Willie Nile interview (2011)

a Willie Nile at the Cluny Newcastle 14 (1)

Willie Nile Interview (2011). 
Alan Harrison

As Singer-songwriter Willie Nile is about to tour the UK I thought I’d post this interview I did with him last year.

The New York Times recently called him ‘One of the most gifted singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in years.’ Uncut magazine said he was ‘a one man Clash’ and his last album ‘a platter for the age.’ And the  printers would run out of ink if I listed every reviewer who had declared him to be the next ‘Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen’ over the years, yet very few of you have heard of Willie Nile. Am I right?

62 year old Robert Anthony Noonan aka Willie Nile is what is known as, a songwriter’s songwriter and lists Springsteen, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Lucinda Williams, Bono and Bob Dylan himself as not just fans but friends too with Bruce not only regularly getting Willie to join him on stage whenever he plays New York or New Jersey but also goes to see Willie Nile play and asks to join him on his stage!

I first came across him in my neo-punk days of the 1970’s when he was a regular at New York club CBGB’s alongside Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones. Some bands fared better than others in that scene with Willie Nile surviving the hedonism relatively unscathed but without a record contract until 1980 when he released the critically acclaimed Willie Nile LP (and cassette!). A second album Golden Down appeared the following year then Nile virtually disappeared until 1991, which is where I intended starting my interview, but Lady Luck played her hand 48 hours previously when I was due to meet Willie on the first night of his UK Tour at the Cluny Newcastle.
When we handed our papers in to the Customs guy at Glasgow Airport he screwed up his face and said something about seeing his superiors.” Willie laughed down the phone from the hotel lounge in Largs, Scotland. “The next we knew we were in a small holding room because my work permit wasn’t in order. I had to sit around for six hours while my UK management made calls but I was eventually deported for being an Illegal Alien! I’m 62 and got deported from the UK! Four huge security guards escorted me across the tarmac to the plane; God knows what the other passengers thought as I was marched right to the back seats. Can you imagine that?

While I was in the air my Tour Manager Mickey Kemp arranged for Joe D’Urso to book a return flight and hand me the correct papers as soon as I landed in New York. So 36 hours after first arriving in Scotland I was back and ready to Rock and Roll!”

It was only after our mutual laughter died down that I got to ask the questions that I’d prepared earlier; starting with his time out of the music business.

“After playing every dive in New York for years I made a lot of good friends and toured non-stop supporting just about every major Rock band across America but didn’t get any Record Company interest until 1980 when I got to release my first album on Arista. Until then I’d been a solo artist but the label made me put a band together and go out on the road again. It was great fun then the label said I had to make another album; so we did and after it was released we toured the States supporting the Who, which was pretty cool as they were probably the biggest band in the World. Then as soon as the tour ended the label called me in to discuss my next album…..well…..they wanted one thing….and I wanted something else. Other labels were interested in me but it just got so complicated and stopped being fun because there were so many wolves trying to attach themselves; so I packed the bags and moved to Buffalo and raised a family. I never stopped writing songs in those years but when the legal stuff was finally settled the music scene had changed and the labels that had been fighting over me weren’t interested any more!

I did a lot of different jobs in those years and just as I was hankering for getting back on stage; out of the blue in 1987 a European promoter got in touch to offer me a tour of Scandinavia, Italy and Spain. It really was an amazing few weeks and the following year someone from Columbia Records saw a video of one of the gigs and offered me a deal. I wasn’t going to say no! So 10 years after my previous album I released the follow up Places I Have Never Been with a bunch of friends from the Roaches and the Hooters and even Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright and Roger McGuinn helped out on a few tracks. Even though I prefer being on stage, I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt to get back into the studio and record again.

I’m a pretty optimistic guy and believe that people are generally good; but the way my friends rallied around was very humbling.”

He then brought the conversation to the new album The Innocent Ones and the accompanying tour.

“I’ve just had an outpouring of songs in the last few years and I think that the battle scars that I’ve earned have made me a better writer and performer and more comfortable with my choice of subjects for my songs.

The music industry is supposed to be by youth and for youth but some of the best music in history was written by Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and the like when they were my age; so I’m in pretty good company.

I’m not saying that I’m as good as them but I can certainly spin a tale on the piano and guitar as well as any other time in my life.

At my age everything I do has to have a reason and needs to be special and I feel that comes across in the songs. Obviously as a dreamer and a hopeless romantic there are always going to be some love songs included but I think drummer Frankie Lee and I have also fired a few shots across the bows of sorrow.

Sideways Beautiful was knocked off in only a few days but is proving one of the more popular tracks and getting a lot of radio play back home.

Just like the last two albums we have tried make a couple of tracks a little bit political; where we get to give the victims and poor around the World a voice. We didn’t want the songs to be too moody but uplifting and compassionate. One Guitaris a great example as it gives me tingles when I sing it and the audiences join in with the chorus. It just goes to show what power a folk song can still have in this cynical world. Mike Peters from the Alarm has recorded it and made it the theme tune for his Cancer Charity, the ‘Love Hope Strength Foundation,’ which makes me immensely proud.

I’m really looking forward to Mike joining Joe D’Urso, Alejandro Escovado and myself when we play three dates in the UK in December as part of the ‘Light of Day’ Tour. For those who don’t know ‘Light of Day’ is a rolling tour that has been going for 11 years now and raises money and awareness for research into Parkinson’s disease.” (www.lightofday.org)

We discussed the charity for a few minutes (Springsteen is a major patron) and I went on to ask Willie if he thought he’d still be recording and touring after all of these years.

“I love being 60! Experience is so under rated! But, there was a time in the 80’s when I did consider giving it all up, but I still felt the need to write songs. Then after that tour of Europe in 1987 I got asked back again and this time was playing sports arenas instead of clubs so I knew I must be doing something right. Ask any musician and they will all tell you that being on stage is the most powerful drug in the world.

America is still recovering from the damage that Bush did to our reputation; so there are still a lot of things going on that I get angry about; but I carry a guitar not a gun so I have to get my message across in a song.

Thankfully Freddie and I can write a melody too so most of my songs are upbeat and not mournful which would be all too easy.

On the new album Rich and Broken, Singing Bell, and The Innocent Ones are all songs with a message but also up-tempo and have choruses. Can’t Stay Home was a real challenge as we wanted to pay our respects to my old friend Joey Ramone with a ‘party type song’ so we gave it a Clash/Ska vibe which I think works pretty well and it is becoming another live favourite on the tour.”

At this stage Willie went quiet as he watched the sun break through the clouds over the Mull of Kintyre.

“Did you know that today would have been John Lennon’s 70th Birthday?” He asked. “Did you know I was in the studio next to him the night he got shot? We had passed each other a few times and said ‘hello’ and through a mutual friend John had agreed to meet for dinner later that week. I was nearly finished recording my second album, Golden Down and he was along the corridor putting the final touches to Walking on Thin Ice when his engineer asked if we had any spare guitar strings as John’s needed replacing. I had some in my bag so sent them along.

I was sitting at the piano that John had played on Instant Karma ready to do one last take on a song when David Geffen rang at 11.30 to say that John Lennon had been shot.

I don’t really know why; but the song I was listening to was I can’t get you off my mind which seemed somehow appropriate and I had tears running down my cheeks when I finally finished the piano part.

When we arrived at the studio the next morning John had left a note thanking me for the strings.”

At that point Willie was called away and we ended our conversation.

At 62 years old, this one time Punk Rocker Willie Nile has a new lease of life and is not only producing some of the most exciting music to come out of the Americana scene at the moment he is an absolute powerhouse on stage whether with his three piece band or solo.

I urge you to seek him out.


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