With a new season of Lilyhammer, plans to reissue his 80s albums and the excellent Summer of Sorcery, 2019 might be Van Zandt’s busiest year yet
Even after a near half-century on the job, Steven Van Zandt never stops moving.
In the 70s, the guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer jumped from New Jersey cover bands to the front line of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. During his years with Springsteen, he found time to discover Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. He wrote most of that band’s songs and produced their first three albums. After leaving the E Street Band, he started Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul and made five politically charged albums of rock and soul music. In 1984, he created the Artists United Against Apartheid organization and produced their star studded Sun City album, featuring Miles Davis, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Run DMC and other A-list players. He also produced an album for the Nigerian reggae artist Majek Fashek and wrote songs for Darlene Love, Nancy Sinatra and Meatloaf. As an actor, he played Silvio Dante on The Sopranos and the lead character, Frank Tagliano, on the Netflix series Lilyhammer. More recently, he became a DJ hosting Underground Garage, a weekly radio show that’s syndicated to more than 200 international outlets. In 2018, he reformed The Disciples Of Soul and cut a new studio album, Soulfire. The tour the band made to support the record led to Soulfire Live! and Van Zandt’s latest recording, Summer of Sorcery.
With all he does, it’s amazing he has time to catch his breath, much less spend time on the phone talking to the Globe. “You do what you gotta do,” he said chuckling, his New Jersey accent evident in every word. “I don’t do this for the money, so once a tour starts, you have to explain to people what’s going on in your world. There are a lot of distractions these days.”
Van Zandt said Summer of Sorcery was a major artistic breakthrough for him. “My previous records – solo and with the Disciples – were all political and autobiographical. I wanted to do an album of fiction, like the songs I’d write for other people. I wanted it to be 12 little movies and get to play a different character in each one. We’re in one of the bleakest periods in our civilization’s history. I thought it would be useful to send a little hope and light into the darkness. Summer is a wonderful time. School is out and, if you’re in a place where the seasons change, the transition of spring into summer is magical. The earth turns green. All the rituals and religions view it as a mystical time that has to do with birth, rebirth, falling in love with life and a natural kind of positive energy that comes from the earth waking up after a long dormant period. All that was in my mind, because we need some positive energy at this point in our history and we need it desperately.
“On Soulfire, my last album, I recorded my versions of songs I wrote for other people. I didn’t think I was ready to write a whole new recrod, but the tour to support the album went so well, I wanted to transform my artistic methodology completely, to a more fictional type of storytelling. I didn’t want to force it, but a year into the tour, ideas started to come to me and, over the course of six months, it got written. Since the songs were fictional, I had to rely on my imagination. I didn’t do the research I do, when I do political music. I must have read 20 books for every album, then I’d travel and interview people. It was half artistry and half journalism. This felt remarkably effortless. The recording was equally effortless. The band had been playing together for two years, so the whole record took about six weeks, maybe eight with the mixing.”
AUDIO: A World of Our Own
The songs on Summer of Sorcery are packed with subtle musical surprises and poetic turns of praise. “Communion” could be a lost hit from the vaults of Stax Records; “Party Mambo” has a punchy Afro-Cuban backbeat; “Soul Power Twist” suggests Sam Cooke at his most playful; “Superfly Terraplane” could be a heavy metal version of a Beach Boys tune and “Education” combines electric sitar, zooming electric bass and a James Brown funkiness.
“I don’t worry about the modern musical world,” Van Zandt says. “It’s not a world I live in. I may visit it, but I create music in my own world, a world of tradition. It’s not nostalgic really, but I do have the 60s in my blood and it always will be there. I still use the 60s as my standard for the quality of the work. I like hearing my influences and I do it intentionally. I want people to hear where I’m coming from and hope they’ll go back and listen to the original artists that have influenced me. This album is full of Sly and Family Stone, Sam Cooke, Tito Puente, James Brown, some Blaxploitation soundtracks from the early 70s – bits and pieces of our musical history. If you’re knowledgeable, you’ll know where it’s coming from.”
A hint of where Van Zandt is coming from can be found on the albums he’s made since leaving the E Street Band. Will they be reissued anytime soon? “Everything should be coming out at the end of this year. We have a lot on the shelves. The soundtrack scores I did for Lilyhammer just came out. The next thing will be the five albums I did in the 80s. They’re probably getting released in November, with bonus tracks. The Sun City anniversary is early next year, so that will be reissued then.
“As we get older, you feel like you’re living in an era that you don’t belong in, but you have find a way to be useful. I know I’m probably speaking mostly to my own age group, but I don’t feel that way. The kind of art I make has its own cult. It’s not main stream anymore, but then again, I never quite fit in, even when I started. My rock meets soul hybrid always seemed to be in between categories – not quite black, but not quite white; not really rock, but not really soul. All I can do is keep my eye on the ball. Luckily, I never measured my work by its commercial success.”
STREAMING: Summer of Sorcery