Willie Nile, Exile On MacDougal Street

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The cover is positively West 4th Street. Willie Nile, in shades, standing underneath the iconic sign of the subway station that runs through the heart of New York City and his Greenwich Village neighborhood.

He’s been a fixture here and has had the same apartment approaching fifty years. Nile’s new album and it’s cinematic title track captures all of the magnificence and historical rhythm of a city that never sleeps.But the perpetual motion that inspired his new album New York at Night seems like something illusive and from another time. 

New York At Night comes as Nile has been sequestered and sheltered in place biding his time for the release of New York At Night and the eventual re-opening of a city he’s had a love affair with since hitchhiking here from his native Buffalo.

At the end of February at a show in South Orange, New Jersey, Nile commemorated the fortieth anniversary of his self-titled debut by playing its first five songs in a row. Nile, who  had a lucrative Spring Tour in Europe lined up, didn’t realize it would be his last show. 

Long before COVID-19 was a pandemic that claimed 15,000 lives across New York State, the rhythm of the streets fueled  Nile’s creativity and inspired the track “New York Is Rockin’” that opens his new album.

One night Nile was walking home from seeing a show at the Iridium, the club that guitar legend Les Paul called home. Nile jumped on the subway to observe a passenger whose leg was ensconced in whipped cream. “I don’t know what that’s about,” the ever observant songwriter thought to himself.

When he got off his subway stop in Greenwich Village, Nile took in the energy around him. The Village was buzzing with the convergence of the homeless, the rich, the poor and a slew of artists all mixing with tourists. Right away he thought,  this is New York at Night.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he recounted to me. “I said, ‘That’s a song.” 

As he walked home a few blocks to his apartment on Macdougal Street, Nile had the first verse and a half written as he came up the stairs. Within twenty-five minutes he had it finished.

He also knew he had the title of his next album. 

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On the streets of New York City’s Greenwich Village, Willie Nile can name the landmarks around him. 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 provided a rich and creative canvas. 

“I love this town,” he told me. “I’ve learned a lot from New York. I love the action, the grit, the energy. It teaches me stuff to this day.”

“I write what’s around me,” he went on to describe his creative process. “I write what I see, what I feel whether it’s about being in love, terrorism or the nonsensical games our politicians play.”

Nile’s passion for rock and roll is evident in his pinned tweet and homage to the late Little Richard. When he first Elvis Presley and Little Richard he recalled how they ran through him and still do. It explains why Nile gets so excited when he comes up with a riff like he did for “Backstreet Slide” and is able to build a song around it. He cut and sang most of the tracks live in the studio with his stellar band bleeding into the vocal booth. 

“You can hear me screaming and you can hear Johnny screaming a little louder,” he says of longtime compatriot and bass player Johnny Pisano, renowned for being airborne and suspending gravity during Nile’s redemptive shows.

Which brings us to the Light of Day benefit last November at the Paramount Theatet in New Jersey. Friend Bruce Springsteen dripped in on Nile’s  set during “One Guitar.” Nile is still reeling at the memory.

It’s a far cry from the present day where Nile is staying at home, biding his time with his guitar and piano and rolling out the yoga mat to stay loose and limber for when he can hit the stage again.

Nile is the youngest of eight children and often calls his 102-year-old father from the stage. “I deny everything,” he once said with classic Irish wit bringing a live audience to rousing roars. Nile marvels that his father  was born at home during the Spanish Flu pandemic and now is living through another. The son finds himself venturing outside on his bike still taking in the beauty of a city but one that has many fewer people outside. At night he finds a little more trepidation, a far cry from the vibrancy that provided the backdrop for the soundtrack of New York At Night only a few months ago.

Nile recalled how “The Last Time We Made Love” came to him while he was lying in bed. He went to his piano and it came to be a song. It was in the same apartment where he woke up in the middle of the night and saw the moon lighting his kitchen. That night at the outset of his career he wrote “Vagabond Moon.” 

“You’ve  got a rock and roll train running down the tracks and it takes an exit into this space,” he says proudly.

On the closing track, Nile dials up an aspirational song he first recorded over a decade ago. It’s a timeless song of hopefulness and notable as it features Tawatha Agee and Vaneese Thomas, the sister of legend Irma Thomas. The two were among the hottest background singers in New York in the last decade and bring the infectious album to a majestic finish. 

When asked about what still drives him, Nile talks about it in a revelatory way.

“It’s funny and surprises me to no end,” he admits. “I still feel like when I came here and wrote ‘Vagabond Moon’ and “Dear Lord” and that batch of songs. When I play them now, it’s like no time has passed.”

“I’m alive and for me music is healing,” he continues, saying he’ll keep writing down songs as long as they come to him.  “It’s what I do to make sense of the world.”

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