Mar 3, 2014Archive, Reviews

Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Ed. Alan Licht


W. W. Norton & Company

400 pages


In the recently released book length interview, Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oldham takes a break from talking about touring to discuss a concept he’s been considering. A few nights a month when Oldham is at home in Louisville, he would host a day of one-hour long sets. Fans across the world could buy a ticket ($10-15) and make the trek to Kentucky, or they could wander in from off the street. Audiences would be capped at about a dozen members; on stage might be just Will, or a full band- it depends who’s in town. The set would probably begin with a few requests and from that point could give way to impromptu covers, instrumentals, perhaps a conversation- it would largely depend upon the audience and what form the relationship between performer and listener took during those 60 minutes in an empty storefront in Louisville.

Oldham describes art as a series of relationships and communications. Like any relationship, he believes sincerity and reciprocity to be of fundamental importance. Though known to tour very infrequently, he has booked large theaters in the past, though generally never more often than is necessary to finance the next record. The typical concert experience, Oldham suggests, isn’t a healthy relationship: the audience stands in the dark, anonymous and interchangeable, the merchandise table too blatantly speaks to the evening’s commercial aspect, and the waves of applause suggest a one-sided connection grounded too firmly in adoration.

Will Oldham has come to these ideas by way of having spent the majority of his life on a stage. He has made a separate name for himself as an actor, musician, and as something of a subculture luminary. His enigmatic career began as a teenage actor, playing a youth preacher opposite James Earl Jones in John Sayles’ 1987 film, Matewan. His contemporary roles range from that of the resident big-souled Wildman in the critically-celebrated rural dramas of Kelly Reichardt, to absurd cameos in R. Kelly’s “hip-hopera” ‘Trapped in the Closet’ and the music video for Kayne West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” co-starring Zach Galifianakis.

Casual fans of Oldham’s most well known musical persona, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, might pause at the book’s title, under the impression that BPB and Oldham were one in the same. In fact, Oldham has recorded under a wide array of monikers over the course of his career; the majority of his pre-Bonnie “Prince” Billy recordings appeared under the triad of Palace Music, Palace Brothers, and Palace Songs, an evolving reference to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

With an artistic sensibility heavily grounded in stage and screen, (Oldham makes far more allusions to film than to music when drawing comparisons) albums are approached as distinct collaborative endeavors, akin to movies. What matters is the assemblage of performers, producers, lyrical ‘script’ and the unique way in which they combine and are brought into a permanent existence. In turn, his ideal listener would receive each album almost monolithically, one neither informing nor expounding upon another in any tangible way. He feels that by divesting his work from the personage of “Will Oldham,” he gives his fans greater freedom to experience each record for what it is.

The recording industry receives heavy treatment from Oldham. In the current spectral climate of music and media, business entities have arguably never had less control over the artists they market. Oldham, who has only ever worked with independent label Drag City, has more freedom than most. Releasing multiple albums, EP’s, and live discs every year (a corporate label wouldn’t even allow Oldham to work at his chosen pace due to concerns of oversaturation) and rarely touring, Oldham is necessarily outside the mainstream. This is a condition he accepts and feels strengthens his relationship to those who have embraced his work.

If the general public welcomed one of my songs, people would be buying my next record based on the acceptance of that one song and it would create a disappointment that isn’t a part of the process now. It would affect the other audience members who have a strong relationship with my music; it would be harder for them to enjoy because the audience would have changed and that dynamic of anticipation and disappointment would be entering my music. (339)

A few notes on the structure of the text- it is directed towards those who have a strong relationship with Oldham’s music. Oldham is rather notorious for avoiding the typical cycle of publicity interviews. (“They have nothing to do with the music. It’s usually people asking a bunch of weird questions, like why are the songs so slow? Well, maybe they just are!” from an earlier piece in Observer, quoted by Alan Licht in the book’s introduction.)

As there is very little pre-existing self-commentary, large sections of the book are given over to very minute and chronological shop talk concerning the creation of the albums: where they were recorded, how long it took, who played what. Oldham’s early work is lo-fi almost to the point of graininess, and the precision with which he can talk about the technical aspects of instrumentation and recording is impressive and surprising.

Curiously absent is much in-depth discussion of lyricism. Oldham’s songwriting abilities are the subject of gushing critical praise, and there’s just so damn many of them. To wit, his “I See a Darkness” was personally selected by Johnny Cash for inclusion on the American Recordings. As a fan who is almost as interested in the liner notes of a new BPB album as I am the record, some more words on the songwriting process would have been of interest. However, most descriptions of the albums begin with a set of songs in hand.

The second voice is that of Alan Licht, a musician and journalist who has backed up Oldham on multiple tours. A knowledgeable and patient interviewer, Licht mostly allows Oldham to go where he wants and his limited interjections are smart and in service to the reader. Also to his credit, in the course of what is mostly an interesting conversation between old pals, Licht does some real journalistic work, clearing up some of the curiosities of Oldham’s work and showing that he is a dedicated and thoughtful fan himself.

Oldham has as much to say about being a fan as he does being a performer. His own diverse musical influences: The Everly Brothers, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Danzig’s post-Misfits project Samhain, the British prog-rock staple The Mekons, to name a few, are hugely evident in Oldham’s unique aesthetic. He has carefully constructed the place he will take his own fans. One of the finest features of that landscape is Oldham’s lack of dictatorial control over it, his populist belief in collaboration, and most of all, his total willingness to tear it all down and build it again, under a new flag and a new name.