‘I Needed to Make a Record of Songs Like These’: Nathaniel Rateliff on His Stark New Solo Album
After a divorce and the death of friend and collaborator Richard Swift, the singer-songwriter opens up about why he’s stepping away from the Night Sweats for an unguarded LP
It rarely happens, but a few hours before he’s set to walk onstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre in early December, Nathaniel Rateliff is getting a little nervous. He’s not rattled by the Christmas-themed benefit or the starry bill, which includes Mavis Staples, Mumford and Sons, and Yola. But it was a member of Yola’s band who made Rateliff realize what he had gotten himself into. “He was like, ‘Can’t wait to see all you guys,’” Rateliff says in his hotel room a few hours before the show. “And I said, ‘Um, it’s just me.’”
One of the most unlikely success stories of the decade that just ended was that of Rateliff and his band, the Night Sweats. The market for a Midwestern soul band fronted by a beefy, behatted guy who looked like Garth Hudson’s son barely seemed to exist at the beginning of the 2010s. But the band’s 2015 debut appealed to an audience looking for alternatives to pop, hip-hop, and EDM, and sold more than half a million copies; their 2018 follow-up, Tearing at the Seams, did nearly as well.
Rateliff’s breakthrough was hard won; his two pre–Night Sweats bands came and went with little national attention. But tonight, he’ll start the process of throwing another wrench into his career, only two albums into his reinvention. Next month he’ll release And It’s Still Alright, a subdued, sparely produced set of ambling-through-the-graveyard ballads that shifts back to his pre–Night Sweats days as a baritone-voiced bar-room troubadour. With varying degrees of sorrow, anger, and bitterness, the songs address the recent end of his marriage and the death of his friend, producer and musician Richard Swift, as well as Rateliff’s own struggles with sobriety. His husky voice and acoustic guitar picking are the focus of each song, with only occasional and muted accompaniment — and a few whimsical, light-hearted moments that self-consciously recall the music of Harry Nilsson and country singer-songwriter Roger Miller.
What’s nowhere to be heard here is the boisterous energy of the Night Sweats. “I was always drawn to do a record that maybe no one’s going to love, but you do it because it’s important to you,” says Rateliff, who these days looks like a slightly more groomed version of his bearded-woodsman self. “That’s what I really love about Harry Nilsson. He always just did what he wanted to do in a world where everything needs to be some sort of commodity for the industry. It’s nice to be able to just write songs because you’d like the idea of writing songs and being able to work through your own shit.”
So who’s the real Rateliff — the torn, sensitive balladeer or the white-soul stomper? “Sometimes I’m definitely the Night Sweats character and sometimes I’m this guy, you know,” he says, a laptop and guitar nearby. “Sometimes I don’t want to be the other one. When I was younger, I was like, ‘Am I pretending to be somebody else? Is the voice I’m using actually my voice? Or is this a character?’ But it turns out, it’s all still me.” He laughs. “It makes it sound like I’ve got multiple-personality disorder.”
And now, starting tonight, he’ll be stage-testing that other side of his musical psyche. “We’ll see how it goes,” he shrugs. “If it bombs, maybe I’ll go into ‘Merry Christmas to You.’”
It wasn’t even a decade ago when Rateliff was playing unplugged singer-songwriter gigs with far fewer people in the crowd than at the sold-out Beacon Theatre. Missouri-born, he moved to Denver in 1998 and was eventually paying his dues with not one but two bands: the alt-rock–ish Born in the Flood and the more acoustic-based the Wheel. Neither band gained much national traction. Born in the Flood was on the verge of a contract with the metal-oriented Roadrunner label when Rateliff opted instead to make a solo, ballad-heavy record, In Memory of Loss (leading to the breakup of Born in the Flood). But his new label, Rounder, passed on releasing the follow-up to Memory, and Rateliff was stalled once again.
At the encouragement of a friend who suggested he cut a single, Rateliff pulled out his guitar one night in 2013 and wrote a song called “Trying So Hard Not to Know.” With it he arrived at a new musical avenue — what he called a merger of the Band and Sam and Dave. The material that followed aimed self-consciously for a Southern-soul sound, and before long he had put together the horn-driven Night Sweats. “He told me he wanted to do this soul band on the side, just for fun,” says James Barone, who’s drummed for Beach House and Tennis and co-produced And It’s Still Alright with Rateliff and Night Sweats drummer Patrick Meese. “He said it would be a bit throwback-y. But I heard it and said, ‘This is really good,’ and a lot of people obviously thought that as well.”
An early live show in Denver revealed the new material’s potential, and the first Night Sweats album — produced by Swift, who had worked as a musician with the Shins and the Black Keys — landed on Stax, the legendary soul label revived by Concord Music. Rateliff says he was initially worried that he’d been seen as an interloper. “Other people were doing similar stuff at the time, which I was bummed about because we had made the record a year before it came out,” he says. “There were already bands like Alabama Shakes, Leon Bridges, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Sharon Jones. I was like, ‘It looks like we’re just riding on the coattails of all these other people.’ But I guess it was kind of the perfect time for it.”
Along with his overdue breakthrough came troubles: His drinking sometimes got out of control (to the point where he forced himself to stop during the completion of Tearing at the Seams), and he and his wife Jules separated and eventually divorced. At the same time, while on tour promoting the second album, Rateliff was also keeping tabs on Swift, who was dealing with his own drinking and health issues. “Richard and I struggled with a lot of the same things,” he says. “I was going through divorce and he kind of was as well. We talked a lot to each other to try to support each other about how fragile our relationships in our lives were and our vulnerability to excess. He’d always just be like, ‘Man, it’s like you’re my twin, you know?’ Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, how much we were abusing ourselves.”
On tour in early 2018, Rateliff took the call he’d been dreading: Swift was in bad shape, coping with hepatitis and liver and kidney failure. Flying to Oregon, where Swift was based, Rateliff was able to visit his friend, who, he says, was barely coherent; he also saw him later in hospice before Swift died that July. “It’s one of those things: If I could have been more accountable to him, maybe he’d still be here,” Rateliff says. “But probably everybody in his life feels that way.”
Rateliff had never stopped writing unplugged ballads — his contract with Concord calls for both band and solo albums — and before Swift passed away, he and Rateliff had talked about making an album of them, especially ones that detailed Rateliff’s discombobulated life. “Part of my whole process as a person is to write, and in order for me to get through whatever it is I need to get through and my own journey, I needed to make a record of songs like these that I knew couldn’t be on a Night Sweats record,” he says. “I know what I want the Night Sweats to be or what they need to be for our fans. We deliver a certain thing. But these songs aren’t that. Richard used to say, ‘Keep pushing for those Harry Nilsson tunes, man.’ And I was like, ‘Well, we’ll see how Nilsson I can get.’”
Rateliff broke the news to his fellow Night Sweats that he would be taking a break from them to cut a solo album, although he wonders if he handled the announcement as well as he could have. “I’m probably not the best communicator and probably should have talked more about it with the guys,” he says. “I think everybody’s all right.”
“In order for me to get through whatever it is I need to get through and my own journey, I needed to make a record of songs like these that I knew couldn’t be on a Night Sweats record,” Rateliff says.
“There wasn’t anything like, ‘Hey, everyone, this is happening now,’” says Meese. “It just gradually got out that we were doing this. Nathaniel’s had some major life events in the last couple of years and I think this is therapeutic for him. After years of doing Night Sweats stuff, he was ready for a different energy.”
This past March, Rateliff, along with Meese and Barone, reconvened in Swift’s home studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon, still surrounded by their late friend’s gear and instruments. “There was an air of sadness that Richard was gone,” says Barone. “But working in his room, with his instruments, and calling up the snare drum with the same sound he left it at, it felt he was still there with us. You just had to get through it, and I think the record symbolizes a lot of that grieving and trying to come out the other side and see the light.”
To retain the intimate ambience they wanted, the tracks began with Rateliff singing and playing solo, after which Meese (and additional musicians back in Colorado) overdubbed whatever additional, often minimal, instrumentation the songs needed. “Some of the songs are really just about me, like, wishing I could have talked to Richard about things,” he says quietly. “Some of these songs are about him not being here anymore.” A few songs are somewhat light-hearted: In “Tonight #2,” Rateliff admits that the “one-armed man/pinned to the ground in the coolest pose” may be him, and “Mavis” (not named after Mavis Staples, with whom Rateliff has worked) is about a platonic female friendship that “always teeters on the idea of romance.” Others, like “And It’s Still Alright,” touch on Swift’s death (“They say you learn a lot out there, how to scorch and burn/Gonna have to bury your friends and then you’ll find it get worse”).
In just under two weeks, most of the album was in the can, but the process could still be delicate. “Rush On,” Rateliff’s anguished tribute to Swift, has some of the album’s most direct lyrics: “All the love and cries could not shake you from your rest/Would’ve given up my sight to take the jaundice from your skin.” Knowing it would be an emotional moment, Meese says he made sure to save the song until the final session. The day they taped it, they had coincidentally run into a local friend of Swift’s who told them stories about their late friend, adding to the heavy air when they finally put it on tape — although, again, they did so without pushing Rateliff too much. “I didn’t want Nathaniel to do a take and then we’d get on the talk-back and say, ‘Hey, can you try it again?’” Barone says. “It’s not that type of tune.”
Initially, Rateliff had wanted to call the record All or Nothing, after one of its songs, before settling on And It’s Still Alright. “It ties the record together,” he says. “It’s a struggle to grow and you end up stranded on the ledge and burying people you care about. But when you really look at it, I’m still alive, everything’s still good in my life regardless of hardship and what’s been happening. So that’s what I want the theme to be, not ‘all or nothing.’ I want there to be hope.”
The word “hope” now applies to whatever happens next with the record. Rateliff is well aware that the fans who discovered him with the Night Sweats — and may have limited awareness of his music before them — may be taken aback by his quieter and more somber work. He first sensed that when he played the record for an executive at Concord. “One of my buddies at the label said, ‘Yeah, I love it, but I don’t know if anybody would care about it if wasn’t you,’” Rateliff says with a laugh. “He said it jokingly — he wasn’t being a jerk. But I don’t know. We don’t know if they will care about it.”
“My thought at the end of the day was, ‘I wonder what people are going to think of it?’” Barone says. “But it’s not a good place to go in the creative process.”
For at least the next few months, Rateliff isn’t letting any further doubts creep further into his head. He’s prepping a solo tour of sit-down theaters, where he’ll play his new songs — and others from his earlier, folkier albums — with a 10-piece band that will include five Night Sweats and a string quartet. Plans for a third Night Sweats album are in the early stages — step one is finding a new producer who can fill Swift’s formidable shoes — and the band is already prepping some shows later this year.
Now 41, Rateliff is in a new relationship, has moved out of Meese’s basement (where he relocated when his marriage began falling apart) and has bought a house on a couple of acres outside Denver. He also says he’s cut back on his excesses. “It’s hard in an industry where everybody likes to party and drink,” he says. “Especially with the Night Sweats, everybody’s coming every night for a party, you know? And at some point, you just can’t party every night of the week all year. It’s just not sustainable. And it doesn’t make you happy after a while; it’s one hangover to the next hangover.”
As one perk of his success, he’s not only met heroes like Staples and John Prine but gets to work with them; he’s teamed up with each of those artists for a new series of seven-inch singles to benefit his Marigold Project, which aids nonprofit organizations. “Not much has changed,” says Barone, who has known Rateliff for more than a dozen years. “He’s still the same Nathaniel from back in the day. But now he’s inviting me over to the studio to record with Mavis Staples.”
A few hours after our interview, Rateliff emerges from a dressing room at the Beacon and, surrounded by pals (including actress Julia Stiles, a longtime Rateliff fan who regularly plugs the first Night Sweats album), makes his way to the stage. Settling in with only his guitar, he plays a half dozen songs from And It’s Still Alright, offering up a few self-deprecating comments but also tearing up a bit as he introduces “Rush On.” The crowd hasn’t heard any of these songs before, yet they respond with supportive applause after each song — and a standing ovation at the end.
“They were standing and clapping, so that was good,” Rateliff says with a chuckle after the show, plopped down in a backstage room and looking drained. “It felt good to give it a trial run. New York can be a tough crowd.”
Then he laughs. “Now I have to do a whole tour of this.”