[Photo by JEFF RUTHERFORD]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy shares the bill with Jonathan Richman Sunday night for a sold out show at Union Transfer. Oldham is touring in support of last year’s I Made A Place, his first LP of new songs since 2011. To mark this auspicious occasion, we are re-posting our 2010 Q&A w/ the irascible Mr. Oldham. Enjoy.
NEW YORKER: Oldham remains an elusive figure, but the show is a gentle reminder of why he is often cited as one of the finest singer-songwriters in contemporary American music. Oldham was a student of music history, clearly, but he never sounded studious. He had an eerie, strangulated voice, half wild and half broken. And he sang vivid and peculiar songs, which sometimes sounded like old standards rewritten as fever dreams or, occasionally, as inscrutable dirty jokes. These days, he calls himself Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and his music is a little bit easier to love and a lot harder to dismiss. He has settled into character as an uncanny troubadour, singing a sort of transfigured country music, and he has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure. Johnny Cash covered him, Björk has championed him (she invited him to appear on the soundtrack of “Drawing Restraint 9”), and Madonna, he suspects, has quoted him (her song “Let It Will Be” seems to borrow from his “O Let It Be,” though he says, “I’m fully prepared to accept that it’s a coincidence”). One tribute came from the indie folksinger Jeffrey Lewis, whose song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” affectionately portrays Oldham as both a hero and a brute; the joke is that most indie-rock listeners already think of him that way. And a recent, unenthusiastic review in the London Independent nonetheless concluded that Oldham was “the underground artist most likely to work his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Although he has never signed with a major label, and has never risen higher than No. 194 on Billboard’s album chart, his concerts sell out all over the world. If he remains a spectral figure, that is no coincidence. In an online tour diary from a few years ago, he wrote, “It is more rewarding to be complicit with scarcity than excess.” MORE
PHAWKER: Okay we’re rolling. Can you just identify yourself for the tape?
WILL OLDHAM: You can do that.
PHAWKER: This is an interview with Will Oldham. And you guys are in the middle of a tour and have pulled off to the side of the road; can you tell me where you’re calling me from?
WILL OLDHAM: Washington, Pennsylvania.
PHAWKER: You tour quite constantly, you’ve released hundreds of songs, more than a hundred singles, or compilation appearances, and yet somehow you’re able to maintain this aura of rarity and fleeting-ness, this sense of urgency to “get on this before it disappears.” I’m wondering how you are able to maintain that with such a prolific output.
WILL OLDHAM: Hmm, I’m not sure. That’s an observation, I guess, from the outside, so I wouldn’t know how that happened.
PHAWKER: OK, let me rephrase that. Do you ever worry that you’re ‘flooding the market’ so to speak, that you’re putting too much Will Oldham product out there and that each succeeding release is going to conflict with the one before it? Most bands put out an album every three years, you seem to put out a new one every three months.
WILL OLDHAM: Not really, I mean the makeup of each release unique, the people who are involved, the themes that are addressed, and I feel like most of the things that come out aren’t going to appeal to the same people. There are not a lot of completists out there and I wouldn’t recommend that anyway.
PHAWKER: Do you have favorite albums or favorite songs from your back catalog or are you just kind of always in the moment on this stuff, that what you’re most passionate about is what you’re working on in the moment.
WILL OLDHAM: Again, since they all serve different purposes and work for different reasons. I might have an affection for a particular song or recording session or particular or a particular show that occurred and then it will pass and I’d be on to something else.
PHAWKER: How about this: If the Martians came down today and you had to give them one song or one album to explain Will Oldham’s place on Earth what would you pick?
WILL OLDHAM: I’d just give them one of my testicles, probably.
WILL OLDHAM: Let them figure it out in their advanced laboratories.
PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about some of the critics’ perceptions of what you do and what you make of that, especially a lot of the British press, which really seems to love you and your mythos. The Guardian called you a hillbilly existentialist. True, false, indifferent?
WILL OLDHAM: I would have to say indifferent. It would be like if you watched Sanford and Son and tried to describe Red Foxx based off of Sanford and Son. Well, this is the kind of person Red Foxx is: he’s an ignorant, bullheaded junk yard guy. But I don think that’s who Red Foxx was. Nobody has the authority to say “this is who this person is” based on artistic output, which is, you know, just how they make a living. Unfortunately, people feel that it’s okay to describe individuals or imagine they know individuals, and I’m not really complaining about myself. I’m more complaining about other people, when people are lionized or criticized based on their work, and then identified as an individual, saying “this person is great” or “this person is terrible,” or “this person is deep, and this person is shallow,” based on their artistic output rather than just say their artistic output is great or terrible or deep or shallow, or hillbilly or what have you. There’s no hope of knowing a human being based on their output. To say that you do is ignorant.
PHAWKER: I’m sure you’ve been asked to explain this before, but I’d just like to go through this briefly. Why did you elect to record under the name Bonnie Prince Billy as opposed to just being Will Oldham?
WILL OLDHAM: For all the reasons that I just said, so that nobody felt like they had what they don’t have, which is the material with which to define, criticize, or praise an individual. I have just as curious, antagonistic, and compassionate relationship to the lyric, the recording voice, and even the performance voice as the listener has, and I stand apart from that voice more often than not, so by having my mind be there embody something we can all put on the table and discuss as equals.
PHAWKER: Is there anybody else in music, or in art for that matter, whose career you sort of look to as a reference point for how to do things right? Someone that has the career you want to have?
WILL OLDHAM: I don’t think so, especially not anymore because everything’s changed so much now it’s anybody’s game, there’s nothing to compare to music, touring, and acting right now. Many of our heroes from the music business were created by managers and companies and record executives and those positions hardly even exist anymore. It’s kind of more dog eat dog situation for people who are making records right now. If anything, I would look pre-mass media times, or figures that were making books or records or cure-all tonics as a mentor figure.
PHAWKER: Speaking of the evolution of the music business, it’s changed quite a bit since you started making music and I’m wondering if you preferred how things were back then or if you prefer things the way they are now.
WILL OLDHAM: Honestly, it’s hard to say. I like taking the hands that are dealt you. Everything I grew up with in terms of ways of obtaining music, listening to music and finding out about music they don’t really exist anymore. I liked that way. Putting out music was based on those old ways and now it’s completely foreign to me. But I hear as much great music on a daily basis as I ever did.
PHAWKER: Given with the way the music business is so diminished and its ironclad grasp or control of things is also so diminished, doesn’t it seem like a lot more wildcard stuff can get through these days?
WILL OLDHAM: Get through to what?
PHAWKER: Get through to the public, to the people.
WILL OLDHAM: The strength of mass media in the past has been was creating a community. With the diversification that we have it’s not what it’s about anymore. It’s about people having very, very specialized and individual relationship with media, and I’m sort of a fan of community. We’re individuals when we’re born and we’ll be individuals when we die. It seems like the greatest human achievements is the creation and maintenance of community.
PHAWKER: Isn’t it really another way of organizing into different tribes. Don’t you feel in this new media landscape that there’s ways kindred spirits can connect in ways that they couldn’t before, and create their own little sort of sub-communities?
WILL OLDHAM: Except that the barrage is so constant it doesn’t really create a drive [towards creating a community] or it creates a drive that has a life span of six weeks or something like that, as opposed to a tribe that develops over a year, a decade, 20 years. Because what you observe today, the machinery you use, the music you listen to, is invalid is in six months. The knowledge that you’ve gained, the mastery that you’ve gained of a system of distribution or listening is no longer valid within a year. Your knowledge, you just wasted that brain space and that community that you may have developed with an affinity to a certain kind of music or a certain kind of technology, disappears within a year. It seems we’re encouraged to destroy our relationships.
PHAWKER: But doesn’t your career kind of put the lie to that? I mean, you’ve been able to maintain a steady audience for going on 20 years, and you’ve not made it easy for people to do that either; it’s very confusing and complicated, your career story.
WILL OLDHAM: Well I really don’t know who the audience is and what steady means. You know, I don’t know who’s listened to what over how many releases or how many years, but at the same time I think that in the content and in the ways that we make things and treat things, I think inherent in it is a desire to create, identify, illuminate, strengthen kinds of relationships and the people that come to this music and stay with some of this music are people who find avid need in their lives. It’s a minority, and I think it always will be a minority. It’s a small group of people; it’s people who, for whatever reason, because it was instilled in them by their family, their government, or their inner nature, they have this need and this desire to feel that relationship from one individual to another individual is important, and it’s not as transient, that it’s not desirable that a relationship be transient.
PHAWKER: Does that, in part, explain the motivation for your prolific releases of records, is to continue fighting that transience, and to continue being in the now as opposed to being last week’s story or old news?
WILL OLDHAM: Can you repeat the question?
PHAWKER: Do you release music at such a prolific pace in an effort to sort of do battle with that transience, that sense of how quickly music can become old news or “we’re over that now, we’re onto the next thing.”
WILL OLDHAM: Yeah. I like the idea of establishing that relationship and attempting to maintain that relationship. I believe we’re past the end of a certain way of making music and making records that probably started in the 50s and ended in the last decade or so. Towards the end of it, it seems that the idea was that certain songs or groups or musicians approach to making music and giving it to the audience and distributing it and how they perform every year and a half or so, or every two years with some of the bigger bands, which didn’t seem enough. Then they would go away and rebuild through such sort of involved labyrinthine systems to figure out how they were gonna begin that process again. And it just didn’t have much to do with daily existence. I think if we can look to our art and our media as something that creates a more regular sustenance it would be more fortunate.
PHAWKER: On a related note, I heard in an interview with Mick Jagger recently, where he was pointing out this notion of recording artists making money, especially money off of albums and recordings etcetera, was really just a very small, anomalous period in the history of making music, that a majority of the time people just went from town to town playing music and earning their keep that way. That it was was just a rare, strange blip on the screen that we just experienced in the last 30 or 40 years, where people made a lot of money selling CD’s or albums.
WILL OLDHAM: Definitely it’s a blip, which in that time it was a blip within a blip. I think, because most people, most musicians, did not make a lot of money off of records, you know, even most of the people we hear on the radio on oldies stations, they didn’t make a lot of money selling records. A recording artist made a lot of money on the recording is a rarity. But in terms of big artists, making that kind of money like The Rolling Stones or Metallica or Bob Seger, I think that’s gone for good or definitely gone right now.
PHAWKER: Couple more questions here and I’ll let you go. I wanted to ask: do you still live in Louisville?
WILL OLDHAM: Yes sir.
PHAWKER: And you have, in fact, two houses; one you call a working house and one you a sleeping house. Is that correct?
WILL OLDHAM: You know, living in Louisville’s enough.
PHAWKER: You mean acknowledging you live in Louisville’s enough?
WILL OLDHAM: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Okay. Well let me ask you, when you’re not on the road could you kind of describe what a typical day is like in the life of Will Oldham?
WILL OLDHAM: There is no regularity. I was technically not on the road Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, but I was coming down from being on the road before that and then preparing to be on the road again. I might be writing songs or preparing to record or taking care of friend and family relationships or mowing the grass, or you know, it’s always different really, and it’s kind of a new place every time I land.
PHAWKER: Fair enough. Did you see the movie There Will Be Blood?
WILL OLDHAM: Yes.
PHAWKER: The character of Henry, the swindler who shows up, claims to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ long-lost brother and and Daniel Day-Lewis winds up killing him when he finds out he’s lying. Are you familiar with what I’m talking about?
WILL OLDHAM: I’m familiar with it. That character was so lame, specifically the actor who played him, that it really was a pain in the ass to sit through those scenes that he was in.
PHAWKER: Funny you should say that, because I totally thought he was channeling Will Oldham or Bonnie Prince Billie and I was wondering if you felt that at all.
WILL OLDHAM: I should retire then. It’s always a pleasure to watch Daniel Day-Lewis but the rest of that movie just seems so contrived, and if that’s how I come across then I really should retire.
PHAWKER: I didn’t mean to insult, sir. I loved the movie, and I thought those scenes with that guy were unsettling and quite gripping, but I guess…
WILL OLDHAM: They were unsettling because the actor was so shallow and annoying, especially compared to somebody that actually puts work into their art.
PHAWKER: Fair enough. Last question; I just wanted to confirm this lyric from “That’s What Our Love Is,” and I’m gonna make sure I’m hearing this correctly. “The smell of your box on my mustache?” That is what you’re singing, correct?
WILL OLDHAM: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Okay. I don’t think I have any further questions then. Will, thanks for your time.
WILL OLDHAM: God bless.