Willie Nile is an artist that first started making music in 1980. His first album was so well received that he and his band were asked to open up for The Who just two months later. He counts Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Pete Townshend, and Bono as some of his biggest fans and has been described by many in the industry as one of the best songwriters of all time. Perhaps Lucinda Williams summed it best when she said “If there was any justice in the world, I’d be opening up for Willie Nile instead of him for me.”
I was lucky enough to interview Willie recently. I found him to be thoughtful, kind, and compassionate. He was soft-spoken and reflective, very different from the super-energetic persona you see up on stage. As he spoke is was very clear that his passion for his music hasn’t wavered.
J Your songwriting is often regarded as some of the best in the industry. What really strikes me about it is your genuine understanding of people, what they go through, and how they feel. Have you always been this way? Able to really connect to people’s emotions?
WN I think so. How I feel now is how I’ve always felt. I’ve always had sort of a sensitivity to how people are feeling. It always struck me if someone was feeling sad or lonely—I could always pick up on it. Even as a small child. I feel I have that ability to feel what people are feeling and it’s reflected in my songwriting.
J You took some time away from the industry but have been releasing one really great album after another in recent years. What made you decide that it was time to make new music again?
WN Once I started putting records out on my own label, on my own, and realized that there was such a freedom in doing that. You didn’t have to wait for major record labels to come along and back an album. The record industry has changed so much. Realizing I could do it on my own gave me such a sense of freedom and independence to just put records out. I’m always writing. I realized I could just put them out as my collections came together. It totally freed me.
J World War Willie is so full of passion and energy and so different from your last album, If I was a River, which was so intimate and reflective. And so different from your other albums. How was it that you decided to take such a turn from your normal sound in that album?
WN I think after I made American Ride, it was very successful and got me to a point where I reached a goal. I had been wanting to make an intimate piano-based album for many years. And after the success of American Ride I felt I had a small window to finally do that album and knock it out pretty quickly. I had all the songs. It was such a labor of love. They all are. I felt that since I had success with American Ride I had the time and opportunity to make a left turn and do something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I’m really quite happy with how it came out. It sounds like a heartbeat. You can hear a heart beating there. I’m really proud of how it turned out. Those songs were just ready to come out and I’m so glad I got to do it.
J Your live shows are a favorite of mine. I recently saw you at City Winery in NYC and as usual, you really brought the house down. Your shows always feel like a party to which the entire audience has been invited. Why do you think your shows have such amazing energy and just inspire the crowd to have a great time?
WN If I wasn’t going to give it my all I wouldn’t walk out there. What would be the point? And if I’m tired or a little bit under the weather, the music and the crowd always picks me up. And the audience picks me up. Life is difficult and I like putting a positive spin on things. I like the crowd to have a great time, my band is absolutely incredible. The audience always makes me feel so welcome and so I get so much back. I give everything I’ve got every single time and I get so much back. I don’t do it to get so much back, but the audience gives me that. It’s always so satisfying and so much fun. If I didn’t think it was special I wouldn’t step on the stage. The audience deserves that. I always tell people if they come out to see my show and they don’t have a great time, I’ll happily give them their money back. One of the best things that I ever hear is when a fan tells me that they had no idea who I was, came with a friend to a show, and became a fan for life. I think the audience can tell when you’re faking. It wouldn’t be fair.
J (Question by my friend, Joe Macbeth) Many of your contemporaries from the ’80s that found mega stardom seem to have peaked and now are more of a novelty act, just playing their hits. You, on the other hand, seem to continue to learn and grow as a songwriter and live performer, perhaps more so than ever. Late bloomer? Patience? Resilience? Despite never really achieving the mega stardom that people like me think you’ve been cheated from? Is this a blessing in disguise as it’s led to such a long and fruitful career?
WN I think it’s sort of a blessing in disguise. I think that not having mega hits, I always had to work really hard and it made me keep my edge. I never got soft. For some reason my inspiration is still very strong. I’m mindful of that, that I’ve had a really good run with new album after new album and the quality is so strong. I’m really happy about that. I think I’m just really lucky and I’ve always just followed my heart. And the music reflects that. I also have an incredible band behind me and the support of a lot of other musicians. And my fans. So I just keep working hard and making music.
J Your understanding of human emotion is clear. In this really ugly time in American politics, connecting through music is more important than ever. Why do you think you appeal to such a wide variety of people?
WN Absolutely. I think you can come to one of my shows no matter what your political leanings or affiliations are and have a great time and help me raise the roof. Classic style rock and roll, it’s real and we give it everything we’ve got and people respond to that. And the content of my music is about compassion and helping one’s neighbors, and “let’s try to make this a better world as best we can.” I don’t beat it to death, but the songs and music can be uplifting. It certainly lifts me up. And if it can make us come together and lift us up, all the better.
People can disagree on this or that. My general feeling is that if everyone had the same information—information we get is so scattered and all over the place—that we’d come to a better understanding. It’s hard to know what to believe. Some people out there are basing things on fear, and while it’s a scary world out there, life is about compassion and looking out for our fellow man and coming together. That’s what we need to get. It’s what life is all about.
J What would you like the world to know about Willie Nile? And your plans for the future?
WN I’m alive and well and on fire making music I care passionately about, and I have one of the best bands on the planet, and I’ll be playing more shows and putting out more music as long as I can. World War Willie came out beyond my wildest expectations. It’s really something I’m proud of. These are glory days for me, no doubt about it.
The shows are so much fun and people that come know that. And the word seems to be spreading about that, which makes me so appreciative.
It’s not your normal story in that I’m an older artist and seem to be at the top of my game. I’m putting out what I think is my best music and these are really inspiring times for me. And it’s not always an inspiring world out there, so if people want to come down and forget that for a while and have a really great time, I think they can do that at my shows. I think they’ll be glad they did.