On his 13th album, the singer-songwriter pays homage to the city that staged his rebirth
Calling from his Greenwich Village apartment, where he has been waiting out the COVID-19 lockdown imposed on New Yorkers, singer-songwriter Willie Nile describes venturing out on a shopping errand the day before.
“It was spooky,” he says, “but there was a majesty to the streets even though they were completely empty. There’s a haunting beauty to the streets now.”
Clearly, this unusual situation has Nile’s songwriter mind spinning with inspiration. But then again, New York City has always been a creative catalyst for him, through good times and bad.
“It inspires the hell out of me, the city,” he says. “I love the energy, the streets, the grit, the contrasts, the mystery, the heart. Rich, poor, lost, lonely, big shots, bullshit artists visionaries: it’s got everything. I just find it fascinating.”
Nile’s 13th studio album, New York at Night, is the latest example of his singular ability to chronicle slice-of-life scenes from his beloved city. It came out on May 15, and while Nile admits that releasing an album during a pandemic seems strange, it also feels necessary: “There was debate about whether we should hold off. But I love the album. For me, it has a lot of light and good energy. It’s uplifting. And I thought, in the midst of this, if it helps shine a little light on somebody’s darkness, that’s enough reason to put it out.”
Nile and his band are known for putting on extraordinarily energetic and uplifting concerts, and they’ve managed to capture this same vibe on New York at Night. Nile says this happened because of the way the recorded it: “We did as much as we could live because there’s an energy there that you can’t fabricate. There are lots of ways to make records, but I like it when it has a live feel, so it sounds alive. That’s what moves me.”
Recording his songs, Nile says, is exhilarating. “I can’t describe the experience of what it’s like to pick up a guitar and play with a great band and have your songs come to life in the studio. It’s just magical.”
The album’s first single is the easygoing love song “Under This Roof.” The accompanying video is filled with footage of Nile with his band, family and friends, and it is, he says, “quite beautiful. It shows happy times, people together, and it’s poignant. It shows family, camaraderie, friendship, love. It’s home videos of what it was like and what it will be like again.”
Although Nile is choosing to focus on the positive during this pandemic, the fact remains that this has been an extraordinarily difficult time. While everyone is suffering to some degree during this pandemic, Nile’s inner circle has been hit hard: two of his friends – musician John Prine and producer Hal Willner – both passed away on April 7 from COVID-19 complications. Nile says all of the members of his band got the illness – some very severely, with one of them coughing so much, he cracked his ribs.
Nile himself has remained healthy, but he is also quite isolated. His longtime girlfriend, celebrated rock photographer Cristina Arrigoni, got stranded in her native Italy when that country went into lockdown in March. And Nile’s original plan to shelter in place in Buffalo, New York with his brother and 102-year-old father also fell through when he realized he didn’t want to put them at risk: “I thought, ‘Well, wait a minute – I can’t be going through JFK airport and on an airplane and then into their house.’ It was too dangerous,” Nile says.
So Nile is alone, and worried for his loved ones, but he’s determined to put this time to good use. Besides doing what he can from quarantine to promote New York at Night, he’s already begun writing his next batch of songs. “Yesterday, I woke up from a dream with a song,” he says, adding that he spent the day working on that idea. “I’ve got my guitars and a piano here, so I’ll be utilizing this time to be writing, for sure.”
Finding inspiration never seems like a problem for Nile – he has been remarkably prolific since his 1980 self-titled debut album. This output has also been consistently high-quality, earning him much critical acclaim, as well as praise from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townsend, Bono, Lucinda Williams and Jim Jarmusch.
Even though his career is well-established by now, the fact that Nile is releasing his 13th album seems to amaze him. “That’s the crazy thing: as artists get older, generally they lose their spark, but I still feel that fire that I first felt when I came here [to New York City],” he says. “I still feel like every day I wake up and I’m open to learning something new.”
Nile’s musical education began at a very early age: he grew up in a musical family in Buffalo, New York, but he also remembers key outside influences, too: “I was just a little kid, but I saw Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan. Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” was the first record I ever bought,” he says, adding that he also liked Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Motown artists.
VIDEO: Willie Nile “Golden Down”
By the ‘70s, Nile was listening to innovative downtown New York musician like Patti Smith, Television, and The Ramones. After graduating from the University of Buffalo, he made the move to New York so he could become one of those Lower Manhattan artists himself. “I was so driven when I came here,” he says. “New York’s streets taught me so much – they’re still teaching me so much.”
Nile’s affinity for New York City, and his skill at capturing its essence in song, long ago granted him acceptance as a true New Yorker – but he says his heart belongs to both his native and his adopted hometowns. “My feeling is that I was born in Buffalo, and then I was reborn in New York,” he says.
Now, after a month quarantined in his apartment, Nile says he looks forward to the day when he can once again perform in New York, Buffalo, and every other city he can. Normally on the tour for much of the year, Nile’s last show was in New Jersey on February 29, but the pandemic forced him to cancel all of his planned spring shows. “I can’t wait to get back on the stage, but I don’t know when I’m going to play a concert again. It’s my income, and the band’s as well, so it’s really hard times for everybody.”
Until that happy day when concerts can resume, “We’ve got to just tough it out,” Nile says firmly. “We have to stand up and help each other, and do the best we can to respect and love each other and get through this. And we will.”
In the meantime, he says, “I just wish everybody well and hope we survive this. We’ll have a big blowout when this is over!”