When he’s not busy as an integral part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Little Steven Van Zandt wears many hats: musician, actor, radio host, educator and Broadway producer. His latest project is the recently released Soulfire, his sixth solo album but his first in 18 years. For the record, Van Zandt dusted off songs he’d penned for other artists, pairing them with blues and soul covers for a collection that has its roots in the music of his youth. Van Zandt talked to Time Out New York about taking his band on the road and his thoughts on Springsteen’s upcoming Broadway show.
What inspired you to return to the studio for a solo record after 18 years?
It was a very spontaneous thing. I thought I’d cover songs that I’d written for other people and use it as an opportunity to reintroduce myself. 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.
Did you give Bruce any advice regarding the Great White Way, as you’ve been down that path before, producing the Rascals reunion?
We had talked about it years ago—I’m not even sure he would remember this—but when we first started talking about getting back together, we weren’t quite sure how to do it or what we were going to do. But in that early period, I suggested doing a residency on Broadway, and we did end up doing the Rascals thing. It’s a fantastic experience and a very competitive and tough environment. He’s going to sell out and do very well.
You cover James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” which paints a picture of all these people who come here to find their fortune. What are your memories of first getting off the bus in New York City?
[Laughs] For me, I went straight to Greenwich Village, where I had read that Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix had spent time. I just missed that era-. It was sort of a pilgrimage to where some of my heroes had come from. I would come up on weekends and go to Cafe Wha?, which is still there on MacDougal Street. I’d see bands on Saturday afternoon, and they were basically a year ahead of New Jersey. So I would steal what I could steal and borrow what I could borrow and go back to New Jersey and be a little bit ahead of everybody else.
You spearheaded anti-apartheid movement Sun City back in the ’80s. Given the political landscape nowadays, is there any activism in your future?
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. I made five political albums. Now it’s exactly the opposite. You can’t get away from politics now. It’s quite liberating in a way. I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump—he explains himself every single day.
You’re getting ready to reissue those solo records. Right?
We’re talking to Universal right now and we’re remastering them now. I’m going to get them out.
Have you started the process yet?
Yeah, yeah. It’s been tricky, finding the tapes [Laughs]. You need to be Columbo, Kojak and Sherlock Holmes to find the tapes, but we’re doing pretty good. We’ve got almost all of them found, so that process will begin soon. We’ll get them out next year.
We were talking about the whole rock meets soul sound. If you had a kid listening to the new Little Steven record and he wanted to go back and check out the sources, what artists would you say they should check out and why?
It’s going to be an individual thing because you can’t go straight back to the roots and really enjoy them unless you feel like your favorite artists are sending you there. It would depend on who they’re listening to right now and how they work their way back there. If I had to pick one single album that is the greatest music of all time, I’d have to pick The Temptations Greatest Hits. To me, these are the greatest compositions, the greatest performances, the greatest arrangements, the greatest productions—it’s everything at once.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, on September 23, Gramercy Theatre on September 25 and St. George Theatre on Staten Island on September 27. $35–$90.