I must confess, I wasn’t too bothered about hearing Nathaniel Rateliff’s new album. A confessional singer-songwriter trading under his own name, his first two had been well-crafted but easy to forget alongside all the other weary men grousing over acoustic strums. “No, no, you’ll like this one, give it a go,” urged his people. “He’s on Stax now, it’s a bit different.”
Stax? The gritty Memphis soul label that rose in the Sixties alongside Detroit’s poppier Motown, whose finger-clicking logo adorned classic albums by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and The Staple Singers – who knew that was still a going concern? One listen to the 36-year-old’s new band, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, proves that he’s found exactly the right home. Leon Bridges may have taken vintage soul into the top 10 this summer, but this self-titled collection, just released, steamrollers his sweeter sound with its muscular horns and wild passion. Having previously sounded downbeat and depressed, which he frequently was, Rateliff has found a new voice that can move mountains.
“It’s still just writing songs. It just has a different flair to it this time,” he tells me, playing down the extent of his startling transformation. The music came from a place of frustration, joyous though it sounds. He was dropped by his original label before he could release his second solo album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, and was wasting creative energy wrangling to find another way to get it out there. During that time a friend in Denver, where he is based, asked if he wanted to come over and record something in the old way, onto tape.
“I thought, ‘That sounds cool. I could write a couple of soul songs.’ I really liked the way they sounded and kept playing them for friends who were like, ‘We love it.’” Then he was invited to play a support gig by another friend, so put together a band and quickly wrote six more songs in the same style. “This was a couple of years ago now. We had a lot of fun doing it. For a long time I’d wanted to pursue writing that style of music, but I was kind of surprised when it all happened.”
Now he’s fully immersed in the new project. He doesn’t play any of his old songs at his current run of swelterin’, testifyin’ shows. The six-strong Night Sweats look like a tough gang in denim shirts and heavy boots, and the singer looks the part too as he displays an extravagantly furry chest and hefty necklace on the album cover. Coming down Denmark Street to meet me, he could pass for an east London hipster with his fedora, thick beard and maze of arm tattoos, but his is a more authentic image. This is a man who left school in Missouri at 13, after his carpenter father died, and spent years driving a forklift for a Denver trucking company before his music career got going.
Despite the pugnacious appearance he’s a friendly, thoughtful guy, enthusing about the Vienna art galleries he’s just been exploring with his wife while on tour. The conversation steers easily from classic soul to religion. His first experience of performing was playing drums for his mother as she led the worship in their local church, but it was missionary work with the Native American Hopi tribe in his late teens that eventually put him off. “I thought, ‘Man, this is so rude, and so arrogant, to do what we’re doing right now,’” he tells me. “When I left it, everything got a lot better. There was no guilt. But it takes years to get over that stuff when it’s pumped on you for most of your life.” He moved to Denver with his teenage friend Joseph Pope III, who still plays bass in his band, playing music on the side and gradually becoming known around the city.
Today he’s much better connected in the music world, having toured with his friends Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. Marcus Mumford was a serious fan of one of his first bands, Born in the Flood, and the pair have had tattoos inked together backstage. At last month’s Latitude festival, when Ed Sheeran turned up for a surprise show, it was Rateliff who loaned him his guitar. “We’ve never actually hung out before. He’s a nice guy. He’s pretty young – I had no idea.”
While I’m gushing about how different he sounds, he stresses that the subject matter of his songs is the same as ever. “I didn’t want to make goofy references about, I don’t know, going out on the town and dancing. The content is still sad, it’s still me talking about being a screw-up, fucking up relationships and drinking too much.”
Ah yes, the drinking. The highlight of the new album is S.O.B, a gospel belter full of handclaps and yelping, with a chorus that goes, “Son of a bitch! Gimme a drink!” In concert he strings it out for ages, lingering over its pauses and building in a cover of The Shape I’m In by The Band. It’s a party song on the surface, but lines such as “If I can’t get clean, I’m gonna drink my life away” suggest something more bleak and desperate. That acronym is telling.
“It’s not very uplifting,” he insists. “A lot of people in the business struggle with excess in general. It’s definitely a thing I’ve had a problem with before. I quit for a while.” How’s his relationship with alcohol today? “Well, I am a little hungover. I try to keep it under control the best I can, but, you know, still slip up.”
In his professional life, at least, he’s finally winning. He says that the Night Sweats may be a detour, rather than a complete about-turn, and he might yet go back to the singer-songwriter format, but it seems fairly obvious that his thrilling current sound is the one that’s going to make his name. “At this point I’m just writing. I’ve always just wanted to be a songwriter, whether it’s folk or rock or whatever.” Right now, it’s the “whatever” that’s working out a treat.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is out now on Stax. Oct 19, Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk)