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Nathaniel Rateliff Keeps Secrets For Himself On 'Tearing At The Seams'

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 9, 2018 12:28 pm

Long before he was the leader of rock octet Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff was a kid in rural Missouri sneaking around listening to rock and roll. Rateliff remembers finding a Led Zeppelin tape out in a country barn and secretly listening to it over and over in his headphones.

"It was always a strange thing to me because growing up in church, it was like, 'Well, if God made music, why is this secular stuff so much better?'," Rateliff jokes. "Like, 'Why aren't our worship songs as good as that?'"

The Denver-based singer-songwriter has since created his own rock lineage. He and his soul revival band gained notoriety in 2015 with the self-titled debut album and the confessional lead single "S.O.B." Now, the band are carrying on the tradition with its sophomore album, Tearing at the Seams, due out March 9.

Rateliff's songwriting on the new album is deeply personal, so much so that there are secrets within the lyrics he says he keeps only for himself.

"Sometimes songwriting is sort of an inside joke with yourself and those are the little secrets for me," Rateliff explains. "When I sat down to write some of the songs, I knew what I was writing about and it was really a question of like, 'Alright, how honest are you going to be?'"

That level of honesty can take its toll. When he finished the song "Still Out There Running," Rateliff says he broke down. "I realized what I was singing about at the time and it just sort of shattered me," Rateliff says. "Sometimes you write things and you don't know the impact of them on your life."

Rateliff spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about growing up in a town with a population of less than 100 people, making music with his "gang of brothers" and Tearing at the Seams. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nathaniel Rateliff was a kid in small-town Missouri when he found a tape that changed his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY MOUNTAIN HOP")

LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) Walking in the park just the other day, baby. What do you - what do you think I saw?

NATHANIEL RATELIFF: Well, it was actually - it was in the barn when we lived out in Bay (ph). Our landlord, Mr. Piontic (ph), he - I guess for some of the country kids, it was, like, a place to party in the middle of a cornfield, and he found the Led Zeppelin tape up out there and I found it in the barn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTY MOUNTAIN HOP")

LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) Hey, boy, do you want to score?

KELLY: Rateliff's parents were devout Christians. He wasn't allowed to listen to secular music, and he did not like having to play in his family's band at church. So that tape opened up a whole new world.

RATELIFF: Secretly, we'd listen to it, which I'm surprised my dad didn't know that I was - you know, I'd have my headphones on and playing "When The Levee Breaks" and "Misty Mountain Hop" on my drums. It was always the strangest thing to me because growing up in church was like, well, if God made music, why is this secular stuff so much better?

(LAUGHTER)

RATELIFF: I don't think the devil is trying to trick us.

KELLY: If God didn't want me to listen to Led Zeppelin, why did he (laughter) why did he allow it to happen?

RATELIFF: Then why did I find this tape? I was like, why aren't our worship songs as good as that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOLIN' OUT")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) I've been coolin' out, baby.

KELLY: Now, Nathaniel Rateliff makes his own very different style of music. He and his band, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, found huge success with their first album. Now, they're out with their second. It's called "Tearing At The Seams."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOLIN' OUT")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Now it might be that I'm being swayed in a lie.

KELLY: Nathaniel Rateliff, it is hard to listen to this music and sit still. Is it as much fun to play it as it sounds like it must be?

RATELIFF: It's a blast. You know, I'm so fortunate that my bandmates and I are - it's like a gang of brothers, really. We roll into a place and people are like, are you guys in a band? I was like, can you tell? There's, like, eight of us. And we just...

KELLY: Do we smell like the tour bus?

RATELIFF: (Laughter) Yeah, I know, right? You know, before we walk onstage every night, we just tell each other we love each other and just, like, remember to have fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOLIN' OUT")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) We'll be dancing and having fun. Tell your mama that you're leaving home and your friends are going to come along.

KELLY: I want to ask about one of your bandmates, who I gather you're particularly close to. This is Joseph Pope III. You all grew up together, best friends.

RATELIFF: Yeah. Joseph and I are very close, closer than brothers really. His wife joked the other day. She's like, I didn't realize when I was marrying Joseph that I was also marrying you. You know, we grew up together and moved to Colorado in '98 together. And, you know, sometimes you meet people in your lives and you just realize that you're supposed to spend your life together.

KELLY: And was this something you two arrived at together, like we're going to grow up, we're going to be musicians, we're going to have a band?

RATELIFF: You know, we immediately started playing music together. Joseph, I think at the time when I met him, played trumpet. And he kind of immediately started playing guitar and writing songs. And then we just continued to make music together. And, you know, I think when you're young, you have these ideas and aspirations of becoming a, you know, rock star or a professional musician. And I didn't really expect for all of this to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARING AT THE SEAMS")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Wait; did you think that I would break underneath the pressure in here? Now at the heart if not to feel is a wandering waste in the driest land (ph).

KELLY: Were you always the lead singer?

RATELIFF: Actually, in the beginning, I was a little shy. And my mom and my dad played and so did my sister, and I was always encouraged to sing or forced to sing. But I really wanted to be a guitar player, and songwriting was sort of a second to that.

KELLY: It's funny because anybody who's seen you perform live is going to have a hard time reconciling that guy with somebody who's shy.

RATELIFF: (Laughter) Yeah, I know. I guess I'm one of the things so...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARING AT THE SEAMS")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) And it happens all wrong, and only half of it's seen from here.

KELLY: You wrote all the lyrics on this album, and you've talked about one song that you finished, and then you just completely broke down. What was that song?

RATELIFF: Well, it was actually "Still Out There Running."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL OUT THERE RUNNING")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Yeah, baby, we could set the whole thing on fire I was a king standing alone, looking back to see how far you've flown. I ain't grown, and I ain't changed at all (ph).

RATELIFF: I was kind of going through a lot in my personal life last year. I had written a song, and I was actually just redoing the harmony vocal. And I just - I realized what I was singing about at the time, and it just sort of shattered me. You know, sometimes you write things, and you don't know the impact of them on your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL OUT THERE RUNNING")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) I'm choking on every word.

KELLY: Do you want to talk about what it is that you're writing about here, what you were getting at and working through with this song?

RATELIFF: It's a conversation between two people that really love each other and just sort of the idea of looking back at all the beauty that the two people shared together but then also the question of, you know, we could just - we could just burn this entire thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL OUT THERE RUNNING")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Wake me up. See; the fire has fully surrounded us Hey, I know, as I'm coughing upon the ashes of every friend and the love I used to know, it's still out there running.

KELLY: Is it hard or is it cathartic to write something that, I mean, clearly still touches you really deeply today as we speak and then have to go out and perform that in front of a big crowd?

RATELIFF: There are moments that, you know, you're just taken to a different place in performing these songs and sometimes discovering the things that you wrote them about. And sometimes that happens to be in front of a lot of people. But I feel it's my job to be vulnerable and accept that that's what I'm here to do. And hopefully, my vulnerability connects with other people and other people allow themselves to be vulnerable as well. And in doing that, hopefully we all start to think about each other a little bit more and take care of each other better than we do.

KELLY: Yeah. You've also talked about how you left little secrets for yourself through this album - little secrets like what?

RATELIFF: Well, I can't tell you, NPR, because...

KELLY: (Laughter) Fair point.

RATELIFF: ...Then it wouldn't be a secret. You know, I think sometimes songwriting is sort of an inside joke with yourself and, you know, those are the little secrets for me. You know, I feel like in a lot of ways with this record I was pretty - you know, when I sat down to write some of the songs, I knew what I was writing about, and it was really a question - it was like, all right, just how honest are you going to be? And I just tried to be as honest as I could be.

KELLY: Nathaniel, thanks so much.

RATELIFF: My pleasure.

KELLY: The new album from Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is titled "Tearing At The Seams." It's out this Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIND A WAY")

COOPER ALBERT: (Singing) I'm all right today. You're going to find a way to cross and you going to get there (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.