One only has to read Rick Springfield’s revealing 2011 memoir Late, Late At Night and its accounts of depression to understand the guy knows what it’s like to have the blues. But that he’s playing the blues on his new album The Snake King, which comes out Friday (Jan. 26) and is premiering in full exclusively below, is a good thing.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Springfield tells Billboard, “and I wrote actually over a weekend, got the basic form for a lot of the songs and what they’d be about. It happened pretty quick and then I just fiddled with them over the months after that. But it came pretty fast.” Springfield also describes the set as “basically a theme record, I guess, the first theme record I’ve ever done, based on a character named The Snake King. Sometimes that character is a devil, sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s just the news.”
Though his primary musical success has been in pop and rock, Springfield has been a blues fan since he was young and learned to play guitar. “My first bands were blues bands when I was a kid, so I got into it early,” he recalls. “The (Rolling) Stones and those kinds of bands, the British Invasion bands that borrowed blues kind of turned us on to all this music we’d missed. We’d never heard that music before in Australia, and when we heard them do their versions of it we started looking at where they got the music from and that’s when I started discovering Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson and even Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. We learned to play guitar from the blues players, the same guys that influenced guys like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. So I got into it early and it’s been kind of my fall-back music.”
Springfield considers The Snake King “as much blues-rock as it is straight blues,” but writing the songs proved different than penning, say, “Jessie’s Girl” or “Don’t Talk To Strangers.”
“It’s a different kind of discipline lyrically and musically,” Springfield explains. “There are a couple where you sing one line and repeat it, and the third line is a kind of answer to it. That’s kind of the standard old blues format and I did that on a couple of the song, but I tried not to limit myself and to just keep open and let the song go its own way. Sometimes it was obvious which direction it should go.”
The dozen tracks on The Snake King do slither through some dark terrain, as indicated by titles such as “Land Of The Blind,” “The Devil That You Know,” “Judas Tree,” “God Don’t Care” and “Blues For The Disillusioned.” “I thought blues lent itself more to the God/devil/sex thing than pop did,” Springfield notes, adding that he also gleaned inspiration from the current political climate. “I’m kind of a news junky; I read a lot and we talk about stuff on the road. There’s a lot of stuff going on, everywhere. I see evil everywhere, but where’s God?”
Another provocative track is “Suicide Manifesto,” and Springfield raised eyebrows earlier in the month by acknowledging that his internal darkness led him to contemplate suicide last year — though he came out of it. “It’s probably one of the darker things on the album, but it’s true. It’s all stuff I felt,” Springfield says. “Something will just pull you down and I’ll just go into it — it’s chemical or sometimes it’s an actual event or I just get sick of me or something. There’s a lot of different reasons. Something just kicks in and I tend to crash and burn sometimes. Most of the time I (pull out of it) just looking at my life and being thankful for my family and all that kind of stuff. The only person who can really understand it is someone who suffers from it.”
On the plus side, Springfield notes, is an enhanced creative drive to confront those issues.
“People who are introspective like that, they think a lot harder and longer about problems and dwell on them — too much, obviously, but you form different ideas or you come up with a different approach or a different way of saying it,” he explains. “I’m a big Jackson Browne fan; I loved he could say a line that I was feeling all day long, and I think when you dwell on something you get very familiar with it, and I think that’s where an original approach can come from. I think that’s a positive thing about writing.”
Springfield started incorporating songs from The Snake King into his shows last year and will be adding more once the album comes out. He won’t rule out doing more blues in the future, but he’s not sure about another genre-specific album of any kind. “I don’t really go, ‘Oh well, now I’ll do a jazz fusion record…'” he says. “These lyrics are very suited for blues stuff; I can’t imagine ‘Suicide Manifesto’ being a pop-rock song, so I think it just suited the genre, and I had enough of those to make a whole album that way. But I don’t really plan anything out other than I just start writing. I don’t have a game plan like that.”