Nathaniel Rateliff Contemplates Time, Healing, and the Future as His Personal Journey Takes Him ‘South of Here’

Nathaniel Rateliff is still curious after all these years. The singer/songwriter who made his bones in Denver and is now a globally famous artist, is still on the hunt for good songs—even if he is at something of a strange crossroads.

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In one way, Rateliff has never been more successful. Ever since 2015 when “S.O.B.,” the single with his band The Night Sweats became a phenomenon, he’s been growing his footprint. He’s played Saturday Night Live, earned praise from Robert Plant and placed songs in major movies and HBO television shows. He’s played late-night TV and toured the world.

But at 45, Rateliff is still evolving. He’s dealing with his relationship to drinking, he’s coping with the realities of death and divorce, and confronting the pressures of stardom. And these are all the subjects of the new Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats LP South of Here, out Friday (June 28).

“I feel like I’m a pretty awkward rock star when it comes down to it,” Rateliff tells American Songwriter.

Learning How to be Comfortable as a Celebrity

Rateliff was known and loved in his hometown but he’d never quite broken through—until 2015 and “S.O.B.” Now, his sense of personal authenticity combined with his volcanic energy and gentle lyrical touch are being discovered by pleased audiences. But that doesn’t mean he’s at his most comfortable. When it comes to any sort of celebrity, he says, “I never felt like I was skinny enough or cool enough to play that role. … I just never saw myself as that. It’s always been hard for me to be that performer and I’ve grown into it and I’ve learned how to be comfortable in that setting. But it did take a lot. And it certainly was a battle on my insecurities.”

In 2020, Rateliff released the solo album And It’s Still Alright. That LP features sublime songs like the title track and “Time Stands.” That year, he also released the song “Redemption,” which was featured on the Apple TV+ film Palmer starring Justin Timberlake. The following year, he released the Night Sweats album The Future, which includes the rollicking track “Survivor” that was used as the theme song for the recent HBO documentary series The Jinx Part Two. Now, with his newest record, Rateliff has yet another chapter opening up ahead of him.

“I hadn’t really planned on making a [new] record,” he says. But he managed to find some open time in his schedule and got to writing. “I worked on eight songs,” Rateliff says, “which is funny because I didn’t think [the session] was very productive. My [romantic] partner laughed at me. She said, ‘You write your ass off in 10 days and it’s still not enough!’”

Then, with demos in hand, he found more time to record with the Night Sweats. Rateliff got together with his group after spending two days in Los Angeles for Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday party celebration. Energized by that experience, they got to work and recorded in Tornillo, Texas, at Sonic Ranch, a working pecan farm. While the fast-paced, productive schedule was welcome, it also created a quandary. “No rest for the weary,” he says.

A Personal Journey

When considering his output, Rateliff used to have a clearer sense of demarcation between solo songs and those for the Night Sweats. But more recently that line has blurred. “It started to be a little more difficult to tell,” he says. “It just got to be a little tricky to decide if they’re two different things. As I was writing this record, unlike other Night Sweats records, I wasn’t really trying to figure out what it was supposed to sound like or to try to make this project feel genre-specific. It was really just about the songs that were coming to me and where I’m at in my own personal journey, in my growth, where I’m at in this stage of my life.”

The result is a mixture of propellant tracks and gentle ones. There are songs about how time makes fools of all people, the difficulties of day-to-day life, the worry over whether or not you’re a good person, and healing. Rateliff says he finds himself grappling with the idea of temporality and this is what influences his writing, no matter what umbrella or moniker the songs come out under. “Time has become very important,” he says. “As you get older, time seems to just be running away from us at a rapid pace. The year goes by so fast and I know some of that is a thing that comes with age, but it certainly is eye-opening.”

Rateliff will be 46 in October, which means there are “four more Christmases,” he says, until he turns 50. “Sometimes, I’m like, when or at what point do I enjoy the success that I’ve worked so hard for, or do I just continue to work my life away, you know?” He laughs. “I’ve struggled a lot to get here, my personal struggles—I feel like through divorce and death and my struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse, I wrote about all those things and I’m looking at all those things.”

Life is about change, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Thankfully, there is art to filter the hardships through. “It’s funny,” says Rateliff, who will embark on an upcoming arena tour beginning in August, “I just find so much joy in it. I’m not tired of doing what I’m doing. I’m really curious about it still. It still is playing a huge role. It’s a way for my subconscious to communicate to me. Writing sometimes, I feel like I’m discovering things about myself since I do a lot of stream-of-consciousness. … Things can come out of nowhere.  Things come to you like a lightning bolt. It moves through you and you get to be a part of it.”

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Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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