Setting eyes on Nathaniel Rateliff reminds you that tradition can sometimes feel as refreshing as anything. Ensconced deep in an armchair, nursing his whiskey jar through a thick thatched beard, whilst engaging in warm, gentle conversation with his broad, Mid-western accent, he perfectly embodies the conventional troubadour aesthetic. In the context of a modern wave of fresh-faced folkies, the authenticity of his demeanour is doubly striking.
And you wouldn’t want it any other way. For the roots of this man’s ability extend far beyond mere image – spend an evening with the aforementioned tipple and the oaky, sozzled heartbreak of Rateliff’s three full-length records, or even better, the intensely compelling presence of his live show – for hard evidence. His ability is in bringing traditional folk imagery, be it the tatty brakeman and his old time revivals, or the first three-fingered step into stupor, with the muck and mire of everyday struggle. These worlds meet in the music of Rateliff – a man of simple means, and simple wants – who inspires in his rich, rustic folk the nostalgia of another time, and the desperation of a man pushing through in the present.
Having experienced the honesty of his songcraft, and the geniality of his personality in the dimly lit atmosphere of the pub, Rateliff initially seems reticent to share directly. But just like his songs gently unfurl their textured tales, so does Rateliff betray his wit, warmth and wisdom. As the phased swirl of an organ in soundcheck dies away, we discuss taming negativity, a rural upbringing and his new soul band – the Night Sweats.
I wanted to start with the cover for your latest record, Falling Faster Than You Can Run. I’m torn as to whether the hands in the photograph are moving towards each other, or pulling away? In the context of the record, it feels like it might be the latter?
I think it’s supposed to be someone that’s reaching out, for sure. Though there’s supposed to be a feeling of distance between them – the woman’s pulling away, and the man’s still there.
Does that reflect the record? A reaching out? The music’s not wholly pessimistic, but there’s a lot of negative experience going on?
Well, I don’t feel like I’m trying to reach out musically. I don’t want there it to feel like there’s a negative attitude. Even if the songs are slightly depressing I still want there to feel like there’s hope.
What themes did you find yourself returning to when you were writing this record?
There’s a lot of loneliness in it, and there was when I was writing it too. I was on the road a lot, alone, and a lot of it came down to feeling isolated and alone, even when you’re surrounded by people.
There seems to be a lot of reference to a higher, abstract struggle – where a wider perspective meets your personal, every day life?
It definitely deals with a lot of the struggles I’ve had over the last few years. I guess when writing it I’m not exactly trying to keep it so self-focused, but also not trying to make a big point about the rest of the world either. I’m just writing the songs because I feel like I have to write them. It’s not a big social thing! I mean, I wish I could write songs like that – but I haven’t yet.
You’re a pretty hard-working live performer, and it’s how many people find your music and fall in love with it. What do you feel you’re communicating live?
I wouldn’t want it to be just depressing. Sometimes it feels kind of funny – so I guess all over the place, because I’m all over the place. What I’m hoping for is that people don’t just feel depressed, but leave feeling good – hopeful, or something.
You often switch out from a deep, personal song and then crack a joke. Are you aware of that contrast?
I don’t really worry about it – it’s just part of me. I like to keep things honest, and as close to me as possible.
Would you say that ability to cut through the darkness with humour reflects your personality?
Sometimes – though sometimes I just want to wallow in the darkness. Some of the shows can be like that too. It can depend on what I feel like. I guess that’s a bit unprofessional, but it is what it is…