Will Oldham On Bonnie “Prince” Billy by Alan Licht
Prince Among Men
The new book Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy represents a rare approach to writing about music and the musicians who produce it: the book-length interview.
Alan Licht, a musician who has played guitar on numerous albums, written two books, and contributed to music publications like Wire, interviews Will Oldham, a musician (with whom Licht has collaborated) and an actor.
Oldham is better known these days as the singer, Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
Licht displays remarkable knowledge about the chronology and particulars of Oldham’s career, and Oldham happens to be a fascinating interviewee, willing to discuss his entire career and approach to art in great detail.
What’s the motivation behind this book? In his preface, Licht suggests two.
First, he tells us that the book’s subject has often been described as an “elusive, puzzling, and obfuscating artist who does not like to be interviewed.” So the book works to “provide a basic information source for future interlocutors.” (It’s also an excuse to avoid more of those damn interviews.)
Second, Licht claims that the book explores something unique and anomalous in pop music – Will Oldham, who “questions and usually outright rejects any and all accepted record industry wisdom with regard to virtually every aspect of . . . music. . . As much as, if not more than. . . Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Lou Reed, Oldham is a law unto himself.”
Comparisons like that may not be of much use, but the book certainly goes a long way towards explicating Oldham’s idiosyncratic ideas about making and using music.
In the ‘80s, a young Will Oldham devoted his energy to acting – most famously in John Sayles’ Matewan – but he constantly hung around the music scene in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. In fact, when Licht first met his future interview subject, Oldham happened to be living in a house with a member of Pavement (one of the most influential indie bands of the ‘90s) and a member of then-defunct Louisville band Slint. (Slint’s 1991 release, Spiderland, carries a lot of weight in select circles).
Oldham started releasing his own music in 1992, and between that year and 1998, he put out a slew of albums and singles. He also changed the name on his recordings at least five times.
At the end of the ‘90s, Oldham – who continues to release music frequently, and sometimes to act as well – settled on a performing personality that he has more or less stuck with since: Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
What about Oldham’s music makes it worth following across all his various iterations? For starters, it’s easy to soak up – it has bits and pieces that remind you of some tune you heard once, from any number of musical genres. But it’s also difficult to pin down, and this can be intriguing, causing you to hunch closer to your speakers to hear things a little better.
Songs on an album like I See A Darkness defy easy labeling. Just as often as guitars articulate bluesy shuffles or country rhythms, they provide electrified punctuation or softly squalling riffs borrowing from soul or indie rock. Oldham’s voice rides on top of it all, slippery and unusual. He’s comfortable singing big rock choruses, Scots-sounding folk, or conversational ballads. Just when you think know what’s going on, he’ll jump from ragged harmonies to howls to an agreeable high note. Occasionally other voices rise to sing and yelp alongside Oldham’s in an odd gospel stew. It’s unpredictable, and the element of surprise has immense value in pop music.
Licht and Oldham’s talk illuminates the process behind the sound.
We learn that Oldham wants to escape being trapped in a stable—and therefore constraining—relationship with his art, his self and his audience. In an ideal world, Oldham’s art matters whether it’s made by a band named Palace or by another personality (even one that evokes images of an exiled Scots nobleman). What an individual does in his free time shouldn’t affect the way people perceive his work, and the perceptions of the work shouldn’t limit his creative process. According to Oldham, “I didn’t want to feel I was accountable every moment of every day for the content of the songs, as much as for making them available or interpreting them.” When writing songs, Oldham always wanted to be “ entering a place where the rules and the reality were in flux. . . I was a common factor, but it didn’t have to be an ‘I’ that I knew. . .’”
So Oldham eventually created a layer of distance between himself and his songs using an alternative persona. (Other musicians have followed this path—think David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period—but most artists don’t stick with it for long). Oldham explains, “Will Oldham has a private life, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy doesn’t. . . if I do a Palace Music [one of Oldham’s early performing names] show or whatever, there’s gonna be a scene, or expectations, and that means our freedom to experiment. . . is gonna be limited.”
The Prince isn’t real, so no rules hem him artistically. The audience can “fill out the character, fill out the person, fill out the life,” but in theory, Oldham stays safely tucked away behind the pasteboard mask. From this vantage point, he can make “ a record that serves itself and its audience well,” for “ ultimately it is the audience that holds the lion’s share of determining if a record is worthwhile.”
What does a record mean for Oldham? It is not just a group of songs. He considers each record a historical document that achieves functionality as “a record of that moment in this ensemble’s history.” He likes albums to maintain internal integrity, which he defines as occurring when “every song is dealt with the same way.” He’s willing to take issue with well respected artists on this dimension—he notes that one of the few problems he sees in Neil Young’s best music stems from a lack of internal consistency caused by “a hodgepodge of sessions, musicians, and producers.”He distinguishes between records as “a piece of art” and records that are “well-made recording[s],” but it can often be impossible to determine which is which, for either musician or listener.
Even if you don’t think Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy records qualify as pieces of art (or even as well made), you’ll certainly find them different. Licht’s interview illuminates the numerous ways in which Oldham strives to make his work unusual.
Few pop musicians “always had a hard time with drums.” (Few, in fact, ever met a drum they didn’t like.) But Oldham thinks drums often prevent connection with an audience. He likes to make his band switch instruments, playing with the less familiar.
For musicians who hole up in their rooms for years attempting to hone their craft, Oldham suggests maybe they’re wasting their time. He declares that “perfecting a part is not a priority in the least,” and goes further by suggesting that perfect parts make records too predictable, taking away part of the fun. The men and women who play on Oldham’s albums rarely accompany him on tour; he prefers to keep things strange and “challenging.” On occasion, he has taught his band songs in the studio and recorded them on the spot.
You might think Oldham just likes to mess with his musicians to maintain control, but his emphasis on irregularity extends to his own singing. When recording vocals in the studio, Oldham relies on a “‘let’s see if I’m prepared’” attitude. He claims to have enjoyed getting booed when he did a high-profile opening performance for Björk in L.A. Since he assumed “there was not going to be a single person. . . that knew who I was or gave a shit that I was there,” he decided, “I’m gonna learn how to sing and accompany myself on the autoharp.” When most musicians would be terrified – and hoping to make a good impression – Oldham decided to try learning a new instrument.
To make the book-length interview format viable, two stars must align. The interviewer must do lots of homework and the subject must be articulate. Otherwise, you find yourself reading an extremely long, directionless, and (likely) boring conversation.
Licht guides conversation with near encyclopedic knowledge of Oldham’s music and acting. Likewise, Oldham doesn’t bother with any of the “setting the record straight” stuff that musicians often throw into their own autobiographies. His only agenda appears to be explaining how he thinks about music and the creative process.
Once the stars line up, then the book-length interview provides all the interesting personal detail you look for in an autobiography minus accompanying tangents, glosses, or asides. The format maximizes the reader’s ability to learn about the musician and his music.
In the case of Oldham, don’t pass up the chance.
Elias Leight is getting a Ph.D. at Princeton in politics. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.