Refugees weren’t initially in my prep notes for the interview with singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff. Our phone call was just days after the horrific gas attack on Syrian citizens. It’s hard not to think about refugees from war-torn countries all over the world trying to flee for survival. In just weeks prior, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats played a benefit concert for Project Worthmore, a Colorado-based nonprofit focused on helping its local refugee population.
Of about $60,000 raised for Project Worthmore, $40,000 came from ticket sales and Night Sweats merch; the band donated its entirety. While Rateliff is close friends with Project Worthmore affiliates and appreciates what they are trying to do for other people, it’s an issue close to his heart because he is a child of immigrants.
“My family came to the United States from Germany in 1922,” he tells. “When people talk about ‘what makes America great,’ it is that we all came from somewhere else. The culture we brought from different places shaped us and it made music. It created country music. It created rock ‘n’ roll. It created R&B. It created bluegrass. All of those things were sounds from somewhere else. It took people coming together from different countries.”
America’s tendency to support walls and refugee bans are baffling, but Rateliff’s resolve to be gentle, kind and understanding grows stronger in its midst. Onstage he encourages audiences to leave fear and ignorance at the door. “Because those things breed hate,” he affirms. “Love each other, and try to be more understanding of the people around you.”
It almost seems unfair to tease Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ upcoming Greenfield Lake show to readers. The April 21 concert is sold out. Soon enough, as well, our time to see them at intimate venues like Greenfield will soon be a thing of the past.
“I Need Never Get Old” and “S.O.B.” from their 2015 self-titled album are among favorites on The Penguin, who’s hosting the show. Their November 2016 EP, “A Little Something More From,” features the same blues-rock infused tempos. Someone recently asked Rateliff what the secret to writing successful songs was, to which he says: “If I fuckin’ knew, I would have done it like 20 fuckin’ years ago,” he quips. “Fuck if I know.”
Last year during their Bonnaroo set, the band’s energy was palpable, the music on point, and Rateliff worked the crowd with his dynamic bandmates: Joseph Pope III (bass), Mark Shusterman (keyboard), Patrick Meese (drums), Luke Mossman (guitar), Wesley Watkins (trumpet), and Andy Wild (saxophone). Rateliff has made no secret of his friendship and love for the Night Sweats and those who surround the band. Before he met his current lineup, he was trying to get traction as a solo singer-songwriter and guitarist. He released two albums (“In Memory of Loss,” 2010 and “Falling Faster Than You Can Run,” 2013) and one EP (“Shroud,” 2011), which were more contemplative folk songs compared to today’s throwback sounds to ‘60s and ‘70s blues, rock and soul.
Rateliff also was one of four bands/musicians featured in the 2014 documentary “Austin to Boston.” Alongside narrator Gill Landry (singer-songwriter, guitarist) of Old Crow Medicine Show, the film features Bear’s Den, The Staves trio and singer-songwriter Ben Howard. Almost unrecognizable, Rateliff is missing his prominent beard and seems melancholy throughout the film. It was around this time Rateliff was becoming disenchanted with his solo efforts. In fact, he told Aspen Public Radio back in 2015, it was one of the darkest parts of his life.
“At that point, I had been working for about seven years as a singer-songwriter, sometimes solo, sometimes with a band when I could afford it,” he tells. “I felt like I was just treading water. And it wasn’t the songs’ fault. It just takes people time sometimes to get what you’re trying to talk about and connect.”
When the Night Sweats finalized their lineup, everything clicked—not just within the band but within Rateliff. He was just making fun of himself with his debut album and having fun doing it. He was “giving up” in a sense; letting go of any expectations he’d often had in the past.
“I was like ‘I’m gonna write these songs because it feels good and nobody’s gonna give a shit about them,’” he explains. “I guess I was wrong about that.”
Just about two years since releasing “Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats,” he is surprised folks keep coming back to sell out their shows. Feeling not only good about where he’s at professionally, Rateliff is growing personally. In fact the whole band is, as they discover more about themselves and their music.
“I think sometimes people don’t understand you can write your own story; you don’t have to be attached to the past,” Rateliff remarks. “You can live your life with all that brokenness or continue to move forward with some grace and understanding.”
Rateliff is particularly excited about what he and the Night Sweats have been working on as of late. Though, he was hoping to find creative refuge near an ocean, the band was holed up in a “crazy dirt-stack community” in Rodeo, New Mexico, to work on a demo for the next project.
“It was so peaceful and perfect,” he tells. “What was supposed to be demos ended up turning into 11 songs in a week’s worth of time. I’m excited to see where all of it goes, really. I’m curious about it—that’s the thing I’m really excited about in life right now: being curious about what’s going to happen in my life, in our life.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats plan on going back to work with producer Richard Swift at Stax Records this May. First, they’ll play one or two of those new tunes during their set at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Friday.