By Miriam DiNunzio
Coveting your best friend’s girl can lead to some sleepless nights.
For Rick Springfield, his desires led to “Jessie’s Girl,” one of pop-rock’s most iconic anthems of unrequited love. And his greatest hit.
But it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. Success has a funny way of serving up the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
For the 69-year-old Australian-born Richard Lewis Springthorpe (his real name), the Grammy Award–winning song would be life-changing. At the same time, however, Springfield was still an unproven entity; prior album releases did well, but radio play and massive sales were not yet happening for him in the age of MTV. So, the singer-songwriter took a role as the uber-handsome and dashing Dr. Noah Drake on the daytime soap opera General Hospital—just to ensure he got a steady paycheck, he says.
And then it happened.
“Jessie’s Girl” catapulted to number one on the charts in 1981, and Springfield to rock and roll star (and sex symbol) status. And then the hits kept coming: “Affair of the Heart,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “I Get Excited,” “I’ve Done Everything for You,” “Human Touch,” “State of the Heart.”
But even with legions of female fans drowning out his concerts with screams of approval (and desire), there was a dark side to Springfield, something he would not speak of for decades, until the release of his autobiography Late, Late at Night in 2010, when he revealed a failed suicide attempt at 16 (“the rope broke”) and the depression that led to that moment, which still “sits on his shoulders” every now and then.
In a 2018 interview on the Sirius XM show Feedback, Springfield revealed he was “real close” to taking his life in 2017. The interview, which came on the heels of the suicides of rockers Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington as well as comedian Robin Williams, was put into perspective by Springfield in the annals of Billboard magazine: “I didn’t go, ‘Ugh, that’s terrible.’ I went, ‘I get it. I get being that lost and dark.’ ”
For now, Springfield says he’s in a much lighter place and life is all about the release of his album, a greatest-hits cavalcade featuring symphonic takes on the songs that put him on the map.
Mind you, Orchestrating My Life (his 17th studio effort, released April 26), is not a simple anthology. Springfield and the production team behind it completely reworked the songs: new charts, new attitudes, and, above all else, new, sweeping orchestrations courtesy of a full symphony. Trust this listener—“My Father’s Chair” will make you weep, and you’ll marvel at the “newness” of “Jessie’s Girl.” The album, dedicated to his late parents, features a new song, “Irreplaceable,” in memory of his mom, Eileen, who recently passed away, and 1985’s haunting “My Father’s Chair” for his dad Norman Springthorpe, who passed away in 1981, just as success had found its way to his son.
The singer, married since 1985, is also the proud papa of two sons himself, and he’s back out on the road, due to arrive at Ravinia on June 15 for a co-headlining stand with Chicago’s own pop legend Richard Marx. It’s a greatest-hits event for both, and Springfield has “the best band I’ve ever played with” in tow, namely Jorge Palacios on drums, Siggy Sjersun on bass, Geroge Nastos on guitar, and Tim Gross on keyboards.
And before he hopped on the tour bus, Springfield hopped on the phone with Ravinia to chat about the new album, his life, and coveting.
What was it like to revisit these songs with an orchestra?
We were looking for new ways to present the old songs. I was invited over to Germany to do a show called “Rock Meets Classic,” where they have a band and a 40-piece orchestra and they write the charts up for a couple of songs. It was a first for me, but it was a lot of fun. [German composer] Wolf Kerschek was the maestro. We came back here and did a couple of orchestral shows and Wolf wrote some more charts [for me], and then we decided to do the record because I liked the way it was sounding.
You re-recorded all the vocals for the project. Why was that important to you?
But I did make sure to match the original vocals. [Laughs.] I get disappointed when I download something and I hear it’s re-recorded. Most artists are so sick of their songs that by the time they get to re-record, they’ve gone all over the place with the melody and the voice doesn’t sound the same anymore. And when you hear a song that you love and know very well, you want it to sound like you remember it. So I focused really hard on the [original] phrasing. We did them all in the original keys, too, which gets tougher and tougher as you get older. [Laughs.] It was great.
This is not the first time you’ve taken a symphonic approach to your songs, albeit not on this grand a scale.
We’ve had strings on songs before. In the ’70s it was a big thing to have your songs arranged, but it went out of fashion; synthesizers came in, and that was all the rage for rock music. This album was a different approach. On some songs, it’s the whole orchestral section having solos. So it went a further than just adding strings to previously known tracks. [Combining] a 40- to 50-piece orchestra with a rock band, I didn’t want it to just sound like a rock band with strings. I wanted it to sound symphonic. So you have to make some space for the strings around the band and all the vocals and backgrounds.
How did you decide on the final track list for the symphonic album?
One of course was the popularity of the songs because it’s kind of a greatest-hits-with-symphony package. We didn’t put “Love Is Alright Tonite” on there because the chart just didn’t work. And I think songs like “What Kind of Fool Am I” would have worked really well, but instead we went with “World Start Turning,” one of my favorite songs but one that nobody really remembers because it was on the flip side [of Rock of Life]. Then I wrote a new song. “Irreplaceable,” for my mom because we felt putting a new song on there would be a good idea. And we did “My Father’s Chair” with just strings because I think it makes the song come alive. When I recorded it originally, there were lots of effects on the voice and piano and strings pad. This is a real different approach, and I really prefer this new one.
You’re obviously not one to avoid your hit songs. You play the full songs in concert, the way people remember hearing them as originally released. Does it ever bother you to play them over and over again?
No, I’m very proud of the songs. I started out my career wanting to write
hits. So when they came—I’m very proud of them. But now you’re not really playing a song anymore. You’re playing an emotion, and you’re getting the vibe off the crowd. And it’s that energy that makes it new every night to me. I imagine that if I just sat there and did a record-perfect version every time, it would get pretty boring. But I’m very audience-aware and understand it’s a kind of communal thing with the fans. I’m proud of the old stuff, but we do quite a few new songs. And some hits we don’t do. There’s four or five or six new songs [in a concert], so it keeps it pretty fresh for us too.
Why do you think “Jessie’s Girl” took on a life of its own?
It just came along at the right time. I didn’t think it was a hit song when I wrote it, just that it would make a good album cut. I still have the guitar I wrote it on and the original lyric sheet. … There are a lot of good moments in the song. There’s a release in the chorus, and then there’s a good strong bridge, a key change and a breakdown and a hook, and it’s strong, lyrically. I mean, it’s about a guy having dirty thoughts about his best friend’s girl. [Laughs.] There’s a lot in there. When it first came out, it was viewed as a nice pop song, but those [elements] helped it to stick around. Being pulled into movies and stuff like that has helped the longevity. Like there’s a movie with Jennifer Garner, 13 Going on 30, the first movie she did [in a leading role], and her character is a Rick Springfield fan.
Did you write “Jessie’s Girl” in one take or did it take you a few days, weeks?
I took a couple of weeks because I generally write a couple of songs at a time when I write a lyrics sheet. This one had “Jessie’s Girl” and “Love Is Alright Tonite” on one side and “Red Hot & Blue Love” and some other song I never finished on the other side. It was kind of two pieces that I put together: I had the riff, and I think the chorus was a separate part, and I realized they were in the same key and actually went together. And then I then brought in the lyrics.
In addition to the “full band” rock show and now the symphony tour, you also go on the road for stripped-down, storytelling, almost acoustic evenings with “a lot of humor and stories about the songs.” Is it hard to bare your soul on stage in these intimate acoustic shows?
That’s what I do as a writer—writing about what’s going on with me and putting it out there, the way you’re feeling, the way to share it. That’s why I wrote the songs about my mom and my dad, to deal with the grief and do something positive with it. I’m not a private person, but as a performer I understand that’s where I draw my inspiration from.
You’ve been very open and honest about your depression and all your struggles over the years. I think that’s why people can relate to you, and on some level I think that helps people deal with their own issues. Can you talk about your suicide attempt and the depression that drove you to that moment?
I was, I guess, 16. I tried to hang myself. I didn’t know what it was. In the band I was in at the time in Australia, they always called me the “moody one.” Truth is, I was depressed but nobody had a term for it [especially for a kid]. When I wrote my autobiography, there was no grand plan to help people by mentioning it. It was just part of my life, and it wouldn’t have been truthful if I didn’t talk about it. It was part of me. That’s certainly where a lot of the songs come from too. When you’re depressed, you look inward a lot and try to figure out what’s going on, maybe more than you normally would. I think that helps a writer, for sure, if you’re introspective.
“Suicide Manifesto” was certainly a dark place to be. Was that your catharsis?
Actually, that one depressed the heck out of me. [Laughs.] Originally it was six minutes long, but after I did a demo in my studio, [the sound mixer] and I just looked at each other and we were like, “Wow, that sucks.” But I liked the song, so I cut it down to two minutes so it would be not too much.
Are you happy now, whatever your definition of happy is?
There are moments when I’m really pleased and feel good in my life and in my skin; a lot of my depression was driven by self-loathing. I do feel good. I’m doing a lot of writing. Writing is a good place to put all that stuff you’re telling yourself, so I rely on that real heavily.
Why did you go the soap opera route just as your music was finally taking off?
Because I felt the album [Working Class Dog] wasn’t going to be successful. I had three albums that hadn’t done anything, and it was like I couldn’t take being beat anymore. The record company kept delaying its release because it was all ballads; disco was still on the radio and there was nowhere pop-rock albums fit. I got offered this General Hospital role, and with the fact that I was always scraping and trying to get by [since I had come to America] when they offered an actual way for me to earn a wage, I took it. Keith Olsen, who produced “Jessie’s Girl,” came to me when the album was finished and said, “You don’t need this soap opera.” I just didn’t have enough faith in it.
Who do you listen to nowadays?
I like the heavier, darker stuff. I like Billie Eilish. But I also listen to Tool, Porcupine Tree, The Beatles; I just redownloaded Jesus Christ Superstar.
I always loved it. When [the movie] came out, I’d go see it at the theater with my girlfriend.
If you could star in the musical, what role would you play?
Who doesn’t want to be Jesus? [Laughs.] The ultimate tragic figure. ▪
Miriam Di Nunzio is the Entertainment Arts Editor for the Chicago Sun-Times.