Rick Springfield on Jackson Browne, EDM, and Writing 20 Songs for New Album ‘Automatic’

Somewhere in between his 1981 album, Working Class Dog, and Tao from 1985, is where Rick Springfield believes he landed on his new album Automatic. Stylistically, the 20 tracks are powered up by impulsive dance hooks and framed within the terseness of punk.

Videos by American Songwriter

“My goal was solid three-minute tunes with the biggest hooks I could come up with,” said Springfield in a previous statement.

Throughout Automatic, Springfield shares three-minute or less vignettes into his life, from the electronic opening of “Exit Wound” and title track, a song that played out to him in a dream, through the more sentimental piano ballad “Make Your Move” and through the remaining collection of his short stories.

Produced and written by Springfield, who also plays most of the instruments, including all the guitar and keyboard, Automatic is dedicated to his engineer of 25 years, Matty Spindel, who died in 2022. “His loss is something that will be felt by me, my band, and the entire touring family for a long, long time,” said Springfield, who also penned the more tender pop ballad “She Walks With the Angels” for his friend. “I used the feminine because he was very in touch with that side of himself. There are secret references all thru the song that are ‘very Matty.'”

Set to embark on a 26-date I Want My ’80s Tour, along with special guests The Hooters, Paul Young, and Tommy Tutone, Springfield spoke to American Songwriter about his 50-year career, why love, sex, death, and God continue to resurface in his songs, and how EDM inspired Automatic.

American Songwriter: How did these 20 songs for Automatic start piecing together for you?

Rick Springfield: Most of it was recorded throughout last year, and I did it in a very different way. I recorded them one at a time, which is probably why there are so many tracks. I didn’t really know when to stop. Usually, you write a whole bunch of songs and go in and record them all, but this was done one at a time, and I played everything. It felt very insular.

I wasn’t really keeping count, but they’re all short. They’re all three minutes. I like the discipline of writing short songs, and a lot of them are the same chord progression for verse and chorus. A couple of them don’t follow that rule, but I just wanted to see what that would spark.

AS: It’s a lengthy collection of tracks. Were there any recurring themes tying these tracks together for you?

RS: They’re about love, sex, death, and God. I seem to be writing about those four things lately, more than anything. Somehow, I always seem to put God in there—whatever that is, and whatever might work on my search has landed me at that point of writing. I’m always fascinated by death, especially when it touches me. Traditionally, the majority of songs are about hooking up romantically or not hooking up, but I think there’s a lot more to write about it as you get older. I’m trying to find ways to say it in a fairly unique way. I’ve never been happy with clichés. When they’ve snuck into my songs, I try and dig them out as fast as I can. It’s always a challenge to put it in a succinct, hopefully, original way. 

I love that about Jackson Browne. Throughout the ’70s, he was the first one that I heard that could say a line and I would think “That’s how I feel.” I love that, and I’ve tried to always do that, to put it in a poetic way where people go “Yes, that’s how I feel.” Whether it’s a line or the whole song, that’s what I strive for … that universal connection. That’s why we put them [songs] out and don’t just record them and stick them on a shelf. You want to share those feelings and revelations you have within a song, then have people go “Yea, I get that.”

[RELATED: 5 Songs You Didn’t Know Jackson Browne Wrote for Other Artists]

AS: Did you feel like you had to dig deeper for the songs on Automatic?

RS: When I actually sat down to write the lyrics, sometimes a memory would come into my head and I would just go with that. As far as the songs [on Automatic] going back to earlier times, I’m the last person to be able to be objective about my song. I think the writer is the last person who really understands what they’re about. Sometimes a couple of years later, you go “Oh, yeah, that’s just what I meant by that song.”

On Automatic, it was more the mechanical aspect of putting the songs together, going in and laying down drum tracks, then putting on keyboards and guitars, and building on that. It was all approached the same way, so they felt connected to me because of that, because of the way we recorded them, but lyrically they’re diverse.

AS: What’s your connection to some of your older songs now?

RS: Obviously, the first album was all about a young man and sex. And that kind of goes away to a degree, but other things take its place, and I like what’s taken its place — the things that I’ve been thinking and writing about. Sex is still in there, but it’s generally tempered by other thoughts on life, mortality, and God.

AS: Were there other songs on Automatic that transformed more from the time you wrote them to when everything was recorded?

RS: They all transformed. They started out as demos. I have a little 16-track that I work harmonies and parts out on, and I have a little four-track workstation where I can listen to what the song sounds like with a couple of parts.

These all followed the original path that I made on my little 16-track. They generally do, even back to “Jessie’s Girl.” The demo is basically a lesser recording of the record. All the parts were there, and I’ve always worked hard at making all the parts work together—not just writing a melody and a couple of chords and hoping the musicians pull it together. I’ve always been very thorough in my demos, and playing all the instruments myself on this makes it a lot easier to put your ideas down.

There are a couple of extra players [on horns and bass], but because there weren’t other musicians involved, the songs really didn’t change much from my rough recording. That kind of stuff happens when you have other musicians, but I’ve never really worked like that. I’ve never went into the studio with a band and said “What can we do with this part? What do you think here?” I’ve always been a bit of a tyrant, I guess. I know what I want in the studio, for better or for worse, and that’s the way I’ve always worked.

AS: Sonically, what were you hoping to capture throughout Automatic?

RS: I wanted it to be very kick drum-based. I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM, and it’s kind of like punk was an inspiration for me for Working Class Dog, and my first album, which a lot of people never really got. We’ve been playing a couple of songs from it [Automatic], and they’re pop, but they’re very punk-inspired with their energy. EDM probably informed these songs as much as anything as far as a new influence. I love the bottom end of the EDM stuff, the sound effects, and things like that, so I’ve incorporated that within a pop song, basically.

AS: There’s continuity throughout the album. How involved were you in sequencing the 20 tracks?

RS: There are about four people that I really trust for sequencing, so I took all their input and came up with a final list myself, but it was very influenced by what they said because at the end of recording an album, the last thing you want to do is listen to 40 different sequences of the damn songs that you’ve heard over and over and over.

AS: There comes a point when you need to step away and become an outside observer of your songs.

RS: Yes, because you don’t know which ones are good and which ones are not as good, so I rely on others at that point to help me. I’m also a bit of a people pleaser, so If someone says “Hey, I really liked that song,” I’ll go “Let’s move that up.” Basically, I want it to flow, and they’re all butted up against each other, except for a couple of interludes, and I like that because it keeps the energy up.

AS: The majority of the Automatic is high energy, but then you have songs like “She Walks With the Angels” or the piano ballad “Make Your Move,” which are more sentimental.

RS: They’re all very personal. They all stock a kernel of truth. One song I thought I was writing about somebody else, and I realized that I was actually writing about myself. I dreamt up the song “Automatic.” I woke up with this voice in my head. I thought someone else had written it, and I was plagiarizing it in my sleep, but it turned out that it wasn’t an original song. So I got up at 3 a.m. and wrote down what I heard and finished it.

AS: You’ve literally been writing since your debut, Beginnings, in 1972. What kind of songwriter are you now because of it?

RS: I’m definitely the same songwriter. You have to go with how old you are and what you’re experiencing. Some of these songs [on Automatic] are from my past, but they’re also my memory of the past. Some of them are very current, and some of them are things that happened way back. You just pull inspiration from wherever you can but it’s not always there. Sometimes you have to search, but it’s got to come from a point of truth for me anyway.

Writing is something that makes me feel less than when I don’t do it, so it’s kind of a mandatory thing that I have to do, and I love to do it. It’s still something that I feel is missing in me when I don’t do it. I binge-write. I don’t really write every day. I’ll write for six months, and then not write again for a while, but every time I finish, I think “I’m never gonna write another song. That’s all there is.”

AS: It [writing] can take a lot out of you.

RS: At the end of an album, I feel pretty empty. I don’t know what I think. I don’t know how I feel. You pour it all into the songs and then sometimes you think they’re all bullshit. Sometimes you’re your worst critic. It’s that horrible creative thing of “Yeah, this is really great,” or “No, this needs a little work. This sucks. No, I suck,” and “Maybe I can save this,” or “Actually, this is pretty good.”

AS: With Automatic out, what do you want to work on next?

RS: I want to write another novel. I’ve had one in the back of my computer that I’ve been working on, but it’s a whole other thought process and dedication to time. Songwriting I tend to do at a certain time of the day or the prose writing I do pretty much any time all the time, because it doesn’t have to rhyme (laughs).

With Automatic, I hope people recognize the emotion. I hope that it stirs something. Basically, I hope it moves people. That’s what we want to do, to form a cosmic significance. You want to affect people and in a positive way. I’ve always tried to do that to greater or lesser degrees, to have people go “Yeah, I get that. I know what that feels like.”

Photos: Jay Gilbert / Courtesy of KMJ PR

Leave a Reply

6 Iconic Singers from the 1960s