If you listened to the critics a few decades ago, Willie Nile was going to be the next Bob Dylan or the next Bruce Springsteen. Instead, he found a better option: being the first Willie Nile. And at 67, he’s going stronger than ever, with his latest, World War Willie, perhaps the most rocking album of his career.
Could he have predicted this?
“I try to always be in the moment and I wasn’t thinking about the future,” he said. “But I’m grateful that that fire still burns in me. I learn as I go, from back then until now. I think that people who know my work, when they hear this album they’ll hear some new things. It’s as alive as ever, and I’m just grateful for that. Whether I could have predicted that or not, I don’t know.”
He laughs, happy to be here, still relevant and consistently producing strong work long after some of his peers from the early days in New York City have faded into obscurity. And if there’s any statement to be made with World War Willie, it’s that Nile isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s just so upbeat, it’s so rockin’ and I wanted to capture some of the energy of the live show on the album,” he said. “We had been playing so many shows that when we went into the studio, we were fresh and hot and playing together as one. And we really got that. It captures a real live feel. In fact, eight of the 12 songs, the vocal is the one I did when we cut the track. Normally, you do it just so they can follow you, and redo it later. But with eight of the 12, we kept it because it felt right. It’s upbeat, I love the songs, and it’s just a feel-good record.”
With his longtime bandmates Johnny Pisano, Matt Hogan and Alex Alexander by his side, Nile has been able to do something often pursued but rarely achieved in capturing the live feel of the band. And if you haven’t been lucky enough to catch them on tour over the last few years, you’ll get a taste of what the live show is like on the new album. And while it’s a fine line to walk between sounding like a band in complete control of their instruments and performances and still being rock and roll enough, Nile and company have pulled it off.
“Control implies overthinking and overworking, and if it’s too manipulated, that’s no fun,” Nile said. “It’s got to have some live wires and some live sparks, and this band is full of live wires and live sparks. They’re great players, so they’re really competent, but we’ve been playing together so much, we can feel each other breathe and feel each other move and we play that way. This album is totally alive.
“We rehearsed a little bit, not a lot, and we went in there and cut them with a controlled abandon,” he continues. “We captured the live spark of what it feels like to bring a song to life, what it feels to play with meaning, what it feels to be alive, and what it feels to rock. Rock and roll is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, why bother?”
This record is fun, with the opener, “Forever Wild,” capturing a time and a place that we can all remember with the kind of hooks and energy that are Nile trademarks. It’s a look back, but not the kind of nostalgia that depresses.
“When it’s only nostalgia, and it’s gone and you’re thinking about it in the past, it’s like it’s dormant,” Nile said. “But if it’s still alive, the dream is still alive within you and you still feel the passion for life. Life knocks you down, no doubt about it, but our job is to pick it up. That song, ‘Forever Wild,’ it worked. It’s about the dreams of youth, but the character singing the song, it’s still alive for him. And it’s still alive for me. There is love, there are good times ahead and we’re still living them and still fighting for them and still enjoying them.”
Oh yeah, it’s good to be the first Willie Nile. And the only one.
“I’ve had to work hard for it, and I just never gave up,” he said. “That passion for life, for rock and roll, for giving everything you have, it still burns in me. I still feel it, the same way I did when I first came to New York so many years ago. Either I’m just too dumb to know any better (Laughs) or I’m one lucky guy.”
Willie Nile plays City Winery in NYC on Saturday, April 30. For more information, click here