In his three and a half decades as a recording artist, Willie Nile has earned a reputation as both a fiercely committed rock ’n’ roller and a singularly insightful songwriter. It’s Nile’s introspective side that fuels If I Was A River, a deeply compelling ten-song collection that diverges from his usual sound, while affirming the remarkable melodic and lyrical skills that have long endeared the artist to his passionately loyal fan base.
In contrast to the rousing, guitar-based rock ’n’ roll that’s been the focus of the dozen albums that he’s released since 1980, If I Was A River features ten stirring original compositions on which Nile accompanies himself on piano, with sparse arrangements that keep the focus firmly on the songs and Nile’s deeply felt performances.
That stripped-down, piano-based approach is one that Nile has explored on various tracks over the years, but never for the length of an entire album. However, in the wake of the warm public reception that greeted his 2013 release American Ride — which won some of the most enthusiastic reviews of his career and was voted Best Rock Album of the Year at the Independent Music Awards — Nile was ready to explore some new creative options.
“I’ve wanted to do an album of piano songs for some time,” he says. “I’ve got drawers full of songs of all kinds, but these piano songs are close to my heart, and it felt like it was the right time to let them out. I love the simplicity of just sitting at a piano and singing a song, and I first started out in music playing the piano. Sometimes less is more, and this just seemed like one of those times.”
Working with Grammy-winning producer Stewart Lerman (Boardwalk Empire, Antony and the Johnsons, Loudon Wainwright III, Dar Williams), who’s worked on seven of Nile’s prior releases, Nile recorded the material in an appropriately spare environment that helped to capture the songs’ intimacy and immediacy. He also employed the same Steinway Grand piano that he’d played 34 years earlier on the evening of the death of John Lennon, while both Lennon and Nile were recording at Manhattan’s Record Plant. When Nile was working on If I Was A River, the legendary piano was residing at Hobo Sound in Weehawken, NJ, where he recorded the new album with a minimum of embellishment or trickery.
“I wanted it to be intimate and reflective, and I wanted to keep it simple and let the songs speak for themselves,” the artist explains. “So I just sat down and played the songs. There was no click track, nothing strained or forced, and for most of the sessions there was no one around other than Stewart and Sean Kelly, the engineer. I wanted to feel and hear the pure heartbeat in every song, and I think we succeeded. There are moments that are so intimate that I can’t believe we got them on tape.”
If I Was A River also features some subtly-applied contributions from guitar master Steuart Smith (of Eagles/Rosanne Cash/Rodney Crowell fame) and multi-instrumental stringmaster David Mansfield (whose voluminous credits range from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash to Yo La Tengo), along with backing vocals from singer-songwriter and frequent Nile co-writer Frankie Lee.
Such indelible new tunes as “Lost,” “Song of a Soldier,” “Gloryland,” “I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore)” and the haunting title track rank with the artist’s most powerful compositions. Meanwhile, Nile’s self-deprecating sense of humor fuels “Lullaby Loon,“ a tongue-in-cheek takedown of idolatry and pretentiousness whose narrator finds something to dislike about nearly every musical genre.
“No doubt there’s a lot of me in these tunes, but there’s also some characters in there as well,’ Nile notes. “It’s not a concept album by any means, but there are some common themes in these songs: love, loss, passion, ecstasy, joy, war, peace, sorrow, hope, the journey.”
It’s hard to think of many other artists who are doing some of their best work in the fourth decade of their careers, but Willie Nile continues to seek out new creative challenges and conquer new musical territory.
“Doing this album was liberating in many ways,” he states. “I learned that it’s fun to change horses and take different roads from time to time as one travels through life, and I think I’ll carry that lesson with me in the records that I make in the future.
“I think I’ve grown more confident, as a writer and in the recording studio, as the years have gone by,“ Nile concludes. “But one thing that hasn’t changed is my passion for the music. I’m having more fun with it now than I ever have. The fire still burns deep in me, and making music has more meaning for me now than ever.”