I’ve been lucky enough to see Willie Nile live on two occasions. Given that they were in Colwyn Bay and Macclesfield respectively, no geographic disrespect implied, it proved to be very much a case of seeking and ye shall find. On both occasions, the performance, personality and the music came together well and Nile was lively, engaging and everyone’s idea of a confident voluble New York rocker.
Comparisons have limited appeal but it has been suggested that Nile is to New York as Springsteen is to New Jersey, which gives you a baseline. Perhaps Southside Johnny, Nils Lofgren and Steve van Zandt also ring bells if not direct comparisons. Nile is long recognised as a gifted songwriter as evidenced by one early comment from the New York Times, “One of the most gifted songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in years”. That New York way with words serves Nile very well.
He was born in 1948 in Buffalo, New York State, of a Catholic Irish / American family and known as Robert Noonan in those days. Nile did not release his first, self-titled album until he was 32 in 1980 and now has 40 years in the business and is clearly (apologies here) a veteran of his craft. Upcoming is a tribute retrospective release and that’s something that generally happens if you are good, respected by your peers and have shown some staying power. It features a panoply of top musicians: Nils Lofgren, Graham Parker, Richard Barone, Richard Shindell, Elliott Murphy, John Gorka, Slaid Cleaves, James Maddock, Dan Bern, Kenny White, Rod Picott, Jen Chapin, Caroline Doctorow, Emily Duff and Pete Mancini. Lucinda Williams perhaps best encapsulates his standing, “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”. Just to be clear, she likes him a lot.
Be that as it may, Nile’s career trajectory has been far from straightforward and a bout of pneumonia and then a bad case of disillusionment in the 1980s meant that there were major disruptions and he has moved from major label possibilities on Arista and CBS to releasing his recent albums on smaller independent labels. The latest, ‘New York at Night’, is on River House Records. Whilst he harbours no regrets about his time with the majors it seems independence suits him and believes it’s the way of modern music. It is good news to hear that he feels he makes a good living and that, interviewed in 2013, spoke of it being the best time of his long career.
Nile trained as a pianist in his younger days and it was his ambition to be a concert performer (2014 release, ‘If I Was a River’, was entirely performed on piano). Whilst the instrument still features in his music those classical aspirations were derailed (or perhaps better to say put on track?) in the sixties by Dylan and the Beatles, after which the course was set. Being born into a musical family and a household where it was ever-present obviously helped.
In the late seventies Nile moved to New York, Greenwich Village (you can’t help but think it must be some village, all those it has accommodated over the years) started gigging and drew attention. Robert Palmer of the New York Times offered this assessment,
“Every once in a while the times seem to produce an artist who is at once an iconoclast and near-perfect expression of contemporary currents. He is one of the best singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in a long time.”
This was the New York of near bankruptcy, crime and decay but also of the stirrings of the New Wave and Nile featured Jay Dee Daugherty on his first eponymous release. The second offering, ‘Golden Down’ featured Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and the Roche sisters on backing vocals. Genuine and varied cross-fertilisation.
Both these albums were reasonable commercial successes charting at around 150 in the States; however, a proposed move to Geffen Records became subject to legal disputes and it was at this point in the early eighties that Nile quit the business. When he returned in the late ’80s on Columbia with 1991’s, ‘Places I Have Never Seen’, (yes it was a long gap between signing and the first album on the new label), it was only with some difficulty that he re-established himself. Interestingly it was some European concert dates that were the catalyst. Helpfully, assorted Hooters, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright, Roger McGuinn, various Roches and a platoon of Noonans were there to assist in the making of the album. The critical response was very positive but the public was less forthcoming and it was at that point that the major label route gave way to the independent one. These three first albums are gathered together on a double CD release, ‘The Arista Columbia Recordings 1980 – 1991’. What they demonstrate from first to third is the obvious progress as a writer and performer – with the production of the latter two also improving over the first. Two tracks from, ‘Golden Down’, show the stylistic influences. ‘I Can’t Get You Off My Mind’, has an introduction that is clearly Springsteen-like; ‘I Like the Way’ is, in its sparse direct quality, Dylan inspired (Nile has recorded a whole album of Dylan covers). Clearly though, he has a voice very much his own.
In 1999 Nile put out his first self-released album, ‘Beautiful Wreck of the World’. It was chosen as one of the Top Ten Albums of the Year by Billboard Magazine. Since then there have been nine studio albums and four live recordings, a consistent period of fecundity and critical praise though never yet a breakthrough into major acclaim by the public. One of the most notable tracks of this period is, ‘One Guitar’, from the album, ‘The Innocent Ones’, which won an AMA award for the Best Social Action Song of the year.
Consider one particular album, ‘Live From the Streets of New York’, which covers much but not all of the material from the studio album of the same name. What this disc does is give you a feel for the live performance (and the package includes a DVD of the show) whilst at the same time it offers a glimpse of the many sides of Nile’s art.
The opening track, ‘Welcome to My Head’, is at once amusing whilst perfectly illustrating the creative rush, vibrancy and wide-ranging interests of the man – it’s notable if for nothing other than the wonderfully idiosyncratic pronunciation of the name Sartre.
“Welcome to my head, welcome to my head / Make yourself at home
There’s a Dalai Lama in an easy chair /There’s a shaking mama it’s okay to stare/There’s a disco party it’s a happening scene/You’ll see Jean-Paul Sartre and he’s painting green.”
‘Hard Times in America’, originally on a 1992 EP of the same name, focuses on the reality of the life Nile observes in his home city. Check out those pictures on the cover of 2018 album, ‘Children of Paradise’, which covers similar ground and none of it paints a pretty picture,
“They say it’s getting better / We’re closing the gap / You know as well as I do / That’s just a load of crap / The rich are getting richer / The poor are staying poor / I do believe the Grim Reaper Is knocking at the door / Hard times in America”.
The final track, ‘Streets of New York’, reminds us that there is still romance in the air whatever else may be happening,
“Meet me tonight by the station / Meet me in Washington Square / We’ll drink wine and dance on the moonlight/And I’ll hold you in the air/On the streets of New York”.
Whimsy, hard-boiled realism and romance all in the space of a few songs sum up the basis of Nile’s appeal. There is little that is original in his music and I doubt he would make that claim. What he has is the ability to write the songs that you might believe have somehow always been around. His art is almost certainly a love letter to the city he has lived in for so long. Rocking out or on more minimal ballads he is great value and whilst lauded by his peers is rather undervalued by the public. His name could and should be mentioned in the same breath as more well-known artists.
Lets put it simply – “Willie’s so good I can’t believe he’s not from New Jersey” – Little Steven.
Interview with Willie Nile
The research for this article included an interview with Willie Nile and it is included below. Thanks also to his press officer, Cary Baker, for arranging the interview.
It would be great to hear how you’re doing Willie given the situation over the last few months? Obviously, we would hope that you, along with your family, are all well.
Thanks so much for the good wishes and the interest in an interview. It’s been a strange and fascinating time here in New York City. I’ve been here since the beginning of this pandemic. It was so interesting to see the streets of New York empty with hardly any people or cars when I’d go out for a walk or to the store or for a bike ride. There was a time in March and April where I could lay down in the middle of Broadway and be safe.
There’s a haunting beauty and majesty to the streets here in Greenwich Village where I live. Even with few people out and about, there’s still the magic and energy of this great city that you can feel when you walk the streets. I’ve lost a few friends along the way, sadly. The great producer, Hal Willner, John Prine, and others. Sad times indeed. Here’s hoping they can find a vaccine sooner than later and that people are more responsible to what needs to be done to get through this. I lost tours in Spain and in Italy along with lots of shows in the U.S. and Canada. They’ve been moved to the Spring of 2021. Hopefully, they’ll happen then.
What can you tell us about the new album – particular themes/musicians involved / musical direction?
I’m thrilled with how the new album (‘New York at Night’) came out. It came out better than I even dreamed when I wrote the songs and imagined what it would be. I’m lucky to have a great team around me. Co-Producer Stewart Lerman, who produces most or all the music on Martin Scorsese’s projects, has been so great to work with all these years. We’ve been making albums together since 1990 when we did, ‘Places I Have Never Been’, together when I was on Columbia Records and it’s always good fun. He’s brilliant. All the great musicians who played on it are amazing.
‘New York at Night’, was recorded at Weehawken, N.J.’s Hobo Sound, with Stewart Lerman (Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Patti Smith) and backed by my longtime live band — guitarists Matt Hogan and Jimi K. Bones, bassist Johnny Pisano, and drummer Jon Weber — along with renowned guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Stuart Smith (Eagles, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell), pianist Brian Mitchell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, B.B. King), and an assortment of backing vocalists including singer-songwriters Frankie Lee and James Maddock, and veteran singers Tawatha Agee and Vaneese Thomas.
I’ve made my last five albums at Hobo Sound, and I’ve been making albums with Stewart for a lot of years and it’s always magic with him. Recording New York at Night was great fun, and I’m thrilled with how it came out. We cut most of the vocals live with the band. Everyone brought their A-game. I’d put it up there with some of the best work I’ve done. I learned a lot making it, and I can’t wait to write more and do it again.”
Overall, it was a very rewarding album for me to make. The songs, the sounds, the energy and the passion all come through loud and clear. It’s positive and upbeat and I’m really happy about that. When we were debating about whether to put the album out as planned or hold it back and put it out down the road I ultimately decided I wanted to put something positive out there during these dark and challenging times. To hell with this darkness. I wanted to shine some light out there and hopefully lift people’s spirits.
New York City has always inspired me. I’ve lived in Greenwich Village for many years now, and I love being there. The energy, the grit, and the mystery of it all fills my heart with wonder. Most of these songs were written in New York or were inspired by it in one way or another.
What all the songs on this album have in common is that they reflect my life and experiences living in New York, I love the history, the mystery, the energy and the action. There’s always something going on, and I feel so alive when I’m there. It’s a great place for a writer. There are ideas and creatures of all kinds walking down every street. The rich, the poor, the lost, the lonely, the big shots, the bullshit artists, the visionaries, the good, the bad, the ugly, all living in this great metropolitan area with people from all over the world and all walks of life. I learn something new every day living there.
Is there any likelihood of a UK tour in the mid to long term?
Yes, I’m sure I’ll be back to play in the UK. I love playing there and have many friends I miss and look forward to seeing. At this point, it won’t be ’till next year, 2021. Not sure when it’ll be but probably in the Fall of 2021.
Do you have any online musical activity that might interest our readers? AUK has been posting short sessions by a variety of artists that have gone down well.
I’ve been doing online shows on Facebook. I’ve done 4 shows so far from the recording studio where we made the album. We’ve got multiple cameras and studio audio so the quality has been great. The first two episodes are solo shows with guitar and piano. Episodes 3 & 4 are duo shows with my bass player, Johnny Pisano. They’re really good fun to do and it’s nice to be playing again. I’m going to be doing some live band shows online starting sometime in August. If people want to get on the email list to know when they’ll be they can go to willienile.com and sign up. I’m really looking forward to playing with the full band once again. We put the shows up and leave them up for 3 or 4 days then take them down. At some point, we’ll put up the early episodes again.
Finally, and I can’t resist it though you may not want to answer – but how does it feel living in Trump’s America? I can’t say our government covers itself in glory but from this side of the pond, some of Trump’s comments and activities have been jaw-dropping. Particularly it seems there have been tensions between local (New York) and national government.
It’s been jaw-dropping indeed. The level of absurdity is beyond belief living here during this pandemic. It’s beyond Monty Python and would be hysterical if it weren’t for the heartbreaking fact that so many people are dying and suffering every day. The lack of leadership here is criminal. My entire band has had the virus. They’re better now but one of them fractured 4 ribs coughing so hard for 5 days. A really good friend of mine has been very sick now for over 110 days. As I said earlier, hopefully, the human race can get its shit together and overcome this tragedy.
Photo credit: Christina Arrigoni