At the memorial service for Richard Swift, the musician and producer who died in 2018, aged 41, from complications related to alcohol abuse, a friend approached Nathaniel Rateliff. “We can’t do this for you too,” the friend said.
“It wasn’t meant in a mean way. It was meant in a loving way,” Rateliff, also 41, explains. He and Swift were great pals and drinking buddies. “It’s like you’re my twin, man,” Swift would say to him. Swift produced both of the albums by The Night Sweats, the muscular soul band that earned Rateliff his commercial breakthrough after years of slog as an underappreciated solo troubadour. The band’s biggest song, S.O.B., is an explosive, handclapping singalong that sounds euphoric but is actually about the pain of heavy drinking. “Son of a bitch, if I can’t get clean, I’m gonna drink my life away,” Rateliff sings, despair edging into his hearty holler.
The Colorado-based musician’s new album was also recorded in Swift’s studio, National Freedom, in rural Oregon, but this time his friend wasn’t there. He began to recognise that the new songs he was writing were principally about this loss, and accordingly the music was stripped down, losing the Night Sweats’ rowdy horn section in favour of a finger-picking, folkier style. He’s releasing it next week as his first solo album since Falling Faster Than You Can Run in 2013.
When he plays the new material live, the feel is very different from the sweltering, revue-style shows that have put his band in huge demand as a touring act. Though the core Night Sweats still join him on stage, the horns have been replaced by a string quartet. They’ll all be there at the Albert Hall in April, but he’s been performing completely alone sometimes too.
“With the Night Sweats shows, I wanted people to keep going, like the way Sam Cooke or James Brown finished a song and went straight into the next one. Keep the band and the audience working right to the end,” he tells me. “With this, the intention is totally different. In between songs I’m taking my time to talk. At some shows I’ve talked about why I made this record, and about Richard’s death. It’s important to share our vulnerability together, to share some of the burden of the things we’re going through, so it doesn’t create such a heavy weight for us as individuals.”
We meet in his hotel suite in Brussels while he’s on a fast-paced promotional tour of European radio stations. He’s an open, calm conversationalist whose thoughtfulness contrasts with his burly, denim tough guy look, shaggy beard and tattoos. He was a forklift driver for a Denver trucking company before he was able to go full-time with music, and looks like he’d fit right in if he went back tomorrow.
He’s got an acoustic guitar to hand, which he picks up at one point to demonstrate the different stylistic directions in which one song could have gone. The album isn’t a non-stop bummer – All or Nothing recalls the jauntier moments of eccentric singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. The anguished, six-minute closer, Rush On, in contrast, is a tough, emotional listen. The title track, And It’s Still Alright, is stop-what-you’re-doing beautiful, and sends a message that everything’s going to be okay.
“I feel like there are some joyous moments on the record,” he says. “I’m trying to talk about how we can accept that there are hardships, and accept that the human experience is about struggle. How can we admit that all that stuff exists and still find hope?”
Rateliff has had more than his share of struggles. When he was 13, growing up in a deeply religious family in small town Missouri, his father died in a car accident and he left school soon afterwards. At one point he was working as a janitor in the high school he should have been attending.
His career finally took off when the first, self-titled album from Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats somehow caused the public to realise that what music in 2015 really needed was a return to the fiery southern soul of the Sixties Memphis label Stax Records. But his marriage was ending at the same time. A few songs on the occasionally more downbeat second Night Sweats album from 2018, Tearing at the Seams, deal with the divorce.
“At the time, it seemed like my personal life was so secondary to my job,” he says. “It was clearly taking some pretty serious hits, because of the time I was gone, and all the change. When you work this much you can end up being a totally different person.”
It’s the death of his friend, however, that is clearly occupying the majority of his headspace today. “I lost a friend to suicide before, but with Richard, I couldn’t really compare. I haven’t felt like that since I lost my dad as a child.” The new album cover, which features Rateliff looking towards shafts of sunlight in the woods, is another reference. “It was taken near where Richard’s studio is. Looking into the light was kind of a way to be sending him off on his journey.”
He admits to being nervous about what people will make of his more subdued new songs, but makes clear that it was more important to him to record them than to do something else that might stand a better chance of maintaining his sales figures. “I made this record because it was something I wanted to make and it’s important to me as an artist to do that,” he says. “I hope that it’s important to the listeners for me to continue to do what’s important to me, not to make a record that might be more commercially viable.”
Though it might be considered a retreat to the sound of his earlier material, he thinks And It’s Still Alright is something different again. “I’m using everything I’ve learned up to this point. When I listen to some of that older stuff – which I’m doing right now to relearn some of the songs to play them on tour – I hear my voice and think I sound unsure of what I’m doing. I was insecure and naïve. I feel more comfortable now. I sing with a confidence that I didn’t have before.”
It’s another new chapter, and that means changes right across the board. “I worked out this morning!” he reveals. “The Night Sweats had this energy that was fuelled by drinking: ‘Let’s have a shot! One more!’ This feels different. We’ve discussed not drinking at all before a show, really trying to stay healthy together and be accountable. The honest reality is you’re not invincible. None of us are.”
And It’s Still Alright is released on Feb 14 on Concord.
Apr 29, Royal Albert Hall, SW7. royalalberthall.com