Interview to Mr Willie Nile
EA - “Children of Paradise”, your new amazing album, was released earlier this year. You’re one of the few artists, who took a personal stand reminding us of the gentle souls left behind in a society that celebrates greed over compassion. And songs like “Earth Blues”, “Seeds of a Revolution” highlight your empathy for the people, and their struggles, but also for the world we live in. What was the genesis of this album, and where does the title “Children of Paradise” come from? WN - Thanks Elena for your kind words. The title was inspired by the 1945 French film “Les Enfants du Paradis”. It is often referred to as the “Gone With The Wind” of art films. It was always a favorite of mine from when I first saw it at the University of Buffalo. It still is. The notion that we are all children of paradise appeals to me. I think it’s true. Whether you’re rich or poor or in between shouldn’t matter when it comes to dignity. Everyone should have that door open for them. The artwork on the album reflects that. The great photos taken by Cristina Arrigoni of street people in New York, many of them homeless, shows them in the light of compassion and dignity. She is a master at her craft and she captures the humanity in them.
WN - The album took shape as I continued to write about things that mattered to me, whether it’s about the changing climate and the danger that it poses for the generations to come, or the abhorrent politics of the day where money is the only thing that matters and lies take precedence over truth, or the poor children being separated from parents at the southern U.S. border, or love and loss and the continuing struggle to keep ones head and heart above water in this crazy world, there’s a lot to write about. There came a point when I realized I had a good collection of songs that could make for a strong album. I didn’t set out to write a concept album in any way. The songs seemed to just come together in a way that I felt was meaningful and full of life and passion. I’m thrilled with how the it came out.
EA - In an interview you said, in regards to your latest album, that “There’s a theme of redemption and salvation that always appealed to me.” Would you please explain it further? WN - I’ve always felt that music could offer some redemption and salvation. Life can be really difficult at times and at it’s best, whether it’s rock ’n’ roll or classical or hip hop or whatever, music can help heal the soul and the heart. It’s always been a source of joy and healing for me. These songs are full of passion and life. The musicians all played their hearts out and the songs all came to life in the studio with their brilliant playing. Hearing the songs just makes me feel good. They help make sense of the world for me and hopefully others can feel that as well. It’s real and honest and human and the themes on the album deal with what it means to be alive in an upbeat and positive way. There’s enough darkness in the world and for me the songs shed some light on the subject with spirit and love and I find some salvation in that.
• The past dozen or so years, seems to have been one of your most creatively fertile periods, with a string of stellar albums and steady touring in the U.S. and Europe. “Children of Paradise” happens to be your twelfth album. With such an important discography in your personal catalogue, I wonder what are the songs or albums, that you’re mostly proud of, and particularly enjoyed working on? WN - I like all the albums I’ve made. I’ve been lucky in that many of the dreams I’ve had on my journey have been realized musically. I’ve been lucky to have gotten to work with amazing musicians along the way. I like the variety of songs across the catalog. I’m happy with all the albums I’ve made. They all make me smile that I even got to make them. If I have any favorite albums I’d say the new one, Children Of Paradise, is a favorite, as are World War Willie, American Ride, and Streets Of New York. I keep learning with every album I make. There’s always something new to learn along the way and it makes things better for the next one.
Your songwriting is often regarded as some of the best in the industry. Your genuine understanding of people, your ability to connect to people’s emotions at a deep level. What’s the creative process of your music?
WN - I don’t know if that’s true but it’s very kind of you to say. I was lucky in that I grew up in a large family in a home that welcomed foreign visitors for years. We used to have foreign exchange students every year, sometimes more than one at a time. They’d live with us for a year or a summer and go to school and become part of the family. They came from diverse backgrounds and cultures and my brothers and sisters and I learned that it was a big world out there with all kinds of languages, customs, ways of living, you name it, and that it was possible for people to get along and help each other along the way. My parents were always kind and loving and generous to all those who came into the home, no matter whether rich or poor or where they came from. It was something to see growing up.
As for my creative process, I just play guitar and piano and ideas and songs come to me all the time, no matter where I am. I just make a note of them and follow the ones that I think will make a good song. It doesn’t matter if it’s a song about politics, or love, or heartache, or raising hell and partying on a Saturday night. I like the variety that seems to make it’s way to my pen and I’m happy to write it down.
EA - I know Bob Dylan is one of your inspirations, as far as in 2017 you released the album “Positively Bob”. Can you recall the very first song of Mr Dylan, that you feel in love with? WN - It was when I heard “Chimes Of Freedom” and “I Shall Be Free No. 10” back to back on Another Side Of Bob Dylan that opened the door to his music for me. The beauty and the humor and the contrast in the the two songs just knocked me out and showed the wide range of what could be done in contemporary music. His vision and compassion and passion came across loud and clear in “Chimes Of Freedom” and the humor in “I Shall Be Free No. 10” speaks for itself. Both are brilliant in so many ways.
EA - What does Bob Dylan’s music mean to you? And how did it impact your music/song writing? WN - His music meant the world to me when I was growing up. He was writing about things nobody else was writing about. He opened up so many doors on so many levels and showed what it is to be human and questioning and caring and adventurous all at the same time. He changed the course of modern music. He showed that there were no walls or limits and you could dream your dreams and follow your heart wherever it may lead. It was great fun to make Positively Bob, the album of Dylan songs. I had a friend in the music business who said making an album like that was a bad idea and impossible but I felt passionately that my band and I could bring some good energy to those amazing songs and we certainly did that. It was an honor and a true pleasure to make it. There’s so many of his songs that you don’t hear anymore on the radio and I wanted to shine some light on them again and turn my grandchildren on to him. Now they know who Bob Dylan is and they sing his songs.
EA - You've played throughout your career with a great number of legendary artists among which Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townsend, Billy Idol, and many more. Is there a particular moment, an anecdote, you wish to recall for our reader? WN - I’ve been very lucky in that it’s hard to pick one. There’s a lot of them. Opening shows for The Who across the U.S. when my first album came out and seeing them on stage every night was incredible. Standing on stage with Bruce Springsteen in Giant Stadium in front of 70,000 raving Bruce fans going crazy was another. Getting to sing “With A Little Help From My Friends” with Ringo when I toured with him was another. I’ve been very lucky. I guess there’s something to be said for believing in and following your dreams. You never know where they will take you.
EA - What do you think of the current music scene? WN - There’s always some good and bad in it. I like that the Internet and social media has opened the door for musicians all over the world to make their noise and sing their songs. Even the shyest, quietest person living alone can find a place to raise their voice and be heard. I think that’s a great thing. You don’t need the London Symphony Orchestra or a big record company contract to get your music out there.
EA - What was the very first song, that you learnt to play on the guitar, and how old where you at the time? WN - The first song I learned on the guitar was “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. My roommate in college had a guitar and I learned how to play some chords on that song. I think I was 18. I had taken piano lessons since the age of 8 so I was playing the piano from an early age but I didn’t learn the guitar till later on.
EA - What’s the set up of your guitar? What other type of equipments do you use for live shows? WN - I have a 1963 Fender Stratocaster and usually play through a Fender Deluxe amp. I use an AnalogMan distortion pedal. For acoustic guitar I have a 2003 Gibson J-185 and a 1972 Martin 0018.
EA - I’ve seen you play live countless times and your live shows are just legendary. You tour a lot around the world, and your shows are a burst of energy, passion and love for music, and your audience. What are your plans for the future? WN - Thanks Elena. Very kind of you. I will continue to write and record songs and play live shows for as long as it’s fun and meaningful for me. I’m having a great time with it all now so I have no plans to stop any time soon. I’ll be doing shows in North America now through the spring here and there. I’ll be in the UK in May for shows from May 22 through 26 and am doing a cancer benefit in Milan on May 29th. Info is at the willienile.com site. From there on it’s off to points unknown. Here’s to more music and magic on the road ahead!
For Italian Readers, please check the interview as featured on TuttoRock Magazine: