A Conversation with Willie Nile

Willie Nile is the definition of a troubadour. For over 40 years his music has painted portraits of life not only in New York City but across the world. Willie Nile is back with his 14th studio record, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and took some time recently to talk about it.

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On the meaning of The Day The Earth Stood StillWell, it just brings back the shock of this past year and walking the streets of New York City, Greenwich Village, seeing empty, haunted streets with these buildings looking down on whatever was down. Not many people out there with very few cars. I’ve told the story before, but I went to my storage space, which is a block away from the Holland Tunnel on Friday rush hour. The Holland Tunnel at rush hour, Friday, you could take an hour, 45 minutes to go three blocks and Friday it’s the worst of all. Six o’clock I come out, end of May 2020, I came out of the storage space and I went to the corner. There was nobody in sight all the way uptown, looking downtown. I took photographs of it and I could have laid down in the street. I was standing in the middle of the street taking those pictures. I couldn’t believe it. It just hit me. So the title for me, I always love that old movie, 1951 sci-fi classic. This was like being in a science fiction movie. It really was. The song idea came to me then and I love how it came out really. :56

On what it was like creating a record during the pandemic – (It was) fascinating. We recorded this album The Day the Earth Stood Still, we did it in January in Weehawken, NJ. A studio I always record in right across from the Lincoln Tunnel. We had to wear masks the whole time. Some days, 12, 14 hour days masked the whole time. If anyone sang, the musicians union has a rule, if anybody sang in a room, no one could go in that room for an hour. But we managed to do it, everybody masked up. When we rehearsed we were masked up and made the album, the engineer and coproducer Stewart Lerman all masked up, and we were all excited about the songs and sounded really good. So we were excited. So it was a nuisance, to say the least. But what we did it and we were excited about it because of how everything was coming out. When the background parts came, James Maddock, Frankie Lee and Johnny Pisano, they had to be in three separate rooms. Johnny was basically in a closet and that’s like a 11 hour day, just singing all day and it came out great. But yeah, masked up, crazy. 2:29

On if he can still get a personal connection while working remotely –Absolutely. Oh, yeah. When we recorded, they had masks on in the big studio, big the main studio. I was in another studio because I was playing guitar and singing, seven of the songs, maybe eight are all level vocals. But when we got a take we would listen to that vocal and seven of them were like, “I’m not changing a word”. We felt that electricity. I remember when we were recording the title track, thinking midway, “Oh, this feels electrifying, this take”. Everybody is very knowledgeable in the studio and experienced. It was very connecting, even though it was so strange doing it during the middle of a pandemic. 4:05

On the “Klaatu barada nikto” chant at the end of the title track –I’m writing the song and in the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, which I know well, I’ve seen it many times over the years since I was a kid. The story about a space man who comes to Earth and lands in Washington, D.C., he comes out with a robot standing there and his name is Klaatu, the Space Man himself. Klaatu is Michael Rennie. He infiltrates to decide whether to destroy the Earth or not. So the government’s after him and gets shot and he’s dying and he tells them, the lead actress, Patricia Neal, he said, “Go to the spaceship”, Gort was the name of the robot, it’s a really fake looking robot, but the movie is a masterpiece. It’s totally enjoyable. She says, “Go tell Gort, “Klaatu barada nikto”, remember those words, go to the spaceship. Tell them that. Otherwise, you’ll destroy the earth. He’ll know that I’m dying”, and he, in fact dies and is brought back to life again, but she goes to the spaceship and it’s a cool scene with the sci-fi music. He’s just about to zap her with some ray and she says, “Klaatu barada nikto” a bunch of times. So when I was writing it, I thought it might be cool to have a chant with “Klaatu barada nikto” and I read up a bit about it. The writer who wrote the screenplay, they asked them, “Well, what does that mean?” And he said, “Nothing”. So I thought I thought it fitting that the phrase that is meant to stop this robot from destroying the earth. I thought that would make it pretty cool chant. 5:14

On the origin of the tracks on the new record – There’s one song, the last song on the album, “Way of the Heart”, is song I recorded in 2009 and another one that’s been sitting around that I always loved and knew I would make use of at some point. When I was putting this album together, the collection, I like collections, I like when they fit together. Whether it’s musically for sure, theme-wise, and I thought to end last year’s New York at Night album with “Run Free” was a fitting ending. It fit perfect. I happened to just find that in the drawer. That’s two summers ago, a couple of summers ago, I forget, losing track of summers. “Way of the Heart” I thought would be a really good ending for this, for The Day the Earth Stood Still. The other songs are new. There’s one on their, “Sanctuary”, I wrote some years back with my buddy Mark Johnson walking down Bleecker Street. I was thinking of the old “Hunchback of Notre Dame” film with Charles Laughton. Great film, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and him swinging from the bells, saying, “Sanctuary, ssancutary”. I thought that song would fit. I’ve got so many songs written over the years that’ll never get recorded. I thought that it would make a good second song on the album, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” opens up then “Sanctuary”, a place of peace and sanctuary, a place of safety. So the rest of the songs are all new and most of them written, I wrote three or four of them just in the fall, a few months before. Literally December I finished, I wrote “Time to be Great”. Most of the songs are very recent other than those two. 7:46

On working with Steve Earle for “Blood on Your Hands” – I did a song on 2006, Jakob Dylan sang on a song called “The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square”, sang on the choruses. Should have given him some verses. I’m kicking myself for that. Jakob’s a really good guy. He’s a sweetheart. I love Jakob. Steve great. Steve lives around the corner from me in the Village. We just literally bump into each other all the time. We sung together at City Winery. I’m a big fan of Steve’s. He’s a great, great, American icon. He’s a great writer, doesn’t hold back, and he doesn’t pull any punches. When we were just about done with the mixing of the album and I thought, “You know what? Steve Earle would sound great on this track”. So I text. I texted him, “I got a song on the new album, are you around?” And he says he’s around, so I sent it to him, I sent him “Blood on Your Hands” and he wrote back, “OK”. Really simple and came in the studio, had a great time, no mask. We were all vaccinated at that point, just before we mixed it. He sound great on it. It’s right in his wheelhouse. The key is perfect for him and the grit of that song. It’s been some year, it’s a nightmare for everybody. The reason my songs are usually hopeful and optimistic, clearly because I will never make an album with songs that are going to just bring people down. So I’ll write about “Holy War”, I’ll write about “Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead”, a song about terrorism, but I’ll surround that with songs that are optimistic and hopeful and upbeat. Because life is tough enough as it is and we don’t need a reminder. Music to me, the reason I write it, the reason I’m still so passionate about it is because it picks me up. It helps make some kind of sense of the world. If I can inspire (the audience) at all, then that’s that’s a good thing. It inspires me, which is enough, when I inspire other people to feel better or to feel some sense of hope then I’m thrilled about that. 10:14

On reflecting the world around him in his writing – I don’t write with preconceived ideas or notions. I don’t set out (thinking), “I’m going to write a song about this or that”. They just come to me. My songs reflect the world around me that I see or bump into on whatever any kind of day or time. Songs of love, loss, passion, sorrow, anger. It could be political. They could not be. What I love about rock and roll, what I love about what I’m able to do, just the medium (is) you can write anything, you know, I could write like “All God’s Children”, one of the songs on Children of Paradise, and it’s like a gospel kind of song. Nils Lofgren recorded it last year. There’s a tribute record that came out called Willie Nile Uncovered, twenty six songs, and Nils did a beautiful version of it. But my songs to reflect the world around me. I don’t look to pull any punches. I don’t wanna hurt anybody. So I do my best to try to be kind, my slings and arrows. 12:59

On playing virtual concerts during the pandemic –Here’s the thing. Whether I’m in my apartment with an acoustic guitar writing The Day the Earth Stood Still, I feel that fire and passion, it’s really deep. Whether I’m in front of a large crowd and they’re giving us back all they got, it’s about the songs we’re sharing with the audience and they’re giving us their love back or whether we’re rehearsing them. When we play them, we play them. We play them with all our hearts. So it’s not hard for me to rise to the occasion and deliver the songs with all the passion I would as if it was in front of a thousand people. It just isn’t. It’s the song that I’m there for. I’m not there to be glory boy. I’m not there to be American Idol. I’m there for the song. That’s it for me. That’s what I care about, that’s what drives me. The online shows we did, we were averaging one a month and we did two of those shows live from the streets of New York. Johnny (Pisano) and I would meet at 8:00 in the morning, we meet in the guy that does all our videos and he has this recording machine. I had my guitar, Johnny at his bass, we laid cables, we had mic stands and two mics, but you can’t amplify anything on the street. They’d stop you. But if you’re not making any amplified noise, so Johnny couldn’t hear any of his bass, he knew he was playing, but he couldn’t hear it. But to go to these New York landmarks in the middle of a pandemic was really fascinating. As far as being able to sing the songs, the people passing by or cars, I mean you’re in New York City out there. So it took one or two songs to kind of get that “Who cares who’s watching, who cares what (we’re doing)”. I remember one of the shows we started at the Bowery Mission. I sang “Old Man Sleeping on the Bowery” across the street from the Bowery Mission, and then we went to CBGB, across the street from CB singing “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, someone goes by in a car,”Hey Willie, how are you doing?”, the local experience, I find a particular joy in that. Whether it’s running into Steve Earle on the street or running into Little Steven on the street or somebody going by a car, “Hey, Willie, how ya doing?”. To be able to be out in the city that I love so much and play songs like it could be in front of the stock exchange and sing “Dear Lord”, “Lord, give me money”, outside that I just love that. it was so much fun. At some point this fall, I’ve been thinking, they’re not available anymore, but we will make them available. I’m not sure if (in) the fall, the holidays, whatever, but we did a bunch of them and I’m going to do another one, I think, in August for the new record. I think we filmed one for Golden Down. The 40th anniversary we filmed it and we’ll put that show on. I’m not sure when, September or October. It was great to play and revisit an album and it came out great. At some point we’ll put all the shows out. We have a title for the series, the Lost Years Episodes or something. 15:16

On collaborating with Cristina Arrigoni for album artwork –I’ve been really lucky. Cristina Arrigoni is a great, world class, one of the great photographers in the world. All the album covers, since American Ride in 2013 she’s taken all the covers and all the photos. This album, she said to me, “I have an idea”. She knew I was going to call it The Day the Earth Stood Still. I knew when I wrote that song right away that that was the title of the album. It just fit the collection I was working on. She said, “I have an idea for your album cover”, same thing she said about Children of Paradise, “I have an idea for your album cover”. She took photographs of these homeless guys around town, I paid them all. I didn’t take advantag. Great, timeless photos. There’s an artist whose name is Johan Figueroa Gonzalez. He’s a street performer and he does a living statue thing. He climbs up on a pedestal, he’s a short guy, shorter than I am, if you can believe that. He’s just mesmerizing, just genius. I mean, the back cover of the album, that photograph, that’s him in Washington Square Park, and the inside of the album is two more pictures of him in the park doing a statue thing and the back cover. Here he is on the arch in Washington Square Park. He was actually arrested, not that day, but for standing on the Washington Square Arch. She said, “I have an idea”. I knew her photos that she took of him one day and there are stunning photos and she said, “Johan, I’ll put all the photos of you on because it fits so perfectly”. Cristina Arrigoni’s totally brilliant. 21:09

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