The BBC called his last album The Innocent Ones “stunning … The rock and roll album of the year”, Rolling Stone included it in their “Top Ten Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011” list, and USA Today called the album’s “One Guitar” the number one song in the nation. Yet most of you have probably never heard of him nor recognize the title of the album they’re each raving about. Hopefully that’s all about to change. For after more then 20 years since his last contract with a major label, Willie Nile’s next release, American Ride, will be coming out June 25, 2013 on Loud and Proud Records and will be the first artist released under the label’s new deal with RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music.
I had interviewed Nile back in 2008, but we had conducted it via email so I hadn’t had the opportunity to actually talk with him. While an email question and answer exchange ensures accuracy, it’s impersonal and doesn’t give you much of a chance to get to know the person you’re interviewing. To be honest, most of the time you don’t get to know a person even when you interview them over the phone.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Nile when we talked in person recently. Not only were there no time constraints, it was far less an interview and much more a conversation. Sure we chatted about his new record, signing with a label and other stuff, but I found out more about him from the way he spoke about these things than I did from the answers he gave. Nile is rare in that he is exactly like you think he’ll be after listening to his songs. Compassionate, intelligent, aware and a genuinely considerate and caring individual.
Most of us, when you ask us how we’re doing, will answer with the expected and safe, fine. When Willie asked me “How you doing?” as we started our interview, he was really asking. So I told him. When I reciprocated with the same question he started by telling me it was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, in New York City and how “It was a great day to be alive”. But, there was something else and it soon came out. He was in mourning as a close friend, Rob Morsberger, who had done the string arrangements for Willie’s last release, The Innocent Ones, had just died from brain cancer.
Instead of talking about himself or his own work, Nile spent the first few minutes of our interview telling me about his friend and what a great singer/songwriter he had been. He then proceeded to tell me a story which from another person would have sounded like, “Look what I did, aren’t I special?” But in Nile’s case it was an opportunity to tell me about somebody else’s generosity. He told me how he had gone to one of the final concerts Morsberger had given and how it made him think Randy Newman should really hear his music.
So he had gone home and spent a couple of hours trying to compose an email to Newman’s publicist which would be intriguing enough to be passed along to Newman. Nile doesn’t know Newman, and even felt like he had to include his CV thinking Newman might not have heard of him. However, it didn’t prevent him from trying to help his friend gain some recognition for his work. When he told me how Newman had left two messages on Morsberger’s voice mail the next day, it was with awe and respect in his voice for Newman. There wasn’t a hint of pride or self promotion. He told me this story because he had been genuinely touched by Newman’s generosity.
Of course, we did finally get around to talking about his new album. Initially, he had raised the money to record the disc through crowd source funding, using PledgeMusic. He had been making plans for distributing the disc on his own when Loud & Proud had approached him. I asked him whether or not he had used crowd source funding before, what he thought of it. He had used Kickstarter to help fund The Innocent Ones, but basically he’d been paying for all his previous recordings out of his own pocket. However, over the years, his fan base has been growing and he has a very passionate following everywhere he goes.
“It feels like a big family when I tour” he said. “Not only does everybody have a good time at the gigs, everybody also seems to connect to the music and it affects them personally. After each show I hang around and sign copies of CDs and say hi to people. They come up to me and tell me how the music is special to them or what it means to them. I had one guy, a young guy, come up to me after a gig and ask me to sign a copy of the CD to a friend of his who had died about six months ago. His friend, Ramon, had been a big fan and this young man told me it would have meant the world to him to have a CD signed by me”.
He paused, and when he continued I could tell he was still moved by the awe I heard in his voice as he said, “If you can help somebody it’s a noble thing to do. When music touches people it’s wonderful. If it’s real it can be either as a party or something better – a source of joy and salvation. If it’s real, it will be something meaningful to everybody who listens”.
Well, his music must touch a lot of people from all over the world, because he reached his goal at PledgeMusic in four days. Following the successful campaign to raise money for its recording Nile had originally planned on releasing the disc in April. However, all that changed when Tom Lipsky, president of Loud & Proud approached him.
“The president of the label approached me about signing with them. He really believed in the music which convinced me to sign. The music has always sold itself and was doing well, but a partner will make it work even better. I believe they can take it to another level. When I went into the studio I knew what I had – I always have all my songs ready before I record, in fact I’ve already got the material for my next album written. Another one to add to the collection”.
The sense I got from Nile was being with the label means he’s able to breath a little easier. He can focus on his art a little more and not have to worry quite as much about money as he has in the past. Talking to him you would never know this guy has been in the business for what must be close to 40 years now. He sounds so enthusiastic and excited.
He was fairly bursting to tell me about a quote Bono had written about the new album. It wasn’t because he was boasting or showing off, but because he was so excited about his music and the fact people were enjoying it. “It’s a ride alright … on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few Americas here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America”. He read the quote out carefully and slowly to make sure I copied it down accurately, all the while sounding like a kid who’s been given the best present in the world.
All of which brought us to the album itself. I asked him whether or not there was a theme tying the CD together saying the title track, “American Ride”, reminded me somewhat of Jack Kerouac’s cross country, road trip odyssey, On The Road, and was he perhaps inspired by the Beats. He was delighted with the comparison.
“The Beat poets continue to inspire me today, Bob Kaufman, Alan Ginsberg – great poets. I knew Alan. I did a reading at St. Marks Church with a group of them upon the republication of Kerouac’s American Haiku. I don’t usually do that sort of thing, but I found out Ed Sanders of The Fugs was going to be there and I had loved the Fugs so I thought it would be great. But it was the Beat strain of poetry and music, American music – big band jazz, blues, be-bop, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie – all the music which inspired the British invasion – can be traced back to the Beats. It was the music my generation grew up with. All the music and places in the song “American Ride” are American music – Motown, New Orleans, Memphis – all these sounds have gone into my music and so many other people’s music.
“The connection really came home to me when I was touring in London and we played the 100 Club. The place back in the 1970s where The Sex Pistols and The Clash played. There we were on stage with pictures of the Sex Pistols and The Clash on the walls playing and we were joined by Glen Matlock, original bassist for the Pistols, to play “People Who Died” (a Jim Carroll song covered by Nile on American Ride). They we were playing a song by one of the great modern American poets/musicians in a London club with a British musician surrounded by images of great British rock and roll bands”.
He then turned back to the idea of there being a theme to the album. “I didn’t put American Ride together as a concept album. It looked like there was a theme after the fact, but that’s just the way it turned out.” He paused for a second, “I’m all about giving – my mother always used to say it’s better to give than receive – and I wouldn’t walk into the recording studio if it wasn’t going to be something special – if there wasn’t going to be something to give to people. When I was making the album I was mindful there was different types of music on it – songs about war, songs about love, dance songs. But any collection of songs needs to fit together somehow. It’s more about the journeys we’re all on and celebrating them. We need to be doing the best we can for each other. Bobby Kennedy said, “We’re a compassionate people – we can do better”.
There were a few songs in particular on American Ride I wanted to ask Nile about The first one, “God Laughs”, has the potential for being controversial with lines like “God fornicates”. I wondered about his intent with this song.
“It’s not meant to offend. I wrote it with a sense of humour – didn’t censor myself and tried to make it real and evocative, but it came from a place of love. I was playing this song in Spain, the audience was having a great time and after the gig a guy comes up to me and asks me to sign a copy of the CD. It turns out he was a Catholic priest and he said the song really inspired him. It meant the world to me that this man who had devoted his life to spirituality and God appreciated it. So no, I hope people aren’t offended by it, but I hope it makes them think about things”. (Nile obviously was selling early copies of the disc at shows in Europe before signing with Loud & Proud.)
Before talking to Nile I hadn’t realized “People Who Died” was a cover of a Jim Carroll song. To me it sounded awfully aggressive and angry for what is basically a listing of people the singer knows who died.
“It was Carroll celebrating his friends. I wanted to bring what I thought was a masterpiece back to life. I talked to bunch of Jim’s buddies who had known everybody in the song and they got what I was doing. The band really kicked butt on it and we made it a celebration of the people who are mentioned. It’s defiant all right, a party song looking into the abyss and shaking your fist and dancing at the same time. I also wanted to do something for my brother who passed so I changed a couple of lines to add the bit about Johnny my brother and dedicated it to him. I’m sure Jim wouldn’t have minded”.
Another song which I saw having the potential for being misunderstood was “Holy War”. I asked him if he was worried the song might make people think he has issues with religions and how they can be used to manipulate people
“I’m at peace and centred with all religions and accepting of them all and the different sides of faith. This is more of an angry prayer for peace than anything else. From the Crusades to the present lots of wrongs and lots of people have been killed in the name of different faiths. It’s a taking to task of anyone who hides behind the cloak of religion. People need to understand we can all do better and we need to hope we can do better”. He paused for a second, and then repeated, “It’s an angry prayer for peace”.
While the majority of the tracks on the disc are uptempo, if not out and out rockers, the second last song on the disc, “The Crossing”, catches your attention for its simple folk sound. It’s a reminder of Nile’s Irish roots and why I once referred to him as the troubadour of New York City. It sounds like it could the story of his family’s immigration to North America.
“I wrote it thinking about my ancestors, but its also about everybody and anybody. All those who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families and a tip of the hat to those earlier generations who made that journey. It’s also about the personal bridges we all have to cross to make a better life for ourselves as individuals. Its about taking the risk of journeying into the unknown just as much as it’s about the risk of trying to create a new life in a new world”.
By this time, we had been talking for quite some time, so I figured I should wrap it up. So I asked him what was next for Willie Nile as a way of bringing things to a close. Typical of the way our conversation had gone, he told me a couple of stories, both of which tied in with how he feels about his career and his life to this point.
“The songs are coming to me and the stuff I’m doing now I think is as good as anything I’ve ever done. You know my journey has been up and down and I’ve learned from it. I think I’m finally fulfilling what I hoped to when I started out. There have been some great moments along the way”. He laughed. “Back in 1992 I was opening for Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band. When the last night of my section of the tour came around, Ringo found me back stage and gave me a big hug and thanked me for opening for him. I was covered with Beatle sweat [laughs] I’ll never wash again … He then invited me out on stage to join everybody in the encore, “With A Little Help From My Friends”. I got out on stage and there was Rink Danko [bass player from The Band] and we sort of looked at each other and grinned, as if saying look where we are.
“My albums are what they are because of the journey I’ve taken. I’m not bitter because I’m not rich and famous, I never wanted to be famous. [laughs again] Rich maybe, but only because what I could do with the money. The fact that there are people out there who have championed my work [Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshead have expressed their admiration for Nile’s work] makes me feel great. Music is to be shared just as life is to be shared and I’ve had the opportunity to do both with a great many people. The material is already ready for the next album and I feel like I’m doing some of the best work of my career now. As long as things keep feeling like this, I’m not about to stop anytime soon”.
We said goodbye then, wishing each other well. While we talked about a lot of different things over the course of our conversation, the impression which stays with me most is of having talked to somebody who loves what he’s doing and is genuinely grateful for being given the opportunity to do what he loves.
Willie Nile is one of those rare people who makes you feel better about the world just by talking to them. His music is a celebration of life in all its diversity and is able to strike a chord with people from all over the world. His new release, American Ride, will be available near the end of this month, and after listening to it you’ll understand why so many people appreciate him. What you may not understand is why you haven’t heard his music before.