Maybe Life Just Kind of Sucks, but Nathaniel Rateliff Has Some Songs for It
Listen to his new EP, 'Closer,' and have lots of feelings.
Nathaniel Rateliff may look like tough-as-nails trucker out of a 1970s Burt Reynolds flick, but his music is as tender as a sleeping puppy. After establishing himself as frontman of the anthem-rock outfit Born In The Flood in the 2000s, Rateliff pursued a solo career of soft, heart-grinding ballads in the tradition of Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake. Following 2010’s In Memory of Loss and 2013’s Falling Faster Than You Can Run, Rateliff found himself the touring companion of bumpkin-darlings like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, quickly becoming Bon Iver’s competition for the title of saddest lumbersexual alive.
Rateliff’s new EP, Closer, will be released on January 27, followed later this spring by a full-length album with his soul band, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats. We recently sat down with Rateliff in a Denver bar for an afternoon of bourbon drinking and chatting about music in politics, why German audiences are so respectful, and whether a successful career inhibits the creative process.
Noisey: Your music has such a delicate minimalism, reminding me of something Roger Waters said about the silent spaces between the notes being as important as the notes themselves. Do put work into keeping too much clutter off the songs?
Rateliff: I feel like space is tension, and it’s always nice to have some tension in the songs. But it’s also the way I like to play the guitar. I like the space, I like to hear the notes themselves, you know? Also, I love it when I’m listening to other people’s records and notice little things in the spaces between the notes. I always feel like it’s the smaller things that are the big deal for a song, or a performance.
I just got The Basement Tapes box-set, and even though there are some really crappy recordings in there, there’s a very interesting simplicity and space in those recordings. I’ve always loved that.
The one diversion from that sound on your new EP is the song “Something Beautiful,” which has a relatively energized, playful, Harry Nilsson kind of sound. Was that an influence from your soul band, The Night Sweats?
I’ve been messing around with that kind of Nilson, McCartney, slightly cheesy kind of style for a long time. It kind of has a pop-polish to it, and I usually don’t like the stuff I do that sounds like that. We doubled the vocals and did the kind of things we normally wouldn’t do with a song.
Originally with that song it was just me on a piano, which is very Nilson, Newman, dark piano chords. But I’m not a great pianist, so I just played it on guitar instead.
You came to Denver as Christian missionary, right?
I did originally. But it didn’t last very long. That was my way to get out of Missouri. I followed my friend out here, who’d joined this non-denominational Christian organization. It’s funny, that’s what lead to me being a non-believer: You get submersed in studying religion, and then you realize that there are a lot of books out there.
You’ve been touring around Europe a lot these last couple years—how do audiences differ in a place like Germany versus the states?
They’re really quiet. Especially the Germans. They’re great audiences. And in the UK, too, depending on where you’re at. Everybody is always there to listen. I’ve known people from here that went over there and were the loudest people at the shows. Over there, the arts are so much more important. They sell books in vending machines. You get on the train and everyone’s reading.
You performed with The Lumineers at the 2012 presidential debates, and will be playing Governor Hickenlooper’s inaugural ball soon. Were you thrust into that scene, or are you a political person?
I’m not personally involved in it. I move in circles where people talk about politics, but we don’t talk about it as much as we should. Sometimes I try and stay out of it. The governor’s been good to us with his support, but we definitely have different opinions on things.
There’s a time and a place for politics. And if you’re asked to do something for the governor, I don’t think your political agenda is what people are there for. You’re there to do a job. But you’re also not kissing anybody’s ass.
I’ve had some friends who’ve played shows for big political candidates, and then on stage started talking their own opinion, and it’s like: you’re a fucking musician, shut up… I don’t know, some people use music to speak their political opinions, and that’s great. It’s just not me.
Often your lyrics have such a longing optimism, like good times are just around the corner, but the tone of the music will contrast with such a foreboding sadness. It’s like the songs are little speedballs of emotion, like you’re stuck on the beauty of sadness.
Well, I’ve always enjoyed melancholy feelings. I’ve never thought there was anything wrong with it. I mean, you know, suicide is a different thing. But I’ve always loved those feelings, embracing the comfort in them, not seeing them as an overwhelming darkness—or they don’t have to be.
They’re very tender songs, yet you have such a manly, blue-collar style. Before you became a full-time musician you worked the docks of a trucking company—was it difficult to be creative in such a vulnerable way while submerged in a labor job?
I was pretty expressive in the ten years I had at that job. I went through all sorts of emotions at that time. I’d sing or whistle while I was working, making up songs or singing other people’s songs. Doo-wop songs or R&B songs. One of the guys would be like, “try to sing it like so-and-so,” and I’d try and mimic Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke. And he’d be like, “goddamn, man, that’s great!” We were just goofing off a lot.
But I’d also have like severe panic and anxiety attacks, major depression, just physically distraught. I was there from 19 to 29, which is an intense part of your life. I had no family out here. A lot of growth and struggle in those years.
So you managed to be creatively inspired and musically productive while maintaining such a demanding full-time job?
I’m actually more creative when I have a day job than when I don’t. Not working has been hard, because then I have to come up with some kind of structure to my day. I’m sure people hear that and think what a dick. Some people tell me, “Well, you just do it like you’re going to work. You wake up in the morning and spend time writing and working on your craft, and then you go be a part of the community at night. Then get up early to write again the next morning.”
But it’s hard.
Before, I could write while I was working. I’d keep a tape recorder with me, and I’d make my “idea-tapes.” If something came to me I could grab the recorder and just go “daaaah, dah-dah-dah DAAAH!” If someone else saw me, they’d just be like, “What the hell is he doing?”
So do you have difficulty relating to creative people who’ve had financial security their whole lives and have never needed a day-job?
Yeah, well, it seems like if there was always a safety-net there, it would be a lot easier. You could choose what you wanted to do or not do. But then maybe you’d get stuck and can never really push through.
At the same time, I imagine you still have to play gigs you might not want to play, but the money’s good.
Yeah, and when you’re playing to an audience that’s not your audience, you really have to hone your skills and your craft. You have to play like you mean it, because nobody gives a shit. They wonder, “Why is this dude singing sad songs to a bunch of people with mohawks?”
When I mentioned earlier the theme in your lyrics about good times being just around the corner, part of me assumed that was a reference to your working days when you’d be longing for a music career. But it sounds like you have fond memories of that time.
Yeah, I don’t think it was so much the work, it was just growing up and having a hard time. I was always telling myself, “Well, it’s gonna get better.” But you know, sometimes when you get older, you wonder: Maybe it’s not going to get better? Maybe it’s not about what anyone deserves, maybe life just kind of sucks? Or maybe we should just find something else to do?
Josiah Hesse is on Twitter - @JosiahMHesse