There’s an idea: the way you do anything is the way you do everything. In other words, the way you approach scrubbing your kitchen sink is the same way you approach writing a college essay. For versatile-voiced singer and songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, that saying holds true, at least when it comes to the hard work he pours into whatever task is at hand.
For Rateliff, hard work is a major reason for his success both locally in the Denver, Colorado music scene and now nationally, having recently played Saturday Night Live and penned the lead song (“Redemption”) to the Justin Timberlake-led movie, Palmer. Yet, hard work begets more hard work. This, too, Rateliff is learning as he continues to release albums and rise to the top of charts. It’s the result of the world seeing great offerings like the latest LP from Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, The Future, which the band unveiled in November.
“The workload only intensifies, which is kind of funny,” Rateliff tells American Songwriter. “If I think I made it, really there’s no moment that feels like—where you can really celebrate that arrival. The journey continues to change.”
From a young age, Rateliff has worked hard. That instilled in him the ethic. Corners cut is no shortcut at all. Don’t skip steps. As he says it, he had a lot of bad jobs over the years. Even when he was a janitor for a “high school that I should have been going to” when he was 16- or 17 years old, he took pride in the work. He endeavored to find the joys in what he could.
“Still took pride in it,” Rateliff says, “I did it really well. I really cleaned the shit out of those toilets.”
But it’s hard work that puts one in the position to succeed. The house stands because the foundation is strong. Not because it’s haphazardly set. For years, Rateliff toiled in the Denver music scene. Like any city where music is prized (Nashville, Seattle, Atlanta), there are local stars that can’t seem to break through nationally. Finally, though, Rateliff did with The Night Sweats’ song, “S.O.B.” The romper was all over popular radio. More recently, Rateliff released a more tender solo record, And It’s Still Alright, to great acclaim. For an artist known for screaming, “Son of a bitch, get me a drink!” in his first hit, today Rateliff exhibits great touch and nuance in his work. The result is well-seasoned work, not slap-to-the-face sounds.
“I want people to pay attention to what I’m doing,” Rateliff says. “The nuance is what’s important to try to get attention.”
Ahead of writing The Future, Rateliff dealt with a conundrum. Before writing and recording, he was trying to square the distinction between what is a Nathaniel Rateliff solo song and what is a Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats song? He says he really struggled with the distinction. Producer Brad Cook came in and helped to clarify. All the while, Rateliff kept writing and writing, trying to find the songs that would coalesce into an album. Cook buoyed Rateliff and assured him the final songs would prove cohesive.
“I ran with his advice, honestly,” Rateliff says.
Rateliff had felt discouraged coming back home from a disrupted tour in March 2020. Like many musicians, his big plans had been dashed. At the time, his house was also being renovated (since he’d planned to be on the road). So he lived in a room in his garage. He gave himself some time to decompress. He hadn’t had a proper rest for about six years. He did some work around his house from the spring until about June or July. Some friends came around, they remembered a friend and peer who’d passed not too long ago, producer and musician Richard Swift. They began to jam. Sketches of songs began to surface. Rateliff says he learned what would challenge him and the band, what would help them grow. Music that had legs would cause him to write more. Sessions turned into more sessions.
“I love that thing that happens in me when I get surprised by a song that I’m listening to or while I’m playing,” Rateliff says, “where you just feel overwhelmed. Not in a sad way, you just experience—I don’t know! It’s an overwhelming feeling. I’ve always loved that and appreciated it.”
For the record, Rateliff and the band tried to keep things pure. They recorded live as much as possible. They tried to use takes that felt good, comfortable. For example, the album’s titular single, “The Future,” is maybe the second take the band got down. On other songs, like “Face Down In The Moment,” there is an exultant feeling. It’s a soulful sensation that Rateliff seems to be leaning into more and more. It’s evident on “Redemption” from Palmer, too. The artist says it may be a result and the apple not falling far from the tree.
“’Exultant’ is very familiar to me,” Rateliff says, with a chuckle. “Growing up in the church—my mom wrote and still writes religious songs. So, maybe I get them from her.”
Now, with the album out and a new year upon the globe, Rateliff says he’s hopeful. He’s looking forward to the (strong) possibility of touring. He also hopes the world will calm a bit. Historically, music has been an aid in bringing people together. The Future has done that already. Rateliff & The Night Sweats coalesced around the album, around the hard work. Perhaps the band’s efforts will portend the same for the world at large in the future.
“It seemed pretty bleak there for a while,” Rateliff says. “We haven’t made it out of the thick of it. Yet, I still have hope for kindness and the potential for everyone to learn how to love everybody a little bit better. We’ll see how things unravel themselves or get back together. I’m hoping next year, we have a lot of time out on the road—I’m excited to do that again.”
Photo by Danny Clinch / Sacks Co.