Missouri-born, Denver-based musician Nathaniel Rateliff went from woodshedding singer/songwriter to overnight soul sensation in late 2015 on the strength of one song. “S.O.B.” is a rafter-rattling, gut-punch of a track that’s equal parts ecstatic, wretched and shuddering—an alcoholic’s tale of clawing through the gutter with the hope of reaching a far-off vein of happiness. And whether you’re seeing it on video or in person, watching the burly, bearded, inked-up Rateliff howl and writhe through the song is terrifyingly cathartic: “Now for 17 years/I’ve been throwing them back/17 more will bury me/Can somebody please just tie me down/Or somebody give me a goddamn drink.”
A year-and-a-half later, “S.O.B.” still serves as the signature calling card for Rateliff and his backing band, The Night Sweats. After performing it on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, the song topped the Spotify and Billboard Adult Alternative charts, even with next-to-no radio play (spell the acronym out and you’ll understand). But in an interview with Folio Weekly, Rateliff reiterates that he’s been scratching at music success for more a decade. He played folk music in Denver while working as a carpenter, a truck dispatcher and a gardener before reconnecting with his love of soul music, itself incubated as a teenager after his father died and he found his dad’s stash of Otis Redding, Booker T. and Van Morrison records. Listen to Rateliff and his band’s debut album, which came out on venerated soul label Stax Records in 2015, and you’ll immediately recognize that there’s more to Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats than just one song—and much more to come in the near future.
Folio Weekly: So what’s new with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats right now?
Nathaniel Rateliff: We just had two months off, but I spent that time trying to write a new record. I’m not too worried about resting; I’m still excited about the last couple of years and still surprised that all of this stuff has happened in our lives. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like not everyone is going to like you forever, so we have to continue to try and surprise ourselves, which will hopefully carry over to our listening audience as well.
Has the writing process for the new material gone in any noticeably different directions?
I’m still writing about the same themes: the human experience of love and the sacrifice it takes, but also how enjoyable that can be. There’s struggle and hope in all of that. I’ve definitely been trying to focus on writing stuff that moves me. I’m listening to a lot of songwriters now who do that, like Andy Shauf, Kevin Morby and Laura Marling.
How important is that message of love and hope in these fractured times? You seem to specialize in cutting deep while also lifting listeners up
Right now more than ever, we need to learn how to not alienate people with different opinions. Not that we’re all in this together, but we should move through our lives with a little more tenderness, love and understanding, instead of letting fear and ignorance turn into hatred.
It’s fascinating to see someone who’s achieved as much success as you have still delivering such a gut-level emotional message.
The funny thing with success is it means I’m working more. And I’m not upset about that. I’m still living in the same house in Denver, and I’m lucky that I’m still paying $800 a month for rent. That’s allowed me to move around and do what I want to do as an artist—I have no attachment to that idea of the American Dream of buying a house or a car, or being in debt to a lifestyle that somebody told you you should have. Basically working a job you don’t like to pay off something you don’t necessarily need. The biggest thing that’s changed in my life is that I’m less worried about what city, state or country I’m in and instead being comfortable wherever I’m at—considering that space I choose to be in as my home.
How at home do you feel in Florida? Have you and The Night Sweats toured down here often?
I have not played in Florida yet with The Night Sweats. I toured as a singer/songwriter opening for The Lumineers and Dr. Dog, though, and I had a blast in St. Augustine. Went to the beach, ran around naked—it was a great time and I’m excited to come back.