Willie Nile—The Alternative Is Not An Option

Willie Nile seems completely at home as he settles in for a leisurely lunch at Jane, one of his favorite New York City restaurants. This place is something of a Greenwich Village institution, just as Nile himself has become during his lengthy and legendary career. He jokes with the wait staff as he enjoys deviled eggs, steak salad, and glasses of Sancerre, and talks about how fortunate he feels about his music career.

“Working musicians, it’s such a long shot,” he says with a shake of his head. “It’s a real risk to take: ‘Well, I’m not gonna get a regular job that pays, with benefits and room for growth. I’m gonna take these songs that I wrote in the quiet of my living room and see if I can get people to come and hear them.’”

Nile himself has no trouble drawing audiences, thanks to his reputation (earned through near-constant touring around the U.S. and abroad) for putting on one of the most exhilarating and energetic shows around. New York City audiences will soon have two chances to catch his show: November 22 at Mercury Lounge, and November 23 at The Cutting Room.

Being a musician is in Nile’s blood. One of eight children growing up in Buffalo, New York, Nile’s family was a musical one: his grandfather was a well-known vaudeville pianist and orchestra leader. When it became clear that Nile wanted to follow in these footsteps, his parents encouraged him whole-heartedly. His father, who is still thriving as he approaches his 102nd birthday, remains supportive to this day. “My father’s comment was, ‘Go for it—you don’t want to be regretting it years from now, living the end of your life thinking, “I wish I would’ve tried that.”

At first, Nile thought he’d become a classical pianist, but then he got the rock ‘n’ roll bug (though he says he still appreciates all kinds of music). He started writing songs in high school, but then opted to study philosophy and English at the University of Buffalo. After he got his degree, his thoughts turned toward making his musical dreams a reality. “I thought I’d go to New York and try my luck playing in clubs. I thought the songs I had might be good, and it was something I wanted to pursue.”

It seemed like a fortuitous move. “I was playing in the seventies on Bleecker Street, and I got a write up in The New York Times [in 1978, when rock critic Robert Palmer pronounced Nile to be “the most gifted songwriter to emerge from the New York folk scene in some while.”]. And after that came out, the next [show] was packed to the rafters, there were 10 record companies in the place, and people I knew looked at me differently. It was fascinating to see. I was happy about it, but it didn’t spin my head around at all.

“I signed with Arista Records, and I made a record [1980’s Willie Nile] and it made a lot of noise critically. I got the tour with The Who across the U.S. because of that record. I made a second record [1981’s Golden Down]. And because I looked like a payday for a lot of people, they were coming out of the woodwork. I had nobody to advise me—the people that I had, I had lost faith in. I just thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want this business to kill my buzz about music.’”

Then Nile did what few musicians in his position would likely do: he walked away. “I had kids, there was a new baby coming, and I said to my wife, ‘Let’s get out of here. I didn’t come here to get into business hassles, I came here to try to make music, something positive and joyful and passionate.’ So we moved back to Buffalo and raised kids there.

“But I was always writing. [If I were] living in Alaska working as a plumber, I would still come home and write songs; it’s what I do. I left the business end of things, but I didn’t leave songwriting. So after a few years, I had a batch of songs, and I thought, ‘These are pretty good.’ I tried to get back into the business, and I couldn’t. It was like, ‘You’re yesterday’s news.’” A decade-long gap followed in which Nile didn’t release any music at all. However, despite such setbacks, Nile says he’s not bitter. “When I first moved to New York, I saw a lot of musicians with chips on their shoulder, and I didn’t want that to happen to me, and it didn’t. A lot of people tried for me.”

Things finally turned around in 1987, when Nile was invited to play a charity show in Oslo, Norway. A video of that performance convinced Columbia Records execs to sign him early the next year. But soon another hurdle presented itself, as studio recording sessions had to be postponed repeatedly due to his producer’s scheduling conflicts. In the end, another producer came in to do the job. The resulting album, 1991’s Places I Have Never Been, again earned him rave reviews.

Since then, he’s released a string of albums (twelve so far – the latest, Children of Paradise, was released last year). He’s become one of the most celebrated songwriters among his peers, with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lucinda Williams to Bono singing his praises. But he says this celebrity factor doesn’t turn his head in the slightest: “There’s no pressure. I don’t have to go, ‘I hope Bono or The Who like this album.’ That’s the last thing that’s on my mind. I’m not here to prove anything. I make a record when I feel I’ve got a collection of songs that might fit together and be inspiring and full of passion and life. Otherwise I don’t go in. If the songs mean something to me, hopefully they’ll mean something to somebody else. But it’s most important that they mean something to me first.”

His heartfelt approach has earned him a staunchly loyal fan following who adore his music’s uplifting vibe, even when his lyrics address serious subject matter. He knows this is the case and embraces it. “Life is tough—for everybody. Nobody gets out of this without hard times, suffering, heartbreak. Show me somebody who doesn’t deal with any of that, you know? Life is real, and I want to be here to live and breathe it, and to feel it and to touch it. I try to write about things that are real, whether it’s something humorous or something poignant. At the end of the day, though, I want it to be optimistic and pick people up.

“These are seriously dark times. What’s the matter with the human race? It has a hard time getting its shit together. But I believe in people. I think most people are good, and most people, given the same real facts, would make similar decisions, but people disagree about what the facts are. I refuse to embrace the bitterness, the misery. I refuse to go, ‘Life’s terrible, people suck.’ Yeah, some people aren’t great, no doubt about it. But there are a lot of people who do a lot of good in this world, who will give to help their fellow man. I love that. That makes me want to live and pick up my guitar and go sing about it all. Our job is to pick each other up. I write songs, I make records, I go onstage, I try to pick people’s spirits up. Let’s celebrate being alive. Let’s help each other. Call me ignorant, call me naïve, I’m both of those. But it makes me feel good. The alternative sucks. The alternative is not an option.”

Fortunately for his fans, Nile is already working on his next album. He lights up as he talks about these new songs. “Wait


you hear this new one,” he says. “I’m really excited about how it’s coming out. I spent the last two days around the clock in the studio, and I’ve got a batch of songs that thrill my soul. I’m thinking March for the release. I’m having a ball right now. It seems as good as I’ve done. I’m still learning, still growing. It makes me high to hear the guitars buzzing, the drums pounding, the bass thumping, the voices soaring, the lyrics being curiously interesting.” He declines to reveal too much about this album, saying only that “a number of the songs are New York-based.”

As he nears the 40th anniversary since his debut album, Nile sees no reason to stop doing what he’s doing, even if the touring in particular can be exhausting. “It’s an adventure,” he says. “I wouldn’t walk on stage if I didn’t think it was going to be special. But I’m really fortunate to have this great band, we have a ball when we play, and I still love it. When that stops, or when I don’t think the shows are a good enough quality, I won’t do it. But right now, we’re still rockin’.

“I feel the same as when I first came here to New York in the early days. I still feel passionate about the music. The songs still mean the world to me. I’m able to make a living at doing something I love. I’m a lucky cat. Every day I’m grateful I took that risk.”

Willie Nile will play November 22 at Mercury Lounge and November 23 at The Cutting Room in NYC.