Someone has just reminded Patti Scialfa that it has been exactly 20 years since the release of her husband's watershed album, "Born in the U.S.A." She finds this mildly depressing. After all, "Born in the U.S.A." marked the beginning of Scialfa's working relationship with Bruce Springsteen, offering the previously unknown singer both an induction into the fabled E Street Band and the corresponding hope of her own solo career. Two decades, nine Springsteen albums and countless concerts later, the former has panned out nicely. The latter, not so much.
As Scialfa is the first to point out, her new disc, "23rd Street Lullaby," is only her second solo album since "Born" kick-started her career. Actually, it's her second solo album ever. She blames herself. "A lot of it is my own ambivalence, because if you really want to get something done, you get it done," Scialfa says. "My real priorities were my family -- my kids and Bruce -- and my work with the E Street Band."
Cobbled together over several years during breaks from various E Street tours, "Lullaby," which came out Tuesday, chronicles Scialfa's days as a struggling singer in late-1970s Manhattan. Reflective and warm, equal parts Sheryl Crow and Rickie Lee Jones, it's an incisive, impressive record, though one without a natural constituency. Scialfa hadn't released an album since 1993's modestly selling "Rumble Doll," and has never toured. At 50, she is simultaneously one of pop's most recognizable and least known acts. Her record company, Sony, scheduled a full slate of publicity appearances to help establish her as an artist in her own right; she's trying equally hard to downplay expectations. "I don't look at it as an event," she says of the new release. "I don't really sell many records. I don't look at it so externally. I was just trying to make a really good record for myself."
Sitting in a Manhattan recording studio this month, Scialfa seems more nervous about her children's graduation ceremonies the next day than about the CD's impending release. (Springsteen and Scialfa have three children: Evan, 13, Jessica, 12, and Sam, 10.) Gregarious and cheerful, she'll answer just about anything. She knows that the rest of the world, to the extent that it considers her at all, might find that the idea of Scialfa performing without her husband takes some getting used to. "It's not that strange to me, because I've been singing since I was 14 or 15," she says. "I've been writing and making my own music for a long time."
Scialfa (pronounced SKAL-fah) grew up in the affluent suburb of Deal, N.J., and attended the prestigious jazz program at the University of Miami before moving to New York. She spent the next decade playing clubs, doing pickup studio work, and busking on street corners with her friend Soozie Tyrell, now a violinist with the E Street Band. Several attempts at a record deal didn't pan out, and Scialfa eventually joined Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes as a backup singer.
She would hang out at the Stone Pony, the venerable rock club on the beach in Asbury Park, when she was home visiting her parents on weekends. Occasionally she would get up onstage and sing with the house band. One night Springsteen came up after a show and introduced himself. Scialfa had seen one Springsteen concert and had otherwise not given him much thought. "We became friends," she recalls now. "I was always friends with a lot of guys, maybe because their girlfriends were girly-girls and they felt safe with me. Sometimes after the weekend was over, we'd go out for a hamburger."
Springsteen eventually asked Scialfa to join the "U.S.A." tour after band member Nils Lofgren came down with history's most fortuitous case of laryngitis. "He said, 'Gee, you know we've never let a woman in the group and I doubt this is gonna happen, but why don't you just come up and we'll see how it goes?' " recalls Scialfa, who wound up joining the tour three days before it began. The next year she landed a deal with Springsteen's label, but delayed plans to make her album when Springsteen called again, this time asking her to join the tour for his next record, 1987's "Tunnel of Love."
During that now-infamous tour, Springsteen's marriage to Julianne Phillips dissolved, his romantic relationship with Scialfa began, and plans for her record were once again put on hold. "We'd gotten together at that time, and it wasn't really an appropriate time to make a record," Scialfa says. "So I waited a couple of years."
Scialfa and Springsteen moved to Beverly Hills, had kids, got married. In the summer of 1993 she released "Rumble Doll," recorded with Mike Campbell, guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, in Campbell's garage. "I was happy with the way it was received, and I've met a lot of nice people who seem to know it," says Scialfa. "I wish I could have gone out and played live after it came out. If I'd gone out and played it live, it would've made the record more accessible to people."
Scialfa spent the next few years raising the kids, writing songs and touring with the band. She made a record that never felt quite right to her and, painfully, shelved it in 1999. Soon afterward, she entered the family's home studio in Rumson, N.J., with producer and old friend Steve Jordan, and began stitching together "Lullaby" in between Springsteen albums, tours and familial obligations. Her children, conditioned from a young age to feel great misery at the sight of their parents with guitars in their hands, weren't thrilled at the prospect. Whenever she sings around the house, they'll say, "Mom! Stop singing!" says Scialfa. "They're in a household where [music is] the thing that draws their parents away."
Many of the tracks on "23rd Street Lullaby" (named for Scialfa's old address in Manhattan's Chelsea section) were written years ago and recently excavated; several were retooled versions of songs from the unfinished 1999 project. After years of frustrated effort, "I could see my life inside this record," she says. "It's like, 'All right, that's the story I was trying to tell.' "
"Lullaby" provides a vivid, almost diaristic examination of the singer's bohemian days in a very different New York City. "Now I'm looking for a piece of my past / On these streets that I once knew," Scialfa sings on "You Can't Go Back." "Will they recognize us now / In these perfect clothes and gowns?" It may seem like a reference to the gulf between her old life and her present one, but Scialfa says that isn't the case. "Your real friends, hopefully, aren't going to be envious," she says. "I don't have a tremendous amount of friends. The friends I had when I was young I still have today."
By now, she's used to having everything she says and does scrutinized for Springsteen-related subtext.
Scialfa, who has an abiding love of confessional singer-songwriters ranging from Laura Nyro to PJ Harvey, knows that inordinate attention is paid to her lyrics, especially the ones about relationships. ("If it's really well written and it's really honest, why keep something off the record?") She knows that when people ask if she's touring this summer, what they really mean is: Is Bruce touring this summer? (Answer: No, on both counts. Though Scialfa will likely tour in the fall.)
For Scialfa, a solo career is a tightrope walk: To make too little of her E Street affiliation would be to lose a valuable advantage in a crowded marketplace; to make too much would be tacky. "She needs to amplify the stage that she already has, to take advantage of the fact that she's associated with a beloved brand," advises Billboard magazine's director of charts, Geoff Mayfield. "And she has to make it clear that she's trying to connect on her own merits."
Several E Street members, including Springsteen, show up on both of her solo albums. Scialfa admits to no professional jealousy: She swears that she never, ever has wished to have the spotlight to herself while onstage with the band. ("I don't think of it like that!")
Nor does she admit to ever wishing her husband would go away and let her make an album in peace. "He's not trying" to interfere, Scialfa says. "I can be independent to a fault at times. It's like, 'Go do your thing. I'll cover this for you.' And when I do something, he's the same way. It sounds simplistic, but our relationship started out as a working relationship. First friends, then working together, and now we're partners and stuff. We give each other a lot of room, and a lot of support at the same time."
It's worth noting that throughout the course of a lengthy, wide-ranging conversation, Scialfa never seems happier than when she's talking about the E Street Band, the thing that has consumed (in more ways than one) the majority of her musical life. "It's such a great thing to be a part of," she says. "Every night we go onstage, and nothing is rote. . . . It's a living, breathing, moving animal. That's a gift for a musician. It doesn't get any better than that."