One of rock’s most gifted songwriters reaps the rewards of patience.
By Steve Houk
You might not know Willie Nile‘s music. And until you do, well, it’s your loss.
Forget that Nile is one of the most prolific and brilliant songwriters anywhere. One critic referred to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Willie Nile as the “bards and masters of melody and meaning.” If it was up to some of the most gifted musicians on the planet, as well as a legion of fans he’s garnered over his 30 plus years in the business, everyone would know who Willie Nile is.
“From Richard Thompson to Bruce Springsteen — I treasure (Bruce’s) friendship, he’s as good a guy as you’d hope he’d be — to Bono and Lucinda Williams just to name a few, they’ve all been so supportive,” the great Nile told me from New York recently. “Lucinda told me when she heard ‘On The Road to Cavalry,’ that it was the most beautiful song she’d ever heard. And I’ve been to Ireland the past two winters, and both times after sound check, I’d go up to the dressing room and there’s this wooden gift box with two bottles of champagne and five to six bottles of Guinness and a note, and you open it up and it says, ‘Welcome to Dublin, Love, U2.’ That’s from Bono, he’s been such a supporter, too. I just pinch myself. So as up and down a ride as it’s been, it’s really more satisfying than you can imagine, because of the respect I’ve gotten, and the joy I’m having making the music.”
Up and down is right, but respect and joy are what surrounds Willie Nile these days. At 67, the supremely talented Nile is one of those musicians whose career has had enough gaps in it that he’s almost slipped through them himself: a fairy tale start, followed by a long reclusion from the music business altogether, and then a masterful 25 year awakening, turning him into one of music’s most unheralded songwriting geniuses. Nile and his truly excellent band will be at The Barns at Wolf Trap on October 29th.
For Nile, it’s all about the songs, and album for album, from his self-titled debut in 1980 to his most recent gem ‘If I Was A River’ released last year (and he’s already got another new record almost finished), his sublime tunes are what separates him from the rest of the pack, they’ve reaped him the major respect he so deeply deserves. Yes, he and his band can rock the house like nobody’s business, in the studio and especially live, but it’s the evocative, poignant and stunning tapestries of life that Nile paints with his words that place him in very rare company.
“When I write, I just write what comes to me,” Nile told me. “Whether it’s something political, you know, the world we live in, or I see something that touches my heart, whether it’s love or loss, or someone else’s sorrow or loneliness. I watch people all the time, looking for things that inspire me. From burning the house down on a Saturday night, just blowing the roof off a place with party songs, to other deeper songs about a time, a place or a love, what’s great about rock and roll is you can write about anything. There’s no limit, it’s boundless. There’s something about that that really appeals to me.”
Willie Nile’s self-titled debut circa 1980
Willie Nile just might have become one of those aforementioned household names if things had gone a bit differently. An unexpected gig opening up for one of rock music’s most famous bands right after his first album dropped gave him a leg up most musicians dream about, and things seemed ready to blast off.
“I toured with the Who in 1980, after my first record,” Nile said. “When they told me at the record company, oh, Pete Townsend loves your record, I just thought to myself, yeah, sure he does, this is some kinda bullshit that the record company is throwing. So go forward, it’s the last show of my first tour at the Roxy in L.A., and after the show, Bill Curbishley, The Who’s manager and a number of Who people came back. They really liked the show, and asked me on the spot if I wanted to open across the US for The Who. They had another band opening, they just started the tour, and they kicked them off the tour. It was the dream of a lifetime, we had the time of our lives. I was playing in a few hundred seat clubs, first time ever playing with a band. Next thing you know I’m in front of 20,000, 25,000. It was great.”
With a huge break like that, you’d think it’d be pretty smooth sailing to the next level. But for Nile, after two stellar early records and the Who warm-up slot, it was an admirable combination of principles and responsibility that took precedence, and he literally dissapeared from view for a half dozen years just as his star was about to burst open. He spent that time largely letting family take a front seat, with music being relegated to the back.
“I walked away in ’81, we went and had kids and raised a family in Buffalo. It was a magical time up there, but a hard time,” Nile said. “I went through whatever savings I had and borrowed money, and I didn’t play at all. I mean, nothing. (My career) also had become more about business and not about music. So I just said, you know what? I’m outta here. That’s not why I came. Music is a total joy for me, I love it, and they were totally killing my buzz, and I go, I’m not gonna let them kill my buzz, so I just turned around and walked away. If I had any regrets it would be management choices, choices that I’ve made. Like if I hadn’t made some of those moves, things would be different. But you learn, you make mistakes, and you learn hopefully from them. It’s taken me a long time, but it’s been a very rewarding journey for many years.”
Nile kept writing music up in Buffalo, but stayed away from performing throughout much of the 80’s. It was late in the decade when a unique opportunity presented itself, and the pull of his chosen gifts beckoned Nile back into a life of music.
“I got a call from a promoter in Norway saying, ‘I thought you were dead. We all thought you were dead,'” Nile said. “I had never been to Europe, which is really a shame, had I gone to Europe back in the beginning, things would have been quite a bit different. But I went to play a children’s cancer hospital benefit in the far north of Norway, and I ended up going there like six, seven years in a row. I also went to this benefit for this writer, the godfather of all the music critics in Norway. It was filmed, Joe Ely was there, I did like a 25 minute set. I took the videotape of that performance to a buddy of mine, a producer at Columbia, and he loved it so much he signed me on the strength of that. So that got me going again.”
The wait was worth it, Nile was back in business, and over the next decade he would release two stellar records, “Places I’ve Never Been” in 1991 (featuring Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III and Roger McGuinn on backup vocals) and eight years later, “Beautiful Wreck Of The World,” which would be his first self-released record and change the course of his career for the better by freeing himself of the constraints of record companies’ incessant meddling. A whirling flurry of creativity and productivity would follow, and finally, his name would become synonymous around the world for both kick-ass rock and roll and thoughtful, deep songwriting.
“That was really a turning point for me, because of the internet plus the independent thing, that freed me up from relying on major labels to be interested or involved. In 2006, ‘Streets Of New York’ really put me back on the map, internationally. I had started going to Europe in maybe ’92 on a regular basis, so I had pretty developed fan bases in Italy and Spain, and now in these last years the UK and Ireland. But in 2006, ‘New York’ made a lot of noise, Bono gave me a great quote for it, a lot of people gave me some great quotes. Then I put out ‘House of a Thousand Guitars’ in 2009, 2011 was ‘The Innocent Ones’ which got a ton of acclaim on BBC, they called it the album of the year, again, independently released. In 2013, I put out ‘American Ride’ through a Sony distributed label. That won the Independent Music Award for Best Rock Album of the Year in a worldwide vote, which was really sweet.”
Willie Nile (R) on stage with close friend Bruce Springsteen
Finally, after his career had almost seemed like a classic case of too few and far between, or maybe even sheer brilliance never truly realized, Nile would garner the recognition he so long deserved, up to and including the latest “If I Was A River,” a record Nile is very proud of.
” ‘If I Was A River’ is a piano based album, and that was a labor of love. I played the piano early on as an eight year old, and I’d written so many songs on the piano. I saw a little window where I could put out a piano-based record. Stuart Smith and David Mansfield are backing me up, I’m really proud of it. It’s gotten a great reaction.”
For Willie Nile, it’s been a long road to where he is today, and if it weren’t for a couple of important decisions he felt he needed to make, he might be in that upper echelon of rock star popularity. But don’t let that fool you: they don’t get any better than Willie Nile, a sweet and sincere guy whose songwriting chops and live performances are as good as anyone out there right now. And he’s very pleased with where things are in his life today.
“You learn things, everybody’s got different paths. I’m very happy where things are now. It’s been much easier on my family. But I really treasure all the stuff that I have learned. I wouldn’t trade it for the world at this point. I’m having a great, great time. Still writing like crazy, and enjoying it as much as ever. And the people come out and give me a lot of love so it’s very rewarding. I consider myself very lucky.”
Willie Nile and his band perform October 29th at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road Vienna, Virginia 22182. Tickets are available here