Ever since legendary producer Jerry Wexler phoned her in her college dorm in 1972 to ask if he could give one of her songs to Aretha Franklin, Patti Scialfa has been on the verge of the big time. But Aretha ended up passing on the song, and Scialfa spent more than a decade getting sporadic interest from labels and occasional songwriting credits while singing with Southside Johnny, the Rolling Stones and a guy named Bruce.
Wary of the spotlight since 1988, when the tabloids discovered her relationship with Springsteen, who was then married, a more-relaxed Scialfa agrees to meet in a West Hollywood restaurant to discuss the recent release of her album, Rumble Doll. Scialfa, 40, lives in Los Angeles with Springsteen and their young son and daughter (a third baby’s due in January). Her famous husband dropped her off for the interview and returned later, politely sitting outside in the car until his wife was finished.
Your album is surprisingly sparse and low-key.
I started out to make a record even more low-key. To me, the lyrics are very emotional and very revealing … but I didn’t want to make a sentimental record. So I was always pulling back the reins. When we started, I wanted to make a very, very small record – just guitar and vocals, hardly any overdubs, really ratty sounding. But I had these emotional songs, and I was recording them so small that I was actually locking some of the emotions out.
The persona on this record seems to be that of a woman who feels disconnected and isolated, initially waiting for a man to rescue her but then becoming more realistic.
Yeah. It’s a person who feels pretty invisible and doesn’t know how to fit in. Maybe [she] thinks that somebody’s going to come along and change that, but by the end of the record, I wanted to wash away all those illusions and expectations.
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Have you felt that way yourself?
Oh, definitely. I grew up in an era where you had to find your own way as a woman. When I was a kid, there was this whole physical and emotional neatness and purity that a woman was supposed to have, and I didn’t fit into that. So where do people go who feel ungainly and emotionally untidy and all those things? There was such a lack of modern, recognizable role models for a young girl in the 1950s. I mean, Leave It to Beaver didn’t speak to me. That’s why I latched on to music. That was the key to show me you can go a different way: Grace Slick, Janis Joplin … and Dusty Springfield was very cool. When she sang, it was very womanly. She didn’t sing girlie. She was great. I wanted to name our little girl Dusty. But Dusty Springsteen? I couldn’t.
You spent a lot of time almost making it.
You know how you get close to something you want and then you start doing things to ensure that you don’t quite get it? I did a lot of that. And I didn’t realize I was doing it until Bruce and I got together. It was really important for me to get help to figure myself out at that point because I would’ve destroyed my relationship so I could play out the endless bohemian victim.
Were you still doing that when you joined the E Street Band?
Yeah, that was a great time [laughs]. Bruce was very funny. The first night, before I went on, I had on an old, ripped Hanes T-shirt, with a bow tying it so it wouldn’t fall off, and a pair of jeans. And he said, “Gee, do you want to borrow some of my cloths tonight?” I was like “Am I dressed too sloppy?” He said, “No, it’s actually too pretty,” but it wasn’t pretty at all. And he opened up that old suitcase he had for about 20 years, I’m sure, and in it were his old flannel shirts – he’s gonna kill me for saying this – and these old, old T-shirts from a Goodyear shop that a friend of ours used to own. He said, “Why don’t you wear one of these?” [laughs] It was a real bigbrother thing to do.
When you two became involved during the Tunnel of Love Tour, you must have known it would be big news.
When you’re passionately and profoundly involved on that level, you’re not thinking externally. It’s like if everything’s burning down around you, you don’t think, “Gee, what’s it like in New Jersey today?” I was just very protective of myself and my relationship, trying to move through that tough period as gracefully as I possibly could. But it’s hard to keep your identity when you go through something like that. Forget the press – just being a partner of somebody who’s very, very famous, it’s hard to keep your center and your personality intact. So I was looking forward to getting off the road, and I thought: “I’ll go in the studio. I’ll get my friends and have my spot here.” But when I went in, I just felt too uncomfortable. So I stopped working, and I thought, “I’m going to wait until I feel more secure.” Bruce had taken quite a bit of time off, too, and we got our personal life together, which was wonderful.
But then you had to make your album between babies.
Well, you can work when you’re pregnant. But I was afraid to tell Mike Campbell [the record’s producer]. I thought, “Oh, God, he’s just started working on my record, and now he’s going to think I’m not serious because I’m having a baby.” But I had all this nausea, and I must’ve looked pretty miserable because he finally turned to me and said, “You always look so somber. Don’t you like anything we’re doing?” I said, “I’m not somber, I’m pregnant.” And he said, “Great. I thought you didn’t like what we were doing.”