Q&A: Patti Scialfa

The Jersey Girl on her most personal album yet

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa with the Seeger Sessions Band, New Orleans, LA, April 30th, 2006 Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty

Since 1993, Patty Scialfa has released two solo al­bums, but neither is as re­vealing as her new disc, Play It As It Lays. "I was interested in ex­ploring the complexities of a long-term relationship," says Scialfa, who drew inspiration from R&B and soul to convey those intri­cacies. "When I hear women like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Irma Thomas, they are so wom­anly," she says. "And they weren't trying to infantilize themselves to make their music more pal­pable. I wanted to write inside my own experience, so I went back to where I heard women doing that."

You're married to Bruce Springsteen. From your lyrics, what do you think people will infer about your relationship?
[Laughs] Just get right to it! No foreplay? With any long-term relationship, you have good days and bad days. We've been together twentysomething years, and sometimes you're like, "That year sucked!"

You've said that you got drunk to record the new song "Bad for You."
I wanted to get to that person in the song: the girl that's drinking, maybe flirting too much and send­ing signals she shouldn't be send­ing. The recording studio was too sterile for that, so I drank a ton of tequila, smoked a lot of cigarettes and sang it. I know I sang out of tune, but I liked it.

You studied jazz in college. How was that experience?
I threw away all of my rock and soul records and immersed my­self in jazz. The day I arrived, the woman who helped run the school gave me a Billie Holiday record and a gardenia, which is what [Holiday] always wore in her hair. I also remember our listening classes. The teacher would say, "I don't care if you get stoned or what, but you're going to sit here for five hours and listen to these records."

What did you think of Bruce when you first met him?
We were friends before I joined the E Street Band [in 1984]. He'd kill me for saying this, but I remember the first night I met him in a bar, he said, "Are you going to a party?" I was, but I said no, because I thought, "I'm not drag­ging Bruce Springsteen into some party." It's just a lot of baggage. I thought he was really cute, but neither of us are dalliers. We both knew it had to be the real deal or nothing at all. So we waited eight years [laughs].

Are any of your husband's songs difficult to listen to?
Sure. On Devils & Dust, there's a song about the man in the hotel room with the hooker ["Reno"]. My artistic side said, "That is so brave." Then, just thinking right from the heart, I was like, "What are you writing about that shit for? [Laughs] Are you fucking crazy?" But that's what led me to write "Bad for You." He gave himself license, so I gave myself license to write.

What are the best moments in the E Street Band?
The nights where, instead of pushing the music aggressively, we're playing so tight that the music just plays itself. You can't make that happen. When I was younger, I'd go to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and watch this beautiful clip of Billie Holiday playing with a bassist, a pianist and Gerry Mul­ligan, who was a friend of mine, on baritone sax. At one point she looks over at Gerry, and they just smile. When those moments hap­pen, it's just lovely. That's what you joined for.