As the lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Tom Morello played loud arena rock — and loved it. Once back home, going through his record collection, he realized there was more to music than volume.
“In more recent years, I’ve discovered that music doesn’t need to be loud to be heavy,” Morello says by phone from his California home. “Some of the darkest and heaviest albums I have are Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska,’ Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Johnny Cash.
“I found some inspiration in that.”
The newly inspired Morello created a new persona: The Nightwatchman, a solo acoustic singer-songwriter in the tradition of those Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. “I’ve found my voice,” he says with a laugh, “as a black Woody Guthrie.”
Morello, under the nom de tune The Nightwatchman, is releasing his first solo album, “One Man Revolution,” on April 24. The album is Morello, his acoustic guitar and his harmonica; for the first time, Morello will handle the vocals, too.
While the music is dramatically different, the socially and politically relevant lyrics of Morello’s past will endure. Titles like “Union Song,” “Let Freedom Ring” and “Maximum Firepower” are indicative of Morello’s intent.
“People say music can’t change the world,” Morello says. “Well, we’ll see. In my experience, it can — one song, one show, one night at a time. There can be a connection between the music and the audience that produces a tangible change in the world.”
Morello is no fan of the war in Iraq or the current president. The outspoken rocker calls the Bush administration “the worst presidency in the history of the republic.”
Morello, 42, will reunite with his bandmates in Rage Against the Machine for this year’s Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival, which runs April 27-29. But he’s insistent that the gig is a one-shot deal.
“It’s just one show,” he said. “The Nightwatchman was a side project to my arena rocking. It’s no longer a side project, it’s the main project. I have a cache of 55 songs that I believe in, and it feels like the truth when I sing them. It resonates.”
Morello, a Harvard political science major, launched the politically charged Rage Against the Machine in 1991, and the band released its self-titled debut a year later. Lead singer Zack de la Rocha left the group in 2000; the next year, Morello and his Rage bandmates created a new band, Audioslave, fronted by Chris Cornell. Audioslave has since put out two acclaimed albums.
Morello served as both sideman and social conscience in both incarnations. But he’s ready now to step up and go out on his own — although he acknowledges the first few steps were tentative.
Morello’s first gigs as The Nightwatchman were played four years ago, in coffee shops for a dozen people as espresso machines hissed in the background.
“It was pure terror,” he said of the early shows. “But I also felt it was the biggest artistic leap since I learned to play the guitar solo. And I taught myself to sing — I found a voice — a singing and a lyrical voice that felt as true and uncompromising as anything in my career.”
Morello said his career is following the same path as Dylan — only in reverse.
“He started as a revolutionary acoustic performer, and became an experimental rock musician,” Morello said. “I’ve gone from an experimental rock musician to playing acoustic.”