Suicide and depressing sex – two of the ingredients that Nathaniel Rateliff jokingly suggests were thrown into the mix for his new record Falling Faster Than You Can Run.
Walking down the staircase into The Academy 2, I am greeted by that beguiling, bruised voice flooding the basement venue – the band is half-way through sound check.
Following a friendly hello, I sit back and enjoy my private preview of the show.
Nathaniel is joined on the modest stage by long term band member Patrick Meese on drums. For now they are accompanied by newcomers Jenna Conrad (strings) and Mark Shusterman (keys). Joseph Pope III and Julie Davis, who normally play with Nathaniel, are newlywed (to each other) and expecting their first child next month. And so, for this reason, they were unable to make it out on tour.
Battling with feedback and a lot of gain from the amps, the sound check lasts a little longer than anticipated. I didn’t mind. Watching the guys rehearse and interact only added to the charm and down to earth nature synonymous of his shows.
You get the sense of a perfectionist at work here, someone who is a little self-depreciating and perhaps his own worst enemy. He goes over certain pieces meticulously, expressing concerns about being in the right key and the loudness of the music seeking confirmation and reassurance from the tour manager and his band mates.
His voice wouldn’t easily get lost. In the snug basement venue, Rateliffs piercingly melodic sounds echo off the cold stone walls and steel pillars to produce an ethereal introspective atmosphere.
When we sit down to talk, I can’t help but notice his genuinely unpretentious, rustic charm. However, from listening to his songs and becoming encapsulated by lyrics not far removed from the genius arrangements of Elvis Costello, it is clear that there is something darker lurking beneath the surface that I am determined to unearth.
Nathaniel Rateliff is skilled at combining unusual melodies within the traditional rhythms of folk music with jazz influenced, sombre phrasing. Strumming a nylon string guitar, coupled with the heartbeat bass line and addressing his personal struggles on stage, the singer lays himself bare.
Vivid imagery comes into play alongside the illustrative words to evoke emotional responsesfrom the audience.
The multi-faceted layers to his songs are only symbolic of the path that led him to where he isnow.
Nathaniel Rateliff was born in a small town of only 60 people called Bay in Missouri, America. His family later moved to nearby Hermann, a larger town with a population of approximately 2,500 people and this is where he spent the majority of his childhood.
“I was a pretty rural, poor kid,” he says, “hunting and that kinda sh*t. I started working when I was really young. I’ve had a lot of shitty jobs, gardening was the best but the worst was when I was a janitor for a high school when I should’ve been in high school. I was 17. I didn’t go to high school.”
Nathaniel dropped out of school when he was 13 after his father had passed away to work and had an array of menial jobs.
Music is something that has been in the Rateliff family from when Nathaniel was a child but in a different sense.
“My parents sang and so did my sister, and they all played instruments. My parents would like force me to sing four part harmonies with them, for like church or whatever. I didn’t really start singing until I was fifteen or sixteen when I got my first guitar. I would write songs and sing then pretty much every day.”
He had a particularly Christian, almost Pentecostal, upbringing – something that seems to a recurring theme with many singer songwriters today.
“It scars everybody so much that they have to move on,” jokes Nathaniel. “Ireland is rich with the religious history and conflict – which it seems like religion causes a lot of right?”
At the age of18, following his string of jobs in grocery stores, mowing lawns, a plastic factory and as a school janitor Nathaniel moved to Denver where he worked with a trucking company for nine years. Then one day he quit. And became a gardener. Again.
It wasn’t until 2007 when the then named Nathaniel and the Wheel released their record Desire and Dissolving Men on Public Service Records that writing and performing became a viable career path. Out of the garden and into the studio.
Having certainly taken the scenic route along the yellow brick road Nathaniel explains how his hard knock life may have shaped the way he writes to the point that he doesn’t actually enjoy performing the more upbeat songs. Melancholy is his favourite emotion.
“I’m fine with playing personal stuff,” he says. “I don’t really like the upbeat songs though. I hate playing ‘Nothing To Show For’ – it’s predictable. I like the melody and the arrangement was fine when we did it, I was into doing it then.”
Is it possible to be happy and sad at the same time though?
“My path in life has definitely shaped the way I write things,” he says. “I don’t really consider it because I don’t know anything else. I mean I feel like I’ve probably always had that darker side in me, because even without any of the circumstances surrounding my life growing up I would still be someone who would battle depression and things – an addiction problem.
“I don’t think alcohol is conducive to making good art. It’s more of a hindrance. Look at other writers, not necessarily songwriters, just writers – famous drunks. That wasn’t the thing that made them great writers. The alcohol. Even like Hunter S Thompson, after he did all the crazy sh*t, he’d sit down and write about all of it. He was recording and keeping track ofeverything. He wasn’t coming up with great stuff when he was f**ked up, he was sorting through it all later.”
Relocating ourselves to the more comfortable, and cosy dressing room side stage the discussion about alcohol and its effect on productivity continues despite the now apparently glaring bottle of Jameson now visible on the dresser.
“I don’t know how much of that contributes to art or not. Like I said, I don’t think it’s helpful.”
Getting inside his head about where the obscure lyrics of his songs come from Nathaniel jokes that it takes a lot of “suicide and depressing sex” to produce such emotive music.
“I usually have a melody and then start to write to that,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just a line, and sometimes it just happens all at once. A lot of the stuff on this record I wrote while I was touring then waded through all of the recordings and my snippets of things I’d written down.
I spent a little more time writing this stuff than I have in the past. It feels more like I’ve cultivated these songs versus them just ‘showing up’. Things still do show up.”
He adds: “I feel like inspiration is something that kind of just happens, and you have to be present for that to happen… which is why alcohol is a hindrance to that, because you’re not present.”
It is clear that song writing is something this man relishes in. Comparing it to the seductive enticement of a lover’s first encounter, it only highlights the sensual intimacy that interlaces the lyrics on his records.
“It’s like that feeling of the first time you dance with somebody, or kiss someone, like the first time you’re with someone, you’re just so curious, so writing is the same way for me, once you discover what you’re trying to do, it’s exciting.”
Listening to great artists like Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Django Reindhart has cultivated a love for gypsy jazz, soul and salsa in Rateliff. It could be debated that he draws inspiration and affiliates his soulful, somewhat introverted writing to the more disturbed, yet tragically talented musicians of our time.
“I feel like it’s less of a distraction,” he says. “I’m just in love with the melodies they create and it’s not so much about what they are trying to say or do, it’s just great music.”
Citing Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ as a personal favourite is somewhat ironic. Pink Moon was an album that Drakes record company didn’t want to put out and certainly did not see making sales. Drake albeit in a very dark, deep depression went ahead and made the album which is arguably some of his best work.
“Goes to show how little record companies know,” he quips. “This record [Falling Faster Than You Can Run] I did on my own, without any industry influence. Then I have a record from before In Memory of Loss called Desire and Dissolving Men– all recorded at home on a little eight-track.
“In Memory of Loss, I had recorded at home at first too. And then when I got with the label they wanted me to work with a producer so I did.
“But for me there’s just something to, what I guess people would call, the demos, for that record that I think was an album in itself.
It’s such a different thing – a lot of those songs were recorded right from when I wrote them. So you like arrange them and record them in one sitting. You go from like not having a song to having a melody and you run upstairs and start playing and write the whole thing then 2hrs later it’s completely finished.”
His peppered eyes light up whenever he speaks of the song writing process. This is someone who is doing what they love, finally.
“I have a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t released that I would love to put out on a record but I think it’s a little presumptuous of me because I don’t think anybody would want it right now so… I just keep stockpiling!”
The self-critic returns – you get the sense there is an almost constant internal battle of self-criticism that comes across as an endearing quality in person.
This album was a LONG process for Nathaniel and the band. They all retreated to a cabin high up in the mountains outside Denver to record…eventually.
“We recorded it toward the end of 2012 but I had had most, if not all the songs done in 2011,” he says. “I came over to do End of the Road Festival in the UK and presented all the songs to Rounder at the time. They were like ‘there’s not really any hits’, essentially – no radio songs. So then I wrote ‘Nothing To Show For’ as a sort of ‘up yours’ to the record company. The original title was actually ‘Another Radio Song’.”
Cue another hearty, robust laugh. Something there was a lot of throughout our conversation.
“They dragged me along for quite a long time until the end of 2011 and then decided they didn’t want to put out the record.
So then I had some personal shit from the beginning of 2012, it was pretty intense. I tried to record some stuff in London, I recorded a version of ‘I Am’ and ‘Don’t Get Too Close’ and something else, but I was like physically in a lot of pain at the time of trying to record… I had tried to quit drinking and had a lot of DT’s [delirium tremens] really bad so then I quit drinking for like six months that year.”
Delirium tremens is a severe form of withdrawals from alcohol. They can cause damaging mental or nervous system changes.
“I drink now,” he says, “I just try to keep it under wraps, sometimes I drink too much and sometimes I don’t drink at all. But trying to be more moderate is pretty tough in this world, in this lifestyle in particular.”
He adds: “Later in 2012 we did some touring as a band. I had booked time in the studio in September so we recorded for 10 days and did a bunch of stuff live together, then Jamie (the engineer) and I mixed and f***ked with the songs until March of 2013 and then it was done! It was just sitting there and I didn’t know what to do with it really.
“Once I was done with that I started writing a bunch of songs, R&B and Soul songs for Nathaniel Rateliff – The Night Sweats, another project.
“We finally got the record mastered by TW Walsh and then my manager’s boss said he’d start a label to get it out so yeah…and that’s how it got out. Long process but I’m glad it’s out. There are definitely some things on it that I wish were different but I am glad it’s done. There are a lot of songs that I wanted on the record that aren’t there just because I didn’t get good versions of them.”
Unlike Springsteen’s narrative type album arrangements, Falling Faster Than You Can Run is a record symbolic of feelings and suggestions rather than outright poetry. Each song creates an atmosphere and allows the listener to interpret their own personal meaning. Trying to define would be a foolish move on anyone’s part. A lasting connection to the music itself is the embracing feature of this record.
The album opens with ‘Still Trying’, Nathaniel’s favourite single. A whisper of an introduction, the gentle strumming of Rateliff’s acoustic guitar coupled with the bare bass line builds throughout the second verse with a drumbeat suddenly giving way to Nathaniel’s fervid howl of ‘I don’t know’ culminating with the declarative punch line ‘I Don’t Know a God Damn Thing’. The effect of that line is almost devastating with each delivery. The anguish felt is not explained but he does explain why this song is his favourite on the record.
“I had a few verses and I couldn’t get it done,” he says. “Then one day at the studio it was just me and the engineer and I wrote it at breakfast. Then we went and recorded it. I like a lot of the songs on this record actually; it’s funny to have so much material now that I like to play. I like to play longer shows now than I would’ve liked to in the past.”
We move onto the relative marketing of music, winding down the conversation. Rateliffs ability to disarm his criticisms and analysis with a smile or hearty laugh makes light of the topics deeply discussed.
The Dublin show went off with some wit and accidental lyrical re-organisations to a mesmerised crowd. Upbeat melodies contrast the lyrics as Nathaniel tells the tale of the hardships and darkness that shaped the man today.
There’s a twinkle in his eye as he leaves suggesting that Nathaniel Rateliff gets it. Whatever it is. He will have the last laugh.