Interview: “We Can Do Better”: Willie Nile On a Divided Country, His Hope For The “Children of Paradise” and What He Learned Sitting At The Family Table


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On the streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village, Willie Nile can name the landmarks around him and remember the moments sitting on his fire escape watching the world go by. But mostly it’s where he finds inspiration. Standing on the corner of Bleeker and Mulberry Streets, within ten minutes he’ll tell you that you’re likely to hear six languages.

“There’s everything to write about,” the singer said about the landscape that has served him for over forty years.

When Nile spoke to me, he had just returned from a tour of Europe where he filmed a promotional trailer for the new album. Nile is sitting atop the balcony of the Basilica in Madrid. There is Nile proselytizing and bringing the good news about the “Children of Paradise,” the title songs of a new album he’s set to unleash in late July on River House Records. The affirmation in religious tones has even greater meaning in the divisive days of 2018.

“It’s getting ugly out there,” Nile said to himself one day watching the news. Instinctively he picked up his guitar and knocked off a few lines in what he calls “a little diddy”:

I turned on my tv to watch some news
Some big shot spouting their views
Saw a child refugee drown on the shore
I had to turn it off
I couldn’t take it anymore

“Does anyone even care?” NIle asks in the song that became “Getting Ugly. “It’s getting ugly out there I swear.” On Children of Paradise, Nile tackles global warming in “Earth Blues,” corporate greed and likens the president as the host of a new game show. When Nile sings about judgement day and the fall of mankind, the rant and roll is a record he might have called Apocalypse Now.

But it’s the anthemic “Don’t” with its punkish bravado and killer line “Don’t let the fuckers take your buzz” that may be the song of summer.  Children of Paradise feels like a record made for the times in which we live. It contrasts Nile’s commentary with his unbridled aspiration and faith in people.

“The songs from this record they come from a real place,” says Nile who admitted he needed a pick-me up in writings “Don’t.” “There’s human suffering going on in the world. The human race could be doing a better job with dealing it. With all the bad I remember thinking, ‘I refuse to let these fuckers kill my buzz. I refuse. Nah I’m alive….life is precious. I’m going to feel it, love it passionately. Yes, there’s an aspirational and optimistic side to me but there’s also a side that won’t take bullshit.”

When Nile released his debut album Willie Nile, he wrote of the homeless, giving voice to those living in the shadows in “People on The Bowery.” It fueled a kind of anger and formed a blueprint for rock and roll that transcended Nile being just another Village folkie and typecast as the new (or next) Dylan.

The cover of Children of Paradise features portraits of people living on society’s fringes in his neighborhood. They were shot by photographer and Nile’s girlfriend Christina Arrigoni. If Nile’s work feels like it is coming full circle, today it is influenced and magnified by a twenty-four hour news cycle and era of misinformation promulgated and relentlessly amplified through social media. Imagine Nile in a re-make of the movie Network going to his window and shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Nile admits the image of a drowned Syrian child earlier this year affected him deeply. “I’ll never forget that, it went right through me. Broke my heart,” said the songwriter who has four children and four grandchildren. “Cmon, we’re better than that.”

Nile’s “Across The River” was inspired by aumiliar incident some forty years ago. I wondered where does the empathy that permeates Nile’s work. Nile directly credits his parents for their kindness and generosity.

At the age of eight, he remembers the year his mother suggested to his father that they bring in a foreign exchange student. With eight mouths to feed (ten counting his parents), they began a tradition. Throughout his life, Nile was exposed to hundreds of visitors through the family’s relationship with a local Catholic organization in his native Buffalo.

“It turned out to be an incredible gift our parents gave us of how people in the world could get along and help each other. They wanted a ‘normal home’ but my brothers and sisters knew it was anything but a normal home. It was full of love. They were just open to we’re all brothers and sisters on this planet. So from an early age, name the country….Madagascar, Tibet, countries all across Africa. Sometimes they came for a summer, other times a weekend.”

Nile remembers the time his father received a letter from India asking if he would sponsor an eighteen year old boy. After staying a few months with the family, he went back home and wanted to send an elephant to thank the family. Nile and his sister delighted in the idea of having an elephant in the backyard. (Last Spring Nile was reunited in Chicago with him as he was very ill and after decades of no contact.).

Another time he recalls one freckled teenager named Paula Clark who came to stay after her family saved enough money for two years. Within two days a phone call came to the home. Her dad died suddenly. His father had to make his way upstairs to tell her. For Nile, it was the lesson of seeing real life pass before his eyes.

“Here I am now traveling around the world doing concerts,” he reflects. “I have good followings in Spain, Italy and the U.K. I see and meet all these people and it’s an extension of what I learned at their table. I make these records now and things I learned as a boy and assimilated come out in my work.”

His father’s admonition to son to work shaped his values and storytelling. When Nile appeared onstage last year at Jammin Java outside Washington, D.C., he was getting ready to head home celebrate his father’s 100th birthday. One of the night’s most special moments occurred when Niles walked stage left and sat at the upright piano.

Nile began sharing the origin of the song “If I Was a River.” It was originally being considered for the film Pearl Harbor when it caught the attention of U2’s Bono. He loved it and might have recorded it but the timing wasn’t right. He suggested Nile send it to director Martin Scorsese who was making a film about the Irish coming to America. Nile did along with a song called “The Crossing.” Although it didn’t make it into the soundtrack, the song has grown in stature for our current times.

Onstage he talked about thinking of his ancestors’ journey from Ireland. “We all succeeded, “ he said in an affirmation that spoke volumes in a divisive time.

Reflecting on it later he spoke of its broader meaning. “When I sing it,” he told me, “it was for that but it’s whatever the crossing…the personal mountain to climb, the personal bridge to cross, getting over heartache, the loss of a loved one…you name it.

“When I look out at the audience,” he continued, “ ‘This is for your ancestors. I wrote it for mine.’ It’s really about all of us–everyone here. Our ancestors came from somewhere. That’s one of the magical things about this country much to the chagrin of the Indians which is a whole other story and song. But for most everybody it worked. People’s lives improved.”

That spirit continues in the song “American Ride.” Nile says the song just came to him and it pays homage to the adventurous spirit of pioneers who came to this country with $10 in their pockets to make a better life for themselves and their families.

“The dream that is this country I still believe in,” he reflects. As a child he grew up with John F. Kennedy as president and was inspired by the Peace Corps and helping others. He is reminded by the late Robert F. Kennedy’s admonition that we can do better.

“He’s right,” Nile adds upon the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. “We can do better. We’re better than this. People in Europe ask me, ‘So what’s your take? What do you think’s going on?’ I’ll say, ‘These are hard times. Monty Python couldn’t have made it better. It’s an absurd spectacle. But ‘American Ride,’ … I believe in the dream that you can find a better life and the dream that there is hope and you can pick yourself up.”

In the song, Nile characterizes America as a country “in disguise.” He admits it’s hard to see a country so divided today.

“It’s hard to find but it’s there. So where is it? he asks rhetorically, “this land of opportunity, the Statue Of Liberty. But it’s there. I heard Lou Reed’s wonderful ‘Dirty Boulevard’ where he paraphrases the great quotes on the Statue of Liberty. It’s hard to find sometimes. I’m still hopeful and optimistic we can turn it around.”

Nile’s own American ride began with trips hitchhiking to New York and spending summers in Greenwich Village. Looking back, his discovery was meteoric and happened quickly. After years of toiling, Nile began playing six night a week at Kenny’s Castaways. A New York Times review by Robert Palmer touched off a record label label frenzy to sign the next big thing.

“I couldn’t have made it up if I tried,” he reminisces about how Clive Davis signed him to Arista Records. For the past two years, Nile has been compiling notes about his life. Initially dismissive of a book, he has realized it might be interesting. “There are things I have seen.” A filmmaker is also working on a documentary.

In many ways we’re still coming to see artists like Nile trying to find those transcendent moments that come out of the magic of rock and roll. Nile, who is prone to mixing up his setlists, gives himself plaudits from mixing streaming conscious in songs like “All Mixed Up and No Place To Go” and “Earth Blues” with underlying messaging about issues of the day.

Recently a trailer appeared on Facebook of Nile leaving Electric Ladyland studios with a test pressing of Children of Paradise under his arm. The studio was once an apartment for Jimi Hendrix and bears the same name as his landmark album. Nile lives a short walk away and is neighbors with Steve Earle. His passion for the neighborhood came into play during the making of the album’s Pledge Music campaign. You can still support the project and join Nile for a personalized group tour of Greenwich Village landmarks.

Back in the day, Nile was too broke to front a band so he went to piano stores around town to get in practice. He went to a bar called CBGB and waited to approach the club owner Hilly Kristal to try and secure a gig. Nile discovered a singer by the same on the jukebox and ventured it must be the club owner. He spent four dollars in quarters playing it while he waited. Nile still remembers the large black piano when he took the stage, only to learn it was a Hells Angel bar.

Nile who pays homage to the punk rock landmark in his song “Rock N Roll Sister,” went to on the last night before it closed. The line wrapped around the block but he was recognized at the door and let in. Kristal had since passed away.

Nile had just come back from Europe when we spoke, and I asked what it’s like.  He invoked the words of the great late songwriter Doc Pomus who said: “They really know how to treat a songwriter.” Nile met Pomus at Kenny’s Castaways. The writer of such rock classics as “Little Sister,” “Up On The Roof,” “Young Blood” and “Save The Last Dance For Me,” was wheelchair bound but had a van drop him off every night to see Nile.

One night he invited him to a birthday party in his apartment where he introduced him to a black man about the same size as Nile. “Hey Willie, I want you to meet Otis Blackwell,’” Pomus said. It was the legendary writer Otis Blackwell whose credits include “Fever,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Return To Sender” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Nile couldn’t believe he was standing with the two men in front of him.

All these years later it’s the voice of Pomus he still hears and can mimic in the songwriter’s scruffy, raspy tone.

“I like what you’re doing kid,” Pomus told him that day.

Get your copy of Nile’s music, and check his tour dates, here.


2 thoughts on “Interview: “We Can Do Better”: Willie Nile On a Divided Country, His Hope For The “Children of Paradise” and What He Learned Sitting At The Family Table

  1. Great article on a great man! Here in the UK lots of us love Willie Nile. Rock the planet, Willie…

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