Stax, Bluesfest, Woodstock: Nathaniel Rateliff is writing himself into music history

Nathaniel Rateliff is a modern soul saviour. Signed to Stax records, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist has been drawing influence from the R&B of times past to create a sweet, sweaty concoction for the modern listener.

Following the release of 2018’s sophomore record Tearing at The Seams, the Denver singer is bringing himself and his eight piece band, The Night Sweats, back to Bluesfest and across Australia this month for a string of sold out shows.

I caught up with the frontman to discuss touring Aus, recording his latest album in the Mexican desert, the evolution of his writing process, Woodstock’s anniversary, and more.

Photos: Dani Hansen

Before he tears around Australia with his band of brothers The Night Sweats, we took five with Nathaniel Rateliff.

HAPPY: You’re about to play Bluesfest again. You’re a fan favourite down here now. What’re you most looking forward to about playing the festival?

NATHANIEL: I’m just excited to be back. It’s a drag that we’re so far away from y’all, I wish we were there a lot more frequently. So, I’m just excited to share the music with folks, we haven’t played the new record over here, and we’re all really proud of the way it turned out, and we’ve really worked up a great live show so hopefully people leave happy and excited about what we’re doing.

HAPPY: As you mentioned, you haven’t played the new record live for us here in Australia yet. What can we expect to see and hear in the live show this time around?

NATHANIEL: Well, more of the same. We still really like to have a good time on stage, and we really enjoy playing together and I think that comes across when people hear us play.

HAPPY: Cool. What do you like to do in your time off here?

NATHANIEL: I love swimming. It’s the beginning of winter here but it’s still pretty nice to me, I spend a lot of time in the water, and just enjoying the landscape, seeing things I don’t get to see.

HAPPY: You’re a part of the Stax family. What’s that like for you to be signed to a label that so many incredible soul legends were once part of? How did that come about?

NATHANIEL: I was working with Concord Records and I found out that they worked with Stax, and The Night Sweats and our first record and what we do now is very influenced by Stax and their sound. So, when I found out Concord worked with them, I didn’t think it would happen but I was like ‘I love what Stax is, and how important they are to the community, and how much they help out the community’ and I said “I think the Night Sweats would be a great addition, and I’d love to work with them.”

I didn’t think anything would come of it, but they listened to the record and really liked it and there you go, all of a sudden we’re on their roster. I’m just really honoured to have that cool snap on the back of our records, growing up listening to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, all of that stuff, I never thought I’d have anything to do with all of those guys so it’s a real honour.

HAPPY: I can imagine! You released your latest album Tearing At The Seams in 2018 and it hit the Billboard charts and has had a great reception all around. Can you tell me about the album? The writing and recording process? Was what inspiring you at the time?

NATHANIEL: The writing process was slightly different this time compared to the first record, the first record I had a lot of demos I had written and recorded at home and then took those to Richard Swift. Whereas with this record we had spent so many days on the road that we really became a band, and we weren’t really much of a band when I made the first record. So, with this record I really wanted to pull from the other guys too, and have that influence what I was doing, writing wise.

For the first part of the process we rented a house in the desert in Mexico, in a little town and set up a studio with Jamie Nefert who’s a front of house guy that we’d also worked with in the past. I’d write the songs in the morning then bring them to the guys, then everyone would start contributing, and talking about different parts and by the end of the days we’d have a song.

We were there for seven days, and came out with 11 songs. We took the songs to Richard and he was down to mix and produce, so we were out in Orgeon with Richard for two weeks and we thought we would come out of there with a record but at the time I was going through a separation from my wife of 11 years so a lot of the material was me dealing with that, but when we came out of there I didn’t feel like the record was done and it wasn’t the follow up I wanted it to be, it sounded like a divorce record.

So, we ended up booking more time with Richard in October, we went in and ended up doing eight songs in seven days and a lot of that material was done live in the studio, we do a lot of our material that way, and that evened it all out and we came out with more songs then we needed and we were really happy with it.

HAPPY: Are you working on any new music? What can we look forward to hearing? How are the themes or ideas differing from Tearing At The Seams so far?

NATHANIEL: Yeah, I’ve been doing a record without the Night Sweats, just trying something different with songs that Richard Swift and I had talked about doing together before he passed away last year. I’ve been working on that stuff in the studio, and then working on new Night Sweats stuff as well, so hopefully we have both of those things coming out at some point soon.

HAPPY: So how does your stuff without the Night Sweats differ to the stuff you write and record with them?

NATHANIEL: I don’t think the themes change very much, it’s just a different approach. There are certain things I don’t get to do in the band on guitar that I really like, and there’s a different way of using my voice, and a slightly different writing voice, it’s all just a little different I suppose.

HAPPY: Awesome. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a singer and songwriter since your early days? What do you think are your biggest changes and achievements musically?

NATHANIEL: That’s a tough question, I’m 40 and I started driving when I was seven so it’s like how much better of a driver am I now? I don’t know, parts of my writing have changed in that I don’t share everything as much as I used to, sometimes a part of the writing process I’ve discovered is finishing a song that doesn’t really go anywhere, and no one really hears it but it eventually leads you to another song. I’m proud and happy to just be able to do what we do, and actually have people listen. Every album, and every song is like a new challenge so I never feel like we’ve really arrived at a place either but I’m very proud of the work we did on this last album together.

HAPPY: You’ve been announced to play Woodstock. Must be a cool feeling.

NATHANIEL: I’m very excited we got to do the anniversary of Monterey Pop Festival which was awesome, those films really influenced me as a kid and so did the records, I really love the music from that era so it’s cool to be a part of it as always.


Catch Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats at Bluesfest 2019.