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Willie Nile Hopes for “A Little Bit of Love” (premiere + interview)

Veteran troubadour Willie Nile's latest album, New York at Night, is inspired by his adopted hometown and world events. "The song moves me," he says. "I love what it says. It's true. We could use a little bit of love in this country and this world for sure."

Willie Nile’s latest album, New York at Night, will be released on 15 May. His 13th studio effort, the set is the latest in a line of beautifully raw, energetic, and intelligent collections that demonstrate how and why Nile has received virtually universal critical acclaim and attracted fans than range from Bono to Little Steven to Lucinda Williams.

Central to the LP’s inspiration is the singer-songwriter’s adopted hometown, New York City. He moved there from Buffalo, New York, after graduating college and has seen the town’s many manifestations. Speaking from his father’s home in Buffalo on a late winter afternoon, Nile offers up observations about the Big Apple’s street life and the myriad ways he draws inspiration from its grit and spontaneity.

The opening “New York Is Rockin'” and the titular piece are both celebrations of both that grit and spontaneity and a sense of fun. The latter word is one that crops up repeatedly in Nile’s conversation with PopMatters. One senses that, more than 40 years after making his debut album, the musician remains inspired and dedicated to the free spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.

Ostensibly on the line to discuss the latest track culled from New York at Night, “A Little Bit of Love”, Nile is generous with his time and answers, including revealing the origins of the aforementioned track. It, he notes, began in his 102-year-old father’s home. “He’s sitting here doing a crossword right now,” Nile offers. “It’s like he’s in his 80s.” His father, who is not a musician, did provide the vehicle on which “A Little Bit of Love” was written. “He’s got a beautiful upright Steinway that he bought for my mom one year at Christmas. He spent five minutes picking it out”, Nile says. “He chose an upright because it takes up less space. There were eight kids in the family and foreign exchange students. That piano turned out to be a gem.”

Visiting the family home in the late spring/early summer of 2019, inspiration struck the veteran singer late one night. “I had the line, ‘A little bit of love goes a long, long way.’ There’s something about the meter. It’s always that,” he notes. “I sat down at the piano around Midnight one night and worked on it. The song moves me. I love what it says. It’s true. We could use a little bit of love in this country and this world for sure.”

Destined to stand alongside some of the best in his output to date, “Little Bit of Love” reminds us why we fell in love with his music. He maintains a rocker’s indefatigable spirit and a poet’s heart and ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and, above all else, elevate the human spirit.

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What has New York City meant to you in the time that you’ve lived there?

I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I’ve gained a lot of street knowledge. University of the Street. There’s everything there: Rich, poor, everything in between. I moved there in ’72 when I got out of the University of Buffalo. I saw the music scenes shift, ebb, and flow. In the early ’70s, there was the ghost of the ’60s. Then CBGB, I caught that from the get-go. I went to Max’s Kansas City. I saw Patti Smith there for the first time. And Television.

Rock ‘n’ roll is like a moveable feast. Whether it’s the Mississippi Delta or Chicago or Liverpool, London, Greenwich Village, from the Beat scene to the folk scene, the rock scene. Jimi Hendrix, Zappa, everything. The party moves. For me, New York City has so much to offer. As a writer, there are ideas all over the place. I love it more than ever.

You’ve obviously seen some major changes. Times Square alone is vastly different.

If you walk from Ninth Avenue and Bleeker to MacDougal and Bleeker [and see that]. The last time I walked that I counted 18 storefronts that were for rent. There’s gentrification, but I let it roll off my back. Things change. It’s the nature of the world we live in. There’s enough history and mystery and grit in this city for me. It’s a magical place, but it’s changed a helluva lot.

Did you have a period when you knew you wanted to make an album and so started writing?

I write when they come to me. When I walk down the street, a title will hit me, a phrase. When I wrote “New York at Night”, I thought, “Well, there’s my title.” From “Doors of Paradise” to “A Little Bit of Love” to “Back Street Slide”, I knew I had the core of what would be an interesting release.

“The Fool Who Drank the Ocean” has some of my favorite lyrics on the record.

It was really fun to write. I wrote that with my buddy Frankie Lee. We met in ’92. I did some shows with Ringo Starr, opening for the All-Starr Band in the Northeast. I met Frankie through a friend. He’s a great, great songwriter. Humble man. He came over to my apartment not that long ago, maybe October of last year. He said that he had an idea for a song. He said, “I lost a thousand everythings just to make one dime / I’m the fool who drank the ocean / Thinking it was wine.” It had a real Stones-y vibe. He was hearing it as glam. I went to the piano and worked on the hook. It’s New York-inspired as well. It was effortless.

“Downtown Girl” is another interesting one. Downtown in New York means something different than where I live but it generalizes nicely.

When I came up with the idea, I thought, “People know what that is.” I snuck Motown in there as well. Someone who’s soulful has some grit. Street-wise and just magical. We’re lucky to know any of them, the magical downtown girls. I should call my band the Downtown Girls. [Laughs.]

Tell me about your band. You’ve worked with these guys for a long time.

I’ve been so lucky with the bands I’ve had since 1980. In ’91 I had Steuart Smith playing lead guitar for me. He’s been with the Eagles for 20 years now. I had Andy York in my band before he was with Mellencamp, Rich Pagano, great, great band. I’ve had Johnny Pisano on bass for more than a dozen years. Jon Webber joined a few years ago; he’s an incredible drummer. Matt Hogan has been my lead guitar player for seven, eight, nine years. He’s taking a break, but we cut the basic tracks with Matt. I found Jimmy Bones. He’s like Matt in a lot of ways; they’re both Lower East Side New York rockers. They both played on the album. Steuart did as well. He played guitar. He does the solo on “New York Is Rockin’.”

Stewart Lerman, who co-produced the record with me, won a Grammy for Boardwalk Empire. He’s been doing the music for Scorsese’s films since The Aviator. He worked on The Irishman,he did all the stuff Robbie Robertson didn’t do. It’s a killer team.

We got together, rehearsed for a couple of days, went into the studio. I was in a separate room with a window so I could see the guys and we’d just play. I’d say 85 percent of the lead vocals were cut at that time. I’m playing guitar at the same time. You can hear it on “Surrender the Moon”. I’m cooking on the strings, playing and singing at the same time. There are a few overdubs, but you tend to get that cool, live excitement when you cut like that. At least I do.

Is that how you’ve always done it?

It’s always been like this. The last five or six projects have been one after the other. I like it when it’s loose. Imperfection is OK. We played Saturday night, and it was great. People said, “You look like you’re having so much fun.” I could feel it all: The backbeat, the groove. I’m not here to be on American Idol.

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