Music

Nathaniel Rateliff reveals how grief and regret drove his emotional new album

Seven years after his last solo album, singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff returns to his folk roots for his powerful new record And It's Still Alright

Nathaniel Rateliff

“I’d say my worst vice is still drinking,” admits Nathaniel Rateliff, even if sessions on an exercise bike and a generally improved attitude to self-care have become new features of the bear-like Missourian’s life lately. “I just do it less,” he adds. “I’m just not trying to drink myself to death these days.”

The passing of American musician and record producer Richard Swift in July 2018 was a wake-up call to a lot of people close to a man renowned for his work with artists ranging from The Shins and Damien Jurado to The Black Keys. His had been a prolific career cut short at just 41 by the effects of alcoholism. Not least, it was a wake-up call to Rateliff, whom Swift considered his “lost brother”.

Both raised in strictly religious households, the pair shared a profound bond – and more than a few heavy drinking sessions – after working together intensely making Denver-based Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ 2015 self-titled debut album, a heart-quaking, backside-shaking rock’n’soul firecracker which has sold more than a million copies and launched Rateliff to fame after years labouring in obscurity as a solo singer-songwriter. The whirlwind that followed would see him and his crackshot seven-piece band sign to iconic Memphis soul label Stax, sell out shows around the world and open for The Rolling Stones.

Even if it’s far from the deepest regret that Rateliff harbours when it comes to how things ended with his friend – “there’s a lot of things I wish I could have done differently in Richard’s situation,” he sighs – he admits to wishing he had found the time while he still had the chance to work on the solo record that Swift had always talked about producing for him.

Two years later, and almost seven since Rateliff’s last solo album, And It’s Still Alright finally fulfils a pledge to his “lost brother” to get back to his soul-bearing folk and blues roots, as the Night Sweats are left to lie fallow for a while.

Trading blaring horns for lush strings, and raucous rhythms for acoustic finger-picking and strumming, it’s a warm, tender record, steeped if not in Swift’s talents as a producer, then at least in his memory. For Rateliff, it’s an important opportunity to reflect on loss and grief, and in turn challenge us all to think a little bit deeper about how we contend with such emotions. “I feel it’s important that we start to be able to be vulnerable to those sort of feelings,” Rateliff says. “We don’t allow ourselves to talk enough about the process of grief – how we look past it and still try to find hope and joy in our lives.”

For Rateliff, finding new hope and joy began with looking after himself a bit better. “I don’t want to be a person who totally gives up drinking for ever,” he says, “but there were times when I was drinking from when I woke up until I fell asleep, and I don’t want that to be my life anymore. It’s not sustainable. So I’m trying to be a different person, a healthier person, to find some personal love for myself, I guess.”

If Rateliff sounds unusually wise for a mere 41-year-old then it is with good reason. Brought up a strict church-goer in a Midwestern household where secular music was banned, he learned to play drums aged seven and joined the family gospel band. After his father was killed in a car crash when he was 13, Rateliff taught himself guitar and started writing songs. Following a spell of missionary work in Denver, he eventually renounced his faith. More than a decade of steady graft in manual jobs from carpenter to forklift driver and gardener followed, before music finally took over as his full-time concern – 300 days a year, the hardest job he ever had. “It was like, ‘Man, I had it pretty good until now, I kind of fucked myself over,’” he laughs. “Now I can never go on vacation.”

We don’t allow ourselves to talk enough about the process of grief – how we look past it and still try to find hope and joy in our lives

Proudly working class, with plenty of experience of getting dirt under his fingernails, Rateliff was determined to give a little something back after making a spectacular breakout with the Night Sweats, the band he formed with longtime friend Joseph Pope III and other musicians around the Denver scene in 2013. Inspired by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp’s Farm Aid, a few years ago Rateliff launched The Marigold Project, a private foundation to address issues of economic and social justice in Colorado and beyond. Be it through raising cash to buy instruments for schoolchildren, improving access to clean water, campaigning for stronger gun-control measures and helping fund homeless support services.

“We started with working with the homeless in Denver,” Rateliff says. “It was something that was really important to me when I was younger, that I kind of stumbled into for religious reasons. But then as I grew away from religious idealism and rhetoric I started to recognise there’s still a need to help people and to be able to treat people like humans and give them the respect they deserve, even if they don’t have opportunity.

“In Denver, we have a big population of homeless [armed forces] veterans and it’s always ridiculous to me that, for a country that’s supposedly so patriotic, all these people who are real patriots are living on the streets and the police force is messing with them and taking their things and throwing them in jail. They’re probably there because they have mental health issues and they’re not being treated for that either.”

For Rateliff, the spiralling problem of poverty is the worst scourge facing America right now. “Look how many tent camps we have in different cities in the United States,” he says angrily. “Some of those people have jobs too. But they just can’t afford better. Distribution of wealth is at an all-time low.”

And It’s Still Alright is out now (Stax Records)

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