Willie Nile (photo by Cristina Arrigoni)
Most music fans know Willie Nile as a rock and roller. He began his career back in the late ’70s and early ’80s hanging out at such New York City clubs as Kenny’s Castaways and CBGBs. Punk goddess Patti Smith’s drummer Jay Dee Daugherty played on and co-produced Nile’s first record. The Who’s Pete Townsend requested that Nile open for them on their summer 1980 U.S. tour.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the singer-songwriter recorded and performed with musicians such as Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, and Tori Amos. In this century, he’s played live with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band. Nile is still rockin’, as evidenced by his 2013 American Ride, winner of the Rock Album of the Year at the 13th annual Independent Music Fan Awards. However, his latest record, If I Was a River, serves as a departure from his previous creations because all of the material is piano-based and acoustic. It is a gorgeous and haunting disc full of gentle, rollicking tunes that are both spiritual and soulful.
Nile plans to play both guitar and piano when he performs at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on February 11. “Rock and roll is like a Marx Brothers movie you can dance to,” Nile explained from his Greenwich Village home. “It’s fun for me, uplifting for the audience, and vice versa.” Nile said there is magic in the interactions between the artist and the crowd, and his job is to help create this atmosphere.
The breadth of Nile’s talents can be seen in his songwriting. “My music comes from everywhere,” Nile said, “from watching CNN reporting on current events, the loveliness of the seasons, personal experiences, adventures I’ve had in the past, partying, loss, happiness, love for sure, surreal and obscure matters. The list could go on forever”
He dislikes pretension and overanalysis. “The music matters for its own sake and the pleasure it brings,” he said. “Everything else is a buzzkill.” He berated artists that make grand statements. This does not mean Nile cannot be serious, as the songs on his recent piano album and many from his past attest.
Nile was born Robert Anthony Noonan, but he took the name of the world’s largest river as his own moniker back in the ’70s as a fluke. “I would give myself a different name almost every night in my desire to get gigs and just have fun, but this one just sort of felt right,” he said. “I could have been Willie Danube, Willie Tigris, or even Willie Euphrates.”
Nile has played all over the globe, but he has never been to Iowa. Nile earnestly admitted that he looks forward to performing in a town that takes its name from a waterway and a state famous for its watery borders.
His new disc takes its title from the opening track about a river. The last song on the album also has the word “river” in its name, and almost every track uses the symbol of a river in some way. “The metaphor of the river appeals to me for many reasons,” Nile said. “A river evokes the sense of a journey. They are inherently beautiful. They flow and are ever changing. It serves as a good allegory for just being alive on the planet.”
Nile, who graduated with a degree in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo, believes his education was important for showing him the depth inherent in ordinary things. “I took classes in Walt Whitman, Zen Buddhism, Beat poetry, and such that showed me the cosmic humor in life and art,” he said. There is something pure and animated in the way Nile speaks and composes lyrics, so that even heavy statements come out as cheerful and innocent.
This also is true in the way he plays his instruments. In talking about his piano-based album, he called making music “having a conversation with the keys.” He is more concerned with the exquisiteness of the sound than the style he performs.
Nile recorded the album on the same Steinway grand piano in Studio A of the Record Plant that he had played the night John Lennon was killed. Earlier that evening, Lennon and Yoko Ono were recording Walking on Thin Ice in Studio C. “The piano has an incredible rich tone,” Nile said, “but its history—it has been played by the greats—makes it even better.” Artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and the Velvet Underground recorded at Studio A and many people played the piano on now-famous recordings. And as for Lennon’s demise, Nile’s grief is apparent in his voice, but he understands what Donovan meant when he used to sing, “Life goes on and on, just like a river.” Nile’s music just adds to the flow.