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I'm feeling pretty fortunate these days," declares Nathaniel Rateliff, sitting on the front porch of his Baker neighborhood home. The singer-songwriter is still buzzing from the string of shows he just finished on Daytrotter.com's Barnstormers Tour. He's been home just long enough to run a few errands, pour himself a glass of wine, have a quick smoke and gather his thoughts before he tackles the rest of his day, which should be pretty monumental. In a few hours, Rateliff is due at Twist & Shout for an intimate in-store performance commemorating the release of In Memory of Loss, his Rounder Records debut.
For the better part of the past five years, Rateliff's been a darling of the Denver scene, both on his own under the Wheel moniker and fronting Born in the Flood. But despite being a household name in the Mile High City, he's still an unknown quantity to many music fans across the rest of the country. Today he'll officially make the acquaintance of those who haven't already been blown away by his powerful voice and gently bewitching songs — and he'll undoubtedly win them over, too.
Long before Rateliff was an indie sensation attracting the notice of Vanity Fair and touted by Brooklyn Vegan in the same breath as Bon Iver, the singer-songwriter was a carefree miracle baby from rural Missouri who spent his time climbing trees and setting off beaver traps, thinking a lot about God — probably too much for a kid his age — and then later trying to imagine there was no heaven. In his fiercely spiritual family, the afterlife was hardly imaginary. Doubting heaven was like doubting God, and there was no question of His existence. After all, how else could you explain how Rateliff's father, Cecil, aka "Bud," who'd been diagnosed with Burkett's lymphoma and pancreatitis at the age of nineteen, was healed completely after his wife's friends laid hands on him?
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Rateliff knows this story by heart. He traveled around with his parents as a child and heard his dad tell the tale over and over about how he was given six months to live and then, astoundingly, went into remission. And how it was a miracle that he'd later had a child. "After that, they told my dad if he had any kids, they'd be dead or deformed," recalls Rateliff. "That was me. So I was like my mom and dad's miracle baby."
By the time Rateliff entered his teen years, he was listening almost exclusively to Christian rock. But as he sifted through his father's record collection, he discovered the difference between the pious paeans he'd been listening to and rebellious rock songs. "Hearing that John Lennon song 'Imagine' for the first time, I couldn't get it out of my head," he says. "But my mom and my dad were like, 'You know, you probably shouldn't sing that. It's a really humanistic song.' I never thought about it until years later that humanism is not really a bad thing, because we're human.
"I was always taught that God had created music," Rateliff explains. "And I thought, 'Well, if God had created music, how come our songs aren't any better than 'Imagine'?"
It was the first of many soul-searching queries for Rateliff, which increased after his father was killed in an automobile accident on his way to church when Nathaniel was just thirteen. By the time he was sixteen, he'd dropped out of school and gotten a job. A few years later, he and his best friend, Joseph Pope III, signed up for Youth With a Mission, an international evangelical ministry that sent them to Denver. To make the trip, which they sort of saw as a chance to escape rural life in Missouri, the two worked twelve-hour shifts in a plastic factory to save money.
When the duo arrived in Denver, Rateliff's faith really began to unravel. "For some reason, I moved away from actual belief in Christianity — even with that story being the basis and start of my life," Rateliff recounts. "I really started questioning: If God existed and God was loving, why did all this bad shit happen in my life? Why did everybody die? Why did the personal things that happened to me happen?" By the time he'd completed a mission trip and two phases of training, those questions were so ponderous that Rateliff moved away from the organization and ultimately from God — but not from Denver. He wasn't interested in going back to Missouri, so he stayed in town and eventually found work, first as a carpenter building decks and later at a trucking company.
But the time he spent at the trucking company proved momentous, because it was there that he honed his vocals. In an effort to entertain his co-workers on the loading dock (and also himself, later, when the radio was banished), Rateliff — already a burgeoning musician who'd spent hours with Pope in the basement making feedback years earlier — taught himself how to mimic classic soul singers.
It was during this time that Rateliff also beat himself into shape, physically and mentally. As a way of coping with difficulties of young adulthood — unresolved issues from the past, a best friend who might be dying (Pope had just been diagnosed with cancer) and was about to become a father (Pope's girlfriend was living with the two friends in a cramped house) — he began working out and completely changed his eating habits. "I was having severe anxiety attacks," Rateliff remembers. "I'd get like the shakes and have a tick and stutter. They'd give me medication for it, but it just made me feel like a zombie. I was like, 'This can't be good.' So I changed my diet, I quit drinking, I quit eating salt, I quit eating sugar and coffee and caffeine, and I ran all the time — and it totally fixed me.
"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.
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."