Willie Nile couldn’t have predicted that his latest album, New York at Night would contain at least one song that would gain extra poignancy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, “Under This Roof” has done exactly that. A tender ballad that exhibits Nile’s knack for embracing the human condition and rendering the deeply familiar anew, “Under This Roof” is an anthem for belonging in an era of isolation.
The video, Nile says, was a gift from Nefertiti Jones, wife of his guitarist, Jimi Bones. Compiling footage of the band on the road as well as footage provided by Nile’s family. “The first time I saw it, I cried,” he says. “I think this song brings back memories of what it can be like under one roof: Friends, family, smiling, and enjoying life. Right now, we can’t get together to share meals and music. We have to do it in a different way. I think the song embraces the sweet memory of what it is to be with friends and family and bandmates. It’s a love song. A song of comfort and in the COVID-19 nightmare, it takes on added weight for me.”
It seems that your family is vital to you. That’s evident on “Under This Roof”.
Absolutely. I’ve been blessed with a great family. It’s large; it’s close. I’m one of eight children with my children and grandchildren. It’s an offer of comfort to a loved one. It came from a real place.
How did you get through the Easter holiday? You mentioned having kids, and I know your father is still alive.
My dad is 103. I’m in New York City, and they’re in Buffalo. A couple of weeks ago, I was going to fly back, and I thought, “Wait a minute. I can’t be going through JFK, flying up there and staying with my dad and my brother.” My brother lives with him, and he has respiratory issues. They’re both vulnerable. I didn’t want to take the risk of bringing the virus with me.
One of my sons is uptown, and we communicate. But what I normally would have done is to be home in Buffalo with family and girlfriend. My girlfriend is Italian, and she’s stuck in the north, in Lombardy, the area that’s Ground Zero. It’s very scary. She was sick last week with a cough and a sore throat. She’s better right now.
So for Easter, I did FaceTime with her and my dad and spoke to some of my kids. I went out for a walk, went and got my bicycle and rode it along the river for about two-and-a-half hours. Just around Manhattan, looking at the beauty and getting some comfort from nature. I love the city very much.
I had dinner by myself. I don’t cook. I don’t think I boiled water in five years before this. I do take-out or go out to dinner. I just don’t, but, for the last month, six weeks, I’ve been cooking every night. I’m managing.
It has to be strange to be in a city that size and to see it look like it’s abandoned.
It’s incredible. If you had told me a couple of months ago that New York was going to shut down, I couldn’t have imagined it. I would tell you that it couldn’t happen. And yet I look around, and there’s empty street after empty street. It’s hauntingly beautiful. I’m always looking for silver linings, but it’s really strange.
You had this record ready to go and tour dates on the horizon. How are you coping with the idea that it might be a while before you get back in front of an audience?
I had tours of Spain and Italy booked that are canceled/postponed. Who knows when those will happen. The same for shows in the U.S. and Canada. That’s my income. I sell records at those gigs. There was some discussion about whether we should delay it. So many people are delaying records now that there’s going to be a glut. At some point, there’s going to be so many records that it’ll be too crowded. My stronger feeling is that I really love this record. There’s a lot of light in it. It’s moving. I’m really proud of it. I thought, “To hell with it.” You have to live your life. The friends and fans will hear it. We’ll do what we can to spread the word. I hope the record can lift their spirits like it lifts mine.
I know you were good friends with Hal Willner. Is there anything you’d like to say about him?
He was a prince. There’s a group of us that gets together a few times a year, we just catch up and talk, and Hal would be there most of the time. That’s how I met him. He always had interesting stories to tell, was always funny. He was a gentle man. I remember in Brooklyn, a bunch of years ago, at St. Ann’s church at Halloween, there was this unique show, the kind of thing that Hal would do.
There was this great cast of characters in this church reading Edgar Allan Poe. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Debbie Harry, Abel Ferrara. Garth Hudson was up in the organ loft playing all this spooky music along with the readings. The whole place was full of Jack-o’-Lanterns. It was New York City just the way you’d hope it would be.
He was a great producer, a visionary, way outside the box. He was a dear friend. He always wanted to hear my records and would encourage me. I did a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” on World War Willie. When Hal heard it, he said, “Lou would have absolutely loved that version.” That meant a lot. The world is a far lesser place without him.
And John Prine?
John Prine was a great man and a master songwriter. His humility, his humor, his indirect way of circling around the truth and getting to the heart of what it is to be human sets him apart from all the others. Listening to his songs and his understated way of delivering them is a master class on how it’s done and more. There’s a gracefulness to them that you just can’t fake. There are some things in this world that can’t be taught, and his brilliance and his heart on the sleeve of all the characters he wrote about so honestly is a testament to his greatness.
His kindness and generosity to me when we met is something I will never forget and will carry with me all my days. He was as humble a man as you’ll ever meet, and you’ll be a better person for having brushed up against one of his songs. His passing is a great loss to the world of music and the world at large. It’s a rarity for such a gentle and wise man to pass by this way, and his passing is a heartbreak in a world in such need of a great and tender heart.
God bless John Prine. Rest in peace with the angels, dear friend.