Bruce Springsteen on Creativity

When I failed out of college and was stuck in Queens for a year, it was a mix tape of Springsteen songs I’d listen to every day in the car as I drove to work that got me through. I didn’t prefer his more well known pop songs, but instead connected with his earnest storytelling of people in difficult situations, tales of facing life challenges in a sophisticated and elegant way I hadn’t heard before.

Recently I watched The Promise: the making of Darkness on The Edge of Town, one of his earlier, and darker, albums. This documentary was recently released in a special remastered boxed set, with a copy of his song writing notebook (pictured above). The documentary is done right, with many long segments of Springsteen discussing his creative process. Here are some of highlights:

About Darkness on the Edge of Town:

“I think it’s an honest record, and that’s basically what I was trying to make… A reckoning with the adult world. [It’s about] a life of limitations and compromises. But also a life of resilience and commitment to life, to the breath in your lungs.

Darkness is a meditation on where are you going to stand? With who? Not forsaking your own inner life force. How do you  hold on to those things? How do you do justice and honor those things?

Whats the part of life you need to compromise? Whats the part of life where you can’t compromise, where you’ll lose yourself if you do? What is sin in a good life? How do you carry your sins?”

On Success and being great:

“The success brought me an audience, it also separated me from all the things I’ve been trying to make my connections to my whole  life. And it frightened me because I understood that what I have of value [is] at my core and that core was rooted in the  place I’d grown up, the people I’d known, the experiences I had. If  I move away from those things… to go about your life as you desire, without connection… that’s where a lot of the people I admired drifted away from the essential things that made them great. More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great”

On matching the ideas in his head with reality:

“I fantasized these huge sounds, but they were always bigger in my head… the thing I didn’t understand was the fundamental equation… there’s only so much sonic range. We just assumed everything could sound huge.”

On production:

“Bruce would write 5 songs to get 1 song” – Clarence Clemens

“There was a lot of multiversions of all kinds of things. We were always pulling things apart. I had a big junkyard of stuff as the year went by. If something wasn’t complete I just pulled out the parts I liked, like taking the parts you need from one car and you put it in the other car so that car runs.”

On the power of pop songs:

Part of what pop and rock promised was the never ending now. No, it’s about living now. Right now. You need to be alive right now. For those 3 minutes it was all on. All of a sudden you were lifted up to a higher place of living and experiencing and there was this beautiful and ever present now.

On learning how to write:

I go back to most of my writing before greetings and most of it seems terrible to me. Your writing lots of bad words and bad verses.. You’re artistic instinct is what you’re going on, your artistic intelligence hasn’t been developed yet. Hopefully that increases and develops.. At the time I’m going on instinct, and that’s a wide open game. I’m following all kinds of paths and all kinds of roads, and I’m going is “that doesn’t feel right” that doesn’t feel right, that’s how I’m judging.

On the magic of performing and making:

“You pull something that doesn’t exist out of the air. It doesn’t exist… on any given night when your standing there in front of you audience. Nothing exists in that space until you go 1,2,3,4 VOOM.  You and the audience together manifest an entire world. An entire set of values. An entire way of thinking about your life and the world around you. An entire set of possibilities. That can never be taken away.”

I also rediscovered Springsteen’s interview on Charlie Rose, where he also discusses his creative process.

On working habits around writing:

“I wish I did [write every day]. I’ve gone for a long period of time without writing… because I didn’t have an idea. Or whatever is in there is sort of gestating. Its hard to believe, but I think that I’ve gone long periods of time w/o doing much writing. I’ve gone thru difficult periods of forcing myself to write. I think what happens is you move in and out of different veins.. you’re mining, and you hit a vein, and then you go with that, and then it dries up.

On where his song writing ability comes from:

“There were a lot of teachers. I didn’t think I had a great talent, I thought I’d be someone who had to work harder than the next guy. And when I was a kid I did work harder, I’d be in my room 8 hours, 6 hours [playing guitar]. At the dance I’d be the guy watching the guitar player all night long.

I felt like It was something I was going to have work at very hard to do well. And the rest is a certain amount of psychology that comes with what kind of person are you.

Are you a watcher?  Are you somebody who jumps in and is active right away or do you watch? Do you stand back and observe? My nature was always to stand back and watch the way things interrelate. What was going on around me. I was too frightened to join, I didn’t know how to join in. Observation is a large part of my psychology.

And that has a lot to do with people who go on to write, or take their own thoughts and formulate them in to some thing. Result of a variety of dysfunctions that you’ve managed to channel into some positive and creative rather than destructive. It came out of that need to sort myself out… So part of it was natural, and part of it I worked really hard at.”


17 Responses to “Bruce Springsteen on Creativity”

  1. Peter Armaly

    Thanks for this post, Scott. Funny, I woke up this morning with “Thunder Road” playing in my head. Bruce’s quotes are, as always, raw and honest. It’s what sets him apart. We should all aspire to be so clear-sighted and honest about ourselves and our lives.

  2. Mike Nitabach

    Very nice post. I agree that Born in the USA is not his best album. The song is an outstanding polemic about the destructiveness of an empire to both those outside the empire and those within, but the musical arrangement I could do without.

  3. Michael Roberts

    This was really inspiring. Thanks for posting.

    I’ve been thinking more about Springsteen since seeing him do that funny bit on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I love hearing about artistic people’s process.

  4. Marile

    Thank you so much for lifting out these precious parts from the documentary and sharing from the interview, which I have not seen before. As a writer these insights are priceless to me.And the way Bruce can express himself is just an inspiration in itself.

  5. dannyR

    I’ve always admired Springsteen’s work ethic and his ability to stay rooted despite the fame and fortune.

    However, I think Born in the USA is a great album–one of his best, and one of THE best of the last 30 years. Not so much a fan of Greetings and Wild & Innocent and even some of Born to Run. I think his music got a lot better when he reigned it in and tightened up his lyrics.

  6. AskB

    Huge Springsteen-fan, but I’m not sure BUSA is the least favourite album to most fans. It’s actually pretty good, but I would of course rate Nebraska, Darkness, The River and BTR above it.

  7. Smaranda

    Great post. I find well grounded musicians to be a great source of inspiration when it comes to the creative process. I’ve often taken things from song writers and applied them to other situations where a creative process is involved and they’ve worked. One of the things I always notice is how artists talk about failure and experimentation. It’s just in their bones to work through trial and error and fail numerous times before they come up with something worthwhile.

    While we’re at it – another interesting documentary along these lines is It Might Get Loud. Seeing The Edge say “Sometimes I come out of the studio at the end of the day and nothing has worked and I think that I know sh*t about music!” is both moving and amusing at the same time.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I enjoyed It Might Get Loud. I’m fans of all three guitarists and it was interesting to hear their different perspectives on their work. Jack White might have been my favorite, as he seemed to have the least pretense in a way about creativity. His attitude seemed to be, just go and make stuff, which I found inspiring.

  8. David Ives

    My name is David, and I am a aspiring singer/songwriter and musician myself, and while I wasn’t big on Bruce back in my beginner days as a rock guitarist, I find him unbelievably inspirational now.

    I have been playing guitar for 15 years, and I just recently heard “New York City Serenade.” Where the hell have I been.

    Upon further research and listening, I found that if you set aside his musical genius for a second, and just read his words, and listen to his stories, in their honest and real truth, it is unreal. He almost in a weird way reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s “This is water,” and Charles Bukowski’s poetry, without the vial language of course.

    I am a firm believer in having conviction, passion, and bold honesty in writing and storytelling, and he is a legend for a reason.

    Thank you

  9. David Ives

    Oh, and for “It might get loud,” That is a remarkable portrait and ode to being a musician. Led Zeppelin is still the greatest rock band of all time.

    Thank you



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