Photos by Scott Preston
Southgate House Revival, 111 E 6th St, Newport, KY
7:30pm doors, 8:30pm show, $17 adv, $20 dos, Buy Tickets
In his three and a half decades as a recording artist, Willie Nile has earned a reputation as a fiercely committed rock ‘n’ roller, as well as a singular songwriter possessing a rare insight into human nature and an uncommon eye for emotional detail. It’s Nile’s introspective side that fuels If I Was A River, a deeply compelling ten-song collection that diverges from his usual sound, while affirming the remarkable melodic and lyrical skills that have long endeared the artist to his passionately loyal fan base.
In contrast to the rousing, guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll that’s been the focus of the dozen albums that he’s released since 1980, If I Was A River, which will be available on CD at live shows and at willienile.com, and as a digital download after November 11, features ten stirring original compositions on which Nile accompanies himself on piano, with sparse arrangements that keep the focus firmly on the songs and Nile’s deeply felt performances.
That stripped-down, piano-based approach is one that Nile has explored on various tracks over the years, but never for the length of an entire album. However, in the wake of the warm public reception that greeted his 2013 release American Ride —which won some of the most enthusiastic reviews of his career and was voted Best Rock Album of the Year at the Independent Music Awards — Nile was ready to explore some new creative options.
“American Ride was a thoroughly satisfying experience for me,” Nile says. “A lot of the dreams that I’d always had about making records were realized with that album, and it was well received and I’m deeply grateful for that. So it felt like a circle had been completed in some way, like I’d gotten to where I was going after a long journey. So I thought it was time to make a left turn and try something different.”
“I’ve wanted to do an album of piano songs for some time,” he continues. “I’ve got drawers full of songs of all kinds, but these piano songs are close to my heart, and it felt like it was the right time to let them out. I love the simplicity of just sitting at a piano and singing a song, and I first started out in music playing the piano. Sometimes less is more, and this just seemed like one of those times.”
After narrowing an initial set of 25 compositions down to a more manageable number, Nile and Grammy-winning producer Stewart Lerman (Boardwalk Empire, Antony and the Johnsons, Loudon Wainwright III, Dar Williams), who’s worked on seven of Nile’s prior releases, set about recording the material in an appropriately spare environment that would help to capture the songs’ intimacy and immediacy.
Throughout the If I Was A River sessions, Nile played the same Steinway Grand piano that he’d played 34 years earlier on the evening of the death of John Lennon, while both Lennon and Nile were recording at Manhattan’s Record Plant. When Nile was working on If I Was a River, the legendary piano was residing at Hobo Sound in Weehawken, N.J., where Nile recorded the new album’s emotion-charged performances with a minimum of embellishment or trickery.
“I wanted it to be intimate and reflective, and I wanted to keep it simple and let the songs speak for themselves,” the artist explains. “So I just sat down and played the songs. There was no click track, nothing strained or forced, and for most of the sessions there was no one around other than Stewart and Sean Kelly, the engineer. I wanted to feel and hear the pure heartbeat in every song, and I think we succeeded. There are moments that are so intimate that I can’t believe we got them on tape.”
Nile also enlisted a pair of legendary players, versatile guitar master Steuart Smith (of Eagles/Rosanne Cash/Rodney Crowell fame) and multi-instrumental stringmaster David Mansfield (whose voluminous credits range from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to Yo La Tengo). Singer-songwriter and frequent Nile writing partner Frankie Lee was also on hand to add backing vocals.
“The whole thing unfolded so effortlessly,” says Nile. “It’s great fun to turn up the amps and blow the roof off the place, and we do that every time I play with my band. There’s nothing like it, and I love doing it. But I also love to sit at a piano and let it speak the low tones of thunder sometimes, and this was one of those times.”
“I studied classical piano when I was young,” he adds. “There is something about the piano that can get to a pretty deep and intimate place — something about how the piano notes linger that pulls me in and gets me dreaming. And because I can play the piano a bit better than I play the guitar, it allows me to expand a little more, in my simple way, and go to some different places.”
To say that Nile goes to some different places on If I Was A River is putting it mildly. Such indelible tunes as “Lost,” “Song of a Soldier,” “Gloryland,” “I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore)” and the haunting title track rank with the artist’s most powerful compositions. Meanwhile, Nile’s self-deprecating sense of humor fuels “Lullaby Loon,” a tongue-in-cheek takedown of idolatry and pretentiousness whose narrator finds something to dislike about nearly every musical genre.
“No doubt there’s a lot of me in these tunes, but there’s also some characters in there as well,’ Nile notes. “It’s not a concept album by any means, but there are some common themes in these songs: love, loss, passion, ecstasy, joy, war, peace, sorrow, hope, the journey.”
Nile’s musical journey has been an eventful one, and along the way he’s amassed an international fan base that includes such admirers as Bruce Springsteen, with whom he’s guested onstage on several occasions, and Pete Townshend, who personally requested him as the opening act on the Who’s 1982 U.S. tour. The list of avowed Nile fans also includes Bono, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Adam Duritz, Little Steven and Lucinda Williams, who once remarked, “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.”
Born into a large Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, N.Y., Willie began writing songs in his early teens. After graduating from the University at Buffalo with a B.A. in philosophy, he moved to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. During his first winter there, he was sidelined by pneumonia, and spent nearly a year recuperating while honing his songwriting skills. After his recovery, Nile became a popular fixture in the Village’s folk clubs, while drawing inspiration from the emerging downtown punk scene. He received a major boost from a high-profile New York Times piece by legendary critic Robert Palmer, leading to a deal with Arista Records, which released his first two albums, Willie Nile and Golden Down, in 1980 and 1981 respectively. Those albums won a sizable audience and generated reams of press raves. But Nile’s career momentum ground to a halt after legal disputes with his label caused him to walk away from the music business, beginning a recording hiatus that lasted for nearly a decade.
Although he continued to write new material, Nile maintained a discreet distance from the spotlight until 1991, when he reemerged with a new deal with Columbia Records and a new album, Places I Have Never Been, which restored him to prominence with fans and critics. The following year, he went the independent route with the four-song EP Hard Times in America. Willie Nile: Archive Alive, documenting a 1980 performance in New York’s Central Park, was released in 1997. In 1998, Nile lent his unmistakable voice to the all-star concept album Largo.
Nile’s 1999 album Beautiful Wreck of the World, released on his own River House label, marked the start of an exciting new chapter in his career, one in which he’s built a potent new body of recorded work while embracing his new indie status to create and distribute his music on his own terms. His autonomy yielded substantial results, with Beautiful Wreck named as one of the year’s Top Ten albums by critics at Billboard, The Village Voice and Stereo Review. During this period, Nile substantially stepped up his touring activities in Europe, where he’s since built a large and passionate audience.
2006’s Streets of New York ushered in the most productive and prolific period of Nile’s musical life. The CD Live From the Turning Point and the DVD Live From the Streets of New York followed in 2007 and 2008, respectively, as did another widely celebrated studio album, 2009’s House of a Thousand Guitars, and 2011’s The Innocent Ones, which won some of the most ecstatic notices Nile’s ever received. The BBC called it “stunning … the rock ‘n’ roll album of the year,” and Rolling Stone included it in its “Top Ten Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011.”
Nile took his D.I.Y. approach a step further for 2013’s American Ride, taking his case directly to his fans by financing the album’s recording, manufacturing and promotion via Pledgemusic.com. They enthusiastically rallied to the cause, far exceeding the original financial goal, and the album justified the fans’ faith by winning some of the most enthusiastic reviews of Nile’s career.
It’s hard to think of many other artists who are doing some of their best work in the fourth decade of their careers, but Willie Nile continues to seek out new creative challenges and conquer new musical territory.
“Doing this album was liberating in many ways,” he states. “I learned that it’s fun to change horses and take different roads from time to time as one travels through life, and I think I’ll carry that lesson with me in the records that I make in the future.
“I think I’ve grown more confident, as a writer and in the recording studio, as the years have gone by,” Nile concludes. “I’m certainly more comfortable at it than I was in the early days, and less intimidated by the process. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my passion for the music. I’m having more fun with it now than I ever have. The fire still burns deep in me, and making music has more meaning for me now than ever.”
Elmore magazine premiered the track “Lost.” Hear it here.