Willie Nile (Photo by Cristina Arrigoni)
Willie Nile is a New York City-based singer-songwriter whose recording career span reaches back to 1980. He’s hard to place in an a precise genre, as his influences range from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, and he’s also covered The Clash. He’s a rock ‘n’ roller who, even into his 70s, is still the same guy who wasn’t afraid to fight the record companies in a legal case that set a precedent.
But he’s also a trained pianist who can just as easily do a ballad as he might just rock out. His work finds a great balance between raw musculature and cerebral refinement, managing to thread in literary and cultural references without pretension. It’s rock with brains — it sounds great, and there’s steak to go with the sizzle.
Willie released a new album, The Day the Earth Stood Still, last year, and now he’s on tour. Willie and his band perform at DC’s The Hamilton Live on Friday, July 8, and Parklife DC’s Mark Engleson talked to him in advance of that show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Engleson: It’s been a wild couple of since I talked to you in April of 2020. When we were not sure how long everything with the Covid pandemic would last.
Willie Nile : It seems like a decade, it seems like a decade of things have happened since.
ME: You put out two albums since then. Both were pretty well received. I’m sure it wasn’t great that they came out in the middle of a pandemic.
WN: Well, nothing’s ideal. You do your best. I remember in 2020, there was a debate with my distributor and the radio promotion guy about should we put the record out, or shall we wait. And I remember, like, a lot of artists, I think we’re gauging what we do. I just thought these are such dark times. New York At Night, that was the album in 2020, was full of light. I thought, let’s just put it out. I didn’t want to wait; you can’t wait forever for the future. You gotta make your own moves. But I wanted to put some light out there. I’m really glad we did that. And then it turned out, look, it’s turned out, it’s been a couple of years. I’m glad I put it out when I did, great rave reviews, great reaction. I’m really happy I did it.
And then we made The Day The Earth Stood Still, in January of 2021, January, February, but mostly, we did the last three, four days. There were musician union guidelines, where if someone’s singing in a room, no one could go in that room for an hour. And we adhered to that. It was right in the middle of all that stuff. We wear masks 12 hours a day in the control room. They were in my band, a patient, Johnny, John and Jenny were in the control room. So they have masks on, you know, playing their their asses off and sweating, I was in another room with a vocal mic, so I didn’t have to have a mask on. And that’s how we did it. I couldn’t see them this time. Normally, I can see them, but it just, it didn’t work this time. So it worked. I mean, we got great tracks where the record speaks for itself. And we it got it done. I I like recording with the band live. You get some extra energy, some extra vibe, I can tell the difference. Anyway, long story short, two albums during pandemic. And I’m thrilled with them that they’re, you know, I love all the records I make. But these are two of my favorites. And I got to make them and put them out. I’m actually close to finish writing another one. But yeah, I cannot wait to get into recording.
Watch the official music video for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” by Willie Nile on YouTube:
ME: You keep up a pretty good pace.
WN: That’s funny, Mark. You know, I’m 150 years old, and it’s like, I don’t sit down to write. I don’t go, “let me write a song today.” I don’t work that way. I just write when it comes to me, you know, was the way the world is now. You know, it’s like, there’s so much. There’s a lot going on, you know, normal day to day life. You’re walking down the streets, sun coming up sun going down. I mentioned a war in Europe, a pandemic, a divided country, a horribly divided country, you know, sadly, there’s so much going on. And some songs just keep coming. And I go well, that’s, I wrote a song a couple weeks ago, which will be the title track. I knew right away when I was writing the album. And I’m not that lucky. So still coming to me.
ME: I talked to Rodney Crowelll about a year ago. Just before the pandemic I started writing fiction and I got pretty good at it. I haven’t gotten any published yet but I essentially turned myself into a pro-level fiction writer in about 16 months. It’s one thing to hit the pro levels, another thing to actually click with the editors.. Rodney gave me some insightful advice about backing down and not hitting the gas too hard. Letting the stuff come to you in its own time. I go through periods where, the story I’m working on now, the whole outline of the story just came in this direct message on Twitter, and I wrote 3000 words in three afternoons. But I had to let it sit for two months before I could come back and do the second draft. I tried to come back to it, and I write fast a lot of times when I get to it, but it’s a matter of my brain is gonna come around to it when it’s ready.
WN: Yeah, me too. I’m like that. With songs, here’s the thing. Stephen King apparently just knocks stuff out left and right, but it depends on what you want. The end of the day is quality. If it’s quality, whether looking for an editor, whether looking for a record company, whether looking for someone to back your Broadway play or screenplay, there’s always these mountains to climb. If it’s quality, you’ll find an audience. Whether that’s done in a quick way — I write my songs pretty quickly, they come me, I get them, I knock them out, that’s usually how it is. Sometimes some take a little longer, but not usually. And I don’t sit to write; they come when they come, and it’s a field thing. And I think that it must be happy for you, must be exciting to have to be to be inspired to do that. And all of a sudden to get good at it and know you’re getting good at that’s a good feeling. I know that feeling. You know, it’s a great feeling…
ME: I had a paragraph that I’d polished pretty well, and I bounced it off a musician acquaintance that I’d gotten to know pretty well. I got a really strong reaction, and it did a lot for my confidence. The benefits of that reverberated past just the writing into my life more broadly.
And, you know, we all have that, everybody starts somewhere, you know, and that, there’s, there’s a lot of good things to say, for that. You can learn and grow a lot coming from that place as opposed to come from a place of too much confidence. once you find an editor, find somebody who says I get it, you’re on it, I’m with you. Boom. You find the right team, teammate whatever it is. It’s fun to write, it’s fun to come up with ideas, it’s fun to explore the universe and wonder, tell stories, tell tales. It can be wondrous you know. I watched The Wonder Boys, yesterday on TV with Douglas Michael Douglas, about writers and writing.
ME: I love Michael Chabon’s work. Great writer. He’s interesting because he’s done stuff that ranges from complete realism to the very fantastical, very genre work. He does all of it. Some of my stuff overlaps with his in being in the slipstream territory, so he’s been an influence on my writing.
WN: I was watching and thinking, “Who wrote this? This is really good.” It was like so many good lines. And you know, he got really did a great job of getting inside the cathedral that is the river city world and it was fascinating. I mean, it was really well written and there’s that like a great story and a great movie. It takes a lotm takes the imagery, the story, the words, the dialogue, from whatever, it takes your story, a TV movie, book, and it’s great writers ever admire.
Watch the official music video for “Off My Medication” by Willie Nile on YouTube:
ME: There’s a lot of nods to that throughout your work. In “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” you’re obviously playing with that film. I was listening to one of your albums and I caught the reference to Wallace Stevens, “the emperor of ice cream.” I actually tracked that down through my familiarity with the writer Jeff Ford, who titled one of his stories the same thing.
WN: Is there a band called The Emperor of Ice Cream?
ME: I know it’s a Wallace Stevens poem, but I don’t know of a band by that name.
WN: Yeah, I know, it’s Wallace Stevens. But it’s just a great image, you know, beautiful neck of the world. It came to me when I was writing this surreal, fantastical, you know, journey through this park that I’ve been near for years. Yeah, I mean, it’s fun to write, that’s just the bottom line, it can be held, and it can be really fun. You know, it’s inspiring, I’m still inspired. I’ve been in New York City, 50 years, literally, literally two weeks ago, since I moved here. I’m at travel, I’m in Europe, travel around, but I mean, it’s a journey, for me, that the fire is still really burning.
ME: I took a creative writing class in college, and I did pretty well. But it was something that I went away from, and I came back to, 20 years later. You grow with it, and it changes. You go through the cycles of life, and you express these different things as you grow and change as a person. That’s a really interesting part of it.
WN: It really is, and you can feel the growth, you know, like, it’s, somebody was, at some gig, you know, like, when you go on stage, you know, and when you first do it, like years ago, you know, you step up to the microphone, and whatever feelings you have that will after so many years of doing it, you know, it’s not even a thought, you know, it’s like, it. It’s, it’s the experience of growing with those experiences, I love it, I really do. It feels good. Like a baseball player with an old baseball gloves. You break it in, release, it feels good. If it’s good, you play better with it, you know, and performing, writing, it’s, we’re lucky to have, I mean, to be able to be in a creative realm. I mean, you’re gonna go to a mall, anywhere USA, sit on the bench and watch people walk by and figure out which ones are doing something that they love to do. Hard to find? I don’t take it for granted. I’m very grateful. II took huge risks doing it, you know, 4 kids early on, sticking with this, my passion for music, very risky. It’s worked out a fairly well, we’re lucky to get to do what we do. And we’re happy to hear that you’re feeling really good about it. And it’s good to feel confident, you know, because the bravery you feel the more you know, fraud, you can reach into your imagination and tear your visions. It’s great, good for you.
ME: So, speaking of doing this for a long time, I recently was watching a younger artist open for some more experienced artists. There were some issues with the sound setup, and she had some trouble with her vocals, getting into the mic right. I had a thought I’ve had before: performing on stage isn’t easy. It takes a long time to get really good at it. I feel a lot of empathy for kids — I’m 41, almost 42, so now, someone who’s 30 is a kid to me — out there on stage, just trying to do their best. You’re in your 70s now, and while your body is older, your experience more than compensates.
WN: When we’re done, I’m gonna send you a clip [from] this past weekend, Friday and Saturday night in New York City Winery. There was an Ian Hunter tribute with his band, the Ramp Band. It was Alejandro Escovedo, you know playing. Ian and Alejandro sang most of the songs, there were a couple of guests. I was one of the guests, I sang Central Park West. And it’s funny to say that you wouldn’t know it from looking at the clip I’m gonna send you, it was so much fun. And it’s a great song. I’ve been lucky, my dad’s 104. As far as physical stuff goes, I’m knocking on wood, my dad’s 10. He’s doing well, he lives at home, goes to church every day, gets around, he’s with it. He’s worried funnier than ever. I call him every day and knock on wood every day, you know, Salt Lake and some of those teams, but I mean, I, I can do two hours on stage on my ear and having fun doing it.
It’s always been the songs. The only reason I go up there is because of the songs. I love them. I believe in them. I love singing them. It’s fun. It’s interesting, inspires me and hopefully inspires others. But that’s what keeps me going is just the enthusiasm and belief in the songs like these new words I’ve just been writing.
It’s like, well, man, if you’re writing something. you write 3000 words a day. Today, what 3000 words and what was that, three days? Three afternoons, that’s a lot. So when you get inspired, that’s a good feeling. How many people have that feeling? That’s great. totally great. So I’m, I’m deeply grateful.
Physically, I’ve been really lucky. I’m still, I’m still whatever. I can be 30 up there on stage. It doesn’t matter to me; I would do it either way.
I’ll send you a clip of that song I did with the band. And York joined us. Andy York produces Ian. And York’s Mellencamp’s flute player, lead guitarist for many years. He was in my band for four albums. Great, great guy, great guitar player. So it’s fun to play with Andy on acoustic guitar was whilst we played together, it’s great. Good fun.
ME: I know you’re friends with Steve Earle, and I’m always amazed at his on-stage endurance, given what he’s been through physically.
Watch the official music video for “Blood on Your Hands” by Willie Nile featuring Steve Earle on YouTube:
WN: He’s a powerhouse. He moved just a couple of months ago. but for a bunch of years, he lived right around the corner from me. We ran into each other all the time and became friends that way. He was really nice enough, but he’s a bear. He’s unstoppable. I love Steve and admire him greatly. The journey he’s been on has not been easy, but he’s doing great.
We’re nearing the end of the album, mixing The Day The Earth Stood Still, and that one song on it, “Blood on Your Hands,” I’m listening to it; maybe I’d seen him a few days earlier. I thought, “Steve might sound great singing this.” So I just texted him. “Hey, Steve, I’m making a record.” I got a song and run them around. I sent it to him and he says, “I’m in.” He came in and knocked it out in like 12 minutes. it was an honor for me. Steve was great. He’s an American icon. He’s a legend. He’s one of the reasons this country’s great. Levon Helm was one of those people. I always say, when I think of America, I think of Levon, and how salt of the earth he was. Yeah. Roots.
ME: Can you tell me anything about the next album?
WN: Only that I’m really, I’m always excited about the work I do. But this has one of the best songs I’ve ever written on it. It’s gonna be powerful. Okay, excited about it. Let’s let that just ferment and grown inside. Yeah.
ME: What are some of the things you’ve been enjoying lately?
WN: Well, let’s see — being able to go outside. I wear masks when I go in stores, but just feeling a sense of, it’s gotten better. If you’d have told me 3 years ago New York would be a ghost town in 2021 in, you’re smoking too much crack. It was empty. It was like a ghost town. The Day The Earth Stood Still was all written about that.
My storage space is half a block from the Holland Tunnel. Especially on Friday night, leaving New York at rush hour, you can take 45 minutes to go 3 blocks — the parking lot. End of May of 2020 I went to the storage space I went to get something on a Friday. I come out of storage at 6 o’clock and I stood in the middle of Varick Street, in the middle. I look north, there was not 1 car in sight. I look south, not 1 car in sight. I actually took photographs. I went, I got to take a picture of this. And there was nothing. And that’s what it means, The Day The Earth Stood Still, it just came right to me. So when I got home — and now, it’s obviously a lot more people are out and about for better or worse — I’m excited that it feels a little bit more normal. I’m still very careful. I’ve been very lucky during this whole thing. I’m excited about the songs that the new songs I’m writing.
I got to play with The Who a couple weeks ago. That’s Bethel Woods, which is where the original Woodstock was. I went to see the Who at Bethel Woods in 1969, when I was on my way to my brother’s wedding. I knew nothing about a concert happening in events. We’re driving there, and my brother’s buddy was driving and said, “Hey, this festival concert happened, where The Who and Hendrix are gonna play, you want to go?” Because we were there early. So we made a left turn, went to Woodstock. I was there for 24 hours. The first day overnight, we left to go to a wedding. I didn’t get to see The Who. Now, 53 years later, well, 11 years later, I got to open up across the US with The Who. It was just incredible. I missed when the first album came out. And now 53 years after the Woodstock and 42 years after I toured across the country, I got to open for them at Woodstock, if not the original venue. That was so much fun. We had a great time.. And we filmed that there’s a guy making a documentary about it’s come a long way. Well, we were able to film a lot that day.
ME: Is this documentary about your life story?
WN: Just about a guy who never gave up doing, his best work now and in New York City. It’s pretty contemporary. It’s about my life and more contemporary. Yeah, it’s just about an artist who believes in what he does never gave up and enjoying it more than ever. It was kind of like a bohemian look.
ME: I look forward to seeing that.
WN: Yeah, me too. That’s coming great. And it was a great, great day. I mean, they were so good to us that who you know, the manager and Roger have always been very generous. That couldn’t have been nicer. So that was pretty exciting.
ME: Anything you’ve read you’d recommend?
WN: There’s a collection of pop Kaufmann, poems, KU FMA. And he’s one of the beat poets, kind of lesser known, but for my money one of the best. I love Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s on Fire.
ME: Have you read Marc Ribot’s recent book of essays (Unstrung)?
WN: No, Marc put out a book?
ME: The library here in Arlington gets some incredible stuff. Occasionally, they’ll even get limited edition, signed and numbered stuff. I’ll get it, and I can’t believe the library has it. It’s not really autobiographical — more of a collection of essays, stories, and other short pieces.
WN: He’s brilliant. I’m not surprised it’s good.
ME: I really liked his album Songs of Resistance.
WN: He’s great. He’s always been.
I saw a Mike Scott or Waterboys show in New York 2 weeks ago. It was Mike and this keyboard player. It was just brilliant. It was a sold out show and Mike was in great form. Mike Scott’s one of the greats. It’s nice to notice people still writing strong stuff. Being a foreman with a passion.
ME: Another thing that gave me cause for cheer is I saw Lucinda Williams open for Bonnie Raitt, and her voice sounds better than it did before the pandemic.
WN: Hers is one of the great voices. I remember doing a show with her in Nashville. It was a bunch of years ago. I think 1 album had one come out. It was around Car Wheels, or before, anyway. We came down to Nashville, she booked a bunch of shows for me and got a band for me for a couple of shows.
I was just looking at her throat while she was singing. She’s sitting next to me, and I couldn’t believe that voice. hat’s just one. One in a million. A million more than that. Like this one rare, incredible voice. I love Lu’s voice. Yeah. Yeah. Glad to hear it. Sounding good. That’s wonderful.
ME: So it’s the 8th of July, right?
WN: July 8 at the Hamilton with a full band. Look out. We’ve already called the fire department to warn them we’re gonna blow the roof off the place. And that means something because it’s in the basement.
ME: It’ll be a good night to hear music in a DC basement.
WN: It’s a great night to be in a DC basement, and the band has never been more on fire than it is now. I would say the shows have never been better than they are now. I’ll send you a clip when we get off. It’s not my band. It’s the Ramp Band. Anybody who listened to the last couple of records can tell that we’re really on fire. So I’m looking to July 8, I can’t wait, the Hamilton’s a great venue.
ME: Good talking.
WN: Good talking.
Willie Nile performs a The Hamilton Live on Friday, July 8!
w/ Jon Tyler Wiley & His Virginia Choir
The Hamilton Live
Friday, July 8
Doors @ 6:30pm