I first had the opportunity to write about Willie Nile with the 2009 release of House Of A Thousand Guitars. Although I had heard of him 10 years earlier, it was not until this particular project that I had the suitable vehicle (The Aquarian) in which to explore this exciting artist more completely.
Willie Nile’s story is intricate and varied. From his teenage years as a budding writer to his days as a major label artist, Nile has always impressed thousands of fans and moved forward in his craft. In his three and a half decades as a recording artist, Willie Nile has earned a reputation as a fiercely committed rock ‘n’ roller, as well as a singular songwriter possessing a rare insight into human nature and a unique eye for emotional detail.
It’s Nile’s introspective side that fuels If I Was A River, a deeply compelling 10-song collection that diverges from his usual sound while affirming the remarkable melodic and lyrical skills that have long endeared the artist to his passionately loyal fan base.
Nile got his first real start in music back in the early ’80s. His included bio tells us that after graduating from the University at Buffalo with a B.A. in philosophy, he moved to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. During his first winter there, he was sidelined by pneumonia, and spent nearly a year recuperating while honing his songwriting skills. After his recovery, Nile became a familiar fixture in the Village’s folk clubs, while drawing inspiration from the emerging downtown punk scene. He received a significant boost from a powerful New York Times piece by legendary critic Robert Palmer, leading to a deal with Arista Records, which released his first two albums, Willie Nile and Golden Down, in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Those albums won a sizable audience and generated reams of press raves. But Nile’s career momentum ground to a halt after legal disputes with his label caused him to walk away from the music business, beginning a recording hiatus that lasted for nearly a decade.
Nile maintained a discreet distance from the spotlight until 1991 when he reemerged with a new deal with Columbia Records and a new album, Places I Have Never Been, which restored him to prominence with fans and critics. The following year, he went the independent route with the four-song EP Hard Times In America. Willie Nile: Archive Alive, documenting a 1980 performance in New York’s Central Park, was released in 1997. In 1998, Nile lent his unmistakable voice to the all-star concept album, Largo. Nile went on to release five or six more records on various labels including the career highlights of 2006’s Streets Of New York, 2009’s House Of A Thousand Guitars, 2011’s The Innocent Ones and the continued DIY magic of 2013’s American Ride.
When it comes to the feel of his latest record, Nile has this to say about the reasons he chose this current direction: “I’ve wanted to do an album of piano songs for some time,” he says. “I’ve got drawers full of songs of all kinds, but these piano songs are close to my heart, and it felt like it was the right time to let them out. I love the simplicity of just sitting at a piano and singing a song, and I first started out in music playing the piano. Sometimes less is more, and this just seemed like one of those times.”
After narrowing an initial set of 25 compositions down to a more manageable number, Nile and Grammy-winning producer Stewart Lerman (Boardwalk Empire, Loudon Wainwright III, Dar Williams), set about recording the material in a free environment that would help to capture the songs’ intimacy and immediacy.
Nile has also racked up many impressive live performances, playing alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen, with whom he’s guested onstage on several occasions, and Pete Townshend, who personally requested him as the opening act on The Who’s 1982 U.S. tour. The list of avowed Nile fans also includes Bono, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Adam Duritz, Little Steven and Lucinda Williams, who once remarked, “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there were any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.”
If I Was A River starts off with the title track, “If I Was A River.” Featuring Nile’s trademark vocal, the track showcases his piano prowess perfectly. With a style somewhere between Leon Russell and Bob Dylan, Nile’s lyrical prose flows as smoothly as his playing style. With imagery of total belief, Nile paints a comprehensive picture of total dedication.
Up next is “Lost.” Nile lays down passionate outpourings of the grief of separation. His piano work is simplistic and beautiful as he plunks down complex chords and individual note brilliance. This song reminds me of the stylistic work on John Lennon’s 1973 release, Mind Games. I especially love the final line, “Now it’s dark and I’m moving towards the brink. Memories pull me down deeper into the drink; I’m a soul without any link, I’m a lost soul out here on the verge, out of control and starting to sink, without you.”
“Song Of A Soldier” is up next. Utilizing free form playing feel, Nile tells us that when they recorded this record, no click tracks or other meter restricting methods were used. Nile told us that he had enlisted a pair of legendary players, versatile guitar master Steuart Smith (of Eagles/Rosanne Cash/Rodney Crowell fame) and multi-instrumental string master David Mansfield (whose numerous credits range from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to Yo La Tengo). Singer-songwriter and frequent Nile writing partner Frankie Lee was also on hand to add backing vocals. The mandolin track adds a great bit of dimension to this tune. Nile’s tale of the soldier describes the horrors of war and the loneliness of that broken experience. Nile turns the topic of war into one of love. His piano work is a rambling and beautiful section of work that lies within the Roy Bittan sector of style.
“Once In A Lullaby” once again touches on the subject of true love. Nile’s ability to catch the listener and hold them fast is sound. Steuart Smith is back and lends six-string warmth to the overall piece. This song reminds me of the melodic style of Paul McCartney before Wings.
Moving around the disc, I landed on “Gloryland.” The pleasant mix of guitar and piano drive this sensitive ballad well. The middle-eight mix of piano single notes and guitar work lend ethereal magic to the entire piece. As stated earlier, this record is much different than most of Nile’s previous band-driven work, and it’s an attractive side of a very diverse artist.
“I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore)” comes in on somber piano and a descriptive of the girl he’d follow anywhere. But as is usual, there’s always that additive of insanity to deal with. As Nile says, “Your beauty walks a tightrope high above the bedroom floor.” His middle-eight piano work is reminiscent of Bruce Hornsby. I like the parting line, “That was then, and this is now, that boat has left the shore.”
The final song on the disc is called “Let Me Be The River.” With a mixture of confident and glad tidings, Nile wishes his subject all good things as he spins his musical tale. David Mansfield lends his intimate string prowess to the piece, adding beautiful accompaniment to Nile’s piano drive. Well written and filled with emotion, Nile and company go out on a strong note with If I Was A River.
Willie Nile has once again proved that his talent is diverse and dynamic. This record shows that Nile is an artist that stays in transition, always changing for the better and coming up with another winning combination for his growing myriad of fans. For more on If I Was A River, head over to willienile.com.