I’ve made no secret over the years about how much I love Willie Nile. He is one of the great songwriters of the last 50 years and he and his band put on the greatest live show this side of E Street. He just released one of the year’s best records, New York At Night, and took some time to talk about his new music and his 40-year career.
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On how New York City influences his work – I feel I love New York City for a lot of reasons. It’s a really good place for a writer, there’s inspiration everywhere. I like the history of the city, the energy, the action. There’s always something going on. I feel alive when I’m here. Being a writer there’s ideas and creatures of all kinds walking down every street. The rich, the poor, the lost, the lonely, the big shots, the visionaries whatever. All the above you know in this great city and I just find it you know uh makes me feel so alive being here. 1:00
Photo: Cristina Arrigoni
On starting out 40 years ago – It was a fascinating time for me. It was so much happening so fast. I played at Kenny’s Castaways, New York Times writer Robert Palmer came by and saw me play and wrote a great review, and that led to me be signing with Arista, and I put a band together. I’ve never played with a band before, I always played solo. I was always broke, never could afford a band. So we put that great band together and made the album quickly. And then we’re touring and we did like a three-week tour across the US. It was Patti Smith’s drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, Clay Barnes and Tommy Etheridge on and guitar and bass from a band called The Criers and Peter Hoffman from Boston. The Criers were from Morton, Mississippi Peter Hoffman was Boston and a band called The Secret Admirers and we went on the road We did a three-week tour across the US ending up in Los Angeles. I’m playing the Roxy, the last show of that first tour and it was all new, playing clubs, small theaters. It’s really fun. I found the transition pretty easy, I was always playing rock n’ roll songs but I was doing it solo acoustic, but with the band, it just and more thunder to it. The guys were great. We had a great time. So we get to Los Angeles and play the Roxy, we played a sold-out show there and The Who’s management was there, came backstage to say hello And offered me to open up for The Who tour, they were across the US at the time starting a tour and asked if I wanted to open up and I did. It was just something else. 3:30
“Under This Roof”
On recording in the same studio as John Lennon – We started to make (Golden Down) on December 5, 1980, at the Record Plant in New York City. It was a Friday night and John and Yoko we’re in, I was in studio A and they were in the mix room upstairs. He was producing her song “Walking on Thin Ice”, a great song. On Sunday night, the 7th (of December), my producer at the time, co-producer at the time Thom Panunzio, Thom knew John and he said “When do you want to meet him?”. I said. “Well, let’s record for a few days and then maybe Tuesday night”. We started on Friday so Tuesday we’ll have some music under our belt. There’s a lot of pressure on making a record, a lot of money being spent by the hour. So on Sunday night, the seventh of December, the phone rang about midnight and it was John’s engineer saying that John was out of guitar strings and could they borrow some strings. So I sent some strings up and I was gonna put a note “John, I love you. I’m a big fan of The Beatles, clearly, thanks for the music, Love you”. And I thought Well I’ll just tell him in person. So I said the strings up and we came in again the next day, the engineer said that John played all night on those strings, from midnight to four in the morning on that track. Sadly it was the last thing he played. The next night he was murdered. 7:31
“New York At Night”
On rediscovering the track “Run Free” for the new record and other “lost tracks – I recorded “Run Free” in 2003 and I’d forgotten about it. When I was putting this together last summer, collecting the songs for it I came across it in a drawer and went “Oh yeah this one”, I’m listening to it and it sounded great and if it fits into this record, so it was a very lucky surprise. I’m happy about it.
There’s a ton of stuff. I have a small studio in my apartment and over the years, in the 90s and 2000s, and for many years, Frankie Lee, my buddy, and I would write a lot. We would write songs every weekend and demo them up. I’ve got a ton of those. Some point maybe I’ll put a series out there’s a lot of it is in there that today unless I do that So hopefully I get to at some point. 12:00
On writing “One Guitar” – I wrote that with Frankie Lee we when we were writing it, we wrote it pretty quickly. I think we knocked it off in about 1/2 an hour, and it was good fun. I made a comment to Frank that this would be a good live. I put that chant in there and I thought the good live song and when we record it, it kind of record itself, and when we play it, it kind of plays itself. So it’s a very simple song, kind of a universal theme. When we wrote it I liked it a lot, I loved it. You never know where songs will end up but it’s a fixture in the shows and I’m quite proud of it. Frankie is a great writer and we make a great team when we write together. 15:00
On his burst of creativity since 2006 – I’m still inspired. Songs are still coming to me and I still love it. I feel the same fire I felt when I first came to New York City many years ago. It just feels the same to me. So I’m still writing and I think I am making up for lost time. Walking away from the business for what turned out to be 10 years and the 90’s were quiet. In 1991 I put out Places I’ve Never Been on Colombia after that an ep the next year, Hard Times in America, and then nothing until the end of the decade. I’m a slow starter I guess I hit my stride now 19:15
“Have I Ever Told You”
On the effects of the pandemic on touring – It’s a drag that we can’t tour right now. We had tours booked in Spain, Italy, and shows in the US, North America, they’re all postponed or canceled. I miss it, I saw the guys, this week we all got together in the park and hang out for a while. It was nice really, nice and I miss playing with them, you know the camaraderie. It’s been three-and-a-half months now since our last show. As far as playing, the shows I’m doing on Facebook are a joy to do. I don’t need an audience to play the songs, for me It’s all about the songs. When I’m playing with a band in front of a crowd or whether I’m sitting home with a guitar playing or in a studio in which we’re filming, I love playing the songs. I remember the first of those two shows we’ve done, it just felt so good to play again, sing in a microphone, perform the songs. It’s about the songs for me, that’s what excites me. So I mean I miss seeing all my friends and fans and stuff. It’s so much fun to share the musical experience together with them I miss that a lot for sure. 20:20
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