Interview with New York singer-songwriter Willie Nile

Born in Buffalo and made in NYC, singer-songwriter Willie Nile talks about his hometown, and regales Folk and Tumble with tales of Bono and The Boss.

Taking time out of his busy schedule, Willie Nile talks to Folk and Tumble about his new album 'The Day The Earth Stood Still', the scene in New York City, performing with Bruce Springsteen, and getting gifts in Ireland.

FT: The new album ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ is rocking, caustic, and questioning, yet with your trademark humour and wit. It’s quite political. Many of your songs have been over the years but you haven’t really had the attention for that?

WN: I don’t wave a flag about politics but I write about the world around me as I see it, however subtle it is. This one is a bit more obvious.

FT: Can you tell us a little bit more about the inspiration for the album?

WN: There’s a classic Sci-fi movie from 1951 called ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. I always liked that film. I live in Greenwich Village in New York City and have a storage space a few blocks away over by the Holland Tunnel. In rush hour you can take 45 minutes to reach 3 blocks in a car – it’s just a parking lot at times. Last year, towards the end of May, I walked over to it on a Friday night at 6.00 p.m. in New York City and not a car or a person in sight. I could have laid down in the middle of the road. It was beautiful. I still felt the energy. I don’t need the hustle and bustle to feel the history of this place, the magic of it, the streets are haunted in a cool way.

But It hit me like a ton of bricks – ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’. The title just came and I knew something was brewing. I came home, got my guitar, and knocked it out in about an hour.

FT: You’ve written so many great songs about the city. Uncut Magazine called you the Poet Laureate of New York. Why has that city touched you in such a way that you return to it as a source of material? You have been around the world, seen so many other cultures and cities, and yet it’s New York you always return to in verse. You’ve said about it being a melting pot, but is there’s something else about the city that stirs your creative soul?

WN: I grew up in Buffalo, New York; the second-largest city in the state, and I love Buffalo. There’s a lot of history, family history. It’s a fascinating town; the gateway to the west. A century ago it was a train station. My father, who’s 103, and still going, God bless him, great storyteller. Clearly it’s the Irish tradition. My birth name is Noonan. Willie Nile is a stage name I picked up for fun. My dad tells great stories about Buffalo.

I moved to New York City after graduating from the University of Buffalo. I wanted to try and make records in my naïveté. I had never been on a stage before but I was writing songs. I moved here, and I’m still learning from it! It’s a teacher. You and I could stand nearby my flat on McDougal and Bleecker for fifteen minutes and hear 4 or 5 languages. It seems like every race, every colour, every kind of person on the planet is here. Great history, great energy.

FT: One of the songs that Steve Earle sings on ‘Blood On Your Hands’ is one of the most political songs in your whole catalogue. It’s directed at people who’ve earned a cheap dollar during the pandemic but are you taking aim at anyone in particular?

WN: It’s a song about dancing with the devil. Whether it’s a deal between people or politics on a world stage, it’s a universal theme but clearly, there’s a pandemic where 600,000 people are dead in my country alone. What went down was criminal in my opinion, and some people have blood on their hands. Whoever in government you want to point your finger at… it could almost be any government… Britain, whoever. It’s clearly a song about what’s being going on in the world. I’ve lost friends to it. John Prine was a friend of mine.

Life is real. I’m alive and music means something to me. I’m not interested in being an American Idol. That’s the last thing I want. I’d love to be stinking rich but I don’t care about fame. You can have it! I write about things around me, and people were dying left and right!

FT: That passion is quite apparent in your live performances. It seems to me whether you are playing a stadium or a small pub, you do so with the same passion.

WN: For me, I don’t care if it’s 15 people or 15,000, it’s the songs. I’m not there to be a pretty boy, it’s the songs. I’m there to serve the music and I will sing those songs. I will never walk on stage and phone it in. I’ll stop! I’ll drop before that happens because I’m still feeling as much fire as when I first came to New York. I’m 73 years old now but I’m loving it. I colour my hair but it’s my hair. We did a two-hour gig last week, rocking around the stage, great fun but I think it’s (knock on wood) kept me healthy. I think it’s served me well, yeah.

FT: I’m sure you’re heard Springsteen’s album, ‘Letter To You’, and in particular the song, ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’. I just wondered if you had any idea where he might have got the title from? Or if you had any words with him about it? (Willie release an album in 2009 titled ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’)

WN: No. We’ve not spoken about it. I was in Edinburgh last September when it came out and a lot of friends were texting “Bruce has covered your song. I saw the tracklist and he covered your song”. I thought, wow, God bless him, that’s awesome! He’s a dear buddy. I love him. My girlfriend Christina said, are you sure? I said, well how many songs are there gonna be with that title? The next day I heard Bruce’s song, and I realised, well at least two!

A friend told that Patti, Bruce’s wife, calls the studio that they have at their home the house of a thousand guitars.

I send my albums to close friends, including Bruce, so maybe it resonated somewhere, and the name for the room has stuck. These things happen, inspiration happens here and there, and you take when it comes as an artist. No, I haven’t said anything to him about it, it’s just one of those things.

FT: You’ve played with The Boss quite a lot?

WN: Yeah, he’s been very kind. He invited me on stage at the Giant’s Stadium with 70,000 people going crazy. You could hardly hear over the din of the crowd. He loves rock and roll, and he believes I have that energy as well, and we played together a bunch of times. He’s sung ‘One Guitar’, and ‘Heaven Help The Lonely’ a few times. He’s a really good guy, and I can’t imagine it being easy, being that famous.

He’s been very supportive of me, and indeed of all the artists that he likes, so God bless Bruce.

FT: Hopefully we are coming to the end of this pandemic, and gigs are starting up again. Are there any plans for a European tour?

WN: Absolutely. Last year we had two Italian tours and a Spanish tour cancelled or postponed so now we’re looking at April 2022. I’ll be in Italy and, hopefully before that, I’d love to come over and hit the UK and Ireland. I love to come to Dublin and Belfast. We’ll see. It depends on how it unfolds.

I’ll tell you a cool story, that would maybe only happen in Ireland. My lead guitarist at the time, Matt Hogan, and I were going there. He’s never been and he’s so excited about it. When musicians talk about Italy, it’s the food, the food. When they talk about Ireland, it’s the people, the people.

So, I told Matt he’s going to love it, and he has a cousin in Dublin he’s never met, and he’s all excited. We get to Whelan’s (in Dublin), and there’s a parcel from Bono and U2 who have always been really supportive of us… Guinness and Champagne and another drink I can’t remember the name of with a card saying “Welcome to Dublin”. I say to the guys, what a welcome! One of the great cities on the planet.

The audience that night was full of life and spirit so in the middle of the show – it’s packed – I say to the audience “Matt Hogan has a cousin here he’s never met. Hopefully after the show, he can hook up”. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a hand shoots out of the audience through the bodies towards Matt to shake his hand. It’s his cousin, and the place erupts!

I have got a soft spot for Kilkenny too. I remember walking down a street in the town during their Roots Festival, and hearing ‘The Streets Of New York’ blasting out from the bar. Time of our lives!

FT: Willie, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute blast. The new album is great, and hopefully I can give you a tour of Belfast next time you’re here.

WN: I’ll hold you to that. Thank you, and hopefully we’ll see each other soon!