Willie Nile's 'The Innocent Ones' finally gets a U.S street date
“This is as good a record as I’ve ever made,” Willie Nile says of his new release The Innocent Ones. That’s saying a lot, considering the amount of indispensable music that the tenacious New Yorker has produced over his long and eventful career. The CD, which long eluded the American market except as an import and the odd merch table, has a U.S. brick-and-mortar street date of November 22, 2011.
In that time, Nile has survived life as a Next Big Thing, walked away from the major-label world twice, and reinvented himself as a scrappy DIY artist. Along the way, he’s built a deeply impressive body of recordings, earned the loyalty of a devoted worldwide fan base, and amassed an extensive backlog of effusive critical acclaim.
Willie Nile is both a songwriter’s songwriter and an impassioned performer whose stirring, personally charged rock ’n’ roll marks him as a true believer. His compositions are as impassioned as they are infectious, and he performs them with a fervor that matches their melodic craft and lyrical insight.
The ranks of Willie Nile’s fans include Bruce Springsteen, who has invited him to perform with the E Street Band on multiple occasions, including a pair of historic shows at New York’s Shea Stadium and Giant Stadium, and Pete Townshend, who personally requested him as the opening act on The Who’s 1980 U.S. tour. Other avowed Nile admirers include Bono, Lou Reed, Graham Parker, Ian Hunter, Jim Jarmusch, Adam Duritz, 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.”
The Innocent Ones decisively demonstrates that, more than 30 years into his recording career, Willie Nile is at the top of his game, making music that’s as powerful as anything in his esteemed catalog. The album, recorded in New York and Hoboken with such longtime cohorts as songwriting collaborator Frankie Lee, noted producer Stewart Lerman and Eagles/Rosanne Cash guitarist Steuart Smith, has already won considerable praise from critics and fans overseas, where BBC Radio Scotland recently named it Album of the Week, calling it “stunning . . . THE rock ’n’ roll album of 2011!,” and JAM magazine proclaimed it to be “full of timeless songs. . . passionate . . . romantic . . . stupendous,” and called Nile “one of the best American singer-songwriters of our time.”
Those raves are borne out on such new tunes as “Singin’ Bell,” a bracing anthem that the artist describes as an effort to filter the populist sentiment of Pete Seeger through the in-your-face sensibility of the Ramones, and the album’s moving title track, on which Nile draws upon some harsh truths to create an uplifting rock anthem.
“This album,” he says, “includes a number of songs dedicated to the downtrodden, the forgotten, the outcasts, the hopeless — the innocent ones. It deals with some heavy issues here and there, but at the same time I think it’s an upbeat, feel-good record. I wanted it to be light on its feet and fun to listen to, and it’s all that.”
Another album track that holds particular significance for Nile is “One Guitar,” a moving ode to music’s ability to heal and inspire. “It’s about what one guitar and one voice can do to help change the world,” the artist asserts. The response that the song has already received from audiences, critics and fellow artists has inspired Nile to create the One Guitar Campaign (oneguitar.org), a collaborative charitable initiative. The One Guitar Campaign encourages other artists to record their own rendition of the song, with the various versions being sold as downloads on iTunes, and the net profits donated to a variety of worthy charitable causes.
His passionate belief in the power of music has been a cornerstone of Nile’s life since his childhood. Born into a large Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, NY, he began playing piano at the age of eight, and within a few years had begun writing his own songs. After graduating from the University at Buffalo with a B.A. in Philosophy, he moved to Greenwich Village. He was initially sidelined in New York by bouts with pneumonia and mono, which put him out of commission for a couple years. While recuperating, he concentrated on honing his songwriting skills.
After recovering, Nile became a popular fixture in the Village’s folk clubs, while drawing energy from the emerging downtown punk scene. An extended residency at the Bleecker Street club Kenny’s Castaways led to a high-profile piece by legendary New York Times critic Robert Palmer, who called Nile “an exceptional talent” and “one of the best singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in a long time.”
The Times piece led to a record deal with Arista Records, for which Nile recorded a pair of albums, Willie Nile and Golden Down, released in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Those albums won a sizable audience and established Nile as a major talent, with one critic calling his debut effort “one of the most thrilling post-Byrds folk-rock albums of all time.” But his career momentum took a dive when legal disputes with his label caused him to walk away from the music business, beginning a recording hiatus that lasted nearly a decade.
Although he continued to write, Nile maintained his distance from the spotlight until 1991, when he reemerged with a new deal with Columbia Records and a new album, Places I Have Never Been. That album, which featured guest appearances by Roger McGuinn, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III, restored Nile to prominence with fans and critics. The following year, he went the independent route with the four-song EP Hard Times in America. 1997 saw the release of Willie Nile — Archive Alive, which documented a 1980 performance in New York’s Central Park. In 1998, Nile lent his unmistakable voice to the all-star concept album Largo, alongside the likes of Levon Helm, Carole King, Cyndi Lauper and Taj Mahal.
In 1999, Nile released Beautiful Wreck of the World, which launched an exciting new chapter in his career, one in which he’s embraced independent status to create and distribute his music on his own terms. His new approach yielded substantial results, with the disc chosen as one of the year’s Top Ten Albums by critics at Billboard, The Village Voice and Stereo Review. By that point, Nile had substantially stepped up his touring activities in Europe, where he’s built a large and enthusiastic following in several countries.
2005’s Streets of New York, acclaimed by many longtime fans as his most potent work to date, ushered in the busiest and most productive period of Nile’s long career. Graham Parker called the disc “a real gem . . . Stirring melodies, passionate vocals, intriguing lyrics — every track a winner,” and Lucinda Williams was moved to note, “If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.” The CD Live From the Turning Point and the DVD Live From the Streets of New York followed in 2007 and 2008, respectively. His widely celebrated collection of new songs in 2009, House of a Thousand Guitars, inspired UNCUT to liken him to a “one-man Clash,” and Power Pop to rave, “The title song references Hendrix, Dylan, The Stones, Lennon, and John Lee Hooker, and manages the incredible feat of living up the best of every one of them!”
That ongoing burst of creative momentum continues with The Innocent Ones, which makes it clear that, after more than three decades of music-making, Willie Nile remains as much of a believer as ever. “There have been some tough times, but overall I think that taking the long road has been a good thing,” he reflects. “The same fire and passion that I felt when I first came to New York City still burns as bright, and maybe even brighter, now.” I love what I do. I’m writing all the time and still have ideas coming out of my ears. It feels like I’m just getting started, and I look forward to the days ahead and the adventures to come.”