Nathaniel Rateliff on Recreating a Classic Harry Nilsson Standards Album With Orchestra: ‘I Know the Secret Nilsson Fans Are Out There’

The name “Harry Nilsson” typically inspires either a blank stare or a beatific smile — very little in between. Despite being worshipped by the Beatles and envied by other singer-songwriters ever since he came on the scene in the 1960s, Nilsson remains a cult figure. But his disciples are zealous.

One of them is Nathaniel Rateliff, the burly troubadour from Colorado who broke out in 2015 with the funky clap-along anthem “S.O.B.” with his band the Night Sweats. Nilsson’s influence can be felt in the swirl of playfulness, tender beauty and string arrangements in Rateliff’s recent solo album, “And It’s Still Alright.” He knows all of Nilsson’s best known numbers — like “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the movie “Midnight Cowboy,” “Coconut,” and the singer’s only No. 1 hit, “Without You.” He knows Nilsson’s quirky storybook album, “The Point!” (1970), and he contributed a cover of “Are You Sleeping” to the 2005 tribute album “Songs from the Point!”

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And Rateliff knows that, in 1973, Nilsson defied expectations — as he was wont to do — and recorded an album of standards, “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,” with opulent orchestral arrangements by Frank Sinatra veteran Gordon Jenkins. It was a deeply uncool career move at the time, and it also yielded some of the most beautiful versions ever interpreted of classic ballads such as “It Had to Be You” and “As Time Goes By.” Rateliff has wanted to perform that album for more than a decade, and thanks to the support of his hometown Colorado Symphony — who paid to have Jenkins’ lost original charts transcribed by ear — he’s doing just that.

Rateliff premiered his take on the “Schmilsson” setlist, along with six Nilsson originals, on home turf in Denver last week with the Colorado Symphony. He’ll be accompanied by a full orchestra at two upcoming shows as well: at Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night, and at New York’s David Geffen Hall on April 1. Although the players will be different in L.A. and in New York than in Denver, the Colorado Symphony’s Christopher Dragon is conducting at all three shows.

Rateliff is a little nervous that several family members of the singer, who died in 1994, will be in attendance at the Disney Hall performance Wednesday — but as Nilsson’s daughter Olivia told him: “Just remember that we’re just so excited that you’re doing this for Dad, and that we’re all rooting for you regardless of what happens.”

I’m a huge Nilsson fan, but the concept for this concert is very strange.

I mean, I feel like the premise of the “Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night” album was strange. There are multiple reasons I fell in love with the record, but one of them was the story of his idea for doing it. Instead of making a followup to “Nilsson Schmilsson” and “Son of Schmilsson,” he was like: “I want to do standards.” [Laughs] His intentions seemed like they were not to chase success, or to follow up. And I think that’s hard as an artist — to do something that you want to do versus what might benefit your career.

So how deep does your love or obsession with Nilsson go?

I’ve certainly listened to a fair amount. Early childhood my dad would always sing, “People let me tell you about my best friend / He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me to the end.” I held onto that for a long time. But I didn’t really get Nilsson — I don’t think I had a lot of his records laying around — until I got asked to do a song for “The Point!,” which was years and years ago. And that kind of brought him into my memory. I was like: Oh, I think I remember this from when I was a kid. But in my years of searching through Nilsson, I’ve certainly dug through outtakes and various things, and found the other six songs of this record [“A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night”] that are on some of those other compilations.

One of the amazing things about him is that he was maybe one of the great pop songwriters of all time, but he also had this insanely gorgeous voice and could easily be considered an interpreter up there with Sinatra or whoever. What would you say distinguishes him from other singer-songwriters?

Well, it’s kind of an interesting career, because he never really played any live shows. It’s always hard for me to wrap my head around being a musician and singer and a performer and songwriter, and not having a live aspect to it. I feel like that’s such a big part of it for me.

What are some of the reasons you admire him?

Well, he is a great songwriter, but he’s also a great interpreter of other people’s songs. His most famous songs aren’t songs that he’s written. I mean, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” for example — that’s probably one of my early memories of hearing him. But even his voice in that is so different from, like, “Without You” — which is also not a song he wrote. But then it’s funny to think that he wrote “One,” but isn’t super famous for that song either. Three Dog Night is. So it’s like… in the ’70s, him being in the universe of all these people that have these massive hits, and some of them with his songs, but then to still be kind of outside of that circle, too. Like, hanging out with the Beatles and John [Lennon], and him and Ringo [Starr] being really good friends — but not really being at their level of success either. He was the guy they admired.

What made you want to actually perform this album, and reinterpret it yourself?

Because I like live performing. There’s a lot of potential for things to go awry, and I think that pressure being there is sometimes what makes things great. And other than the BBC sessions or recordings, I don’t know of any videos or any performances of Harry doing this stuff. And one of the reasons why we did this is, my local symphony is starting this thing called “Imagination Artist.” So RZA is doing a bunch of songs — he’s doing “36 Chambers” and a ballet that he wrote. I’ve been talking with them for years, and the symphonies are always trying to get more people and a new audience in. When Beck put out that album that was just all sheet music, “Song Reader,” that was the first time I’ve worked with the symphony, and the guy who was heading up the symphony was just like, “If you ever have any other ideas, we want younger musicians.” Well, I was younger then — that’s how long ago it was. But I was like, “Well, Harry Nilsson’s ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night’ would be amazing.” He wasn’t familiar with it.

What makes this a Nilsson album, unique to him, and not just a collection of Great American Songbook standards?

It’s his voice, but I feel like his charm is in his voice, too. And you can see some of it on that BBC performance. I don’t know him, so I can’t really speculate too much — I talk a little bit to Olivia, his daughter — but there’s this goofiness you feel from him, like he didn’t really take it all that serious. I feel like that is in the songs, like in “Makin’ Whoopee” we feel like he is kind of getting a kick out of singing the song and thinks it’s funny. Or “It Had to Be You,” where the words are slightly different. Sinatra wouldn’t have done that, you know — Dean Martin wouldn’t have approached the songs that way. Because they thought a lot of themselves. And Harry… I don’t know if he did or not.

But there is an earnestness in the way he interprets some of them as well. I guess the Nilsson magic is this mix of sweetness, total sincerity, and this kind of mischievous sense of humor. It’s all there.

I asked Olivia Nilsson about the other six (outtakes) that didn’t make it on the record, and she wasn’t really able to answer me, but I sometimes wonder if those other songs aren’t on the record just because his performances aren’t as good. Like, there’s some stuff where he’s really searching for notes. And there are still songs that are on the record that are really hard for me to sing along to, because it’s like he’s searching for the note and isn’t as confident. And on some of those six songs that aren’t on the record, I couldn’t tell if he got too drunk by then or something. There’s some questionable phrasing and notes happening, and I was like: is that a drunk thing or just a mistake?

John C. Reilly is a huge fan of this record, and he was like, “Where did you even find the music?” I was like, “The local symphony, we charted it all.” And he’s like, “Man, good thinking using your local symphony. Like, the LA Phil wouldn’t be very cheap to do that.” He said he even reached out to the original conductor, reached out to his family, to see if there was any of it in existence. He said he had been wanting to do the record for ten years.

So he’s jealous.

I don’t think he’s jealous. He did say that he’s glad it’s me doing it, and not, you know, a pop singer [laughs]. But yeah, it was cool to see some of the people who love this record come out of the woodwork a little bit to talk about it — or even yourself. The secret Nilsson fans are out there.

Harry Nilsson (1941 - 1994) at the piano, 1972.  (Photo by Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Harry Nilsson (1941 – 1994) at the piano, 1972. (Photo by Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Are you singing anything beyond the standards?

I’m going to do a few extra songs, because the album’s so short, but I had a really hard time deciding what those six extra songs were going to be. I didn’t necessarily want to do all of the symphony recordings that he did. But some of his most famous songs aren’t my favorite songs, so it was like: How do I pick what I want to do, and then how do I make the audience happy? But I think, for the most part, the audience doesn’t know that there are these additional songs. Some of the songs have so much rich harmony in the vocal delivery because of Harry, and I was like: Well, I can’t really do these songs as a solo vocalist. The songs on “Nilsson Sings Newman” [an album of Randy Newman covers] are some of my favorites — like “Living Without You” I love way more than “Without You.” There’s this emotive quality that sounds almost frail in his voice in that song. It’s like [singing] “So hard, so hard, living without you.” And him in his range there, I feel like that’s what’s really emotional — versus like the top of his register where he’s screaming on “Without You.” I get why people like that.

Not to compare myself to Harry too much, but I feel like that happens to me a lot, where when I go up in my register in my own songs, I think listeners enjoy that. But it’s probably what I least like about my voice. The qualities that come out, the softness and the vibrato that he has, or an intentional crack in his voice, makes that a loaded feeling. So I tried to pick those six extra songs around that — with the exception of “Jump Into the Fire,” just because you’ve got to play one upbeat song for the set.

Anything from “Popeye”?

[Laughs] I should have done “Blow Me Down.” That’s the thing — there’s so much of the obscure stuff I dig. I did pick a song from “Pussy Cats,” though.

Were you always comfortable with your singing voice?

No, not as a child. My family played music in church, and my mom and dad would make me sing four-part harmonies with my sister and my mom and dad, and I felt so uncomfortable. I was playing drums with my mom, and then eventually started playing guitar in church with her as well. And this is not like Southern Baptist — I think when I say that kind of stuff people imagine the scene from “The Blues Brothers” where James Brown is the pastor. It was never like that. My mom was more of a James Taylor kind of singer-songwriter out of the ’70s. Played 12-string. My dad and her wrote religious songs together in that sort of genre, so I guess it would have been Americana-ish. But yeah, I really had my heart set on being a guitar hero. I cut my teeth on Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix and that kind of stuff. But I slowly drifted from that; once I started playing guitar, I felt like songs became very important to me. And the influence from other songwriters, that’s what started to grab me more than just like running scales.

Was there a turning point where you felt empowered in your voice?

Even in my early career as a singer-songwriter, I feel like I was still kind of discovering what my voice could do. And now I know it’s just like what I’m comfortable shooting for. My range is pretty fair. I’ve lost some of the high stuff, but you can always get that back with work. But yeah, even in my twenties, playing in bands, I was just so insecure about how I sounded.

And now you’re out on symphony hall stages with an orchestra singing the Great American Songbook.

Yeah, exactly. Who would’ve thunk.

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