their records do not sell. Seems like there is a direct correlation there — the fans are obviously there, but they do not know about the new material because radio does not play it.
Yeah, the fans are absolutely there, and there is a whole selection of record companies springing up to put out new records by established artists, ’cause they know there is a hole there, they just can’t quite figure out how to get to it. It is kind of like the whole internet thing. Everybody knows there is money to be made on music on the internet, they just can’t figure out how to do it (laughs). Other than, you know, Apple, who has figured it out, but at the expense of artists.
You get a fraction of what you used to get from a record company. I am not complaining, it is just a changing world. You just have to work with it. These guys who took this free downloading to court — it was kind of pointless. It is like prohibition never worked; once you tasted alcohol you are not going to say “You know what, lets not do that.”
How does an artist like yourself respond to the free downloading. A huge number of people have “Jessie’s Girl” on their iPods, but how many people actually bought it, you know?
You know, honestly, I download stuff if I can’t find it on iTunes. Its just part of the world and everybody’s job is getting cut into. Actors are getting less than they used to because things are getting tighter due to pirating. It is the digital world. It is very easy to pirate digital stuff, so we just have to learn to live with it. You can’t shut it down once it happens. You can’t Pandora’s box once you’ve opened it, and that is what happened in this digital world.
I make money off the internet because I have a website that, if you are a Rick Springfield fan, is the only place you can get it. And that’s really how you make money off the internet, have something that people can’t get anywhere else. There is an up and a downside. I didn’t have the Internet in the ’80s, and we missed a lot because of that, but we made up for it on straight sales, that aren’t available as much anymore. Its just balancing new technology, which is weird cause it’s all so new.
My day job is at a business incubator, and your answer about changing business models sounds like it could come from one of the successful entrepreneurs I speak to on a daily basis.
Yeah, it’s just a changing business model. You can’t fight it; you have to work with it. The record companies were the last ones to “get” that downloading was going to interfere with their record sales. They kept saying. “It’s going to change back, It’s going to change back,” and they kept pushing the old thing. Now, everyone believes that last Christmas was the last really decent CD sales Christmas.
Like you said, the old model is gone, and with it artist development. To what do you attribute your longevity in the business? Besides obviously, having great songs. Great songs will speak for themselves, regardless of changing business models. People will find great songs. Is there any other reason you think your career has been able to sustain as long as it has?
I have always believed that. George Martin said to the Beatles when they were trying to break in America, when they did, “‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’” he said: “No one can deny this song.” He was absolutely right and I’ve always believed that, that if the song is good enough, someway it’s going to make its way in. And that is what I focus on, writing the best songs I can. As far as my longevity, I attribute that to the, uh, luck, the will of the gods and my obstinate persistence, Staying in there when everyone else was saying, “Rick Springfield — who’s that?” or “Rick Springfield — he’s over.” You can’t take other people’s word for it, you know? It’s you and you have to make your decisions based on who you are , not what people think you are.
Agreed. You mentioned the Beatles a moment ago. You can hear their influence on a couple of tracks, well, you speak of one of the Beatles on Venus in Overdrive, but you can hear the influence definitely on the song “She.”
Yeah. We said, “If the Beatles were still writing today, where they left off, not having evolved through all the decades, What would they be writing?” That is the way we approached that song. We love the Beatles, and their influence rings throught the ages. Without ripping them off, we wanted to get a feel of that. The song about the death of John Lennon ( “3 Warning Shots,”) is certainly very on the nose, and very to the point, haha.
It really would have fit in on your last album, but it makes a great break in the album, a good start to the second half. If I had bought this as an LP, it would have been a great first song, second side.
I miss being able to do that with albums. You know, set them up two sides. It is weird though. We just vacationed in Italy for three weeks, and I was walking along the streets of Venice and Yoko Ono and Sean came walking down the street. It was so surreal.
Yeah, you know “In Venice?” It was so surreal, especially since I am such a huge John Lennon fan. We are huge McCartney fans too. But as I get older, I see a lot of the stuff I missed that John did, that got by me, cause I was kind of in to the happy, pretty side of the Beatles. I didn’t understand a lot of the darker stuff he was doing. And the innovative stuff he was doing, just amazing. But anyway, that song is a tribute to him, and a slam to the dickhead that took his life.
Speaking of influences, can you spot your influence on the artists of today?
Yeah, I hear me and the Cars, and Cheap Trick. We actually, with “What’s Victoria’s Secret,” we were actually thinking, “Well if ‘Stacy’s Mom’ can rip me off, then I can rip off “Stacy’s Mom.”
There is a tribute CD to your work being released, any thoughts? I think it definitely shows your place in the music industry.
I am humbled by anyone who likes what I have done and what I do. Truly. My attitude to fans has changed 180 degrees. At the beginning, it was kind of fun, then I started feeling like they were serving me. I don’t know anyone, personally, that has made it to any degree, that hasn’t gone through that. You know, “It really is me, I am really this great.” I think everyone goes through that. I think the great thing about having a long career is that you can kind of settle into it, and realize that it is just a job and you are lucky enough to be doing it, and if there was no audience you would be, you know, singing to your dogs.
You had the unique chance with this new CD to market it in a different way. Back in the ’80s you had MTV, and obviously “General Hospital.” However you never promoted the albums on “General Hospital.” With your new CD, you performed the new single on the show. Was that your idea, or that of the producers?
Actually, initially it was their idea. I did an opening set for the Daytime Emmy Awards last year, and everyone really liked it. It was the first time I think that they had a real band on there. Before it had been, you know, soap-opera singers getting up and doing a solo. The head of daytime for ABC said, “I want to get THAT guy on ‘General Hospital.’” Because the character I play, Noah Drake, is completely different, he’s very reserved and I never wanted to sing as Noah Drake. Of course, they asked me to back in the ’80s, but I didn’t do that because it crossed the line too much for me. So recently they came to me and said, “We want to bring on a second character who is a rock star.” I initially balked and said, “Oh no that sounds a bit hokey.” But then I thought about the bands who are banging on these guy’s doors to get their new singles played on a daytime soap, and here I am given an opportunity to do it. So I said,”As long as they could do it in a realistic way and not make it dopey, then Yeah let’s do it.” They wrote some really funny stuff between the two characters, and it was fun playing them both. Noah Drake actually got to punch the other character, Eli Love, the rock guy out. So I actually got to kick my own ass. But it was fun to perform the song, and I thought they filmed it really well. It was the first time I was Rick Springfield on the show.
I believe that, when writing, if your music passes the “kid test,” meaning if a small child starts dancing to your song as you play it, you know you are on the right track, because kids only react to a hook. Your latest CD definitely passed the test. My three kids at home have loved it since first listen.
Was that move back towards bigger choruses and lighter themes a conscious decision while writing this album? Your last CD was much darker.
I was really in a dark place when I wrote shock/ denial/anger/acceptance. You can tell, it is a very damning album, a very angry album. I am just in a different headspace. And certainly working with Matt helped. Matt is very positive, and he brought a kind of happiness to all my dark shit. I try to write truthfully and I try to write the truthful stuff, which is generally the dark stuff.
Even “Jessie’s Girl” has a dark side to the song cause I didn’t get the girl and I wanted the girl and my best friend had the girl. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is all about sexual paranoia about my then-girlfriend who became my wfe. I could never write a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Matt definitely lent a positive side to it, which is great.
Speaking of lending a positive side, there are two songs on Venus In Overdrive that are about your young friend, Sahara, who left this world too soon at the age of 11. These two songs, “God Blinked” and “Saint Sahara,” are so celebratory in nature. In fact, “God Blinked” is my favorite on the album.
Wow, that’s awesome.
The music truly captures the celebration of a child.
I wanted to write a song that she could dance to. That’s what her mom said. She said when Sahara died, she said,”Don’t write a maudlin song, and don’t make it weepy.” I wanted to give something to her mom, you know, her parents, since Sahara knows all now.
“Saint Sahara” was actually the most bizarre writing experience, cause when she first passed away, I went to my computer and wrote kind of like a 10-line poem, just to get my feelings out and saved it and forgot about it. Then I wrote this melody about three months later that I was intending to be a song about her, which turned out to be “Saint Sahara.” I wanted to find some lyrics, and I didn’t know which way to go with it because, like I said, I did not want it to be too maudlin. So I opened up the computer and found those words and they fit the melody perfectly. I have never experienced anything like that before. Two things written entirely separately fit together like a glove.
You have two kids yourself. Is either of them following in your footsteps?
Yeah, they are both musicians. My oldest son is really quite spectacular. He plays guitar, keyboards, whatever he wants to play. He writes, records. I have a lot of his stuff on my iPod. My youngest son is a drummer, but he is going the business side. He is studying business at USC. Maybe he will be my eldest son’s agent.
So, what is next?
Well, I have the cruise.
How is that going
It has been sold out for a while. We are going out with John Waite, and are going do a lot for the fans. We want to make it more than just a concert on a boat. We are going to do acoustic shows, show movies, do question and answer sessions.
Well, I look forward to seeing you play live in October (Oct. 18 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Charlotte, with John Waite, Eddie Money and Lou Gramm). Thanks for taking the time to talk.
Good interview, thanks.