The Acoustic Storm Interviews
E Street Band/Patti Scialfa
Patti Scialfa has been a member of the E Street Band since 1984. Her second solo album, “23rd Street Lullaby,” features contributions from husband Bruce Springsteen.
Patti spoke with The Acoustic Storm in August of 2004 from the Springsteens’ home in New Jersey.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Let’s talk about “23rd Street Lullaby.” The title of the song, and the album itself refers to an area of New York City where you developed your creative muse, I suppose, right?
PATTI SCIALFA: Yes, that’s a beautiful way of putting it. I’m going to write that down and use that. I moved there when I was about 21. I moved to the neighborhood of Chelsea, and lived on 24th Street. That was in the mid ’70s. Then in the mid ’80s doing Bruce’s tour, I moved to 23rd Street, between the same blocks, 9th and 10 Avenue. It’s a wonderful neighborhood, and a lot of my musician friends lived on 24th Street in the buildings right next door to each other. So we had this great creative community at the time, we’d always help out on each other’s music, trying to make demos to get a record deal in the late ’70s. Steve Jordan was one of the people that lived on my block and he ended up co-producing my record, he’s a brilliant drummer. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he produced a bunch of Keith Richards’ solo records. He’s just a brilliant musician. Cliff Carter lived there, and Cliff played with James Taylor for years. These guys always helped me, and really reflected back my own real identity to me and so when I went to make this record it was very helpful having them in the studio with me.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Kind of like old home week?
SCIALFA: It is like old home week and even on a deeper level, people who see you very clearly. I work with the E Street Band and I’m married to Bruce, and that’s a really big canopy to try and work your way out to try to get some autonomy. I mean I’ve known these guys for 20 years, and they played on my record so it was nice to have a different group of people that I’ve known for a very long time who could set up an environment that you could work in, that was truly your own environment and saw very clearly what you were trying to do.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Very much a nuturing environment.
SCIALFA: A nurturing environment, yes.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Can you contrast this album with your debut effort, “Rumble Doll”
SCIALFA: Yeah, I can. I loved my “Rumble Doll” record. It was a very honest record for me and I was very happy with it because I can put that record on and it really expresses a very specific time in my life honestly and creatively. That record was like really a love letter to my husband, Bruce and had very few characters in it. Just two people in the record struggling to see if they can be close, if you can trust the person, how intimate can you get without getting hurt. Are you strong enough to let yourself get hurt, if you will get hurt; if things don’t pan out.
A lot of the questions are to the other person, a lot are questions you ask yourself. So there’s only a few people on that record, only populated by…I think I mention my mother in that record (laughs). There’s only a few characters in the record if you were reading it like a novel. Very specific and very intimate.
On “23rd Street Lullaby,” the cast of characters is broadened tremendously for me. There’s a lot more people coming in and out of the stories and in and out of the person’s lives. There are some songs with the same theme of closeness; how to be close, love songs. But then there’s other songs just about living, and trying to find out who you are, where are the people around you, where are you going to set your compass, and are you going to follow that; where are you going to set your moral compass, and are you going to follow it. If you look back to when you were younger, ‘hey, did you follow that? I had my compass set here on north. Okay, maybe I couldn’t go completely north, but I’m still not far off’ from the ideals that you believed in when you were young.’ How many of those things are just romantically idealistic, but how many are rooted in something deeper that you can take along with you and still hold on to today. It’s a big question for me. It’s compelling to work in that field.
ACOUSTIC STORM: When you mention different characters in “23rd Street Lullaby,” those that inhabit the songs of that album, it’s obvious that personal experience has guided a lot of your songwriting. But are any of them from taking creative license? In other words, if someone were to ask you ‘is this part of your life?,’ would you say ‘well, no not necessarily.’
SCIALFA: No, that’s my life in there (laughs). Rose, the woman in the song, “Her Name Was Rose,” and I did work in a restaurant in Chelsea. I was in my early 20’s she was pushing 50, maybe 48, 49. That’s an old song–I wrote that in the bar of the restaurant that I worked at. Rose and I used to have a drink at the bar when we were done with our shift. She’d walk me home, she thought it was dangerous for young girls to walk all over the city. And we used to talk, and the things that are in that song, the lines that I give her credit for saying, she truly said, I just wrote them on a bar napkin and put them into a song.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You kept those napkins all these years and voila, there’s your song. Do you stay in touch with Rose?
SCIALFA: No, I haven’t seen her in a long time. I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with her. I’m hoping through doing interviews and talking about it and playing live on radio, she’ll surface somewhere.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Maybe she’ll say “hmm, that song could be about me.”
SCIALFA: Oh no, she’s heard the song. When I wrote that song in the ’70s, I had an original band that played all my music. I played that song at Kenny’s Castaway in Greenwich Village, on Bleecker Street- it’s a famous club, it’s still there and I invited her to come down. I said you have to come down I have a surprise for you (“oh what is it, what is it”). I finally had to tell her so I could get her down there. I said “I wrote a song for you and your name is in it, so you have to come down.” So, she came down, she sat right in front, she heard the song.
ACOUSTIC STORM: That’s cool.
SCIALFA: Yeah, it was fun.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What are some of your musical influences? I was wondering if Laura Nyro was someone you might have listened to growing up?
SCIALFA: Laura Nyro…huge influence-it’s funny-Laura Nyro was one of my earliest influences. She’s just a beautiful singer/songwriter. A lot of people took her songs and made them commercial and she had big hits out of them, but her records themselves were very intimate and small and beautiful. I think my song “23rd Street Lullaby” that I start the record with, and the song that I finish my record with, “When You’re Young in the City,” I wrote them both on piano and those were certainly a tip of the hat to her records. She had a record called “New York Tendaberry”-are you familiar with that?
ACOUSTIC STORM: Yes, very much so.
SCIALFA: Yeah, I love that record, so I was taking inspiration from that.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Can you talk a little about the acoustic nature of your music, since The Acoustic Storm focuses on that texture. What is it about acoustic music that you enjoy?
SCIALFA: Well, just by the nature of it. It is acoustic and you can make a beautiful sound with it without any amplification or anything that you would have to plug in that will take you another step away from the intimate sound which it possesses by itself, right?
So, I would think that when you have a sound like that, it draws people in immediately and it’s used so much, even nowadays. I love it when I hear these rock bands where the guys will start singing over just a little acoustic guitar and they hook you into that song. It’s just so intimate sounding and leaves so much room for your voice and what you’re saying and then they’ll take that band and slam in the rest of that music. But it will start acoustically to hook you in, you know, to get you to bite.
I think acoustic music is always very compelling because I think in a funny way it signifies to the person that they’re hearing something private, personal, thoughtful, evocative, you know?
ACOUSTIC STORM: I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way. It really is such a sincere form of music.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You mention those songs that start out kind of acoustic, and when I first hear some of these newer songs I go ‘oh, maybe this is something I can play on the show.’
SCIALFA: Not by the second verse, my friend (laughs)
ACOUSTIC STORM: (Laughs) Nope, don’t think so. Well, let’s trace back a little further, to the E Street Band and the time period when you joined the group during the “Born In the USA” tour. What was that like? It must have been pretty exciting, and quite a change for you.
SCIALFA: It was exciting. I’d known Bruce casually as a friend, and everybody makes this joke, but it’s true, I really got that gig by default. Steve, Little Steven Van Zandt, had left the band at that point and Bruce had hired Nils (Lofgren) as his replacement. At the time, Nils had mono, which left him with a bad case of laryngitis, so there was nobody else to sing Stevie’s parts. So I was hired literally three days before the first arena that we played, which I think was in St. Louis. They didn’t even have a place for me to stand on stage. They were building the risers just two hours before the show started.
ACOUSTIC STORM: So that took your career into a band dynamic. How would you describe the spirit of the band, because the E Street Band certainly has a spirit unto itself. At the same time, there’s a synchronicity with Bruce, but obviously the E Street Band is a very special group.
SCIALFA: I think so. It’s something that you can’t really put your finger on, but when people play together… It’s a fascinating thing to be a part of because it works like a one-celled unit, like an amoeba almost. Everybody’s there and they’re truly giving selflessly of their musicianship to support Bruce’s musical and emotional vision. When you get people to really do that, to give over of themselves like that and then the people organically play so well together, they’ve been playing so long, it’s amazing how the band can just gel together. And every night is a little bit different.
Some nights everybody will play in this really nice, kind of forward, I wouldn’t say ahead of the beat, but certainly on the top end of the beat, but everybody’s doing it together and it’s in this beautiful time that’s a little crisp. And then some nights, you go out and play and everybody’s very relaxed, lying right behind the beat, kind of slow, even when you’re playing hard rockers and everybody’s just congealed into that time feel. It’s really a wonderful thing as just a musician to be a part of and sink your teeth into. It’s just a blast.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You’ve played so many shows with the E Street Band. Are there one or two particular events or concerts that stand out more than any others?
SCIALFA: Well it’s funny…it doesn’t have to be something that spectacular. There’s no one obvious factor that you would think would make one show stand out more than others, although I mean it does happen. When we played Fenway in Boston, it was spectacular. People were so excited, even people who couldn’t get seats. It seemed like there were 15,000 people just lining the streets on the way to the gig right outside Fenway Park. It was a beautiful, very exciting evening.
But you could be someplace out in the middle of the country and come into this really funky-looking old venue, that looks like it’s going to have bad sound. When I say that, they’re shaped a certain way where you can tell that when you’re playing it’s going to slap off the back wall and give you a delay on stage, right? Which is sometimes hard to work with, but those gigs in those funky little buildings can be the most exciting. It is a very organic process and it just happens.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What about the camaraderie within the band itself?
SCIALFA: We all get along great on stage, we just have a good time. I saw Stevie yesterday and every time I see him, it’s “I miss you, I miss our chats.” Stevie and I, when we’re on stage, we have a way of obviously doing the show, but we have a way of talking to each other that we don’t even have to speak. We just have all these little movements. You miss all of the little intricacies of the show too, not just the show and playing to the fans, the venues and the beautiful music. But there’s a lot of interaction with your buddies that you miss.
ACOUSTIC STORM: So let’s see now. Patti is a mother, a wife and a member of the E Street Band. How are you able to keep that all going so fluidly?
SCIALFA: I don’t think any of that stuff is easy for anybody. I think it’s difficult for any woman that has children and is working. Just having children is hard, and you throw a job on top of it, you’re always pulled in a lot of different directions. I have the luxury of having a lot of help, but I did finally realize it, especially after my kids got a little bit older, ‘oh I get it, it’s always going to be this way.’ You’re never going to feel that you’re doing one thing perfectly at any time, because by the mere fact that you feel like you’re doing one thing really well, you say ‘wow, I’m getting all my musical work done, got my rehearsals in, now I have time to write.’ Then on the other hand, I can feel like I’m not spending enough time with my children and my husband. So, I just think that you’re always going to feel that pull (laughs).
You just have to live with that. You just have to go with it. People say you can have it all. Well, you might be able to have it all on paper, right? But you can’t have it all in your real life. There’s always going to be one thing that you feel you’re not doing as well as the other.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How does the creative aspect enter into your marriage in terms of the music. I’m sure Bruce totally supports your solo career as well, but how is that to live with somebody you work with and who is your partner in life?
SCIALFA: You know what, my mom and dad worked together since I was born, so I grew up in a household where my mother and father worked together. My dad owned a television store and then branched out from there. And then my mom and dad took the extra money from there and started getting into real estate, so they always worked together. She had it harder than me. She’d come home at 4 from work, start cooking a dinner every night, have the table set, and everything would be clean. So for me, I grew up that way, so it feels very natural for me to work with my husband. Probably because of the way I grew up, it would feel unnatural not to work with my husband. It works out well, because I think when you have people who are involved in any creative or artistic endeavor, you’re going to live in your head a lot. And if both people understand that the other person’s going to need a certain amount of space, that’s good, because you can allow it; you understand it, and you’re not threatened by it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Does he give you some input on your music and vice versa sometimes?
SCIALFA: Yeah, of course. But in a much more normal and mundane way than anyone would probably think. Just like ‘you want to hear this new song I recorded, it s just a demo, what do you think?’ You’re really not looking for someone to give you a real critique when you say that. (laughs)
ACOUSTIC STORM: You want to bring a smile to his face.
SCIALFA: That’s all, that’s all. You just want some room as you’re working on it, just a little camaraderie, just in a very casual way, like ‘I’m working on this today, maybe I’ll put a different guitar here.’ But nothing real intricate, and seriously sitting down. He has his people that he works with and I have a really great group of people that I work with. So my questions I’ll basically answer myself, or with Steve Jordan, who I co-produced the record with.
ACOUSTIC STORM: It ‘s a wonderful life, as they say.
SCIALFA: Yeah, I’m blessed, it’s blessed.
-Transcribed by Nancy Ianuzzi