don’t think Will Oldham’s musical output—under a number of monikers, from Palace Music to Bonnie “Prince” Billy—is anywhere near as prolific or profound as seminal artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But there are a number of devoted followers who would wager their record collections on proving me wrong. What kind of figure inspires such devotion?
Everything I’d read in preparation for this interview warned me of a cantankerous, sarcastic, unpleasant old coot who loathed interviews, journalists and his fans. However, the Will Oldham I spoke with in a modest Soho hotel room was a young, laid-back country boy who couldn’t keep pieces of burrito out of his beard. A few weeks in advance of his new collection of re-recorded Palace songs, Bonnie “Prince” Billy shared with me a number of honest opinions about the state of pop music and the philosophy of the artist/audience relationship.
Your record label, Drag City, is based in Chicago, and I think it’s safe to say that your fans are primarily from major American cities like New York. Do you feel like a representative of the American South…its rhythms, its poetry?
Well, are you still based in Louisville?
I moved back to Louisville last summer. Before that I lived in Baltimore for a couple years. Before that in Rhode Island. Before that, New York City for a little bit. Before that, in Kentucky. Before that, Iowa.
To me, your music seems connected to the South, because I’ve never been there, so the South is what I see in movies, what I hear on records, so I have to say it’s kind of strange to meet you here in Manhattan, in the biggest city in the world. What do you think of Manhattan? What do you do when you’re here?
Eat. Walk around. Eat a lot. Walk some more. Eat. And I do a little shopping sometimes. I lived here for brief stints in the past, but I don’t think I would do it again.
Any reason why?
Probably because there’s so much to do that you never get any rest and you don’t get any time to think.
There’s no place to sit, rest and reflect. You can go to Washington Square Park, but it’s not a park. There’s no nature. People are not connected to nature.
Even that…it’s not a natural creation…it’s man-made.
When I was a teenager, I remember sometimes getting overwhelmed when I would come here, and then someone told me about the Cloisters museum. That’s a nice breather…the best Manhattan breather. Also, the Lamonte Young installation at Church and White. It’s up high, and you go in and you’re in sort of a sensory vacuum except for these really huge sounds that are going on. It helps diffuse some of the frenetic energy of the city.
Of course, Manhattan is also the American center of art…the incomparable selection of great films, concerts, readings…
It survives on that reputation, yes. Whether or not it is, it likes to pretend that it is, right?
Do you think there’s a piece of art that really does capture the South?
I have no idea. I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a way of representing a huge geographic region.
So I really just have to go? I can’t just read about it?
So you’re certainly a prolific songwriter. I’m not even going to count the number of releases under your belt. Are you fulfilled, or happy, writing songs?
I like to. It’s a good way of making a living.
Well, you had a brief stint as an actor, and even as a construction worker…do you feel like this is what you want to do with your life? You’re content?
Making records? Yeah.
Tell me about recording with Johnny Cash. I assume it was very flattering. What was that experience like?
It was super flattering, and at the same time it was so dreamlike that it felt natural in a way. I felt prepared. You know how you never get to do what you know you’re capable of doing? All of a sudden, I felt like I was doing it. It cancelled out doubts and insecurities that are always there. I always hoped that I could, and on some level, knew that I could, but the chance of this experience ever happening was so slim.
So Cash is one of your role models?
How did you respond to his loss? What did the world really lose when we lost Johnny Cash?
Nothing. I mean, he was an older man who led a full, full, full, full, full, full, super-fucking-full life, and there’s hundreds of records, thousands of songs, films, videos, books. We didn’t lose anything. Everyone can still take advantage of everything that he did.
Is that something you’re hoping to achieve through your music? A kind of immortality?
No. I don’t care. As long as it lasts until I…there will be no more need for it.
You said we become new people over seven-year cycles. Are you the same person who recorded the early Palace music?
I don’t think so. It’s like when two people remember the same incident from ten years before, but differently. “I remember when you said, when we walked up the Grand Canyon, that it’s this huge mouth that you wanted to be a morsel of food in.” “No, no, that’s not what I said. I was talking about going to the dentist…” and each person knew exactly what happened, “exactly.” Neither one has any bearing on the truth. The farther away you get time-wise, the less it will resemble—if you could time-travel back—what actually happened at that moment. I can pretend to remember certain things about making those records, but I’m sure it’s wrong.
Your last record, Master and Everyone, which is actually my favorite record of yours, was so stripped-down, basically your voice and an acoustic guitar…
When you make a record, do you look back at your past work and consciously try to do something different?
No, usually I start making a record and try to do something the same as everything that was successful about the previous record, and then discover that it’s impossible to repeat those successes. It ends up being completely different…it’s always a shock.
You toured with Bjork this past summer. How did that relationship start? How did someone like Bjork hear a Will Oldham record?
Bjork was friends with Harmony Korine, and we were going to play Iceland four years ago, and Harmony said “you should call Bjork.” So we hooked up with her when we went to Reykjavik, and it was great, and we would e-mail every now and again, and kept up the communication, and when she went out on tour, she asked me to open.
Was that a good experience? I mean, in Los Angeles you played the Hollywood Bowl. Was that a total shock?
I try to make “total shock” a sort of habit. So, in some ways in was, but that was a good thing. The Hollywood Bowl was the biggest audience I’d ever played in front of, and more than half of them were vocally discouraging, and that was awesome, you know? That was so good.
But did you have doubts about going on that tour, since you’ve said you don’t want your music to be part of the mainstream?
No, I figured there was no chance that anyone would give a shit about my set, so I just figured that I was gonna do these songs and most people would forget about ’em, since they paid sixty bucks to see Bjork and once she came on that’s all they cared about.
I’m growing a beard right now, as you can see, and I know you’ve had your beard for a while. What are the pros and cons of this bristly endeavor?
The pros are that in the winter it’s good for warmth and you don’t feel like doing your toilet as often as you would in the summertime. In the summer you can enjoy taking showers, but in the winter it’s not fun to bathe, it’s not fun to get wet or cold. Having a scratchy beard in the winter, having some growth, collecting wool dust…it gets itchy and uncomfortable, so you might as well just let it grow out. It’s good as a shield against other people.
My girlfriend hates mine.
My girlfriend really, really, really likes it. She’s sort of perverse in that way. There are erotic aspects to it. You get your hair mixed with her hair.
You usually don’t like to get to know your fans, preferring the music to speak for itself. Do you think an artist should be enigmatic, or is this more a product of your own personality and upbringing?
I think that people should be taken for who they are and what they do separately. If someone’s a nice guy, that doesn’t mean you should go see their show. So many nice guys playing music, but if the music sucks, why waste your time and spend your money? It’s stupid, and you’re an idiot if you do that. At the same time, there’s Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, who do a lot of bad things…does that mean you shouldn’t listen to their music? No.
But there’s also the sense that when you buy a person’s album, you’re giving them more money…
To make more records. If you like the record, you want to hear more of those records.
But you never know where the money’s going. Let’s say the artist is a heroin addict. You’re giving him money for his art, but it could be used for other purposes.
Well, you’re bound to make mistakes, yeah. But whatever evil they do in their lives, as long as it doesn’t affect the music, you’re safe, because that’s your only relationship to them, the music, and whether or not it does something good for you, as a listener.
Have you ever lost your love for an artist because he or she explained his/her work?
I don’t like to read what people say about their songs…I stay away from that as much as possible. However, there’s that Neil Young record Decade, which has those little descriptions of every song—sometimes just anecdotal things about the recording or writing of the songs—but they might say something about what the song’s about. I liked the songs, but the notes weren’t any more helpful or constructive in making me like the songs more. They were harmful.
Do you think “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash suffers because people know that they wrote it together about their love affair?
Yeah, I didn’t like it as much once I heard that story, just because it was my song. I don’t want to listen to them…you know, it’s nasty. They’re not the most attractive people, and to think about them liking each other and “doing it”…I thought the song was awesome, it was totally hot and sexy, and now I just think…there are other songs for me to listen to.
Especially since you’ve met them as old people…
Your music has a timeless quality…or, at least doesn’t seem very modern, both lyrically and in composition. Do you listen to new music? What’s on Will Oldham’s iPod?
[He hands me the iPod to browse through the artists.]
How narcissistic…you have Bonnie “Prince” Billy on your iPod?
Yeah, I have songs I have to work on, so I put them on there.
[I continue reading through the list of artists.]
Cat Power, Dixie Chicks, Donovan, Etta James, The Fall, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, James Brown, Tom Waits, Will Oldham [laughs]…do you like Wilco at all?
No. I respect them…I like Jeff Tweedy a lot. I thought the last record sounded cool but I didn’t like it that much. I saw Jeff Tweedy play as part of a Second City 24-hour improv fest, with guest monologists at the beginning of every hour. So both Steve Albini and Jeff Tweedy did monologues. He played music, too. The music was okay, but his comedy was so fucking funny.
Do you listen to Songs: Ohia or Cat Power or other artists who are sometimes compared to you?
I listen to Cat Power…especially her first record and this latest one. Myra Lee and You Are Free. I don’t listen to Songs: Ohia all that much, but we did make an EP together.
What about Hip-Hop?
I like rap, but I hate when they’re just talking about themselves all the time. I don’t like that about any music. I was just about to get Jaheim, and Raphael Saadiq, who was in Tony Toni Tone. I always buy Missy Elliott records on the first day they’re out. I also like Nelly.
What do you think of Outkast?
I’m not sure how I feel about Outkast.
They certainly captured the zeitgeist this year.
Yeah, people like it. It seems…sort of brainy. Too clever. I love “The Way You Move”, but their other songs, and the way they dress…it seems like they’re saying “fuck you” to people they don’t need to say “fuck you” to. Kool Keith was the same way…he just had a chip on his shoulder.
What would you like to see more of in interviews? What would make you more willing to do them?
I approach interviews this way; I don’t know what I’m going to say in advance, and usually if I hear a question that’s similar to one I’ve heard before, I’ll try to answer it in a completely different way. I put a lot of energy into it, and then when it’s over, you’re going to get up and walk out of the room, and you have everything, and you’re taking it with you. I don’t have it anymore. When you work on a song, you can go out for coffee and come back and it’ll still be there. But here it’s like…where did that interview go?
The best way to capture an artist’s personality, though, is to have him answer the questions immediately, without preparation, and then to take those answers away. It’s the easiest way for people to get to know who you are at that moment. So it works for me, the journalist, even if it doesn’t work for you.
That’s fair. But it’s enjoyable, and it still satisfies on a number of levels.
By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2004-03-29