THE REINVENTION OF NATHANIEL RATELIFF
Ahead of his debut Australian shows, Nathaniel Rateliff chats with Chris Familton about the transition from solo artist to leader of the Night Sweats and the ups and downs of being a working musician.
A few years ago at the SXSW Festival, Nathaniel Rateliff was recently separated from him wife and had given up drinking. That emotional upheaval coincided with a communal two week VW van trip from Austin to Boston with fellow musicians Ben Howard, The Staves, Bear’s Den plus producer Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons), and narrator Gill Landry (Old Crow Medicine Show). It was documented for the music road film Austin To Boston and was one of Rateliff’s last tours as a solo artist.
“I’d finished writing most of the material for my last solo album Falling Faster Than You Can Run at that point but I hadn’t had a chance to record it yet. I came home from that tour and then did another tour and then went into the studio and made that album. It would have been later that year that I got into doing the Night Sweats stuff. It was a pretty hard time then. I’d separated from my wife, I’d quit drinking and was going through withdrawals, which is what I wrote the song S.O.B. about, and so it was a very difficult and lonely time, especially as everyone on that tour was having a great time and I was sober and trying to figure out what I was going to do. I think in hindsight it was a very trying time but it gave me a chance to travel and it was a great writing experience for me and good for my music.”
Within a year Rateliff had taken a bold step in a new musical direction, writing in the style of some of his soul heroes like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and releasing it under the name The Night Sweats. It was a reinvention, a shift out of solo folk troubadour mode and onto a stage with a larger band, a horn section and a rousing, celebratory feel – even if his lyrical disposition was still a darker one.
“I finished recording Falling Faster Than You Can Run, the follow-up record to In Memory of Loss and the record company (Rounder Records) wasn’t going to put it out so I was feeling pretty discouraged really. We’d finished production and a mate said, “Why don’t you come down and record some stuff”, but I’d just finished a record and wasn’t really into doing any singer/songwriter stuff. He said I could do whatever I wanted and I’ve always wanted to do a soul and r’n’b record and try something different so he said “just write some songs and come down and we’ll work on them”. So I got excited and felt like I was onto something. I started writing and came up with Look It Here and after about a week I had a whole new set of material. Stylistically it was new, I’d always been trying to play the blues and stuff but not really in an RnB style on a regular basis. It was really just me on my own at home recording songs and then I hooked up with the band. It’ll be interesting to see what the next record will be like with those guys involved from the start.”
Rateliff’s winning run with The Night Sweats has seen them play many of the top late-night talk shows and increasingly larger venues but the bandleader won’t rule out a return to his more introspective folk material at a later date.
“It’s nice to take a break from that kind of stuff. I’d been touring my records for almost eight years, both solo and with a band so it’s been nice to switch it up. I don’t know how or when we’ll revisit that – at the moment we’re just working our asses off doing Night Sweats stuff and when that’s done I’ll just see where I’m at.”
Life on the road with a full band playing raucous, physical funk and soul music inevitably creates a fun and vibrant touring atmosphere though at times the intensity of shared traveling and separation from loved ones has tested the spirits of Rateliff and The Night Sweats.
“For the most part we all have a great time. There are very few fights. Being away from home can wear you down at times and you end up taking it out on everybody else but for the most part we’re a tight family and we look after each other and have a great time. It’s certainly a lot better than being totally alone out on the road! It is a mixed feeling though. On one hand I’ve been trying to make it to this point for years and now I’m here I think man, I could really do with some time off. I just try to make the best of it, play great shows and have a great time.”