One of my favorite lyrics from Willie Nile’s 2018 album, “Children of Paradise,” finds the Buffalo-born singer-songwriter imploring the listener to not let the “fuckers kill your buzz.” I loved it at the time and find its urgency even greater now that COVID-19 has killed more than just our buzz throughout the past year-and-a-half.
His latest album, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” is yet another gem in a catalog filled with them, as he finds a way to address what we’ve all gone through without leaving us feeling as if things will never get better. The ability to balance both the light and dark elements of the human experience is what really shines through on this collection, so the live treatment should only enhance that feeling.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Nile this week for the first time since 2018, and, if the passion in his voice was any indication, his upcoming two-night stand at Town Ballroom will be electric.
MNOD: Before we get into the music, I’m curious as to what your experience during COVID-19 has been like as a human being.
Nile: It’s been really fascinating. I’ve lived in New York City for 49 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Just seeing how deserted Manhattan was and how there were hardly any people out on the streets early on in the pandemic. We shot a clip of me out on my fire escape where I was just playing guitar with a mic and no one was outside. Maybe we’ll release that video at some point. I have a storage facility about half a block from the Holland Tunnel and I remember going down there at the end of May 2020. I didn’t see one car or person. I could have laid down in the street and been perfectly fine. I took a photo facing each direction, because it was so desolate. While it was a nightmare of a year, what I love about how people responded is that a rooftop culture developed in which people would be outside at 7:00 p.m. applauding the first responders and frontline workers. No matter how bad it got, there was a warm, connected feeling that emerged. We also had the Black Lives Matter protests happening at the time, so people really started to unify. There were so many closings, but I think people are excited to be out and about again.
MNOD: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is the second album that you released during the pandemic. Describe how the recording process was affected by the restrictions put in place.
Nile: I had a few songs written, but I always knew that ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ was going to be the centerpiece of the album. I had seen the 1951 film when I was a kid and the idea of everything standing still felt appropriate for the time. I never go into the studio without feeling as if what I’m doing will be special. There were strict rules with masks and everything else. One of the rules was that you couldn’t go into a room until an hour later if someone had been singing in there, which was different. My band was masked up and playing in another room. I didn’t wear a mask, because I was singing in a room by myself. I couldn’t see the band, but there are seven or eight songs on the album that we played live in the studio. We did multiple 12-14 hour days and it was a drag. It’s also not a pandemic-themed album specifically, but it is timely and relevant to what we’re going through. There was a debate about whether or not we should even put an album out during the pandemic, but I said it was a good idea. These are dark times and people need the music to lift their spirits up. It’s a rewarding experience to put such a positive energy out there. As a New Yorker, I’ve lived through blackouts and 9/11, but this city always survives and manages. Everybody in my band got COVID except me, so I’ve been lucky.
MNOD: Steve Earle guests on ‘Blood on Your Hands,’ which is one of the album’s finest tracks. What did he bring to the song that really worked for you?
Nile: Steve is a friend of mine and he just comes straight from the earth. He sings what he means and doesn’t hold back. This was a gritty song and I actually texted him to see if he would be interested in singing on it. We were all vaccinated by that point, so he agreed and ripped through it in about 12 minutes. He has a street sense that is the real deal and he brings a toughness and credibility to the material that can’t be faked. I was grateful for his contribution.
MNOD: Now that you’ve been back on the road, have you found that audiences are especially excited to be back to some semblance of normalcy?
Nile: Definitely. We started again on April 4. We played two shows in New York, one in Philadelphia, and one in Washington D.C. I’ve had so many people come up to me afterwards and say that the show was their first one in more than a year. Life is hard, so I always want to leave people feeling happy after a show. When you come see us, there’s no phoning it in. The music is there to pick everybody up and it’s really gratifying to see everyone back out there after such a nightmare of a year.
MNOD: Your album covers always feature striking photography, so I’m curious as to what the story is behind the picture on “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Nile: Cristina Arrigoni, who is my wife, took that picture. The man is a New York City street performer from Puerto Rico named Johan Figueroa-Gonzalez and he’s a living statue. I’ve been in New York for 49 years and the two greatest street performers I’ve ever seen are him and Philippe Petit. He’ll stand on a pedestal for hours while freezing in motion and what he does is amazing. His feelings about empathy and what he wants to achieve through his art fit perfectly with the times.
MNOD: Despite being in New York City all these years, you’ve said that Buffalo will always have a special place in your heart. What can fans expect when you come to Town Ballroom next week?
Nile: I left Buffalo in 1972 and achieved things that I never would have dreamed of. Playing with Springsteen in front of 70,000 at Giants Stadium, singing ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ with Ringo Starr in Saratoga, and getting the chance to meet Sen. John Lewis are things that I still can’t believe happened. I actually dedicate the song ‘The Justice Bell’ on the new album to John Lewis and everything he stood for. The thing about Buffalo is that it’s called ‘The City of Good Neighbors’ for a reason. It’s not perfect, but people are always there to help each other. Times have been tough, but I’m excited to come back and see people that I haven’t seen in forever. There’s nothing like coming back home. Town Ballroom is one of my favorite venues to play, because it has a great vibe and a great history. We’re going to burn the place down and build it back up when we’re done. We’re also looking forward to sharing the bill with The Lowest of the Low. Being in music for this long isn’t always easy, but moments like this are why you do it.
Willie Nile plays Dec. 10 and 11 at Town Ballroom with The Lowest of The Low.