Arts·Q

Bruce Springsteen's new album of soul classics celebrates the songs that made him a musician

Springsteen's new album Only the Strong Survive drops ahead of his 2023 world tour.

The Boss was on Q with Tom Power to discuss his new album Only the Strong Survive

Portrait of Bruce Springsteen sitting on a stool with his hands resting on his legs.
Bruce Springsteen. (Danny Clinch)

Soul music, for Bruce Springsteen, was the sound of growing up on the Jersey Shore in the 60s and 70s. 

"Every show band, Soul band, top 40 band, all came to the Jersey Shore to make money in the summer, playing in the summer clubs up and down the beach," he tells Tom Power, on a new episode of Q. "We were inundated with music that had horns, and soul music and Motown." 

Springsteen's new album, Only the Strong Survive, pays tribute to that time in his life with covers of 15 soul music tracks from the '60s and '70s — some classic hits from singers like the Temptations and Jimmy Ruffin to some deep cuts. For Springsteen, who is known for his big rock sound, the album is a chance to focus on his voice and connect to the sound that originally inspired him to become a musician. 

Watch Bruce Springsteen on Q with Tom Power:

"I'm a creature of top 40 radio," he says. "I didn't grow up reading — I was a guy who learned what I learned from listening to those performers and those wonderful artists that came across the radio waves."

And, in no small way, that soul and pop sound has been a part of the Boss' act ever since, in the E Street Band's horn section and the party atmosphere of his live shows. 

"The secret of that music was constantly whispered in your ear; there's another life somewhere; there's a more exciting life; there's a sexier life; there's more fun; there's a party going on that you're not invited to (laughs)... All of this was on the airwaves and so I said, 'I want to be a part of that somehow,' and so I became a musician. And you know, we bring the party with us."

Springsteen has been performing since 1964, starting out singing in a dance band before drawing crowds, in the late 60s, with original songs that told stories about working class life in New Jersey — stories about his family, his friends and also his own.

"If somebody would want to know what America was like in the second half of the 20th century, during post-industrial times, if you went to my music, you would get a sense of what people were living through at that time," says Springsteen.

Soul music, he says, also manages to evoke an era, but differently — often not taking as its literal subject topics like work, war or hard times, but still being able to transport listeners back, and bringing those times back to life.

"Music functions in a lot of different ways. You can be direct about it, or you don't have to be direct about it — you still enter the culture, and you pick up the residual of those times," he tells Q.

"It's an incredibly important American form," he says. "It's an incredible American voice." 

He tried to find a balance when selecting the songs for the album, giving his audience familiar and unfamiliar tunes. 

The fourth cover track on the album, "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" by Frank Wilson, was popular in England, but not in the United States. Springsteen stumbled across it when listening to compilations of Northern Soul music, and added it to the record.

Other titles on the record include "Nightshift" by the Commodores, "When She Was My Girl" by the Four Tops, and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" by Frankie Valli. 

When creating Only the Strong Survive, Springsteen knew he wanted to focus on his vocals rather than songwriting. He tailored the songs to his voice, blending lyrics into his rock and roll style.

"My singing was always at the service of my writing, of my arranging, of my performing," he says. "On this record, I had an opportunity just to choose material that would focus on your voice and on your singing ability, which I really really enjoyed doing because I love to sing."

The album originally started with a completely different collection of songs. He said the record wasn't quite right, but latched on to the soul songs.

"I have a process where sometimes I make records to make other records," he says. "I do that often. I've got tons of outtakes."

He would like to write new material as well, but doesn't write on demand. "Songs come to you, they stop for a while, they come back," he says. 

The musician is consecutively making records now, utilizing his home recording studio during COVID-19. He says the time it takes to make them doesn't matter — it's the quality.

"I've made records in four days, and I've made records in three years. All that matters is that you made the record you want, you're at peace with it, and that it's a good record," says Springsteen.

The Boss refuses to compromise when releasing his music. 

"I need to be at my best, at my peak, doing my best work, making my best decisions, before I put a record out. Then I could go out and confidently tour for two years, three hours a night behind that music."

In his nearly 60-year career, Springsteen says fans have come and gone. Some only stay for the songs about cars while others have been with him through the love songs, folk songs and collaborations.

"You have to be ready for conversations with your fans where they go, 'You lost me there,' because they may find you again, when they get older. You've got to remain true to yourself and true to the music that's in your heart, and that you want to write. That way, you've got to believe that you're keeping faith with your audience, and that audience is going to keep faith with you. That's the deal."

In a Canadian broadcast exclusive, Bruce Springsteen talks about his new album of '60s and '70s soul covers, Only the Strong Survive, and how soul music shaped him as performer and songwriter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lian McMillan is a writer for CBC News Entertainment and Education. She holds a bachelor of music from the University of Toronto and is completing Humber College's radio and media production graduate certificate program. She can be reached at @lian.mcmillan on Twitter.

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