I’ve got all of this life experience and my work has benefited from it. As a person, I’ve benefited from it, so I don’t have any regrets and fortunately, I never got a chip on my shoulder. There’s too much of that going around. So it’s been a really interesting ride, you know?
Singer/songwriter Willie Nile has a cabinet of stories about things that should have been great and could have made him the next big thing, but due to one circumstance or another, it didn’t happen.
But even after walking away from the business side of music twice out of frustration, Nile kept himself engaged in the basic craft of just being a songwriter. He kept writing songs and on the tail end of the ‘90s, he reemerged as an independent artist, a path which has brought him his greatest success in a story that now spans nearly four decades.
His new album American Ride (which hits stores on 6/25) is his third studio release since 2009 and as he tells us during the course of the conversation, he’s already got a full album’s worth of songs written and ready to go for a follow-up. But first, there’s the matter of promoting and spreading the message of the new one worldwide and there are certainly plenty of stories to tell about his latest recorded adventure.
Fan-funded by a PledgeMusic campaign, American Ride is arguably Nile’s finest album to date, co-produced by longtime associate Stewart Lerman with songwriting collaborations featuring Mike Peters of the Alarm and also Eric Bazilian of the Hooters among others. With a running time of barely 40 minutes, it is tightly constructed in a way that as soon as it concludes, you find yourself wanting to hear it all over again.
Nile steps out this week for a short run of shows which will bring him to Cleveland on Saturday, June 22nd for a date at The Winchester. We had the opportunity to converse with Willie to get a preview of what lies ahead.
I think your journey to get to where you are today, it’s pretty inspiring that you were able to walk away for your own purposes that you knew made the most sense at the time and eventually put it back together and enjoy what you’re doing now. Because as you know, there’s a lot of folks that don’t have that second or third chance to take another run at it and you’ve certainly had a good run.
I’m having a great run right now. I’ll write songs no matter what I am. If I was a plumber in Alaska, I would just get home from work and probably write some songs. It’s just what I like to do. I really like it and I’ve gotten so much nice great feedback from people like Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch --- there are so many people that have been supportive, giving me quotes. Bono gave me a quote for the new album. I sent him a copy of the album back in February and I asked him if he had time to listen and if he could give me a quote to help get the word out. Sure enough, I get an email from Bono and his quote was in there. He’s a busy guy and [it means a lot] that he would take the time -- he’s a fan, you know? I met him a number of times and he’s always been very nice. He gave me this amazing quote about the album. In the press releases, they abbreviate it, but I like the full thing that he wrote -- it’s poetry.
He wrote “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 -- Bono.” When I read that, I went “man.”
My journey, it’s part persistence, part stubbornness, part too dumb to do anything else, but I always believed. I always thought there was something [and] that I could make a contribution and have fun doing it. I love doing it -- I would be making music anyway, but I walked away -- twice I walked away when I thought “eh, this business is shit.” But then when I started putting out my own records in 1999, [with] Beautiful Wreck of the World, that put me back on the map. It made money, it was fun and I was proud of it.
2006, I put out Streets of New York and that really put me back on the map and since then I’ve put out House of a Thousand Guitars in 2009 and The Innocent Ones in 2010. House of a Thousand Guitars got great, great press and it did really well and [it was released] on my own label. The Innocent Ones, David Fricke at Rolling Stone had it on his top ten best albums of the year and that was amazing and that was just me -- there was no money behind it. The one song on it, “One Guitar,” USA Today, every Tuesday they’d have their top 11 songs in the country and it was number one on USA Today. I remember seeing that and thinking “you know what, this is nuts.”
We didn’t take one advertisement out anywhere. I hired a publicist and a radio guy, but it was not a big operation to say the least. So I’ve been inspired for a long, long time and nothing that I’ve come across has quelled that. There have been times when you get down, no question about it. But I still feel the same passion and the same fire. I’m enjoying the hell out of this. It’s so much fun. I get to make records the way I want -- [and] I always was able to do that.
I was on Arista and Columbia and the major labels -- they never interfered -- I was able to make the records I wanted to make and so I’m grateful for that. You keep learning. I’m still learning and normally with music, many people as they get older, their writing pales [to what they used to do] and in my case it seems to be the other way around. It seems to be getting better, so whatever. It’s a great day and I’m enjoying it.
I’ve already got another record written to follow up American Ride. I think when I go in, I have a pretty good sense of what the collection is going to be like and it’s going to be really strong. I’ve been putting out a bunch of strong records and that’s really been my [focus]. I just want to make little masterpieces and have them be uplifting and not downers for people. Life is tough enough as it is. I write about all kinds of stuff about people living, dying....you know, "The Innocent Ones" is a song about the innocent victims of man and humanity around the world and yet it’s an uplifting, foot stomping, fist raising anthem, so it can be done. I believe that music can inspire and anybody who comes to one of my shows clearly sees that and leaves going “damn, why have I never heard of you?” [It happens] again and again.
I spent a month in Europe from the middle of April through the middle of May, three weeks in the UK and 10 days in Spain and it was just amazing. From the BBC to a two page spread in the London Times -- the people were coming out and there’s great, huge support from the audiences now, because I go there a lot. I’m in Europe four months a year and I’ve developed a really good following over there, which is so much fun. I’m looking to build that here in the States as well. We’re looking to branch out more from the east coast and play other cities and start building it.
I spent an hour signing CDs in Madrid [and] I’m signing this guy’s CD and he said “it’s for Ramon, he was a huge fan of yours -- he died six months ago” and tears were coming down his face. So I put my hand on his shoulder and said “it’s alright -- I’ll make it out for him and I wish he could be here. Maybe he is here. Keep the faith and stay strong.” I gave him a big hug and then he said [something] and so many people have [also] said this, “these shows make me feel so much better.” People do it all of the time, [saying things like] “I haven’t been out in months -- someone died and I just haven’t wanted to do anything, but this is the best I’ve felt in some time.”
I’m not out there preaching anything -- I’m just out there playing music that means something to me and it seems to be connecting, which is why I’m really encouraged. The record business may be in shambles, but the music’s not, you know? There’s great music being made by many people. Things always change. I kind of wish they would teach that in early grade school that “you know what, things change and it’s okay,” so that it’s not a big shock. Things change and they’ll continue to change. So these are my glory days -- I’m having a great time and I’m having a lot of success. I get Bono to email me this beautiful, beautiful sentiment -- a quote about the album, you know? I’m lucky....I’m really lucky.
People say to me, “do you ever get disillusioned that you’re not as rich as this guy or as famous as that guy” and I say “well, no.” I’ve really enjoyed my anonymity, [because] I’ve been able to grow as an artist and as a person without the nonsense of fame. Fame is nothing. That really will not get you to a place that is good to get to. Fame didn’t do a lot for Michael Jackson [and] fame didn’t do a lot for Whitney Houston and it’s a shame, but fame is ridiculous. I’m in it for the music. I’d love to be stinkin’ rich -- make no mistake, because I could do good stuff with it. But maybe that’s why I’ve kept my edge all of these years. But I’m having a great time -- I’m a lucky guy, I really am. We’re making music. Anybody who comes to the show and doesn’t get blown away, I’ll give them their money back. I’ll come right out after the show and I’ll give your money back -- it’s so much fun.
My band -- my guys, they’re a killer band. If anybody goes to WillieNile.com, there’s a clip of [Bruce] Springsteen joining us for my song “One Guitar” and you can just see the fun we’re having. We play for the right reasons. We get up there and we play -- we’re not showing off and we’re not looking to be big shots or be idols -- fuck that! That’s nonsense! We’re playing music that we love and we’re rockin’ and we appreciate it -- we have a great time. So I’m excited about it and as charged up as ever. I’ve always been pretty enthusiastic, but never more than now. There’s real reason to be encouraged -- the last few records that I’ve made have just really resonated with people.
That’s why we did the PledgeMusic thing. You know, we made some money to pay for the album and help promote it in four days. Four days! I was shocked. And then we got to over 300 percent of what we were looking for and it’s all being used -- it’s not going in my pocket, it’s for promoting the record [which] I paid for with my own money, you know, I took money out of savings and paid for it -- it came out great. I’m so happy with it. I got to where I always wanted to be. I wanted to be able to go in and make great records and write great songs and I couldn’t be happier with what we’re doing. I’m psyched.
I think that one thing that sticks out about this album and the past few albums that you’ve done is that you’re still constructing albums that are collections that hang together as “albums” as opposed to “here’s some songs.” There’s a real feeling of connection with each one of these records that you’re making.
Thank you. I grew up with albums, you know? In the early days, it was singles and stuff, but once the Beatles hit, they were [putting out] collections that I thought were great. I wouldn’t put a song on there if I didn’t really feel it was something special. I wouldn’t walk on a stage if I didn’t think it was going to be special. It’s not about me when I walk up there -- it’s about the songs. I’m there to sing the songs -- they’re the ones who are the focus and I love the way they hang together. This new one, American Ride, you can listen top to bottom and it takes left turns and right turns. There’s different moods and it totally rocks at least to my sensibilities. Thanks for saying that -- I love when the collection really feels like it hangs together. That’s fun.
It’s a really tight collection of songs, with 12 songs in 40 minutes. Did you record more than that?
Only one more. When I go in I don’t have 25 songs and pick from them -- I just pretty much know and I wasn’t sure how long it was going to be, so I recorded one extra song. [But] I loved how it came out and I thought “this feels right” so I left it as is [without the extra song].
It turns out now that because we have a really good record company [Loud & Proud] putting it out -- because of the noise that the PledgeMusic campaign made -- people pay attention to that, [and the fact] that we did so well so quickly.
So the label is putting it out and they’re going to put out a special edition the same day that they put out the regular one and there’s three bonus tracks, so “Occupy” is the first bonus track and then there’s a song called “The Motel Life” that’s just a song that I wrote and recorded in my apartment. I’m not an engineer -- it’s a live take and it started as a demo, but it came out sounding real. We [also] re-recorded “One Guitar” to close it out, because my manager said “people don’t know this song -- a lot of people do, but there’s a ton of people that don’t. With this new label, they could maybe help introduce it to more people.” So we went in and we tweaked it a bit and it came out really, really good. So yeah, I only had 13 songs when I went in.
“One Guitar” seems like that has kind of become another one of your signature songs. What did you want to achieve when you went into record version 2.0 of this song?
Well, the band had been playing it...and the reason I thought to do it, what occurred to me once he mentioned it -- I wasn’t going to do it. But the band had been playing it really great. When you record something, usually the band is learning the song for the first time. In this instance, we’d been playing the song for the past year and it’s [developed] a life of it’s own -- it’s really powerful and we sped it up just a little bit. We recut it and it just rocks more. Right before we went in, I [also] thought “well, maybe I’ll put a little guitar thing at the beginning.” So because the band was playing the lights out of it -- it has a life of it’s own -- I go through airports and people come up to me [singing it]. It was fun to record and like the whole album, it really got recorded quickly. We went in just a couple of months ago actually in April just before I went to Europe and we spent one day, set it up and in a few takes, boom!, there it was. It came out quick -- I just wanted it to be alive and feel electric and it does.
When did this new album really start to take shape for you?
Well, about a year and half ago or two years ago, I wrote “American Ride.” I wrote it in about 45 minutes and I really liked it. I wrote it for a project that Mike Peters of the Alarm -- I was about to tour with them and he had a side project where he sometimes tours with a drummer, Slim Jim [Phantom] from the Stray Cats and Captain Sensible, the bass player of the Damned and I guess the other chair is a revolving chair of different people. So they were making a record and he was interested in having me take the fourth chair and I said “that sounds like fun -- I’d be interested in that” and he said “well, write something” and so I wrote something.
When I was on a tour bus with him, I didn’t have a guitar, so I showed him the lyrics and told him what the music was and he said he had an idea. So he went in the other room and changed a couple of chords and I really liked it. It just worked. Also, I wrote “Life on Bleecker Street” -- I live in New York, where I’ve lived on and off for 40 years -- and Bleecker Street is outside my window. I know it like the back of my hand and so I had this song I really dug and I thought that “American Ride” and “Life on Bleecker Street” could be the core of an album. So that’s really where it started.
It was never written as a concept piece, it was just a collection of songs that fit together. There are some themes that echo a journey, like “The Crossing,” initially that song was written about the Irish coming across the ocean to America, but when I was writing it I thought of any travelers, coming from China, Africa, Eastern Europe or wherever, for a better life. Also, I had my own ancestors in mind, which is of Irish descent, but it’s also a personal journey, you know, getting over a broken heart, getting over a personal bridge and climbing your own mountain. I think [the album] means all of those things and it ends with “No Place LIke Home,” so there’s themes in there, but I didn’t conceive it when I was working on it as a concept album.
That title track is a good example of some of the nostalgic imagery that’s triggered really by the feeling of many of these songs and the things that you’re writing about, the mentions of like Elvis Presley and Reverend Green. As you alluded to, there are really some cool visuals on this albums that are generated by the songs and the lyrics within the songs.
Thank you. Our country’s rich....a conversation that’s fun to have is “what can we bring up that could only come from this country?” You know, what’s particular to our country? And it could be any country. Like in England, there’s things that only could have come from here. But in our case, living in this country, things like jazz, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Babe Ruth, Abe Lincoln, Delta blues -- things that are just particular to this country. There’s lots of them -- Elvis Presley...I mean, what planet did he come from? He came from this country and a mixture of styles. His grandmother was a full blooded Cherokee Indian.
There’s a lot of magic still in this country and I still believe in the dream that is this country, of a place where people can live and follow their dreams and not be tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs. That’s a great thing, you know? [When] I grew up, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, they were heroes of mine. Bobby Kennedy used to say that we’re good people and we’re compassionate people and we can do better. I believe that. Let’s help each other. Woody Guthrie was great at that and Pete Seeger, [Bob] Dylan and Bruce -- there’s a good line of people who have made the most of music and helped make it a better world in some small way. “One Guitar” is one of those songs [for me] as is “The Innocent Ones.”
A song like “People Who Died,” the great Jim Carroll masterpiece, is one of the great hidden treasures in rock and roll, I think. I played it a couple of years ago at a St. Patrick’s Day thing. Jim had just died and they were honoring people who had passed in the previous year and they asked me to sing “People Who Died” and I was happy to do that -- I always loved that song. It to me has all of the things that a great rock and roll song has. It’s totally fun and rockin’ with some really deep edgy....it had some real meat on its bones. It’s kind of unique -- one of the great songs of rock and roll. After doing it at that St. Paddy’s Day event, I thought “I want to do this at my shows,” so we started doing it.
The guitarist who is playing with me is a buddy and was going to Europe [with me] and said “do you think that we should maybe not do that because it’s such a heavy subject” and I said “you know, I know what you mean, but there’s something about it that offers a bit of redemption.” You’re standing at the abyss and yet you’re looking into the abyss with a smile and you’re dancing and it’s like you know what? Let’s honor our friends who are gone and let’s raise hell. That’s rock and roll for me, it’s something meaningful and it’s a whale of a party song. I’m so happy I put that on the record and I love the version that we did. It just rocks. I think Jim would be happy if he heard it.
There’s a lot of rockin’ material on this album, as you’ve mentioned. But specifically, there’s also a great rockabilly feel to “Say Hey.”
I like that there’s different things happening. That song, “Say Hey,” I just wrote that on guitar one day, I think on the road. I came up with the lick and then wrote it pretty effortlessly. I always loved rockabilly. Rockabilly will always be good and it just has a different character and then at the end of it, the last verse says “what do you say when the world blows up/ I say hey/ who do you call when you’ve had enough/ I call hey/ What do you think about the rights of men/ I think hey/What do you say we do all we can/ I say hey.” I’m just tickled with the way things are going. Songs are coming to me all of the time and I’m digging them.
I’ve been able to learn over all of these years and I’m still learning, [whether I’m] writing, in the studio [or] onstage. I never toured, you know in the ‘80s when I came out, I’d never had a high school band. I was a poet in college and high school. I was writing songs by the time I was in college, but I never played publicly. I moved to New York and I had no band experience. I was signed as an acoustic [artist] playing solo, because I couldn’t afford a band and literally rehearsed for about four or five days before making the first record and the next thing you know I’m opening up for the Who across the U.S. and I was a shadow of a kid and what a riot. I thought, “oh this is a piece of cake!” [Laughs]
The Who are one of the greatest bands ever and I got to play with them and see them play night after night and it was wonderful. I’m still friends with Roger [Daltrey] and Pete [Townshend] to this day. Roger came out to see me in the UK last year and I saw Pete when he was doing his book reading and I love them. I made two records in ‘80 and ‘81 and toured with the Who and [besides that] did a little touring in those two years -- not much, [only] a few weeks and then walked away and didn’t play again until I did a benefit show for a writer in ‘87.
This writer in Norway, I never met him, Torre Olsen, he was apparently the godfather of writers in Norway and he was a big champion of mine back in the day. I got a call from someone and they called me up and invited me over to play and I went. They got me signed to Columbia, [because of the performance which was filmed]. So I rarely played in the ‘80s and not a lot in the ‘90s besides going to Europe just a little bit here and there and the next decade, I started going there on a regular basis and played a little bit more but not a ton. Now in the past three or four years, I’ve been playing [an amount of shows] like I never did. I never burned out on the road, you know and [as a result], I’m enjoying it now more than ever.
This new album, was there any of this stuff that had been hanging around in your chest of songs or was it all pretty fresh?
It’s all pretty fresh. I think “The Crossing” was in a drawer. That’s one that was written some years back. The rest of it is all brand new. “The Crossing” was always a song that I loved. I wrote that with my good friend Frankie Lee, a great songwriter. I’m a piano player -- that’s my main instrument and when I sat at the piano, I’d play it very often and I thought “this might fit on this record” and it fit. It does fit really well within American Ride.
That one was written some years ago, but the rest are all new. Two of them were just written -- we had been recording and a couple of months later I wrote “If I Ever See The Light” and “She’s Got My Heart” and so we went and [also] recorded those and I thought they would fit [ on the album] and I liked them a lot.
You mentioned that you’ve got almost another album’s worth of material written on the heels of this one. Finishing up this album, where did the songwriting process take you from that point, as far as how it relates to what we’re hearing on this new album?
I think that I’m just on a serious roll writing -- I totally have it written. By the time I record it, I’ll write more and they’ll all really solidly fit together. It’s an assortment of things and maybe it’s a little bit greasier. The subject matter is wide-ranging and the palette is pretty rockin’. I’ve just been writing up a storm and it’s just a continuation really of what I’ve been writing, I mean from Streets of New York and House of a Thousand Guitars to The Innocent Ones and American Ride and it’s picking up.
I’ve been writing more and more and it’s just observations, things I see in life and the things I feel, past, present and future. It feels like a continuous thing, just rolling out. I’m not sure what I’m going to call it -- I don’t’ know that yet. Once I get around to recording, [I’ll figure that out]. I’m busy now touring and supporting American Ride and will be for some time and [then] let’s see if we’ve got the money to make it. It’s a pisser. [Laughs]
With this current streak of productivity, is there any part of that which relates to you looking at your discography? It’s not necessarily deep as far as number of albums. Are you trying to make up for that now?
I don’t know. I waited, like I walked away from the business twice, actually, after the Columbia Records [deal]. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time and the record [1991's Places I Have Never Been] has Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Loudon Wainwright, Robbie McIntosh, etc. It’s a really good record and it was just the wrong place. I knew that could happen and that it was more common than not. The guy who signed me, my champion there, was on the way out when that record came out so it didn’t really have a chance and I understood that. It’s the way it goes and you continue on.
So I just went back to writing and I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Waiting for major record companies was the mistake that I made. Once I realized that there was this whole other kind of world out there, some friends said you should really put something out yourself -- that’s what people are doing now and it works. And does it ever -- it’s complete freedom and I’m enjoying immensely what I’m doing and what I’ve learned and what I’m still learning.
So yeah, I don’t think I’m trying to make up for lost time I think it’s just that I was so comfortable with the craft of recording that they’re just flowing out of me. There’s so much life experience added to that and studio and writing experience, I just feel like I have more to say these days maybe. But I love it...I could go next week and record this record, you know? I could put out a few years. So I’m very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity and that I didn’t give up and I stayed with it. It’s really rewarding.
The other day I got an email from my manager that I had won an Independent Music Award for a song of social action, which was “One Guitar.” I don’t measure success by awards or by records sold - there’s quantity and quality. I’d love to sell millions of CDs so that I could make more records and afford to do that and live comfortably, but the work will never change. I will always be driven and inspired and enjoy the work.
It seems like your head’s always been in the right place, just listening to the records that you do put out. Obviously, you’re more concerned about the quality of the actual album as opposed to the number of albums. The quantity becomes irrelevant if the content is spotty and you’ve always been able to keep it focused where it needs to be.
I think that I’m a perfectionist of sorts and I want it to be strong. I don’t want to put anything that I don’t think is really good out there, I want it to be as high quality as it can be. That’s why I’m enjoying this so much is because I feel the quality is pretty strong these days and with what I’m writing now, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be changing anytime soon. So I’m chomping at the bit to keep making records. Not as a reaction to having put so few out. Sometimes less is more.
Totally. Your buddy Bruce is legendary for not being afraid to scrap an entire album if he doesn’t believe in it. Have you ever gone down that road where you’ve scrapped an entire album of material?
No. But I respect him for that. If it’s not good and you have the luxury of being able to do that, that’s a great luxury to have. It’s tough for artists. I remember Doc Pomus, a friend of mine and the great legendary hall of fame songwriter, you know, “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment,” he wrote songs for Elvis Presley. I knew him and used to go see him play all of the time in the Village and in ‘78 when I got signed, he said to me “go to Europe, Willie, they know how to treat a songwriter.” I’m just enjoying the heck out of it and people make me feel like I’m doing a good thing. They’re very, very supportive and enthusiastic, big time, as evidenced by the Pledge thing.
It’s been a while since you’ve been to Cleveland for a show. I think a lot of folks are excited that you’re coming back to town for this gig.
Well hopefully people come out. I haven’t played there much and I don’t think I get any radio play there, so I don’t know how they would know about me. But if people come out, I promise them they won’t be sorry if they come out to the show. Come join the party because we’re throwing a big party and it’s going to be fun, no matter how many people are there. We give everything we’ve got and I think people will have a blast. The thing I hear more often than not is that people come up to me and say “you know, some people told me I should see you -- I never heard of you and man, this is great.” They buy a bunch of CDs and we’re making friends every place we play.
Cleveland’s a rock and roll city and there’s a great history of rockin’. I grew up in Buffalo, so it’s not far. I’d come in there to see baseball games when I was a kid. I didn’t drive, but I’d travel with a buddy to the old Stadium and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a place that I should be going to a regular basis and I’m hoping that if enough people come back, that they’ll want to have us back. Because we don’t leave any stone unturned. We don’t leave anything in the dressing room. We bring it. I’m proud of the band -- they’re great musicians. So come on out and see some roof rattling and some wall shaking music.
Willie Nile plays The Winchester on Saturday, June 22nd. Visit The Winchester's website for ticket details. Don't forget to pick up Willie's new album American Ride, which will be available at Saturday's show!