Words by Mr Dan Cairns
Although he has lived in Denver since he was 18 years old, Mr Nathaniel Rateliff remains, at heart, the boy who roamed free in the fields and woods that surrounded Bay, the tiny Missouri town of 60 souls where he grew up the son of devout Christians. As fans of the singer's solo debut, last year's beautiful and often heartbreaking In Memory of Loss will attest, this former dockyard worker's songs are so intimate, so fragile and fraught, that he might be singing them to just the population of his hometown (a lot of the tracks were, in fact, written for the woman who would later become his wife). Yet the album found an audience that was considerably larger than that, thanks to a word-of-mouth buzz that, Mr Rateliff observes drily, didn't always translate into sales.
"I toured a lot back home," he says, "and there was a lot of talk about the record, but much more so in Britain. But then, the US is vast. I think the next record could do really well there, though; people were definitely talking about the album - they just weren't buying it. I get a lot of 'I love your record', and I'm like, 'Oh, really? You buy it, then?'"
When we meet, Mr Rateliff appears to be nursing either a hangover or a broken heart (or possibly both). Heartache certainly seems to have inspired several of In Memory of Loss' finest songs, such as "Shroud" and "We Never Win". The latter is infused with the hymnal chord progressions and harmonies Mr Rateliff grew up with. "I had a lot of religion in my upbringing," he reveals. "And my family all played instruments, so music was a huge part of my childhood." The singer himself started playing the drums at the age of seven, moving on to the guitar at age 13 following the death of his father, a carpenter and musician who was run over and killed while he was on his way to meet his son at church. An early and vocal fan of the album was the iconic former Led Zeppelin front man Mr Robert Plant, who in an interview with MR PORTER described his track "Early Spring Till" as, "empty, fragmented and poignant". You could get him to produce your next album, I suggest. "Well, he could fund it," Mr Rateliff jokes. "Seriously, though, it was cool that he said because I felt as if I had gone full circle - I really got into playing drums through the Led Zeppelin IV album, which was sort of the beginning of my real love for music."
It was cool that Robert Plant liked the album because I felt as if I had gone full circle - I got into playing drums through Led Zeppelin's IV album - it was the start of my love for music
If it's hard to detect evidence of that love on the almost uniformly hushed acoustics of In Memory of Loss, Mr Rateliff's earlier band, the Denver-based outfit Born in the Flood, bore a more obvious influence. The band flirted with mainstream success but never quite reached the tipping point. Mr Rateliff seems sanguine about this - and his singing and writing on In Memory of Loss suggests that he made the right decision when opting to strip back his songs to the bare bones. "The band was very much a rock thing," he says, "and I wrote all the material. I'm actually looking at revisiting some of that - there's a whole album of stuff that I never released. But the problem with that is, how do you release something like that without people going, 'So, now he's in a rock band?' At the time, I just felt that I wasn't connecting with that style of music any more, and I've definitely found that the audience is more responsive to what I'm doing now."
Mr Rateliff has completed demos of a new batch of songs for his second album, and is visiting the UK for preparatory sessions with producer Mr Ian Grimble. He isn't sure when the new album will see the light of day, though. "It would have been nice if it had come out in September - last September," he chuckles, "but there's a whole logistical side that prevents that. I mean, I would have liked to put it up on my website and gone, 'Hey, here it is - and it's free!' But, understandably, people didn't go for that. But then, the industry works one way and the artist works another. And that's not always easy."
The industry works one way and the artist works another. And that's not always easy
Mr Rateliff doesn't seem entirely convinced that his debut album owes that much to his childhood in Bay. Although it sounds idyllic - sleeping outside in the summer, skateboarding, exploring the local woods and caves - life became more troubled following his father's death. It was a period when Mr Rateliff dropped out of school and worked to support his family. "[When] we were doing a bio to go with the album," he recalls, "I was talking to this writer about it. And he said, 'Give me the whole story'. So I said, 'All right', and told him about my past. And that seemed to become the focus for everybody who subsequently wrote about me. But I feel pretty far removed from any of that. I mean, I was a kid when I lived there - and now I'm in my thirties."
That analysis reckons without Mr Rateliff's fans, however - who hear, in In Memory of Loss, qualities that seem to owe nothing whatsoever to big-city hustle-and-bustle and contemporary angst, but are instead inspired by the time-honoured values of storytelling and candour, and the desire of a roaming troubadour to set down his thoughts. Not for nothing, you feel, does the album's cover bear a photograph of Mr Rateliff's father. This doesn't mean that listening to In Memory of Loss is always a comfortable experience. Yet, as Mr Rateliff's music reminds you, sometimes you need to work hard and dig deeper to find the gold.
The artwork for Mr Rateliff's critically acclaimed debut album, In Memory Of Loss