"I’m fat, I can’t read, I have no education, I’m horrible at mathematics, I can’t spell, my vocabulary is really shitty," explained Nathaniel Rateliff as he sipped on a bourbon and seven.
Cigarette smoke filled the dingy upstairs band room at the Bottleneck, combining with the smell of stale beer from years of road bands.
A half hour earlier Rateliff had mesmerized fifty or so lucky people who happened to catch the grizzled troubadour and his folk-americana act on stage. Blessed with a natural voice that is big and expressive, yet nuanced and softly growling at times, Rateliff has a peculiar enunciation that conveys earnestness and self-confidence in his message. Other than one obnoxious guy wearing a huge David Byrne suit (who I told to shut the hell up), the audience held their collective breath as Nathaniel quietly shared his stories.
Rateliff starts a song softly strumming an old classical guitar, barely brushing the strings. His band mates stand at attention out of respect- solemn, as if it were their duty – waiting for their cue to fill the void created by pleading vocals and gaunt nylon chords. A backing vocal creeps into the spectrum briefly, but something is wrong.
With a stern look at the harmonizer it is obvious that the backing vocal is not up to snuff. Rateliff doesn’t say anything, he just gives that cringe-inducing look, like “you know what you did,” and starts the song over. The crowd is deathly still, intent, listening, watching. They start over, and this time he approves of the harmonies. On their cues the rest of the band breaks their code of silence and cautiously fills in the tiny gaps.
This time they make it to the end of the song.
Rateliff could convince a fire to burn cold with his powerful baritone. He could sing about sandwiches and make you feel something inside. But he’s not going to try to. What you see is what you get, after that it’s on you.
"Sometimes they feel the songs and I win the audience over and they shut up," deadpans Rateliff. "Other times there isn’t anything. I just get up there and play, some nights I really feel it and some nights I don’t but I refuse to fake it."
Friday night at the Bottleneck there was no faking it – there couldn’t be. Rateliff’s music is as sparse and stripped down as can be, with every member naked and exposed for all to see. That’s why it’s so effective, and that’s the way it has to be now.
"If you have a quiet audience you feel more completely engaged, then you can feed off of each other and you’re sharing something together. But you can’t create that, and I’m not out to create that. I’m just singing songs for people. If it’s there it’s there. I’m kind of a lazy teacher I guess."
But it hasn’t always been this way. It took some time and some experimentation for Rateliff to find his place. As he drifted from job to meaningless job in Denver things just didn’t quite seem right. He fronted a rock-n-roll band called Born in the Flood that did pretty well locally but never really caught the attention of labels looking for more national acts. Over almost a decade of working and touring and recording, Rateliff seemed to know all along that something just didn’t quite fit.
"Sometimes I just didn’t want to be the band rocking out onstage and only five people give a shit. I’d rather just play the songs."
Rateliff’s realization – that he didn’t have to be the rock frontman, the high energy party guy – came slowly during long lonely days on the Denver loading docks:
"I only figured out that I kind of have a natural voice in my twenties. I worked at a trucking company for nine years, shipping for Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, shipping lots of stuff like that. I worked on the dock loading trailers and I worked in the yard moving trailers from the dock to the yard and breaking trailers apart when they pulled into the yard. I would sing a lot. I would drive a truck in the yard and just be singing to myself."
"Other times I would just be hanging out with the guys, me and another guy unloading a 53 foot trailer of rugs or tires. I would sing and mimic people like a comedian would. Like Sam Cook, or Nat King Cole. I would do impressions vocally and I kind of learned to sing that way. I started working there when I was 19," says Rateliff with the look of a guy who can’t believe how far he has come.
He takes a sip of his bourbon and seven.
When he finally decided to leave Born in the Flood, Rateliff was unsure of his next step, but he knew that he had to get back to his roots, get away from his vain quest to “make it” in the music business, stop trying to come up with ideas that other people would think are “cool” or “rock-n-roll.” Just be Nathaniel Rateliff. A kid from small town Missouri who grew up poor, hunting to help put food on the table, while his mom toiled away, working dead end jobs.
"I was always brought up hunting for food because I was poor. My mom worked at IGA and made fried chicken. Fried chicken and donuts. Which is why I probably struggled with weight my whole life."
Rateliff takes a long drag on a bummed cigarette. You can tell as he talks that it was a little tough back then, and that he’s in a better place now. He’s signed to a "real label," Rounder Records, and has toured with Mumford & Sons and Delta Spirit. His latest album, "In Memory of Loss," has recieved rather positive reviews, especially in the UK. Not that he’s made it or anything, but at least he owns the van that his band rolled into town in.
"Yeah, that’s the best thing I bought, paid for it in cash. Which is why I don’t have any credit because I always bought everything in cash. Which on paper, as far as equipment goes, I probably have a lot of value built up. But any sort of company that would loan you money – I don’t have shit. I’m not upset about it, better to be off the grid anyway. Like owning a pistol, nobody needs to know about that. I own throwing knives, too, nobody knows I have those, nobody should."
Another drink is ordered, Bud for me, another bourbon and seven for Nathaniel. In a way he has come full circle – from his humble beginnings in Missouri, to the big city rock band, and back. And it all really turned out to be just a matter of looking in the mirror and accepting what he saw.
"I started singing easier, started singing stuff that I like. Hanging out with a woman I’d eventually marry who kind of pointed out that the beauty in music is space and tension," Rateliff says as if he’s teaching me a universal truth of music.
Maybe he is. But he wants to explain more:
"I started off playing acoustic instruments, that’s what I grew up with. And I went back to it because it felt more natural and I didn’t really feel like I was much of a rocker cuz I’ve never been cool enough. The baritone, I never really wanted to do because I thought it was too much of a Leonard Cohen ripoff."
Rateliff constantly points out his own flaws, but at the same time he is unabashedly confident in his current direction musically. He could sit down on stage with a microphone and do a show a capella, and people would come. He knows this.
As he and his band play through their soulful set you can tell that his songs really get to people. When they are finally done, half of the small crowd wants to tell Rateliff how much his songs have meant to them. He is polite and thanks them all, even the really drunk guy saying, "You don’t understand, man! Your songs changed my life! Seriously, that’s no shit." He thanks the fan and moves on to the next one.
He knows he’s got a good thing going.
"Sometimes there’s amazing shows that I can’t believe we performed them as a a band, and the audience got caught up in it.." Rateliff’s voice trails off, he looks like even he can’t believe how good it is sometimes, even with a small crowd at a little bar in Kansas.
He’s found his place that he never could before.
"My voice, it’s the one thing I know I can do."