Sometimes life backs you into a corner, a fact that’s not lost on Nathaniel Rateliff. These days, the Missouri-born singer-songwriter is holding a hot hand, an eponymous debut album with his raw–R&B backing band the Night Sweats a legitimate hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
A couple of years back, however, the world wasn’t nearly as bright and shiny for the easygoing frontman. Rateliff, who’s played both solo and in bands since his teens, found himself at a serious crossroads. At the time, he was concentrating on a laid-back folk career that wasn’t exactly on fire. Realizing he wasn’t going to knock Bon Iver off his perch as America’s favourite new-school troubadour, the 37-year-old shifted gears.
“I’d been pursuing the singer-songwriter thing for about eight years, and I made a record that the label wasn’t going to put out because they dropped me,” Rateliff says on the line from an Edmonton tour stop. “I was really proud of it—I’d recorded it with a friend, and we did it ourselves the way that we wanted to do it. We were trying to self-release it and I was kind of discouraged. I’d been travelling a lot and struggling for a long time playing music.”
Rateliff was also totally over the idea of trying to be successful as a musician—and, with that in mind, figured he had nothing to lose by changing focus.
“I started to work on soul and R&B songs because I wanted to,” he says. “I ended up putting them together with people that I was already playing with, and we played a couple of shows in Denver and had a really good time doing it. So we decided to make a record out of it.”
The goal going into Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats was to capture the spirit of a bygone era without sounding self-consciously retro.
“I went into the studio with over 30 songs, and we approached it from the idea that we could focus on the songs that we liked the best,” Rateliff says. “We tried to make it so that it wouldn’t be too much like an intentional throwback record to the ’50s or ’60s. I wanted it to be something that was genuine, as opposed to sounding like I was putting on an act.”
Depending on how one looks at things, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats is either a colossal failure or a thundering success. Mission accomplished on sounding genuine, with Rateliff coming across as a guy beamed in from a time when Stax—which he records for today—was the coolest upstart record label in North America.
Despite the band’s best efforts, though, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats does indeed sound like a throwback record, but that’s no bad thing. Trafficking mainly in gin-joint R&B and smoking soul, the record comes from the same gloriously greasy place as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and everything released by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
Rateliff may have cut his teeth on folk and, before that, shoegazing alt-rock with a band called Born in the Flood, but that doesn’t make him sound any less authentic on cathartic workouts like “Thank You” and “I Need Never Get Old”. He’s also not afraid to mix it up, bringing an old-timey gospel choir to the circa-’55 party on “Howling at Nothing”, uncorking the whisky bottle for the sundown Americana of “Wasting Time”, and sitting on the dock of the bay with Otis Redding for the majestic “I’d Be Waiting”.
The singer’s mastery of vintage-sounding genres is a gift, in a strange way, from his parents.
Rateliff grew up poor in Missouri, to the point where squirrel sometimes ended up on the dinner table. Vegetables and fruits were grown on the property not as a hobby but out of necessity. The family TV got one channel.
But proving that money isn’t necessarily correlated with happiness, Rateliff had a good childhood. Things would go dark, however, when his father was killed in an automobile accident. In a turn that makes one wonder why the Lord insists on working in mysterious ways, the family patriarch was on his way to church.
To help the family out, Rateliff, who was 13, was forced to drop out of school and get a job.
“After my dad passed away, my mom got remarried and moved to Texas,” he remembers. “I was kind of living on my own when I was 16, taking care of myself.”
Over time, Rateliff—who started playing the drums and dreamed of being a cartoonist—began fumbling around on an acoustic guitar. Missionary work eventually took him to Colorado, and with the move he wound up with his parents’ records, a collection heavy on soul and blues greats like Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters.
Rateliff would eventually become disillusioned with the church, instead working as a carpenter and gardener. He’d also do an extended stint on the loading dock of a trucking company. He never tired of playing music, however; the great thing about working soul-sucking jobs is that you can trick yourself into thinking that writing songs can be a way out.
And, importantly, he never forgot where he came from, continuing to write from the heart even when things looked bleak. For proof of that, consider the album’s smash lead single, “S.O.B.”. The call-and-response raver has taken Rateliff and his bandmates from the clubs of Colorado to sold-out venues and high-wattage TV appearances, including on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
To those who scream along to “S.O.B.” every night from the front, the song is a shit-kicking ode to having another shot of liquor, even when it doesn’t seem like a good idea. To Rateliff, though, it’s more personal. The singer comes from a lineage that knows a thing or two about booze, his great-grandpa having been a bootlegger who was shot to death in a fight with another illegal-whisky maker. Rateliff—who admits to being a tad hung-over during his talk with the Straight—has been open in the past about liking a drink.
That sheds a different light on “S.O.B.” lines like “If I can’t get clean, I’m going to drink my life away” and “Hands are shaking/Bugs are crawling all over me.”
The song is written from personal experience; Rateliff ended up with the DTs while on tour overseas and eventually channelled the experience into something positive. Sometimes, when life backs you into a corner, you have to come out swinging. Rateliff did, and won.
“I didn’t really expect the album to get the response it did,” he admits. “I was really proud of the material, but I put out a bunch of records that I liked, and nobody liked those. So now I’m just taking it as it comes, and enjoying the success that we’ve had.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats play the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday (January 21).