Nathaniel Rateliff: Soul Searcher
With a knack for authentic songwriting and a voice that will move you, the artist has exploded onto the national stage — and given an old sound a burst of new energy
Photo: Jim Herrington
It’s a warm, sticky November afternoon in New Orleans, the type of muggy that makes you wonder if the locals who say it really does cool off here come fall have had one too many French 75s. At the entrance to St. Roch Cemetery, one of the city’s most cherished burial sites, Nathaniel Rateliff walks toward the chapel, trailed by Jules, his effervescent wife of seven years. St. Roch is said to have effected miraculous cures, and if there were one for a hangover, Rateliff would probably take it. The night before, he and his band, the Night Sweats, took over the venerable club Tipitina’s, whipping the crowd into an ecstatic froth with their brand of primal, wall-shaking soul. Now he’s got a few hours to kill before filming a commercial for Apple Music.
Barrel-chested and dressed in head-to-toe denim, shades of blue fading into black, he stops in front of a section of graves where tombs are stacked on top of each other, rather than given their own spot. “Are those the cheap ones?” he asks with a gravelly laugh, scorched by the previous night’s vessel-popping vocals and postshow whiskey. “We’ve had so many deaths in my family, at this point my mom just wants to be burned up when she goes.” Rateliff, who is thirty-seven, grew up in a deeply religious household in Hermann, Missouri, but has struggled with his faith through the years. Inside the cemetery’s chapel is a side room filled with discarded prostheses and crutches, tokens of gratitude left by the devout. Rateliff looks inside, then shudders. “I don’t always take care of myself like I should,” he says. “But that’s”—he points to a plaster foot—“really weird.”
For all of the effusive chatter and ink that’s been spilled recently over a revival of classic soul, one thing hadn’t yet emerged: a bona fide hit song. That the breakthrough would come from this burly singer who looks like he could either make a mean craft cocktail or chop off your head with an ax makes it even more bizarre. The song, as the world now knows, is “S.O.B.,” a bawdy, knee-slapping soul anthem that has pulverized its way through the pop music ceiling. Jimmy Fallon saw a YouTube video of the band and booked them on his show, which helped propel “S.O.B.” to become the top viral track globally on Spotify. It hit number one on Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart and also crossed over to top-ten status in multiple genres, something that even the celebrated Alabama Shakes haven’t pulled off.
Photo: Jim Herrington
“Who knew?” Rateliff says as he slides into a seat at the bar in the St. Roch Market, a short walk from the cemetery, and orders an early-afternoon whiskey and Coke. Despite the recent fawning, Rateliff is actually a seasoned veteran: He’s a beloved figure in the music scene in Denver, where he has lived for eighteen years, recording a couple of acclaimed solo albums in the folk-rock vein as well as playing in other bands before forming the Night Sweats. The fabled Memphis soul label Stax released the band’s 2015 self-titled debut. “I wrote that song two years ago and I didn’t want it on the record,” Rateliff says of “S.O.B.” “But it makes sense why people like it, talking about drinking and swearing. It works. But, really, do they even listen to the lyrics?”
He’s right; it’s not exactly an uplifting toast, despite its beery, shout-along chorus. Rather there’s a despondent, nihilistic peer into an empty bottle where ornery demons coat the bottom. The song actually has its roots in a troubled time while Rateliff was recording in England a few years ago. His marriage was on the rocks, and he had started drinking heavily. He became determined to make amends, and today says things are on a much more solid footing. “I didn’t drink for six months and seriously went to therapy,” he says.
Rateliff and his best friend and bandmate, Joseph Pope III, have an expression: to “go Missouri” on something. Essentially, it’s their way of announcing that dumb boys are fixing to do some really dumb stuff (like the time at a festival when someone ended up in the basket of a crane after several bottles of whiskey). But it also serves as a link to their past in Hermann, eighty miles west of St. Louis. Rateliff grew up dirt poor. His father was a carpenter and an avid hunter who often brought home venison and squirrel for the family to eat. Music revolved around the church. His mother wrote hymns, and Rateliff provided harmonies and played the drums. When he was thirteen, his father was killed in a car crash on his way to church. The two hadn’t been particularly close at the time—“typical teenage rebellion stuff,” Rateliff says. But he began to dig into his father’s record collection, kept in the family garage, and discovered the likes of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, and Booker T. and the MG’s.
Photo: Jim Herrington
Five years later, looking for a way out of Hermann, Rateliff joined a missionary trip to Denver but left after becoming disillusioned with the group. After a brief return to Hermann, he and Pope decamped to Colorado for good, forming the band Born in the Flood as Rateliff worked a variety of jobs—carpentry, scheduling trucks at a distribution center, gardening. “Perennials, annuals,” he says, “you name it, I planted it.” He still maintains a garden at his home in Denver. After their move to the city, Pope was diagnosed with testicular cancer and then found out the girl he was dating was pregnant. The three shared a small apartment while Pope recovered. “A friend shows his true worth when he helps another to the toilet,” Rateliff says, laughing. “But when things are hard, you have to find something that brings you joy.”
For Rateliff, those hard times eventually led him back to his love of soul music. He wrote the chugging romp “Trying So Hard Not to Know” while mulling over a new creative fire, ultimately envisioning a full-blown band filled out with crunchy blues riffs and joyful horns. “I was lying in bed and couldn’t believe I just made this,” he says of the song. “Sometimes if I allow time to be creative, it doesn’t show up.”
“I Need Never Get Old” and another album highlight—and the next single—“Look It Here,” followed. Like “S.O.B.,” the songs are warts-and-all descriptive, providing the album a nice dose of emotional heft. “The songs are about my life, our lives, singing about stuff that hurts to be reminded of,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t like making emotions your career; something about it is kind of gross. But, at the same time, I want to move people the same way the songs make me feel.”
His manager appears behind him. Rateliff and the band are heading off to a local barbershop to film the Apple commercial, another stamp on the passport to fame. But Rateliff seems to have remained unfazed by the swirling rock-star hype, and that’s the crux of his appeal: He’s relatable, an open-book authentic whose life has had its peaks and valleys, and a songwriter capable of being much more than a one-hit wonder. “I’ve always been trying to write songs that hit you in the stomach, but ones that make people feel like things will be just fine,” he says. He fiddles with his glass before standing up to leave. “Now everyone asks, ‘How’s success?’ but I’m still broke,” he says, chuckling. “Success will be when I can have a real swimming pool instead of the fifty-dollar one I buy at Kmart every year. But I don’t want to get robbed of any authenticity to try and make money.”