WILLIE NILE-IF I WAS A RIVER.
WILLIE NILE-IF I WAS A RIVER.
Having graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in philosophy in 1971, twenty-three year old Willie Nile dreamt of making a living as a troubadour. He was a classically trained pianist, who had been writing songs throughout his college years. Then during the summer, Willie Nile headed to New York, and spent time in clubs like Folk City and the Gaslight. That gave Willie a taste of life as a singer-songwriter. So, in 1971, Willie Nile headed to New York, where he rented an apartment in Greenwich Village. This was meant to be the start of Willie Nile’s career as a troubadour.
Sadly, during Willie Nile’s first winter in New York, he contracted pneumonia. This resulted in Willie being unable to sing for a year. However, Willie continued to write songs. Before long, Willie Nile was a regular in the Greenwich Village folk and rock scenes. His reputation grew, and some critics forecasted a great future for Willie Nile.
This proved to be the case. A turning point for Willie Nile was when he established a residency at the Greenwich Village club, Kenny’s Castaways on Bleecker Street. For Willie, this was the breakthrough he had been waiting for. Not long after this, Willie, who was regarded as the best singer-songwriter within the New York scene, began to attract the attention of various record companies.
With various record companies interested in signing Willie Nile, he sat down with representatives with each company. Eventually, Willie decided to sign to Arista Records, which had been founded by Clive Davis in 1974. Arista Records sent Willie into the studio with producer Roy Halee.
Previously, Roy Halee had produced Simon and Garfunkel and worked with The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Laura Nyro. So, Roy had an impeccable musical pedigree. This made him the perfect producer to guide Willie Nile’s nascent career.
For what became Willie Nile, Willie had penned eleven tracks. They were recorded at the Record Plant, New York. Willie’s backing back included Jay Dee Daugherty, the drummer in the Patti Smith Group. Other musicians included bassist Tom Ethridge, guitarists Peter Hoffman and Clay Barnes. Mark Johnson added backing vocals. Once Willie Nile was recorded, it was released in February 1980.
When Willie Nile was released in February 1980, it was to critical acclaim. Critic David Okamoto wrote that Willie Nile is “one of the most thrilling post-Byrds folk-rock albums of all time.” It looked like Willie Nile was destined for greatness.
That looked like being the case when Willie Nile was asked to support The Who on their Summer of 1980 US Tour. This was a huge boost to Willie’s career, and raised his profile no end. Having toured with The Who during the summer, Willie Nile headed back into the studio towards the end of 1980 where he recorded his sophomore album Golden Down.
For his sophomore album Golden Down, Willie recorded nine new songs. Eight were penned by Willie, while he cowrote Les Champs Élysées with Amanda Owen. These songs were recorded at the Record Plant, New York.
During November and December 1980, Willie and his band returned to the Record Plant, New York. This time, Willie was working with producer Thom Panunzio. He had previously worked with some of the biggest names in music. This included everyone from John Lennon and The Rolling Stones, to Black Sabbath, Bruce Springstein and The Who. With Thom Panunzio producing Golden Down, Willie and an extended band recorded the nine tracks.
Just like Willie’s eponymous debut album, Willie’s backing back included drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, guitarists Peter Hoffman and Clay Barnes. Again, Mark Johnson added backing vocals. Among the other musicians accompanying Willie were augmented bassist Fred Smith, Greg Husted on Hammond organ and saxophonist Arno Hecht. By December 1980, Golden Down was completed. It was released in 1981.
On the release of Golden Down, it was well received by critics. Some critics felt Golden Down wasn’t as good an album as Willie Nile. It was the album that all Willie’s future albums would be compared against. However, it would be another ten years before Willie released another studio album.
Following the release of Golden Down, Willie Nile was involved in a protracted legal dispute. For six long years, Willie neither played live, nor entered a recording studio. Willie continued to write songs. Then in 1987, Willie played alongside Eric Andersen. Somehow, one of Columbia’s A&R department saw a video of Willie’s performance. This lead to Willie signing to Columbia in 1988. It looked as if Willie’s career was getting back on track. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Places I Have Never Been.
Despite having signed to Columbia in 1988, there was a delay until Willie entered the studio. Two years passed and still, work didn’t begin on Willie’s third album, the ironically titled Places I Have Never Been.
The one place Willie hadn’t been for a while, was a recording studio. Willie had written seven new songs and cowrote five others. He wanted to get his career back on track. Eventually, Willie and producers Tom “T-Bone” Wolk and Grammy Award winning producer Stewart Lerman, began work on Places I Have Never Been.
At studios in Philly and New York, Willie was accompanied by an all-star band. This included Roger McGuinn, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III. They recorded twelve new tracks. Eventually, Places I Have Never Been was completed. Ten years after the release of Golden Down, Willie Nile was back with his long awaited third album, Places I Have Never Been.
When Places I Have Never Been was released in 1991, critics hailed the album a return to form from Willie Nile. It was as if Willie had never been away. For Willie, it looked as if this was start of the next chapter in his career. However, fate intervened.
Places I Have Never Been wasn’t a commercial success. So, after the release of Places I Have Never Been in 1991, Willie Nile was dropped by Columbia. A year later, Willie released his E.P. Hard Times In America. That was the last record Willie released for seven years.
Beautiful Wreck of the World.
By 1999, Willie Nile was ready for another comeback. However, Willie wasn’t going to sign to a record company. He had been burnt before. Not again. So, he founded his own record company River House Records. It released Willie’s fourth album Beautiful Wreck of the World in 1999.
River House Records saw Willie collaborate with Frankie Lee. The pair penned seven of the thirteen tracks on Beautiful Wreck of the World. Willie wrote four other tracks, and cowrote the two other tracks. He also co-produced Beautiful Wreck of the World, which introduced Willie’s music to a new generation of music lovers.
Incredibly, nineteen years had passed before Willie released his eponymous debut album in 1980. Music, and the music industry had changed. However, despite all the changes, Willie Nile’s music was still well received by critics. Beautiful Wreck of the World was chosen as one of the Top Ten Albums of 1999 by Billboard Magazine, The Village Voice and Stereo Review. Willie Nile, the comeback King was back. However, was he back to stay?
Streets Of New York.
The answer to that was no. Another seven years passed before Willie Nile released another album. It was well worth the wait though. Streets Of New York, a fourteen track homage to his adopted home, New York.
Streets Of New York saw Wille and Frankie Lee renew their songwriting partnership. They penned six tracks, and Willie wrote seven other tracks. The other track on Streets Of New York was Eddy Grant’s Police On My Back. These songs became Streets Of New York, which was recorded by a tight, talented band. It was released in February 2006.
When Streets Of New York was released, critics agreed that Willie Nile had just released the best album of career. One review called Streets Of New York the “post-9/11 album no-one else dared write – epic and prophetic.” Critics and cultural commentators were won over by Streets Of New York. Released to critical acclaim, surely Willie Nile was back to stay?
House Of A Thousand Guitars.
That proved to be the case. Willie was just about to enter the most productive period of his career. The first album of this period was House Of A Thousand Guitars.
Released in April 2009, House Of A Thousand Guitars was another collaboration between Frankie Lee and Willie Nile. They penned eight of the twelve tracks. Wille contributed the other four tracks. These twelve tracks were recorded in New York.
House Of A Thousand Guitars was an album of piano ballads and classic guitar rock. It was well received by critics upon its release in April 2009. Dedicated to Willie’s brother John, House Of A Thousand Guitars saw Willie Nile’s comeback continue.
The Innocent Ones.
For the first time in nearly thirty years, Willie Nile released two albums in two years. This had happened since 1980s Willie Nile and 1981s Golden Down. It seemed Willie Nile’s appetite for making music was back.
For The Innocent Ones, the Willie Nile and Frankie Lee songwriting partnership wrote ten tracks. Willie wrote the other track Sideways Beautiful. These eleven tracks were recorded in New York, and became Willie’s eighth album The Innocent Ones.
The Innocent Ones was released to critical acclaim in 2010. Released on Willie’s label River House Records, The Innocent Ones was flavour of the month among critics and cultural commentators. That would continue to be the case over the next few years.
Three years later, in 2013, the Willie Nile and Frankie Lee songwriting partnership became an award winning partnership. Their composition, One Guitar, the second song on The Innocent Ones won the 2013 Social Action Song at the Independent Music Awards. By then, Willie had released his ninth album, American Ride.
After a gap of three years, Willie Nile returned with American Ride in 2013. It featured twelve tracks. Only four of these tracks came from the pen of Willie Nile and Frankie Lee. Willie, however, wrote five tracks and cowrote two others. These tracks became one of Willie Nile’s best albums, American Ride.
June 2013 saw the release of American Ride. It was released to widespread critical acclaim. One critic Hal Horowitz was hugely impressed with American Ride. He described American Ride as “one of his finest and most passionate projects.” This was high praise for sixty-five year old Willie Nile. Belatedly, Willie Nile’s music was being heard by a much wider audience.
If I Was a River.
It seemed with every album Willie Nile released, his music was being heard by a much wider audience. If I Was A River, Willie’s tenth album was something of a game-changer. Released in America on November 11th 2014, and in Britain on January 19th 2015, If I Was A River introduced a new generation of music lover’s to Willie Nile’s music. No wonder. If I Was A River, which was released on River House Records, was a very different album from Willie Nile.
If I Was A River was a much more understated album from Willie Nile. The piano was at the centre of If I Was A River’s sound. So were ten captivating songs and a tight, talented band.
For If I Was A River, Willie and Frankie Lee cowrote If I Was A River, Son Of A Soldier, Once In A Lullaby, Gloryland and Let Me Be The River. Willie penned Lost, Lullaby Moon, Goin’ To St. Louis and The One You Used To Love. The other track was I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore) which Willie and Danny Kortchmar penned. These tracks were recorded by a much smaller band at Hobo Sound, Weehawken, New Jersey.
When recording of If I Was A River began at Hobo Sound, Weehawken, New Jersey, Willie was accompanied by a tight, talented band, Willie played piano and sang vocals. Stuart Smith played acoustic, baritone and electric guitars, bass, pump organ, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes and backing vocals. David Mansfield played mandolin, acoustic guitar, violin and viola. Frankie Lee added backing vocals. Once If I Was A River was completed, it was released in America on November 11th 2014, and in Britain on January 19th 2015.
Featuring ten tracks, lasting just thirty-three minutes, If I Was A River was released to critical acclaim. Critics in America, Britain and Europe almost ran out of superlatives. Words like spellbinding, beautiful, understated, poetic, mysterious and timeless were used to describe If I Was A River, Willie Nile’s tenth album. Thirty-five years after releasing his eponymous debut album, Willie Nile’s music was being heard by a new generation of music lovers. If I Was A River, which I’ll tell you about, was their introduction to Willie Nile’s music.
Opening If I Was a River is the title-track. Here, Willie is accompanied by an understated, piano lead arrangement. The piano is the perfect foil for Willie’s impassioned vocal. He delivers the lyrics with power and feeling. This describes how he plays this very special piano. It was played by John Lennon on the night he died. Others who played the Steinway grand piano include Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. It’s as if this inspires Willie, as he delivers an impassioned vocal. With feeling he sings: “if I was a river I’d carry you home, I would roll you in my arms so you wouldn’t be alone,” on this beautiful paean.
Lost is the tale of the break up of a relationship. It’s one of the best breakup songs you’ll hear. As a heartbroken Willie plays the piano, his hurt and loneliness shines through. He delivers a despairing vocal. The way he delivers the lyrics it’s as if he’s loved and lived to tell the tale.
Song Of A Soldier is the second song penned by Willie and Frankie Lee. Willie dawns the roll of soldier, as he delivers a hopeful, searching vocal. What he’s hoping and searching for is love. As Willie plays the piano, flourishes of mandolin and violin add a melancholy backdrop. Together, with Willie’s vocal they play their part in a beautiful song tinged with hope and melancholia.
Once In A Lullaby deals with the fleeting nature of love. It comes when you least expect it, and before long is gone.As Willie plays the piano, he delivers a tender, sometimes wistful vocal. This brings meaning to the lyrics, including: “whenever love comes knocking I let her in for the night, she is gone by the morning light as Once In A Lullaby.” Just like Song Of A Soldier, it’s a song where hope and melancholia seem omnipresent. It’s as if Willie’s been hurt before, and can’t quite believe in true love.
Obviously Willie Nile has never heard of the saying don’t bite the hand that’s feeds you. Lullaby Moon are proof of this. Among the lyrics are: “rock ’n’ roll is a crock of shit…cozy ballads make me puke…folk music is a complete bore.” While this is obviously Willie’s attempt at humour, sung in a singalong fashion, it fails miserably. It’s been done before, and by better singers than Willie Nile.
Deliberate, thoughtful stabs of piano open Gloryland. Just the piano, acoustic guitar and washes of guitar accompany Willie’s heartfelt, impassioned vocal. It’s a spellbinding performance, where Willie thankfully, gets If I Was A River back on track.
Just Wille and the his tender, wistful vocal combine on I Can’t Do Crazy (Anymore). Soon, memories come flooding back as he meets his younger self. He’s transported back to another time, and another place, where he allowed himself to fall in love. Not any more. Ruefully, Willie sings: “yeah that was then, this is now, that boat has left the shore.”
Goin to St. Louis is quite different from much of If I Was A River. The tempo rises on this ballad. Its arrangement is driven along by guitars and the piano. Willie’s vocal is heartfelt. There’s a sense of urgency, as Willie become a knight in shining armour. He’s Goin to St. Louis “just to take her from this state of misery.” As Willie delivers the lyrics, there hope and optimism in his voice. Later, his vocal becomes joyous and needy, as he dreams of: “when I get to her place put my fingers on her face, we’ll go walking through the country for a while.”
The One You Used to Love is another piano lead ballad. Straight away, it’s apparent that something special is unfolding. It’s a tale of love lost, but love not forgotten. Still, Willie yearns for the one he loved and lost. So much so, that he delivers lyrics like: “when you’re feeling low and nowhere else to go, give a call to the one you used to love.” For four minutes, Willie sings about the woman who broke his heart, but can’t and won’t ever forget. This results in what’s the best track on If I Was a River.
Closing If I Was a River is Let Me Be the River. It’s another song from the Willie Nile and Frankie Lee songwriting partnership. Accompanied by just the piano, acoustic guitar and violin, Willie delivers a heartfelt, impassioned vocal. He delivers the lyrics with emotion and sincerity, resulting in a beautiful, heart wrenching way to close If I Was a River.
Thirty-five years have passed since Willie Nile realised his eponymous debut album in 1980. Since then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Back then, great things were forecasted for Willie Nile. However, twice his career was interrupted by protracted negotiations with record companies. This cost Willie Nile dearly. He lost twelve years of his career. After that, Willie turned his back on record companies.
Since his fourth album Beautiful Wreck Of The World, which was released in 1999, Willie has released his albums through his own label, River House Records. This includes If I Was a River, which was released earlier in 2015. However, by turning his back on the mainstream music industry this has cost Willie Nile.
While it’s allowed him to do things his way, Willie Nile has never reached the heights that many forecast he would. Wille Nile seemed destined to enjoy commercial success and critical acclaim. Although many of Willie Nile’s ten albums, including If I Was a River were released to critical acclaim, mainstream commercial success has eluded him. Outside of his small, coterie of loyal fans, Willie Nile remains almost unknown. He’s another of American music’s best kept secrets. If I Was a River which was released by River House Records, is proof of this.
If I Was a River was something of a game-changer for Willie Nile. Released to critical acclaim, a new generation of music lovers discovered If I Was a River, Willie Nile’s tenth album. It’s one of the best albums of his career. There’s only disappointing songs on If I Was A River is Lullaby Moon. It’s an ill-fated attempt at humour, that frankly, would be better left off If I Was a River. However, that’s If I Was A River’s only low point.
Mostly though, If I Was a River is an album of songs that are variously beautiful, heartfelt, introspective, poetic, soul-baring and soul-searching. They’re also tinged with melancholy, sadness and joy. Tales of love and love lost, sit side-by-side with tales heartbreak and hurt. If I Was A River is a very personal album from Willie Nile, one that’s best described as an emotional roller coaster.
WILLIE NILE-IF I WAS A RIVER.