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"The other thing I'd do," he adds, "is I'd go up to Clear Creek, and I'd get in the water and just stand in the middle of it and kind of let it take everything. I'd work all day and then drive up to the mountains and get in Clear Creek in the middle of the stream and let the current push up against me or I'd swim upstream."
Rateliff also immersed himself in music. By now, he and Pope had founded Born in the Flood and had begun playing out. But there were some growing pains for Rateliff, as his band searched for its sound even as he was coming into his own. "I didn't really think about what was cool," he says, describing how he grew up. "I was wearing bell-bottoms for a long time and skating, but I've never been like a cool kid. I just tried to do what I really liked. In the period of my life when I was trying to be cool, when I look back at the pictures, it's just really ridiculous, the really early Born in the Flood days, with white belts, spiky hair and eyeliner. I just really wanted people to accept me. I felt like such an outcast my entire life. I was just always the fat kid that got picked on my whole life."
As it progressed, Born in the Flood went through several iterations of its own — from classic-rock five-piece to a Strokes-owing garage-rock combo – before settling into the anthemic Brit pop sound that subsequently made the act the toast of the town. But while it attracted some label attention, the outfit was really more of a local phenomenon that had climbed as high as it could without taking the show on the road.
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After two stellar Flood releases, Rateliff began stepping out, writing and recording quieter songs on his own with a loyal cast of friends — including Pope on guitar, Julie Davis on bass, Carrie Beeder on violin, James Han on keys and Ben DeSoto on drums — as the Wheel. Not only did the sparser setting prove more gratifying, but it allowed Ratliff's expressive voice to elbow its way to the forefront. Rateliff has always had a striking tenor range, but on the new material he was able to stretch and showcase the robust, affecting baritone croon — landing somewhere between Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen — that he'd been developing.
For a while, Rateliff split his time equally between Born in the Flood and the Wheel. But after releasing Desire and Dissolving Men, his self-produced, twelve-song independent debut, and playing shows as the Wheel, that act began taking center stage. For now, Born in the Flood is on hiatus while Rateliff focuses on the music he made as the Wheel — now known just as Nathaniel Rateliff.
On his own, Rateliff — who attracted the attention of Rounder Records during a CMJ show in New York, which subsequently led the label to add him to their roster — feels notably less confined artistically. And his art has become even more compelling. In Memory of Loss, dedicated to his late father and featuring a Polaroid photo of a sunrise that Rateliff snapped while still working on the loading dock (he quit that job a few years ago and now gardens when he's not making music), contains some of his most memorable songs to date. Although some of Desire's most choice tracks ("Just for Me, but I Thought of You" and "My Hanging Surrender," among others) didn't make the cut when Rateliff traveled to Chicago to record with Brian Deck, he picks up right where he left off on that album, and blesses us with equally moving songs, including "Once in a Great While" and "Happy Just to Be," which open and close the album.
"I don't want to be stuck anywhere," he says of the music he's writing now. "I just want to do what I'm doing. I want it to come from a place of honesty and, hopefully, humility."
Rateliff, who admits that he let his ego occasionally get the better of him during the latter days of Flood, is noticeably grounded and gracious today, at peace not only with himself, but with his past and his spirituality — and all of that has made its way into his music.
"It's funny, all of this," he concludes. "Even though the record's called In Memory of Loss, I feel so far removed from all of that. I don't really see any of those hardships or tragedies I went through to be a bad thing. It's just life. Everything that's happened to me in my life has shaped me to be who I am."