Nathaniel Rateliff wants to talk about anything other than what he dubs “the semi-pre-apocalyptic world we’re living in right now.” And over the course of a recent phone call, we really try our damndest. We talk about his recent return to live music with a series of concerts in front of limited, socially distanced audiences at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. We talk about writing songs and finding balance.
And we talk about Rateliff’s solo album, And It’s Still Alright, released on Valentine’s Day this year to acclaim. The record showcased a more ruminative side to the bombastic, swaggering bandleader of the rock ‘n’ soul outfit, The Night Sweats, and explored two personal tragedies— the recent death of Rateliff’s close friend, Richard Swift, and the aftermath of a difficult divorce—with tenderness and grace.
Still, it’s difficult to stop ourselves from circling back to the Very Difficult Year, one that started off full of possibility for the 42-year-old singer-songwriter and quickly dissolved into something completely different. A massive tour supporting the new record? That would have to be canceled. Late-night talk show appearances? If they were going to happen at all, they’d need to happen over Zoom. Add to it a fraught political climate filled with environmental catastrophe, racial injustice, and mounting anxiety about the next four years, all issues that preoccupy the socially conscious Rateliff, who’s channeled those frustrations into activism and community service via his organization, The Marigold Project.
But much like And It’s Still Alright finds hope in loss and beauty in pain across 10 tracks, Rateliff is still searching for the silver linings in 2020—and looking toward 2021 with cautious optimism.
What was it like being able to get on an actual stage and perform your new record in front of an audience?
In this particular setting, it’s a little strange and slightly heartbreaking to only have 175 people there instead of the 10,000 that we would normally play to. The reality and the scope of where our world is right now lent some heaviness to those shows. But considering that heaviness, there was also a joy of being able to share music with each other. Being on stage—that shared human experience of what’s happening between the audience and the performer—is important to me. It helped me relinquish some of the emotions that helped me write those songs.
Part of the proceeds from these concerts went toward The Marigold Project. Can you talk a little bit about your work with that organization?
We’re an endowment. We work on social and economic justice. It’s a pretty broad scope of things to try to tackle. It’s everything from supporting farmers and farm-oriented organizations that we like in our community and outside of the community, trying to work with the unhoused whether it’s finding shelter or working on changing legislation. [The] water conservation is a big thing for us. With the lack of conservation in the past few years of water, we have all these tremendous fires right now and we’ll probably only continue to see that grow in our climate. We also work to get kids instruments in schools as federal funding continues to be cut and the government doesn’t support the arts, which I feel is important. You see a change in kids’ lives when they have access to instruments. So we’re kind of all over the place in trying to help people out.
How has not being able to properly tour during the pandemic affected your relationship to the songs on And It’s Still Alright?
At first, I had to abandon everything when our tour got canceled. We headed home March 13. I was so attached to the songs and the reasons I had written them. They were about some crazy times in my life and I really wanted to share, and also be able to work through [those issues] as well. Instead of just jumping right in and writing right away, I had to abandon some of my emotions toward it and rethink what sharing songs would look like. I was upset that I wasn’t able to do that and I had to kind-of sit on it, sit and wait and see what was going to happen.
What impact do you think 2020 has had on you in terms of your creativity?
The beginning of 2020 was great. Then I had to step away for a minute and focus on being able to be home for the first time in five years. I did a lot of projects around my property: painting buildings, chopping wood. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I started to dig back into my creative stuff. I started to take piano lessons from my friend Phil Cook to see how I could stretch myself again.
Your latest album showcases real vulnerability in your lyrics. How do you feel music allows you to express yourself as a man when self-expression is not traditionally understood to be a cornerstone of old-school masculinity?
Sometimes it comes as a surprise to me as I’m writing. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re allowing yourself to write about. It can be stream-of-consciousness and later on it can be devastating to realize what you allowed yourself to write about. But then again, it can be very therapeutic, too. Over time, I’ve begun to accept that that’s part of the experience and part of the journey of writing. I really enjoy it now. Like I said, it can be hard when you don’t realize what it is you’re writing about.
Even the title track from the new record, it was something that was an idea I hadn’t finished while we were at National Freedom, Richard Swift’s studio, after he had died. I finished that song over coffee at the breakfast table one morning and went out and recorded it. I had no idea it would be the title track or even make it on the record. But as I started to listen back to what I recorded that morning, it was heartbreaking. I was so overwhelmed and out-of-nowhere realized that I had started to write about my friend who I had lost.
Other than music, what other coping mechanisms do you rely upon in terms of processing your grief?
I just continue to move forward. I feel like grief is one of those things that sometimes you carry with you. But it’s really about how it influences your life. It can be a good thing or a negative thing. So grief and loss are things I carry with me. Pretty frequently, I’m struck with a memory of [Swift] and it steals my breath. But what an amazing experience to love someone so much that when you lose them, they still impact your life. They impact your days and your nights even though they’re not here. So in order to experience that kind of love, I think you have to experience that kind of grief as well.
“Time Stands” is a standout track on the record, and it feels even more resonant in a year where time truly feels like it’s standing still and we’re all in this pandemic limbo. What were you going through that prompted you to write that song?
That was one of those songs I thought might’ve been a throwaway, which is kind of funny. I didn’t know if it was going to come across the right way and sometimes I can be a little overly critical of my own stuff. When I was writing that song, at the moment it felt like I was looking into the future. I was foreseeing now.
What I was thinking of when I was writing the song—which is now over more than a year ago—is I wanted people to question their belief systems and question the people they see as authority figures in their lives and the influence they have in their lives. I see so many contradictions right now. There’s a line in that song “But you would speak of love while tying one’s hands.” That’s me trying to reference that you can talk about love and that be a basis of your religion, but if we continue to separate children and their families at the border, then how is that love? If we continue to keep people that don’t have opportunity in poor neighborhoods and then demonize and call them “thugs,” how is that love? Where is the understanding?
I also started to use some biblical terminology in the lyrics, which is something I’ve always really loved. I like when you try to turn Scripture into poetry or Scripture into something non-sensual, while in a religious mind that could be offensive. But I like to put a spin on the Scripture that way. I wanted to reference some of those phrases that were familiar to me as a child growing up in the church, and try to spin them in a way that hopefully people have some positive thinking and change in their hearts and minds.
It’s been a difficult year for balance and optimism. How are you trying to stay positive and forward-looking despite everything that’s happening in the world right now?
I feel like I wrote the whole record about trying to find hope and joy. Accepting struggle and hardship while still trying to find hope. I certainly feel that myself and everyone in my life has been put to the test with that. It’s been hard to stay positive. It’s hard to stay hopeful when people are so eager to be angry with each other and so eager to not listen and so eager to evil. That really makes me worry about our future.
What have you learned in 2020?
One thing that I see is that we’re all adaptable. We’ve made a lot of changes because of this virus and I wish we could be able to use that same mindset not out of fear, but out of a common good to really transcend and really become a better nation, a better world. I hate that it’s become so nationalistic. I still like to think globally and think about the amazing, beautiful cultures we have around the world. But I’m still waiting for the real revelation this year. I’ve got a lot more songs that I’m writing for Night Sweats No. 3, so hopefully something will come out of that that teaches me something.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
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