“New York City has always inspired me,” states Willie Nile. “I’ve lived in Greenwich Village for many years now, and I love being there. The energy, the grit, and the mystery of it all fills my heart with wonder. Most of these songs were written in New York or were inspired by it in one way or another.”
Nile is referring to New York at Night, his 13th studio album and the strongest manifestation to date of his deep affinity for his adopted hometown, due out May 15, 2020. The album’s 12 personally charged new originals exemplify the artist’s trademark mix of romance, idealism, humor, emotional urgency and a true believer’s passionate embrace of all things rock ’n’ roll. Nile’s abiding passion for his town animates such tunes as “New York Is Rockin'” and the album’s title track.
“What all the songs on this album have in common is that they reflect my life and experiences living in New York,” Nile explains. “I love the history, the mystery, the energy and the action. There’s always something going on, and I feel so alive when I’m there. It’s a great place for a writer. There are ideas and creatures of all kinds walking down every street. The rich, the poor, the lost, the lonely, the big shots, the bullshit artists, the visionaries, the good, the bad, the ugly, all living in this great metropolitan area with people from all over the world and all walks of life. I learn something new every day living there.”
Nile recorded New York at Night just across the river, at Weehawken, N.J.’s Hobo Sound, co-producing with longtime collaborator Stewart Lerman (Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Patti Smith) and backed by his longtime live band — guitarists Matt Hogan and Jimi K. Bones, bassist Johnny Pisano, and drummer Jon Weber — along with renowned guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Steuart Smith (Eagles, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell), pianist Brian Mitchell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, B.B. King), and an assortment of backing vocalists including singer-songwriters Frankie Lee and James Maddock, and veteran singers Tawatha Agee and Vaneese Thomas.
“I’ve made my last five albums at Hobo Sound, and I’ve been making albums with Stewart for a lot of years and it’s always magic with him,” Nile says. “Recording New York at Night was great fun, and I’m thrilled with how it came out. We cut most of the vocals live with the band. Everyone brought their A-game. I’d put it up there with some of the best work I’ve done. I learned a lot making it, and I can’t wait to write more and do it again.”
Nile’s excitement over the album is reflected in such energetic new tunes as the uplifting “Run Free.” “Most of the songs on the album were written in the past year,” Nile notes, “but ‘Run Free’ is an older song I wrote with my pal Frankie Lee some years ago. It’s a song about reaching for the stars and breaking chains, which is what it’s like for those who take the risk of moving to New York City, or anyplace for that matter, to follow their dreams. I recorded it with my old band, the Worry Dolls in 2003.”
Another song with an older pedigree is the tongue-in-cheek rocker “Surrender the Moon,” which Nile explains is “a song I started 13 years ago with my youngest brother, John Noonan, who lived in the apartment next to mine for many years. John was a songwriter, a musician, an actor and a Renaissance man. One day he knocked on my door with his guitar in hand. He had an idea and a riff for a song called ‘Surrender the Moon’ and asked if I wanted to work on it with him. I loved the idea and the riff and we finished it together. I wrote some additional verses to it this past October, the day before we started to rehearse for this album. John died 12 years ago of a sudden heart attack, but I think he’d be happy with the version we did.”
The collection also features some resonant meditations on love, specifically “A Little Bit of Love,” “The Last Time We Made Love,” and “Downtown Girl.” “I believe in love,” Nile asserts. “It’s what makes life worth living. Life is hard for everyone and this world would be a sorry place without it.
“Last year I was visiting my 102-year-old father,” he continues. “I love being with him and hearing his stories of the past and the different eras he’s lived through. He’s a remarkable man and a great storyteller. Later that night the line ‘A little bit of love goes a long, long way’ came to me and I sat down at the piano and wrote the song.”
Nile’s love for life and music has powered his 40-year recording career. The Buffalo, N.Y. native made his way to New York City in the early 1970s. After establishing himself as a popular presence on the downtown club scene, Nile attained national status with a trio of widely acclaimed major-label albums — Willie Nile, Golden Down and Places I Have Never Been — before going the indie route with a long series of well-received albums including Beautiful Wreck of the World, Streets of New York, House of a Thousand Guitars, The Innocent Ones, American Ride, World War Willie, Children of Paradise, the acoustic If I Was a River, and the covers collection Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan.
“I like the independent world,” Nile says. “There are no constraints and you can work at your own speed. I’ve no complaints about having been on major labels. I was on two of them and I was able to do what I wanted to do. But things have changed so much in the music business that being independent allows for so many more options. I love that Billie Eilish and her brother make their own records in a bedroom in their house. That’s really inspiring, and it shows anyone with passion and a vision that it can be done if you follow your heart and your instincts.”
Working on his own terms has allowed Nile to expand his audience to encompass much of the planet. His loyal fan base includes such admirers as Bruce Springsteen, with whom he’s guested onstage on multiple occasions, and Pete Townshend, who personally requested him as the opening act on the Who’s historic 1980 U.S. tour. The list of avowed Nile fans also includes Bono, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, Jim Jarmusch, Little Steven, and Lucinda Williams, who once remarked, “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.”
Appropriately, an Austrian filmmaker is currently making a documentary film about Nile, with new footage shot in Italy, England and America. Meanwhile, the veteran road warrior plans to take New York at Night on the road with his usual intensity.
“We’ll start in Spain and then go to Italy in the spring, and then off to points beyond from there,” he confirms, adding, “I’m blessed with a killer live band, so the shows are always good fun. I love touring in Europe, where the audiences are amazing. Years ago, Doc Pomus said to me, ‘Go to Europe, Willie. They know how to treat a songwriter.’ But I’ve been very lucky with devoted fans around the world, and they’ve really kept the fires burning. And now it’s time to throw another log on the fire.”