The time of pandemic has dramatically changed the sonic landscape of New York. It reinforced some old sounds and brought in some new sounds of the city: the sound of sirens has intensified and the birdsong seems suddenly louder as the coronavirus generally quieted the city noise and its bustling energy. This unsettling silence became the “new normal” for New Yorkers. Yet there is this new (and positive) sound: a cheerful 7 pm clapping salute for front-line workers, a movement that originally started in Europe. People gather on rooftops, cheer out of their windows, bang pots and pans, or applaud on the streets to express their gratitude to first responders, health care and essential workers.
During one of these “Clap Because We Care” nightly tributes I met a rock singer and poet Willie Nile, my “next-roof” neighbor. The New Yorker magazine called Nile “One of the most brilliant singer-songwriters of the past thirty years”. Originally from Buffalo, this die-hard New Yorker and a Greenwich Village resident has been living in the city (and in the same apartment) for nearly half a century. New York City has been inspiring and uplifting for him from the very beginning.
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni
Wille Nile has recorded and performed with many musicians, including Ringo Starr or his long time friend Bruce Springsteen (most recently they appeared together in January at legendary Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ). Bono, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Jim Jarmusch, and Little Steven are among those who have sung his praises. Willie Nile’s new studio album was scheduled for release in mid-May and a lucrative Spring Tour lined up (Nile was supposed to be on European tour in Spain and Italy with his band). In the meantime, the pandemic came and all concerts, including shows in the United States and Canada were cancelled. Nevertheless, the new album “New York At Night” is out as planned.
Willie Nile shares with Untapped New York how the pandemic shifted the significance of his new album, what it means for him, discusses history and reveals that New York and New Yorkers remain his biggest music inspiration.
Wille Nile moved to New York City back in 1972. “The 70’s were fascinating, it was really interesting time,” remembers Nile. “I went to CBGB all the time, I loved it. I went to Max’s Kansas City. I grew up on open mics to get some experience.” Eventually Nile was discovered by the New York Times music critic Robert Palmer. Following the release of his debut album, “Willie Nile”, in 1980, he joined The Who’s summer tour across the US. Soon, his music received universal acclaim. Bono called Nile’s 2013 album “American Ride”, “One of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America.”
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni
The newly released album, “New York At Night” which is Nile’s 13th full-length album, is not the first one with the thematics of New York. In 2006 he put a record and called it “Streets of New York”, which some may consider to be his best work to date due to its production and songwriting. No wonder that UNCUT magazine called Nile “the unofficial poet laureate of New York City.”
“I love New York City very much. I learned a lot of things here on the streets of New York, more than in the university”, says Nile who studied philosophy at The University at Buffalo. A long-term resident of Greenwich Village is still enjoying this now gentrified neighborhood: “In the neighborhood I knew everybody, some are still here, but the most are gone. I love the neighborhood quality of both East and West Village. New York City is a city of neighborhoods. My feeling about New York is that it’s a moveable feast. Things change and you roll with it. There’s a majesty to this city, there’s a majesty in the streets even if they are empty.”
All the songs on the new album have in common that they reflect his life and experiences living in New York, the city he still finds fascinating and mysterious. “The city influences my songs. I like collections and I always had the sense when one is forming. It depends on the songs. I thought I had songs for a good collection, a collection with a lot of New York imagery.” And he adds, “There was some discussion to hold it back”, referring to the release date that happened to be amidst the coronavirus pandemic, “but I didn’t want hold it back because these are hard times, and there is a lot of light in this album. Positiveness and light. It inspires me. I wanted to put it out as an inspiration.”
Album cover for New York Night, photography by Cristina Arrigoni
Willie Nile certainly has pretty upbeat attitude and stays positive: “I believe in New York. I have faith in people. The people here are resilient, they are strong, it’s such a diverse culture. I like their strength. I lived through 9/11, blackout, Hurricane Sandy. I have seen New Yorkers look after each other, pick it up and take care of it. There is still this sense of community. I think with the disasters people tend to pull together. It is nice to meet neighbors. It’s lovely to meet new people and sharing the experience of going through this because it’s one of a kind thing.”
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni
What inspires Willie Nile during these surreal times is “Clap Because We Care” tribute. “My favorite thing is 7 o’clock cheering, clapping, saluting the frontline workers. I love that. I mean it’s really a deep thing that this community pulls together. From street to street, rooftop to rooftop, window to window… banging pots and pans, clapping, yelling, cheering bravo. I open my window and I know it’s 7pm. It’s really beautiful, a few minutes of good will. I find it incredibly inspiring. That sense of brotherhood, sisterhood, like we are a family. It’s nice to see compassion, people honoring people who put their lives at risk. They are real heroes.”
Nile’s songs have the power to connect people even during the pandemic, and melt away some of the coronavirus blues. Sadly, the energy and the action that have inspired his new album are among many other urban attributes that are missing out during the pandemic. When I play his new CD, however, all the missing sounds, the hustle and bustle of this metropolis come back to me. It is truly fascinating how music – or just one song – can transport us to a better place, in this case to New York as we knew it. “New York Is Rockin’”, the track that opens the new album, could become a new anthem of New York.
Willie Nile tells the story how the title for his new record (“New York At Night”) came to him: “I was near Times Square at a show at The Iridium last summer coming home by 10:30. I went down to subway, and I saw the doors open up, and there was a can of whipped cream by someone’s foot. I thought that’s bizarre… As I entered the car I saw this guy and his legs covered in whipped cream. I didn’t look when I came in because I wasn’t sure what was going on. I sat in the car and didn’t see him, and I thought what a New York moment! You don’t see that every day. A guy covered in whipped cream! I just laughed. Then I got to W4th Street Station. It was Friday night, so it was very active. It was busy, kids partying, tourists, panhandlers, limousines going by the Blue Note…I thought, wow, New York at night! And right away I thought that it is a song. As I walked home, I started to write it. And there is a line in that song: I went into the subway and it felt just like a dream – Saw a fellow goin’ by covered in whipped cream – Take a train to Grand Central or an overcrowded bus – There’s room on any corner for everyone of us.”
The album has already achieved #1 song of the week on WPKN and The Alternate Root, as well as Editor’s Pick in Downbeat Magazine. Moreover, it was listed in rock nyc as one of the best albums of 2020. Willie Nile feels that the meaning of this record has intensified with the coronavirus outbreak: “It’s a celebration of the city. Actually, I made the album just for loving the city, and with the pandemic, people out of work, the whole country, and now with all the marches…it has taken a deeper significance. For me it just makes the songs true even more. It came from a honest place and it still feels honest to me. I loved making it and I didn’t know that it would resonate as it does.” The song “Under This Roof” embraces the sweet memory of what it is to be with friends and family and bandmates. It is a song of comfort in the COVID-19 era.
This new record featuring tributes to New York City, songs of personal struggle and social justice, as well as ballads about family and the meaning of love can truly touch New Yorkers from all walks of life, and draw in many out-of-towners. Willie Nile shares his love for New York in a classy style with old-timey charm yet enthusiastic energy. His authenticity, honesty and love for this city are very palpable. There is this distinct quality to his music which only confirms that Nile belongs in a class of New York songwriters with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Ramones, and others.
The sound of “New York At Night” is definitely the sound we need right now. It is New York at its best. It is a therapy uplifting spirits. Since New York City just entered the first phase of reopening, hopefully it is on its way to fully rockin’ again. This album gives us hope that we’ll soon get back to that. So don’t forget to clap tonight and then listen to Willie Nile!
Recently, Willie Nile has launched online concert series “Live in the Studio” on Facebook live. Tonight June 18, 8pm ET Willie Nile – Live In The Studio returns with Episode 3 with special guest Johnny Pisano. Find the latest updates on upcoming studio performances on Nile’s facebook or website. Nile’s new album is available for streaming across all major music services, like Amazon Music and Spotify, and on his Shopify site.