Pun Intended? Inside Willie Nile's New If I Was a River

Willie Nile has severe Resting Shredder Face.
Willie Nile has severe Resting Shredder Face.
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni

The pun may be unintentional, but that makes it no less perfect. With a name like Willie Nile, it was just a matter of time before the guy made an album called If I Was a River. Still, although he's too unpretentious to underscore it, don't let the wordplay fool you. Like his friend Bruce Springsteen's similarly titled record from 1980, Nile's River is deep, sometimes dark, and ultimately a sweeping summation of his four decades in music. Also in profound contrast to his last disc, the rightly rewarded, hard-rockin' American Ride, Nile's new release is a stark, heartbreaking work, built on his solid solo piano playing.

Aside from a little sweetening, the record's not just superbly written and played. In these days of finding your formula and sticking to it, it's also heartening. This is an artist who follows the muse and needed to make a record that's as different from his last one as the Hudson is from the Potomac. You know, like Neil Young. Except instead of clunking the keys like a drunk who's commandeered the piano at your cousin's wedding, this artist had classical training as a kid. Primitivism has its place. But Nile's style works better for forging his River.

Talking to Nile, I find myself flummoxed immediately, when I say I imagine that when he started to make this piano-centered record, this New York fixture had no master plan. That the songwriter penned the title tune, then figured he'd move on from there to his familiar, flinty rock sound. I was wrong.

"I've wanted to do an all-piano album for a number of years," Nile says, his impish Irish sensibility clearly betraying his joy at my complete misconception. "On my records, there's always a variety of songs. A rockin' song, a piano song, something acoustic and stripped-down, just to mix things up. But the piano was my first instrument. From eight years old I took piano and also the drums. I made a deal with my parents. If I took piano lessons, I could also play the drums. I took lessons for a number of years, learning Chopin, Beethoven, all that stuff."

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Without resembling a pseudy noodlehead like Keith Emerson, it shows. Nile has a strong command of the keys, embellishing his songs with lovely chord voicings, but never overwhelming you with a flurry of flourishes. But this change of instrument is no stunt. Unlike his previous album, American Ride, with its rock anthems and Nile's familiar mix of humor and outrage, many of the songs on the new album are almost unbearably poignant. Just take the title tune. In his movingly distressed voice, this aging rock warrior sings, "If I was a river I'd carry you home/And roll you in my arms so you won't be alone/I would wash away your tears/Cut you diamonds from the stones..." All sung to a melody you think you might have heard as a child. One listen and you may find yourself using your sleeve to wipe away the tears. It's not only lovely and deeply heartfelt, but this and other songs on the record benefit from the surprise of the sparse setting.

"I've been wanting to make an album like this for a while," says Nile. "People have been asking for one. After hearing some of my piano songs, they've asked for more of them. It's also nice for me to make a left turn. You know, American Ride [which was nominated for Best Album at the Independent Music Awards] was a watershed for me; a lot of my dreams were realized by that record. The singing, the playing, everything about it was like, 'Yeah, that's it!' The next record just had to be stripped down, simpler."

Coming so swiftly on the heels of the last disc, and with the feel of it being fan-based, I wonder, in this weird new world of record marketing, if Nile is going to be aiming River at his considerable group of core fans or treating it like a proper release. It turns out I'm two for two in asking dumb questions. For a guy who tours nearly as much as his friend and fan Springsteen, Nile is going out there. There are just too many people who need to see him throw down onstage. And then there's the galaxy of stars who are also fans when it comes to Nile. People like Ian Hunter, Graham Parker, and Lucinda Williams, who calls Nile a "great artist." And continues, "If there was any justice in the world, I'd be opening up for him instead of him for me." You get the feeling that, indie or not, Nile has that Boss-like work ethic. He hopes that when it's his time, he'll "keel over onstage."

"We're trying to get the music out to as many people as we can," he says. "It'll be out digitally this week. And we're making a deal in Europe and it'll be a full-on CD over there, vinyl, whatever. I'm going to Italy this week. I'll be playing some dates there and a whole bunch in the U.K. after that. They'll be full-band shows. But in the middle I'll do a bunch of songs solo from the new record."

Nile will be back to do dates in the States, after his England gigs. And what seems so paradoxical about this singer-songwriter is how he can write a new song as gorgeously downbeat as "Lost" (the opening piano part sounds like Philip Glass, but, you know, melodic) and still continually sound so optimistic in his conversation.

"Without question, this is the best time in my musical life," Nile says, like many of his peers who've been freed from the windblown wasteland that now passes for the record industry. "I'm writing my best stuff. And that's a rarity as one gets older. I'm enjoying it more and I'm more relaxed about it. I've still got a lot to do. I'm gonna make a full-on rockin' album with my band for the next release. But right now? Yeah, these are the glory days."


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