- Fri, 2011-03-04 12:40
The carefully-crafted and starkly elegant music of Nathaniel Rateliff has already charmed the likes of Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling. With his album In Memory of Loss released in the UK through Rounder Records / Decca on 7th March 2011, I Like Music caught up with Nathaniel for a lengthy chat about music.
We cover his musical background, growing up in Bay, Missouri, coping with the struggle of life, the beauty of a simple song and his soulful future ambitions.
”I Like Music because…it makes me feel breathless. And achey. And melancholy and magic. All at the same time.” Nathaniel Rateliff
ILM: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into music?
Nathaniel: I started playing drums around seven. My parents and sister all sang and played instruments. They played gospel music at church and were kind of the church band, so I ended up being a part of that playing drums. I loved playing music, I loved how music made me feel. My father passed away when I was 13 and I started playing guitar. I learned three chords and started writing right away – it was really awful stuff you know but I was still a kid. Then throughout the years I just kept playing and writing. As a teenager I was really in love with blues and The Allman Brothers and The Band. Before that I was really into shoegaze – so I kind of went through different types of styles and different types of playing guitar. I has a little samba phase, Joao Gilberto and some jazz. I just wanted to be a really skilled guitar player. That was my purpose, not really writing being a singer.
ILM: How did you end up singing?
Nathaniel: I just got more confident at singing as I grew older. When I was a teenager I fell in love with The Doors. I was infatuated with the voice that Jim Morrison had and I tried to mimic it, I was obsessed with the whole idea of Jim Morrison. It was the first time I really learned how to sound like something.
ILM: So it began with mimicking?
Nathaniel: Yeah and continued. As I got older I started doing the same thing with bluegrass singers and blues singers, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole and early James Brown. I tried to mimic their voice styles and singing styles. I tried to sound identical to them. That really taught me how to use my voice, so I never really had any training; I just started to realise parts of my body – my throat and my mouth and my chest and my stomach – were being used for different sounds.
ILM: Well, cool talent to have!
Nathaniel: Haha! Well after a while friends would be like “can you do this one?” and I would sing some old James Brown song like Please Please Please and try to do it exactly the same as him. They’d be like “damn, that sounds just like him!” At that point I’d been a huge Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan fan, I loved the way their songs were written, but I never sang in a baritone voice so didn’t really attempt them. One day I finally wrote a song at home with my recorder in that style and really liked it, it was really easy. So that sort of clicked…
ILM: You were part of the band Born In The Flood for nine years with relative success. You then began performing solo as The Wheel, at what point did you feel it was right to go solo full time?
Nathaniel: Yeah, I did several things with Born In The Flood, we had two EPs and a full-length record. When it started to fall apart I had another 25 songs that I was ready to record, but the band couldn’t really do it anymore. We weren’t really where I wanted us to be, and I was growing tired of it. Plus I liked the response I was getting as The Wheel or Nathaniel Rateliff. My solo music wasn’t as loud, I liked how quiet it was, that it made people listen.
ILM: How would you describe your album In Memory Of Loss?
Nathaniel: Definitely songs about life, struggles and love. And some loss. I always feel like I’ve struggled. Even when I’m doing what I do now, I always feel like I’m struggling. It’s harder the older you get, if you struggle most of your life. I’ve always had a roof over my head, so there’s not that much to complain about compared to other people in other countries. But for me, it’s always been a real emotional struggle. Maybe that’s just my character. So the record’s really a lot about that. A lot of the songs were written for the woman I ended up marrying. A lot of the other songs are about our life together and our struggles together, our defeats, failures, successes, and the love I still having during all that.
ILM: Can you describe your songwriting process?
Nathaniel: It’s always been really similar. There’s only a couple of different ways. I’ll have a melody and a couple of words in my head, or a line or something that really speaks to me, then I’ll start to write around that. Or I’ll sit down and have a tape recorder and make up nonsense words and the whole song comes out like that. You’ll sing the melody and kind of words, like shapes and sounds come out, then I’ll go back through and edit those. I’ll take some of the sounds of the shapes of the song and those will sort of prick my ear; I’ll be like “oh, that sounds like this word!” Sometimes I like that ‘cause it’ll be words I wouldn’t normally think about. I’ll kind of surprise myself that nonsense words help me come up with words that aren’t in my normal vocabulary.
ILM: That sounds like a very natural process…
Nathaniel: Well it’s sort of like stream of conscious writing. Sometimes I do sit down and actually write the whole thing out; I can hear it all in my head. Sometimes the song just sort of appears. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I often feel like I’m more of a vessel than I am actually responsible for what’s happening.
ILM: You’ve spoken before about the importance of ‘the song’ quite simply, in its essence. How that was very popular in the 60’s and 70’s and that although that has dwindled, that you feel that importance is coming back. Why do you think that is?
Nathaniel: I don’t know – I think it’s a really good thing. I think that we live in an age where there are tons of distractions. Perhaps people want something outside of that now, they want to take time not to be distracted by devices and gadgets. The one thing that made music so great back then was that there wasn’t a whole lot to do. People back in the day had a radio but they didn’t have TVs til much later. That was a luxury. Nowadays we have all sorts of things. If you were poor you spent most of your time working and then you’d come home, sit on your porch, play instruments and talk. There wasn’t really much more entertainment than that. And there’s something in that – especially as far as Americana and folk goes. There’s so much honesty in the music, and I think that’s what’s really important. Maybe that’s what people want now. Maybe they’re ready for something to be honest again and not so plastic and marketable.
ILM: Your music is extremely open and honest. How do you feel about sharing so much with so many?
Nathaniel: Even with Born In The Flood, my vision was that I wanted to make normal people feel emotional when they would normally not feel emotional, or make them vulnerable through music. It does that to you. Maybe it’s extremely egotistical to say that it’s even a possibility, but I was really trying to be devoid of ego. I’m just trying to be really honest and really kind of raw in front of people, in the hope that it catches on. Hopefully people will see that it’s not a put on; maybe they’ll have the opportunity to feel something that they don’t normally feel every day. I think people can be really closed off. Culture now is really closed off from a lot of things.
ILM: It’s quite a skill to translate that emotion across to an audience…
Nathaniel: Yes. Unless you feel it yourself. And that’s another thing I’ve always loved about music, that the definition of a song is really determined by the listener. I’ve always really liked that. I’ve never liked telling people too much about my songs, because it might just ruin it. Your perception of the song, the writing, is probably different from my perception. You have your own relationship with it. For me to tell you exactly what it’s about sort of robs you of your vision. I might have written a song that you think is really amazing and it always makes you cry, and then I’d tell you I just wrote it so I could get laid... Which is the case a lot of the time. Even if it’s with the woman I’m with! There’s definitely an intention behind it. And generally…it’s probably that…!
ILM: Yes, I read a quote the other day – ‘everyone has the best music taste in the world.’
Nathaniel: Yeah, my taste would differ from someone else’s. If you start to say “this is bad music, this is good music”… Well I don’t know, it’s just kind of unfair. Then there’s a separation and it’s like “what’s hip, what’s not hip.” All of those things – what’s hip and what’s not – are not very important. What has substance and what’s sustainable is what is important. There are artists throughout time who did well and didn’t do well, but their material lasted because there was something there, they had substance. That’s the only thing that matters in a way.
ILM: You come from a very religious background…
Nathaniel: I was raised really religious, I was raised in a Christian church. When I was 18, I even spent a couple of years as a missionary. But that led me to be very agnostic. Extremely agnostic. Now I would say that I’m more interested in other stuff, like Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts, comparative religious studies. My wife is really into quantum physics and talks a lot about that. Although, would you like to talk about it at breakfast? I’m usually like “ugh, can we not talk about particle study right now?” Really, religion and spirituality are two different things. If you think about spirituality in the terms of science, it really changes a lot of things. If you think about spirituality with a connection to nature that makes more sense to me. I’ve always really loved history. I love Native American history, which I guess would be similar to early European paganism. Well, it’s not really paganism…but if we would have stuck with those ideas the world would be a better place. But I won’t get too into it…
ILM: What do you look forward to the most about playing live?
Nathaniel: I love it when people are quiet, but even if people aren’t I’ll still keep playing. It’s not always the same show. I like it sometimes when I play a show where I feel really emotional and feel like I’m gonna cry during one of the songs or I do. Or in between songs. Sometime I like making crude jokes. Laughter and weeping. Those things feel really good.
ILM: You’ve been involved with some popular names from the UK folk scene; Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons. How did those relationships begin?
Nathaniel: Three of the Laura Marling band are playing with me right now. Two of them are with Laura in the states and two are with Mumford and Sons in Europe. Marcus actually came to see my old band Born In The Flood when he was living in Boulder, Colorado and was a fan. This was years before, like five years ago or something, I don’t know. I think I met him then, but I can’t remember. I had a problem with a little bit of an ego. It’s funny, when you’re in a certain position you start to think of yourself as something, but you’re still just a person.
ILM: What’s your record collection like?
Nathaniel: I have a lot of vinyl. I’ve actually skimmed down because at one point I think I had anywhere from 1,500 – 2,000 records. So I skimmed down to about probably 800 really good records. I love doo-wop, I love the Hudson River Blues Recordings. I love some of the Library of Congress stuff. Yeah, everything from Muddy Waters to Sonny Terry, The Platters, The Moonglows, The Band, one of my favourite records is The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan, but then tons of Beatles, tons of Stones.
ILM: And Led Zeppelin?
Nathaniel: Oh yeah, I learned how to play drums with Led Zeppelin IV! When The Levee Breaks and Misty Mountain Hop, I just listened to those over and over again. I found a Led Zeppelin tape cassette in a barn when I was like ten or eleven.
ILM: Resting in a beam of light…
Nathaniel: Right! It was that and Metallica’s Black album. At the time I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music, so I was sneaking around listening to that. Then I discovered Jimi Hendrix soon after that…so…
ILM: What inspires you outside of music?
Nathaniel: There’s two people in my life that have been really big influences on me. My mother and one of my longest best friends, who I always consider my mentor, Matt Heany. He just kind of taught me that you can be whatever you want to be, that your surroundings don’t define your character and that what happens in your life doesn’t define who you are – that you get to define who you are. Growing up where I did, that was a very weird thing for anyone to say or even think of. You just were who you were, there wasn’t a whole lot of hope of leaving the state really. And then Joseph Pope III, who still plays with me. We’ve played together for over 15 years, maybe even 16, 18 years now. He’s always been there encouraging me, he’s always been by my side. And recently my wife, over the last five years.
ILM: What are your future plans?
Nathaniel: I don’t know. I’ll be back in the UK, the record will be out and then that will determine how long we’re here for. We’re trying for festivals in the summer, we’ll see. Nobody really knows about that. Glastonbury is one we’re trying for. Some friends of mine have a really nice studio in Denver that I can pretty much use for free, so I’m gonna start going in to record some tracks. Depends how much money I have to do that though – not that it’s that expensive. But I’d like to be recording again really soon, and I’d really love to do a real soul album. Really nice, sweet, sexy songs.
Nathaniel: Yeah…but it’s real hard to write them. A lot of those songs are great but lyrically they’re kind of goofy. I really wish I could spend a lot of time focusing on trying to write that; I have a couple of ideas but haven’t really spent a lot of time with it lyrically. I try to take early soul and r&b and put a little bit more depth into the words and still have that sound. So I don’t know how long it’s gonna take me, but that’s the plan! It might take me a couple of years though, because if I did it I’d really like to do it perfect, I don’t want to do it half assed.