Nathaniel Rateliff Keeps Hanging On

The Americana statesman goes solo again for his emotional new album And It's Still Alright

Music Features Nathaniel Rateliff
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Nathaniel Rateliff Keeps Hanging On

Nathaniel Rateliff  & The Night Sweats are known for putting on a rowdy show. Frontman Rateliff’s calling card is his ragged, booming voice, which can be heard throughout the band’s three previously released LPs: a self-titled 2015 debut (which followed a wave of high-energy rock/soul releases from the likes of St. Paul & the Broken Bones and Lake Street Dive), 2016’s snappy A Little Something More From… and, most recently, 2018’s thoughtful Tearing At The Seams. The songs on these releases are very often restless, unrestrained and ruthlessly catchy. Just listen to the unceasing clapping and humming on “S.O.B.,” one of the more humorous tracks on that 2015 debut, and one of the band’s most popular songs ever. It’s peak Night Sweats.

The softer tunes on Rateliff’s new solo release, And It’s Still Alright (out Friday on Stax Records), may sound like a bit of a left turn, harkening back to his beginnings as a touring singer/songwriter (back when Paste hailed him The Best of What’s Next). This is a purposeful shift, as Rateliff told us: “For years before the Night Sweats I toured around as a singer/songwriter, and so that sort of writing style I really enjoy and am really familiar with. But I want it to be a slight departure from those days as well, and just look at it as a slightly different way of approaching the writing.”

What began as a piece on the downfall of a relationship became something even more meaningful after Rateliff’s longtime friend and producer Richard Swift, who was known for collaborations with The Shins and The Black Keys, as well as his own work as a singer/songwriter, passed away in the summer of 2018. Rateliff was planning to make what would eventually become And It’s Still Alright with Swift. The songs took a more somber turn thereafter, but they’re not devoid of hope. It’s quite the opposite, actually: That search for joy and meaning is evident in the title itself. “And It’s Still Alright.” It’s a rather comforting phrase.

Rateliff decided to record much of the album in Swift’s Oregon studio, even in his absence, and polish it off in Rateliff’s own home outside of Denver, Colo. And It’s Still Alright is tagged a solo record, but in reality it was made with a village: Night Sweats drummer Patrick Meese and Beach House drummer James Barone, who both engineered and mixed the record, are just a few of the folks who worked on this release.

The album is ultimately about finding pockets of joy and light in grief and darkness. On the title track, Rateliff sings, “They say you learn a lot out there, how to scorch and burn / Only have to bury your friends, then you’ll find it gets worse.” But the final verse drives home the album’s central message: “Your idle hands are all that stands / From your time in the dark / But it’s still alright.” We spoke with Rateliff on the phone to talk about the meaning behind some of the songs, his memories of Swift and finding inspiration from Harry Nilsson, among other places. This conversation has been edited for length.

Paste: What prompted you to write and release this record, and to do it on your own?

Nathaniel Rateliff: As we were making the last Night Sweats record, I had a lot of songs that I was sharing with Richard Swift, and so this is really a record that we had planned on doing together. We were going through a lot of the same things before he had passed. Part of my process of dealing with stuff is writing about it, and I just felt the need to put these songs out and do something slightly different than making a third Night Sweats record. [I] just didn’t feel the songs themselves would really be appropriate for what I want the Night Sweats to continue to be.

What was it like recording the album at Richard Swift’s studio?

Rateliff: Last March is when we first started making the record. Patrick Meese, who plays drums in the Night Sweats, and James Barone, who plays in Beach House—we’d all worked with Richard, and since I had intended to make the record originally with Richard, honoring that idea and my commitment to him, we wanted to start it back at his studio. His intentions originally were to do what he had done on the four Damien Jurado records he made, where I just bring him songs and I was gonna let him do whatever he wanted to do, just have him guide me through his production process. But his studio definitely has a real sound. If you listen through Richard’s body of work, and even the people he worked with, you can really hear the room. I really liked the sound of that room, so we went there, just started tracks and then finished everything else at my house outside of Denver.

This release has more of a solitary folk flow than something the Night Sweats might make. Can you walk me through how you got there sonically?

Songs I had been working on when Richard was still alive—he really liked it, and he was like, “Man, you can’t be too Nilsson.” And so I wanted—my love for Harry Nisson, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night—some of the songs I wanted to have that approach. Even though we didn’t have the advantage of having a whole chamber orchestra or whatever, we did our best to approach some of the songs with that sort of feel. I also am, just over the past few years, continuing to get better at my instrument, and I’m still very curious about the guitar. It’s my ability to write differently if I learn more on it. So my guitar player Luke Mossman has been showing me a lot of stuff, and I feel like that added to what I was starting to do musically as well.

What draws you to Harry Nilsson’s music?

There’s just something in Harry’s voice that I really love. I love the songs, I love his writing, especially A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which is a bunch of standards, but I just love the sound of his voice on those, instead of your classic Frank Sinatra, your standard crooner. I feel like he had something a little different than they did.

How did you settle on the title And It’s Still Alright?

Originally when I first wrote “Rush On,” that’s what I thought I wanted the record to be, but it’s a very heavy song, and I wrote it about Richard, and I just felt like putting that as the title track would possibly confuse the listener, because a lot of times people see the title song and will be drawn to that [on the] first listen. And [“Rush On” is] intentionally on the end of the second side of the record, so you have time to work up to it where hearing that and being sort of a representation of the whole album, I felt like it just might make it seem a little too heavy.

And then at one point in time, I thought I’d call it “All Or Nothing,” because I liked the song so much, and I wanted to draw people’s attention to the song. But then I felt like calling it “All Or Nothing” would make it a little too sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek, and I didn’t want to do that either. I didn’t want to be misleading. Actually when I was doing the bio for it, the lady who was interviewing me, she’s like, “I’m surprised you didn’t call this record ‘And It’s Still Alright’ because each one of the songs has this similar theme, talking about the pains of human experience.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” Each one of the songs, in some ways talking about the things that I’ve been going through in the past few years or things that my friends are going through, and really regardless of how hard those experiences are, we still come out on the other end. Everything’s still okay. I still get to create music, and I’m still alive, continuing to try to find joy and understanding in my personal part of the human experience. Regardless of all those circumstances, everything’s still good.

Is it daunting at all to step away from the band for such an emotional release?

I want it to be a conversation that we all can have. All of us have this unexplainable brokenness that sometimes we don’t talk about and we don’t share. It is a part of us being human, and I want people to be able to talk about that, to be vulnerable and to share that with each other. Because if you don’t, these things just become such a burden, and you feel like you’re the only person in the world that feels that way. But we all feel that way. And I want people to take the opportunity to be vulnerable. And I feel by allowing myself to do that in front of people, we all can hopefully see how much we have in common, and then hopefully, that burden isn’t something you just carry yourself.

And It’s Still Alright is out Friday on Stax Records. You can pre-order it right here.

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