Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats: 'I Feel Like There Still Has To Be Hope'

21 March 2023 | 3:18 pm | Mary Varvaris

"In the last year, there were a lot of different things that happened that sort of seemed monumental or big career moments for us."

(Pic by Danny Clinch)

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Nathaniel Rateliff is a storyteller at heart. That skill has led to numerous comparisons to Bob Dylan over the years - it’s not just the similar vocal tone. With The Night Sweats, he’s performed on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, NPR’s Tiny Desk, and anywhere else you’re likely to see an artist who’s “made it".

But he’s humble about it all; he’s stunned that he gets mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan. “I've always been a huge fan of Bob Dylan,” Rateliff says from his home. It’s winter, actually freezing cold and snowing - soup is needed. 

“I think early on, Bob was the first writer I attached myself to,” he adds. “His career spans so many good records, and there's so many different influences from different things he's done. His work with the band was always a huge influence; he’s always had a huge impact on me. I take that as a compliment.”

Having performed in all those spaces, every performance leaves something for Rateliff to learn. “In the last year, there were a lot of different things that happened that sort of seemed monumental or big career moments for us,” he says, such as some incredible venues in the US. 

“It's interesting to be in those situations and on new stages - we did Radio City Music Hall in New York City this past year, the Hollywood Bowl, and then our first headlining arena show.” It shows how deeply Rateliff’s music resonates with his audience. When he’s mining the very human, endlessly relatable themes of grief and addiction, it’s difficult not to connect.

“I’m not necessarily compelled to do it [write about personal experiences] intentionally; I sometimes think that just comes out in the writing,” Rateliff admits. And as he gets older, it’s all part of a process of discovering and understanding the places in himself he can’t always reach.

He continues, “A lot of times while I'm writing something, I certainly try to lean into this thing that I feel is outside of myself, whether you want to call that a muse - I don't know what a good name for it is - but we can call it a muse for now, since it's an older term. I feel like I lean into that. A lot of stuff comes with a sort of stream of consciousness, and then you go back and edit some of that to create a song and to create a story.”

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ most recent album, The Future, released in November 2021, reaches for a deeper meaning in life through retro sounds, including Motown and soul. Rateliff sounds at home in those genres and allows himself to explore bleakness on Something Ain’t Right and Survivor. But as the latter song title suggests, he always finds a way through.

Rateliff explains, “In doing that, sometimes I look back, and you think that, ‘You're not writing about yourself,’ and then I'm always very surprised to find out that I'm just writing about something that I've been going through and just didn't have any idea. I guess it's always a bit of personal discovery; I'm a curious person. And so it keeps me continuing to try to ask questions.”

At first, it was tricky to find motivation for The Future - in February 2020, Rateliff released the solo album, And It’s Still Alright, and only managed to perform ten shows promoting the record before the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down.

“I was very discouraged by that,” he shares. However, due to his more remote location, Rateliff and the Night Sweats managed to isolate, hunkered down through the more challenging months of 2020, and by October of that year, began writing what would become The Future.

“There was a lot to write about; there's a lot going on in American politics… there’s a big divide here,” Rateliff reveals. But he didn’t want divided America to be his focus. “I just tried to focus on the stuff that came to me and, you know, that's still always writing in the perspective of how you view the world. 

“But, you know, it was tough because I feel like I always try to write from the standpoint of hope, and it felt a little bleak,” he continues. How can you not be disheartened by the world we live in at times? He adds, “We're having crazy wildfires even in the winter here. There are water shortages, while there's also flooding. Australia had monumental, devastating wildfires, so you start to look at the world and think, ‘Oh, I think this might be it.’ But that's not really the message that, even if I might be an internal naysayer, that's not what I really want to project either.

“I feel like there still has to be hope. Just being a human, there's a lot in our humanity that can be hard. And so there's plenty to write about, within that, and the struggles of just what our existence is, and, also, the joys of that.”

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats return to Australia for Bluesfest this Easter long weekend. The Byron Bay location and the festival itself mean that the singer-songwriter gets to interact with bands he doesn’t ordinarily have the chance to see. “It's also an opportunity to connect with friends who I haven't seen in a while or friends that are based in the UK, or Europe or the United States,” Rateliff says. 

“It’s always amazing to travel the world and run into friends. I love Australia. It seems exotic to me, even though it probably doesn't to you [laughs] - but, you know, I live in the mountains, so it's very different.” 

He adds, “Just getting there is a bit of a feat, with jet lag and all the travel. It really makes you want to work hard for your shows, like, you travel all this way. You want to make sure that it's worth it.”

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats are performing at Bluesfest this Easter long weekend. In addition to their festival appearances, they will also perform two sideshows in Melbourne and one in Sydney. Buy your tickets here.