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How Nathaniel Rateliff Went From Singer-Songwriter to Soul Dynamo

How a struggling Colorado gardener found his inner Otis Redding

Nathaniel Rateliff

"For years, I've had people say, 'This is going to be real big.' So I'm not sure how to react to it," says Nathaniel Rateliff of his sudden fame.

Laura Harvey

A few years ago, it looked like Nathaniel Rateliff’s music career might be over. The Missouri native had been at it for more than a decade, first as frontman of the Denver alt-rock band Born in the Flood, then as a singer-songwriter. His 2010 solo album led to gigs opening for Mumford & Sons, but his label rejected his follow-up. Rateliff worked as a gardener and thought about calling it quits. “I thought, ‘If it ends here, then I’ve done what I can do,'” says Rateliff, 36.

He eventually decided he had only one option — “push through and write new songs” — but this time, he added a fresh twist. “At an early age, I loved Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and doo-wop,” he says. “I wanted to make that music for such a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without being cheesy.” In 2013, Rateliff formed the seven-piece soul band Night Sweats with some Denver buddies, and they knocked out most of their self-titled debut in two inspired weeks (the album was recently released on legendary Memphis label Stax).

The response has been beyond anything Rateliff could have predicted. The album debuted in the Top 20, and the Night Sweats have quickly established themselves as one of rock’s best new live acts. When they performed their high-powered hit “S.O.B.” on The Tonight Show, they sent Jimmy Fallon into fanboy convulsions. “If you believe in soul … if you believe in rock n roll …,” Fallon tweeted, “enjoy the band on our show tonight.” “Nathaniel’s always had a dynamic voice, but this is a great showcase for it,” says his friend Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons. “He just goes for it.”

Rateliff, who looks like a cross between a barista and a backwoods preacher, has greeted the success with a mix of excitement and trepidation. “I’m still waiting for something bad to happen,” he says. “For years, I’ve had people say, ‘This is going to be real big.’ So I’m not sure how to react to it.”

Rateliff says his new sound has a lot in common with his earlier, more somber work. “S.O.B.” is, at heart, a troubled song about drinking your way through a breakup. “The connection would be self-loathing and writing about the relationships in my life,” he says. Rateliff isn’t ruling out a return to his unplugged side. That said, he knows why the Night Sweats are connecting in ways his other projects haven’t: “It’s a lot easier if the crowd is on its feet and clapping and putting their phones away.”  

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