Nathaniel Rateliff Finds the Secret Chord to Vulnerability

The songwriter looks to Leonard Cohen as an inspiration for his radical authenticity on new Night Sweats album 'South of Here'

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

BY Dylan BarnabePublished Jun 26, 2024

"There are a lot of different ways to write songs, but the thing I love about Leonard Cohen's work is his vulnerability and honesty. His humanity is in all his writing, songs and performances," Nathaniel Rateliff tells Exclaim! following orchestral shows in Montreal and Toronto honouring the life and work of one of Canada's most beloved musicians. Rateliff has always been vocal about Cohen's influence on his art, having covered "Famous Blue Raincoat" for a 2022 tribute album.

Rateliff, a very successful songwriter in his own right, is preparing to release new material with his band, the Night Sweats: South of Here, the official follow-up to 2021's The Future and Rateliff's 2020 solo album And It's Still Alright, will arrive on June 28 via Stax Records.

Rateliffe's R&B/Americana octet continue the songwriter's journey of radical authenticity, inviting listeners to see themselves in the songs. "I really just let the material come to me and wrote about what I was going through at the time," he says. "Also looking back at my life and what my journey has been to get to where I'm at now; that is the influence for most of the songs."

South of Here's title evokes the idea of an ambiguous physical space, prompting questions about regionality and the importance of a person's roots. Rateliff, after all, moved from his hometown of Herman, MO, to Colorado alongside Night Sweats bandmate Joseph Pope III at the age of 19.

"Growing up the way I did definitely made me a hard worker and established a work ethic in me that I still carry with me to this day. I hope that growing up there made me a little tender to people as well," says Rateliff, when asked about his own roots. "I've been blessed to be able to travel and see a lot of parts of the world that have also affected the way I see things."

This physical and emotional upheaval is documented in the stirring single "Heartless" as he sings, "It was so cold leaving the comfort of my Missouri home / And my childhood left me so broken, that I didn't know / We were coming out even." How are we shaped by the decisions we make? The state lines we cross? The experiences we endure? Rateliff gives these questions, both big and small, the grand platform they deserve through his music.

It can seem daunting for someone like Rateliff, who gives so much of himself to remain soft when the world simply wants to harden everything, to hold space for hope. "I don't feel like I'm an optimist," he says. "It's easy to look around and feel like things can seem a little bleak. But I think there has to be hope, so I continue to put that hope out there."

Following the death of longtime friend and producer Richard Swift, Rateliff began working with Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Waxahatchee, Kevin Morby) on South of Here. "After Richard passed away, it left a big hole. I thought I had found my forever partner and collaborator, and to lose him has been very difficult," Rateliff observes sombrely. "I love to produce music and work with other people, but when I'm doing it with my band, I probably can be a little harder on them than everybody else. I don't think that's really helpful creatively, nor does it allow them to have their own voice in the process. I feel like Brad really helped in that area."

Rateliff's music has always given people the space to make peace with the ambiguity of life's mysteries. As the artist himself grows older and accumulates more experience, he still values the learning curve of life's many lessons.

"In certain areas of my life, I have more clarity, and there are other areas where I feel like you tackle one issue and it makes another issue more apparent," he says, mentioning how he's careful not to let things fester. "But I still feel curious and excited about where I'm at in my life and things to come. I still have a lot to learn, and I'm trying to look at the world in a way that it still has a lot to offer and still so much time for me to grow."

When asked how he continues to maintain his creative spark years into an established and storied music career, Rateliff provides a humble response: "I still feel like I'm learning my instrument," he laughs. "Even these Leonard Cohen shows, it's putting me in a position where I don't feel very comfortable or knowledgeable, whether that be symphony etiquette or what it is to play with a 40-piece orchestra. But by putting myself in that position, I'm forced to understand it, and that's exciting to me. I hope that I keep getting into situations like that are challenging and I can learn from as well."

Rateliff speaks fondly about getting back out on the road to connect with fans following years of uncertainty and shutdowns. South of Here is another classic Night Sweats album, filled with vivid storytelling and moving musicianship, as the band continue to forge an ongoing relationship with others. An Instagram post about the forthcoming album says that they "hope these songs and stories give you an opportunity to better understand your own struggles whatever they may be." It's not a tall order; it never is. Just a simple ask: take a listen and turn inward.

"I referenced Leonard's vulnerability [earlier], and I see that in myself," Rateliff says. "I think that's really all I ever hope for, is that the listener can see something in my songs and for it to benefit them in a positive way."

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