Catching Up With Nathaniel Rateliff

Music Features Nathaniel Rateliff

Nathaniel Rateliff knows a thing or two about emotionally moving songwriting, as evidenced by his second full-length album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run. Themes of loneliness and isolation are highly evident throughout Rateliff’s second release, an album that feels like it could have been written from a secluded log cabin, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago-style. Though truthfully, Falling Faster Than You Can Run was written from a place even more secluded than a log cabin in the woods—on the road. From the inside of a tour van, Rateliff created most of the tracks that appear on his follow-up while traveling to promote his 2011 debut, In Memory of Loss.

Staying true to his roots—Rateliff moved from his hometown of Bay, Mo. to Denver at 19 to pursue music—Falling Faster Than You Can Run was written from a tour van but later produced in the mountains of Colorado. With hints of traditional country, folk and even jazz, this second release showcases Rateliff’s abilities as an emotionally moving songwriter. Loneliness and isolation are undoubtedly themes, but along with sadness comes small waves of hope, as the 11 tracks range from soft and woeful to raucous and impassioned.

For Rateliff, the creative process is simple: Believing that songs will reveal themselves if you simply allow them to, he writes because he simply has to. And he does so with a tremendous amount of heart and soul.

We spoke with Rateliff about Leonard Cohen, his personal feelings about soul music and finding the underlying hope within the sadness.

Paste: How did you come up with the album’s title? 
Rateliff: Falling Faster Than You Can Run was the title to a different song that I made up years ago. I actually wanted to use it as the title for an EP. That original song never made it out into the real world, but I loved the name. And it just kind of stuck around.

Paste: The cover of the new record has a photograph of separated hands. So are the hands reaching and moving toward one another or other or pulling away? It seems in the context of the record, perhaps the second option.
Rateliff: Both of those things are happening in the photo. Even though the songs on the album Falling Faster Than You Can Run seem sad, I would like to think that the songs come across as having some sense of hope. But I also like to leave that up to the listener.

Paste: You’ve mentioned before that you were on the road traveling quite a bit during the making of Falling Faster Than You Can Run and that main themes of the album are isolation and seclusion. Can you tell us a little more about that notion and the writing process?
Rateliff: Most of the ideas for the songs came to me while touring. I kept a pretty good record of notes, melody ideas and voice recordings. It was a much different process than how I had written in the past. I took my time piecing the songs together and working on the words, compared to writing songs in one sitting like I used to do. And I spent a lot of alone time when I was touring for the album In Memory of Loss. I would come up with some ideas while touring on the road and record them. At the end of all that touring, I just made the time to put it all together.

Paste: You seem to be an artist who’s known for live performances where many people discover and fall in love with your music. Do you think you’re able to communicate more of the feeling and intent of the music in live settings? 
Rateliff: It is really hard to really get what you want out of a recording. Sometimes it’s just better live. But I try to record with the same intent as I do when I play a live show. It’s just hard for it to come across in a recording. When it’s live, it’s me and my friends on stage. Every night is different, and anything can happen.

Paste: You’ve mentioned that you really love and respect Leonard Cohen. What is it about him and his music that you admire?
Rateliff: I love the work that he puts into the songs. It really seems like he takes his time writing each and every phrase. It feels like he gives so much to every line. And all of the lines are equally important—with him there’s really never a weak one. I don’t think there are a lot of songwriters that can pull that off. And he also doesn’t just have a couple of good records—his whole career is full of beautifully written songs, poems and prose.

Paste: I read that your first instrument you ever played was the drums. How long did you play?
Rateliff: I started playing drums when I was 7 years old, but I really didn’t get the swing of it all until I was 12 or 13 years old. It took until then to get a good practice every day. I still sit in with friends sometimes, and I play on a lot of the songs I record. It’s mostly in the demo phase, but also on the records, too.

Paste: You and your friend Joseph Pope started working together and headed to Denver. Tell us about the band Born In The Flood. You’ve described it before as a cross between the Allman Brothers and The Band. 
Rateliff: Born In The Flood had several style changes that we went through as a band through the years. There was a time when I thought we sounded like The Band or The Allman Brothers. We were more jammy and not as good. But at the end, we had to come up with our own moody version of rock. I think we were a band for almost eight years. In the end, we just wanted to do something other than what we were doing, but Joseph and I are still playing together.

Paste: You have a very strong narrative voice and a way of storytelling with your lyrics. And you’ve mentioned other honorable storytellers like Townes Van Zandt. Where do these stories come from? Are any personal accounts? 
Rateliff: I’m really not sure where all of the stories come from. I guess a lot of what I write has to do with or comes from my personal life. It’s a good way for me to work through things. Most of the time, I don’t realize that I’m writing about things in my life, though. I mostly try to just try to let the stories form and let the songs be songs.

Paste: Your parents’ music initially got you interested in music, and you inherited their vinyl collection. What are some of your favorites? 
Rateliff: My mom loved James Taylor, and my dad was really more of a Van Morrison kind of guy. I personally really love most of the music from the ‘60s and 70s.

Paste: That’s a great era of music. And now you’re infusing some of that soul into another project—tell us a little about the Nightsweats! 
Rateliff: Well, when I finished with the Falling Faster record I didn’t really have much to do. A friend of mine had asked me if I had anything new going on and if I would be interested in recording at his studio. I told him I had always wanted to write and record some soul songs, and he really thought it was a good idea. So I went home and demoed a couple. I just kept writing songs in that same kind of style and put together a band of friends.

Paste: And you’ve been working with lots of horn players and jazz-style musicians. What has that experience been like?
Rateliff: I wouldn’t really say I have worked a lot with jazz players. But I definitely do love jazz and have been lazily studying it. I’ve been trying to work with more horns in my music. I love the sound that just a few of them can create together.

Paste: You have quite a following abroad, especially in the UK. Tell us about your relationship with the Communion fellas over there and your overall UK presence.
Rateliff: Communion has always been good to me in trying to help get my music out to new folks. They’re great friends, even though we don’t really get to work together too much these days.

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