Singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff was raised in a devoutly religious family in rural Missouri. He taught himself to play the drums at age seven, and gravitated to the guitar at age thirteen. As a teenager he moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked on the docks for a trucking company. But he could only tolerate it for so long, so he channeled his energy into making music full time. Rateliff went on to earn a devout fan base, and has been praised by everyone from Relix magazine to Vanity Fair. We asked Rateliff about his striking new album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, his approach to songwriting and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt , Bob Dylan, The Band and The Kinks.
What’s the best song you ever wrote?
I would say all of them are pretty good . . . I’m not sure I’ve written my best yet. I would say “This” is a great one, lyrically speaking.
Why did you move to Denver when you were 19?
I followed my best friend and mentor out to Denver and got stuck.
How would you describe the singer-songwriter scene in Denver? Where do you love playing? Where do you go to discover new music?
I know there are some great singer-songwriters here but I don’t get out much to listen. I’ve always loved playing at the Hi Dive. I hang out there and occasionally see new bands. But, most of the time if I’m out at a bar it’s in the middle of the day.
How would you describe Falling Faster Than You Can Run?
Boring and sexy. . . That’s what I was going for.
How would you compare it to your last album?
More sexy, less boring. Maybe even riveting.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
I play all the time at home and even on the road. I’ve been working on gypsy jazz and samba and a little Nick Drake . . . Also a favorite of mine.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
My mom showed me a few chords and then my best friend showed me a few more. And then I just kept watching other people and listening to old records and tried to mimic what I heard.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later? What was your first song?
After I learned a few chords I started writing songs. They weren’t that great at first. But I just kept doing it. I can’t remember what the first one wa,s maybe “Party Pizza Party.”
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I just finished an EP to follow up my new record. Some of the songs I already had — two of them, “Liverpool” and “Something Beautiful,” I finished for the EP.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Good mornings have always inspired me. Mostly melodies or chords that I’m playing around with.
How do you go about writing songs?
I record an idea on whatever is handy and then go back and listen to the made up words and try to make sense of it.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
Sometime they come out all at once. In that way where you don’t really feel a part of writing the song. Other times I just go over and over it until the song does what I want it to do.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Forgetting is Believing” I’m most proud of lyrically. “Still Trying” took me a couple of months to finish and I was really happy with it when I figured it out.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“It’s a truce, standing toe to toe and they’re both, throwing the first blow, to leave a couple teeth to spit out.”
Are there any words you love or hate?
I don’t really have any hates or faves. I just try and make them work for what I need. Sometimes they’re words that I don’t use, and others are in my everyday speech.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Early Spring Till,” “You Should Have Seen The Other Guy,” “Shroud,” “Still Trying.” I mean most of them really. I’m a touch-dude and I love touching people.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I’ve tried my hand at prose and poems. None have been that great. I haven’t found my voice for it yet.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Pearly Gate Music. . . Zach Tillman. . .
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Longing.” There is not one weak lyric in the whole song. It just keeps going line after line of perfectly written words. It has a great melody, progression and arrangement.