Willie Nile was made for music. One can tell that songs keep him up at night, itching to be brought to fruition and plucked on his guitar and carried on his ever-yearning, gruffly potent voice to any ears willing to listen. Nile’s music – right from his stunning self-titled 1980 debut on through his latest humanizing salvo, The Innocent Ones (released on October 24, 2011 on his own River House Records) (DI review) – is packed with streetwise hymns and rocked up folk anthems, a child of Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie, The Ramones and The Clash, and kindred spirit to chums like Bruce Springsteen and Alejandro Escovedo. Grit and everyday gravitas infuse Nile’s tunes, and he’s been on a pretty amazing tear in the 2000s after decades of topsy-turvy industry woes. What has sustained him – and infused his work with a close-to-the-bone veracity – is an indomitable spirit, which he’s able to impart in his tunes, stage personality and general demeanor. A few minutes with Willie Nile will make a person feel like the world can be made better AND that they might have a hand in making it so. He sees our beauty even though our clothes are tattered and the lines of our lives cut deep into our faces. His songs ring with freedom and understanding, catalysts for belief that just over the horizon lays something brighter, something hopeful, something worth struggling towards.
I sensed you were a musical lifer from the first time the needle hit your debut, which I bought shortly after it came out. Some folks you can just tell it’s in their blood and they have no choice but to make music.
What I love is the music. I keep writing. I keep getting ideas. I’m still on fire with the inspiration that first got me interested. I love to play. I love to write. It’s fun all the way around. It inspires me, and if my shows and music inspires someone else then that’s what it’s all about.
I walked away from it in the early 80s when it turned into business and lawsuits. I got into this because it was supposed to be fun, and this wasn’t fun. I said, “Screw this!” and moved back to Buffalo to raise a family. So, it’s really only been the last two years where I’ve picked it up [playing live again]. I was always a songwriter writing away, but I love to play, too. It’s fun to get out and celebrate and have fun with people. The response I’m getting these days is really great. I’m in Europe for about four months a year now – Italy, Spain, U.K. [Nile recently returned to the U.K. for a tour that raised funds for and awareness about Parkinson’s disease - something he’s done for the past 12 years].
Your spark is an essential part of what draws people to your music – a passion undisguised – and it’s something that’s led you into being a really independent artist over the years.
In 2000, I put out Beautiful Wreck of the World on my own label and it made money. I made the money back that I put into it and it got things rolling for me in the do-it-yourself indie world. In 2005, I made Streets of New York, and that really put me back on the map. And two years ago, I put out House Of A Thousand Guitars, and the same thing – I own it, I paid for it, and toured a lot behind it. And the same thing goes for The Innocent Ones. I have Red/Sony distribution to get it into stores but the rest – digital, etc. – I own it. It’s grace. It can be done. You don’t need to spend a fortune to make records, and if you have the songs and you can get some character on tape, well, if you believe then maybe somebody else will as well.
The lucky thing in my case is while many people’s inspiration wanes as they get older, mine’s been the exact opposite. I think the last couple records I’ve made are my best, and I have a new one written I want to record over the winter. The songs are coming fast and furious, and I feel the same way I did when I first came to the Village with a guitar years ago. Now, I have more experience in the studio and writing songs. It all comes easier to me now, just dealing with all the stuff you have to deal with can take hours, but I’m not as uptight as I was years ago about it. It seems to be working. These are good days.
Your lack of cynicism is refreshing, particularly coming from someone who’s been knee deep in this shitty industry for so long.
I have no choice. I don’t know what else I would do. If I was a plumber living up in Alaska, I’d still come home every night and write. It’s so much fun for me. I’ve put stuff out on two major labels, I’ve put stuff out on my own, and it can be done. Fortunately, I’ve got enough support out there, enough fans, to keep it going. It’s really heartening. My goodness…
Your music has folk strains that go back to 60s Greenwich Village but there’s also a line back to The Beatles and the stuff that inspired The Beatles, where rock ‘n’ roll was still dangerous instead of a commodity and a cause worth signing up for.
At its best, that’s what it is. You don’t get too much of that in the mainstream. There’s not much of it to be found on radio, which has changed so much. It’s not like the old days where you turned it on and always heard new things. For me, the response to my new record has surprised me, where they say “One Guitar” is appropriate for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many ask, “Where are the songs with meaning?” Well, songs mean something to me, whether it’s a broken-hearted love song, a song of remorse or remembrance, or a pissed-off, fuck you, stop blowing my house up song. I’m having a real awakening getting older – whether it’s walking alone into a studio, getting out in front of 70,000 people with Bruce [Springsteen, a longtime Nile pal and admirer], or making some noise touring Europe with a full band for the first time last year. We’re making headway, and it’s because the music is speaking [to people].
Makes sense given the hopefulness of so much of your music. However, I have a fondness for your darker material. “Topless Amateur” off the new album is one of the best songs you’ve written.
I have a ton of those [laughs]. I can go light, I can go dark, but I just try to put a collection together that mixes it up.
You notice the people others tend to overlook.
I knew this was happening as early as three-years-old. I’d look around the room and see who the outcasts were, who nobody was paying any attention to. I don’t know why but I always knew and still do.
It creates an empathy with these people that your songwriting reflects. It’s one thing to notice them and another to have compassion and empathy for them – and to feel like one of them.
Again, I don’t why that is but I felt like one of them from very early on. I’d walk into a room and I could just tell who wasn’t feeling great or needed attention or was unrealized. I just had an antenna out for them. With [The Innocent Ones], I was able to put some songs out there for them – for better or worse [laughs].
It helps balance the sunlight in things when you show there’s another side to life.
It’s all real. It’s all there. From somebody being slaughtered on a battlefield or blown up by a terror bomb or having their heart smashed from lack of love, it’s all real and it’s all out there. You gotta follow your instincts and dreams. My recollection of the music of the 60s and 70s is music really meant something to us. It was part of our lives. I want my life to have meaning. I want to live and not just follow in someone else’s shoes. Follow your heart. Follow your passions. Follow your instincts. Live it to the fullest. We have one life, as far as we know, and I’m happy to say when I take my final breath that I gave it everything I had.
The way rock ‘n’ roll, particularly mainstream rock, has gone is divorced from these ideas. It’s consciously designed to be product, an ATM for the producers and distributors first and artists last. It’s often very successful because they really know how to build rigged slot machines out of rock ‘n’ roll now.
It’s one thing to make money but you and I know – and those of us that fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll or folk music or whatever – it means something. It helps make sense of the world. It inspires people. The Berlin Wall came down and rock ‘n’ roll had something to do with it. When rock ‘n’ roll got into the Soviet Union it was like water finding its own level, and if or when the Chinese let rock ‘n’ roll have full sway the same thing will happen.
Rock really was dangerous when it began. There were legitimate reasons parents were scared because this music challenged power structures and social norms. Rock isn’t about following rules. It’s about individuality and passion and things that can’t be easily put into words or controlled by rules.
Life is like that. Life is not a set of rules. It’s a wild and wooly planet we live on. Something I talk about at shows is how divided the country is, with Fox [News] pinheads on the one side and the MSNBC lackeys on the other side. There’s such a distance between them and it’s not right. It blurs what the information is. I think most people are good hearted and will make the right choices in most circumstances, but understanding the circumstances is hard under these conditions.
For example, take a cul de sac, a bunch of homes in a circle, and say Bill O’Reilly lived in one house and Keith Olberman lived in another and other houses
had right and left wingers. Then, say a 7–year-old boy gets hit by a car. They’ll all come out and see what they can do to help. My thing is the human aspect of things. We’re all brothers and sisters on this planet, and we should try to do our best to help each other. It’s simple things. It’s not complex. It gets complex when we talk about how to split the budget and there are people in companies cheating. It’s hard to sort out but most people are good.
I think that’s generally true, but it is disheartening to watch the recent Republican debates where people are cheering letting someone without health insurance die or celebrating the record breaking number of deaths by the state in Texas. One wonders if that’s just the moment – the mob mentality at work – and if someone sick actually showed up on their doorstep that they might act differently.
My brother died because he didn’t have health care. He was a great guy but no one knew his heart wasn’t in great shape. I asked the woman who did the autopsy if this could have been prevented and she said absolutely. If he’d gone to the doctor and checked his cholesterol it was totally treatable. Because there’s no health care that readily accessible to all in this country he couldn’t afford it and just didn’t go. I have friends in the U.K. and Spain and if they need heart surgery they can go and get it done. He’d be alive today if he could have gone to a medical center and gotten checked out. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s all the more reason for me to be a heart in my songs. What was it Bobby Kennedy used to say? We’re good people, we’re a compassionate people, but we can do better – really inspiring words to me. Both John and Bobby Kennedy carried a torch for compassion and our better nature.
It’s weird to watch people try to dismantle the good in both men posthumously, focusing on the negatives and shortcomings of their lives, as if every human being doesn’t have plenty of faults and failings.
You put any of us under the microscope and…well, you know. They were really inspiring. They made us proud to be from this country and feel like we could help set the world on a better course. It’s a great feeling to have. Life would be a lot different if they hadn’t been killed.
I wanted to talk about the One Guitar Campaign.
I wrote “One Guitar” with Frankie and started playing around Europe last winter. It’s a song about how one guitar and one voice can maybe make things better in bigger and smaller ways around the planet – something in the vein of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and more to come down the road. Music can enlighten. It can lighten the load and lift spirits. So, I was on the road with Alejandro Escovedo on a tour of 12-13 countries in 14 days – a pretty hard tour – where we were raising money for Parkinson’s. And in the middle of the show I’d play “One Guitar” and we’d get standing ovations, sometimes for 2-3 minutes. We’d just look at each other and wonder, “What the hell?” We’d never encountered anything like it before. So, my manager suggested we get people from all sorts of different countries and walks of life to record it and eventually put all the versions out on iTunes when we’re ready, where all the profits from that – publishing included – will go to charities. All of it is going to good places. Graham Parker has done a version. The Alarm has done a version. A bunch of people in different countries have done cool versions.
It’s amazing the power a single song can have.
It’s true. It can be “my baby broke my heart” or it can be a cause like “One Guitar.” When I play “One Guitar,” “The Innocent Ones,” or “Singin’ Bell” I feel something stirring. An older song from the early 90s, “Hard Times In America,” is perfect for the Occupy Wall Street movement – “People eating garbage/ People drinking rain/ Sleeping on the sidewalks in a cardboard hurricane/ Some are drinking whiskey/ Some are taking drugs/ Victims of society still working out the bugs/ Hard times in America.” I’m making music that means something and having a blast doing it. People are getting it and coming out and want more and more. I think I’m just getting started.