True Grit: Nathaniel Rateliff

Raw songwriting and the legacy of soul...

London crowds aren't known for being particularly lively. Well, not on a Monday night, at any rate.

With summer beginning to gleam a blue sky across the capital, though, it's an expectant audience which greets Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats upstairs at Angel's Lexington venue. Quietly introducing themselves, the tempo begins to up, horns begin to wail, guitars begin to screech and Nathaniel himself sounds somewhere between a preacher seeking redemption and a lonesome cowboy desperately in search of some whisky. Limbs are loosened, torsos unwound, reservations are lost and, if the condensation on the bar's mirror is anything to go by, the Night Sweats begin to live up to their name.

“It's pretty fun to watch people loosen up and start dancing,” the singer reflects afterwards. “Sometimes it takes most of the show, sometimes it's immediate.”

“Our first show, I didn't really know what was going to happen so I just kind of went for it and then I ended up dancing… I've always loved to dance and the response was pretty surprising, too, because people were really freaking. I wanted to get out there and play, just play a great show and work really hard for yourself and the people who are standing there. When something happens, too, and you really allow yourself to get into the music it just feels great. There's a reason why this type of music has been around forever.”

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True Grit: Nathaniel Rateliff

There's a reason why this type of music has been around forever.

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Perhaps best known for 2010's stunningly introspective piece of Americana 'In Memory Of Loss', Nathaniel is perhaps a late convert to the power of soul. First emerging in 2013, the Night Sweats are in fact the realisation of a lifelong ambition for the singer, one that stretches right back an adolescence spent by the radio dial.

“I mean, when I was a kid I listened to a lot of listened to oldies stations,” he explains. “Which wasn't really what a teenager was listening to in the 90s and 2000s. I think that led to falling in love with Sam Cooke's stuff and early James Brown stuff and even some ska and reggae, which was mirroring what was happening in the States at the time.”

The release of new EP 'Howling At Nothing' allows the singer to come full circle. A joint release between Caroline and the rejuvenated Stax imprint, it places Nathaniel right in the centre of one of southern soul's most powerful lineages. “It means a tremendous amount to me,” he sighs. “I started some of these songs as a mix between Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and The Band. The Band isn't really soul music but if you listen to their version of 'Baby Don't Do It'… I think they're pretty soulful guys.”

On the telephone you can hear the singer pacing around his home, stopping in front of what is no doubt a labyrinth of vinyl. “Let me look at what I've got on my record shelf right now,” he says. “I know there's a lot of Sam & Dave on my top shelf and I can see an Otis record right now. It's funny, I've gone through several phases of collecting records and getting rid of records and now I have a lot again. And then there was the era where everything was digital for a while.”

Recorded with producer Richard Swift, the aim of 'Howling At Nothing' was to make as raw, as direct, as impassioned a soul record as possible. “It's all one takes,” he states. “All the performances are one takes. There are some overdubs – like, horns were added when we came back to Denver. But we stayed away from the avenues of technology, really. You can get carried away with it. Punching in and moving things around.”

“The vocal performances are generally one takes – just try to get it as good as you can the first time. Also, some of the stuff I was singing was like… I don't know how many times I could do that in a row,” he chuckles. “I just remember at one point I did a pass, this harmony that was really crazy, this screaming harmony. We did it and I was like: is that OK? Richard was like, are you OK? Because I'm pretty sure I could just hear the tissues in your throat ripping!”

Heading to the UK, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats' first show was in St. Stephen's Church in London – an odd, if somewhat appropriate venue to soak up such a transcendental soul experience. “It was funny,” he explains. “It was funny in some ways because of the way the light was coming in. There wasn't too many people in the aisle, I was like: damn I wish I could do some handstands right now! It felt like a cheeky Blues Brothers type moment, to be playing in a church.”

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Lead cut 'S.O.B' is already a sing-along favourite, even if the punch line – 'GET ME A DRINK!' – has some rather dark connotations. “I made it up as kind of a joke, when we were first forming the band,” he insists. “Then I went back and shaped it a little bit more into what I wanted it to be. I think I was jokingly saying 'give me a drink' or something like that while we were making it up. And then I made that the focus of the song. It's fun, what's going on, but I guess the underlying thing is making light of alcoholism – or being a drunk!”

Ultimately, though, it's not the form which counts – it's the song itself. Utilising material from The Band in their live set, Nathaniel views music in a similar fashion, able to sluice influences from different genres together to make something shockingly new. Furthermore, he's not about to abandon his solo performances, with one set to inform the other.

“I have a solo show coming up in Austria for a festival, so I'm still going to continue to do both,” he says. “I've been doing other stuff for seven years so it's nice to switch it up a bit. I still love playing acoustic guitar, I spent a lot of time playing that way. With Night Sweats, the music is different but the content, the material is still the same. But I still get to work through my demons, or whatever, even though it's a little upbeat.”

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'Howling At Nothing' EP is out now.

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