If you could script out a timeline like one of the soaps on which he so famously kicked off his U.S. career in the ’80s, Rick Springfield’s fortunes are definitely on an upswing. The Aussie rocker got a huge cred boost in 2013, when the super-cool pop-culture icon that is Dave Grohl asked him to perform in the Sound City documentary—itself a celebration of not just the renowned Van Nuys, California, studio it profiled, but also a salute to the excitement of creating music raw and live. Then, last year, Springfield enjoyed worldwide kudos for his sensitive portrayal of an aging club musician in love with his front-person (played by Meryl Streep) in director Jonathan Demme’s intelligent popcorn flick, Ricki and the Flash.
Even better for his fans, and, well, the planet in general, our existence was not terminated since Springfield’s 2012 opus, Songs for the End of the World, broached the subject of extinction. Happily, we’re all still here, and Springfield turned his talents toward a more upbeat, but no less wonderfully bombastic album, Rocket Science [Frontiers Music]. Along with co-producer/bassist Matt Bissonette, his current live band (co-guitarist George Nastos, keyboardist/guitarist Tim Gross, and drummer Jorge Palacios), and some session pros, Springfield dipped into a few country-music themes to give the new record a sense of fun, joy, and hope, as well as blazing guitars and the glories of a bunch of guys making noise together in a room.
What inspired the country-rock hybrid on Rocket Science?
I’ve been listening to a lot of country stuff, and I think that really rubbed off. Also, we’re always playing in Nashville, so I had the chance to write with a couple of guys there—although there was no focus on doing a country record. I mean, there are songs on the album with no country vibe at all. It’s a mish mash of stuff. But I did want to see how my pop rock songs could fit in some country elements. So, yeah, I’ve gone to Nashville [laughs]. I’ve always loved pedal-steel, banjos, and fiddles.
I get the Nashville vibe—especially as you’re a guitar player. We’re under constant pressure to cover more Nashville stuff because there are so many amazing guitarists coming out of that town.
Oh yeah. It’s where playing has gone. You’ve got to be a musician to thrive in Nashville. I’m not putting down drum machines and computer workstations, because I use that stuff a lot myself, but that’s all you hear on radio now. Real playing, though—that’s what is coming out of the country music scene.
Did you go for an old-school, live-in-the-studio recording approach, then?
Absolutely. All of the basic tracks were cut by my great live band in a big room. Then, we brought everything to my home studio to finish it. That’s where we did vocals, overdubbed guitars, and whatever.
Do you sing scratch vocals live with the band while you’re tracking basics?
Not really. The new material is still fluid at the point where we’re laying basic tracks down, and I’m usually concentrating on playing guitar. Sometimes, I’ll sing along, but I like to work somewhat alone with the vocals so I can change melodies and lyrics as the songs evolve. Also, we had booked the studio for three weeks, and we only had two songs done when we went in. We really had to floor it to get stuff written and all the basic tracks finished.
So you have the harmony and rhythm-track parts locked and loaded while you’re recording them, but you’re not 100-percent certain what the melodies will be at that time?
Pretty much. I used to do complete demos at my house—vocals, drums, and everything else—and play the recordings for the band in the studio. But now, because the band is so great and we know each other so well, I don’t have to do the demo thing anymore. I can go in the studio with just a basic idea and start laying down tracks with the hope that something wonderful will come out. This puts me in unsafe areas and I like that. Sometimes, the song falls on its face, and, sometimes, we get a nice surprise.
Still, you once said that you like to spend three months working on a song in order to get everything perfect. But here, you go in with just two completed songs, a ton more to write and record, and a three-week deadline that requires you and the band to put the pedal to the metal. I’d be like, “Oh crap, I have to come up with an awesome chord progression right now!”
I’ve found that I work well under pressure, and I like it that way. When I was a kid, for example, I didn’t sit down and plan a schedule for completing a school project. I’d be up in my room until past midnight trying to finish it before I had to turn it in the next day. So I do like the tension that creates. I think music comes out of tension. I think all of the arts do.
Do you feel that kind of deadline pressure can drive the rest of the musicians in your band to come up with crazy things on the fly, or do they get a bit stiff and safe because no one wants to make a mistake?
Well, you always look for the crazy stuff that’s interesting, and, ultimately, really good. We’ve done tracks recently where someone did make a mistake. But we went, “Yeah! Yeah!” That’s because it was a spontaneous moment that sounded special. Those moments have always been the magic to me when you’re recording with a bunch of guys in a studio. They don’t usually happen if you’re sitting alone making tracks all by yourself with a computer program.
So it doesn’t bother you to have, let’s say, a firm idea for a track, and then have it go somewhere else?
I encourage everyone in the band to expand on my ideas, because I think that’s, again, when the magic can happen. These are guys I play with every night and hang out with on the road. I know my band, and I have faith in their ideas because I trust them. Having said that, I want any new ideas to be as good or better than my original one. I’m very firm on keeping to the plan unless something different can improve the song.
What elements inform your songwriting?
Melody has always been the key to me. In the end, it’s just you sitting in a room going, “Do I like this or not?” You can’t farm a song out to 20 people and wait for a majority to go, “Yeah, this is good.” You have to make the decision, and I guess the music that you grew up with—as well as what you personally think is an attractive melody or whatever—is what informs the finished song.
I know that you have quite a collection of guitars and amps, so did you use a lot of different gear to track your parts during the Rocket Science sessions?
Actually, I used one guitar and one amp. I had a 12-watt Morgan PR12 1x12 combo and my ’69 Gibson SG—which I bought new in Australia when I got into my first real band. There’s no distorted sound like the SG. It has this great, contained overdrive. And the Morgan is a freaking awesome amp. It’s like a 12-watt AC30. Just incredible—I totally love it. So I stayed with that setup, and I let the other guitar players cover any additional sounds we needed.
In an era where albums are somewhat devalued in relation to single downloads, you tend to put a lot of material on your albums. There are 13 songs on Rocket Science, with one bonus track available on the iTunes version, and two different bonus tracks on the Best Buy version.
I’ll put as many as songs on an album that I think are good, and that I have finished. I like the idea of putting a lot of music on there. It always used to strangle me when albums were limited to five songs a side, because they could only handle 20 minutes of really high-volume levels on a vinyl record. It used to really bug me. CDs, and now downloads, let you put on as much material as you want, and I love that. Like any artist, I could probably cut a couple of songs from every album and no one would miss them, but they become my babies and I want them out there.
What are you listening to these days?
I tend to seek out the more adventurous groups that you don’t hear on the radio, like Porcupine Tree, because I’m a band guy.
You’ve spent a lot of years making records, touring, and nurturing a long-term career, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on where you feel the music business is today.
I think it’s as great and as f**ked up as it has ever been. I think there’s still amazing music being put out, but as far as rock radio goes, it’s coughing up blood. I don’t quite know how I’d go about breaking a new artist right now. I had three failed albums before I had a hit, and other bands back in the day have said much the same thing. But if we were trying to build a career now, the label would drop us after the first record failed. You don’t get those record-company people who have the long view, fall in love with a band, believe in them, and stay with them until it happens. So that’s a drag. But people are still getting records out there, and I think great music finds its own level. All you can do is put out the best you can as an artist.