Keeping up with Little Steven Van Zandt is an exhausting exercise, even if you’re doing it from afar. Over time, he’s donned many creative caps—musician, actor, educator, radio DJ, label mogul, Broadway producer and E Street Band member. Van Zandt returns to the role of solo artist for the first time in 18 years with his latest project, Soulfire. Being Little Steven means the road to what became his sixth solo album would of course come by way of helping Rolling Stones founding member Bill Wyman celebrate his 80th birthday.
“I threw a band together and it was really me getting reintroduced to my songs for the first time in 25 years. I hadn’t really thought about it at all. I was very surprised how [these songs] really held up and how they had become their own genre over the years—that rock meets soul thing. It’s clearly something that was quite unique,” Van Zandt explained. “It felt like it had value and it already felt like an album. So between tours I thought I’d take the opportunity [to make a record]. I obviously wasn’t ready to write a new album but I thought I’d cover myself and cover songs that I’d written for other people and use it as an opportunity to reintroduce myself.”
The sprawling influences that pop up throughout Soulfire were meant to represent the different muses that have fueled Van Zandt throughout his career. And the material perfectly captures a soul meets rock and roll vibe dripping with Jersey Shore juju.
“I threw some rootsy stuff on there. I had never put a blues song or doo-wop song on a record before. There were some cinematic influences—Ennio Morricone and some blaxploitation. I threw in a couple of covers—some James Brown and a little Etta James just for fun,” he said. “We did it in six weeks and it had to be quick because I had to get [the album] done before we left for Australia. It turned out to not only be a legitimate reintroduction to myself, but an introduction in a lot of ways. That was nice to be able to do that.”
The in-studio magic has translated perfectly to the stage, where Van Zandt’s 15-strong Disciples of Soul easily shift between musical styles without missing a beat. In addition to digging deeply into the new album, the bandanna-clad bandleader mixes in surprises ranging from opening shows with a reading of “Even the Losers” as a nod to Tom Petty’s recent passing, to the odd Electric Flag cover (“Groovin’ Is Easy”) and even some other gems from his catalog (“I Am a Patriot”). With the last song representing the early part of his career, when he was known for being more politically outspoken and spearheading projects like Artists United Against Apartheid, he’s happy to not have to carry that weight in the present day.
“It’s interesting. I really felt an obligation to talk about politics back in the 1980s because nobody was doing it and I felt it was really important to point out things that were not cool that we were doing around the world. Everybody seemed to think Ronald Reagan was God and I didn’t. Everybody was doing their own thing, so I figured I’d be the political guy,” he recalled. “I made five political albums. Now, it’s the exactly the opposite. You can’t get away from politics now—it’s 24/7. It’s quite liberating in a way. I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump—he explains himself every single day. I felt I could make a non-political album with no absolutely no guilt whatsoever and it kind of liberated me in a way.”
Who are Little Steven’s biggest influences? See Little Steven’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Touchstones to find out.