Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration and photos by Johnnie Cluney
A point is reached, in considering Will Oldham, when splitting his personality, his sun-kissed/heaven-bred music and his spirit as it is rightly or wrongly perceived to be, off into their different abbreviations and counter descriptions feels like filthy, filthy slander. He cannot and should not be taken asunder or reduced into words, though he does incredible things with them on his own time. He can't be recognized as anything but a direct connection to the polar ice caps, the toasting campfire, the whistling wind, the lofting plumes of smoke from a chimney, the expanse of the sky, your loved ones, his loved ones, the dead, the living, the burn of the tropics and the hum of a silence. Of course, you're thinking, 'Why stop there?' There are an unlimited number of answers to a question phrased, "What is Will Oldham to you?" When you stay away from asking, "Who is Will Oldham?" you avoid running into definite answers and facts that have a fleet of reasoning behind them -- things that have to be agreed upon, for there can be no dispute, just nodding and shrugs. But asking what he is invites an exercise that can actually spare us of derivative, categorical referencing and cold, hardness.
Oldham, also known as Bonnie Prince Billy, from all rational indications, can be assumed to be at least 90-percent mystique and 10-percent reality. It's a daring move to take a position claiming that the greater portion of a man is so unquestionably human he's inhuman, thereby making him mystical. Of all American songwriters born in the last 50 years, Oldham poses himself as the exception to the most rules and is a denizen of a world that few others even know about, a place where the wilds are tamed - or at least observed naturally - and brought from behind the curtain, still shaking and damp, not used to the exposure. Out into the open air, the rawness of the emotions that Oldham brings to the forefront of his songs, is breathtaking.
Every way you cut into one of Oldham's many songs - including the new nourishment he unveils at the end of this month on the Drag City album "The Letting Go" - the slice will tick into an undiluted example of radiance. He brings you closer to the source than most and lets you peer over the side. Sometimes he even lets you get down on your hands and knees to feel warmth spilling from that which he is mourning or pinning an exact face onto, just to capture it as tellingly as possible, for posterity. He insulates these songs with so many aches that when he sings them they sounds like natural light and nothing worth fretting over. If anything, he makes it possible to see things for their exactness and with that comes a recognition of the particular order that everything holds, good or bad. A sorrowful situation, taken as it lies, is plenty magnificent when recounted with the appropriate words and a deftness of heart. Oldham makes suffering sweet and I'm guessing that there are thousands of people - right now - who can and are scrolling through their heads the song of his that they'd like to have played at their funeral service. What could feel more natural than hearing his melancholic scruffiness sing about the splendors of love or a last goodbye between friends as you are being mourned? It would, in some way, be comforting to know that he was there in voice, creating some sobs and then easing the tears away. He has a way of rocking you (in the sense of what a chair does, not in the sense of what the Foo Fighters do) that expunges all concept of a higher power because somehow it feels right there already and that then makes it not so high.
Oldham has a reputation for being prickly at times, shunning most ways that a person can get notorious. He lives for his creations and whatever else that might mean. He's uncompromisingly serious about his art and with that comes respect from those who choose to take in and linger his spells - the many, many albums that could fuel thousands upon thousands of bottomless conversations and circuitous discussions. He loves his Madonna. He loves his Nelly Furtado. (How could I make this up?) And he loves what he does for the sake of himself and for the sake of others. As he says below, in the greatest self-explanation of purpose that any artist could ever give, "Words and works exchanged make life almost too fucking sweet sometimes."
The Daytrotter interview:
*How do you look at love? Is it a physical thing or something mystical? You make it sound mystical in your songs.*
BPB: The songs are some kind of a manifestation of ideas musical and otherwise... that I do not fully understand in a way that can be related. Like that.
*We talked about it a little when you were here -- the free tour of the record stores. You said you enjoyed the idea of being able to fuck up and not having to give people their money's worth. By not feeling like you have to satisfy people, doesn't that ultimately satisfy them the most?*
BPB: That would be great if it were true. I don't know exactly what you mean, though. I trust the input of others (a band) more than my own instincts. My tastes run strange.
*Why's the approach you could take with these shows so appealing to you?*
BPB: There is a limit to what can be accomplished, to my mind, in practicing or writing or playing at home alone. Everything stands to gain when shared. And so these free shows are like a working-out of songs, a practice; and lessons are learned from the reactions and even just the presence of the people there in the stores.
*Did you fuck up?*
BPB: In terms of forgetting lyrics and chords some times, yes. But fucking up is built into the deal.
*Did you have any other bad situations like the one at the Record Collector (in Iowa City)?*
BPB: None at all; that was the only negative experience with a store, and even there it seemed to have only to do with management or owners and not with the other folks working there, who were all great. In Dearborn, the shop was too small to accommodate an audience and so the show was done in the comic-book store downstairs. Being another's space, the record-store folks decided to still limit the audience size so to not stress the environment, I guess. So it was the sparsest crowd and the show had a more formal feeling than any of the others.
*When did you realize Madonna was great?*
BPB: The first time I saw her, I suspected/hoped that she was great. It was in a screen-within-a-screen clip of the "Burning Up" video. I bought the record (the first one) not long after and had many joyful and tumultuous years since.
*And Nelly Furtado?*
BPB: Five years ago or so, I wanted to know what Dreamworks was all about, as it seemed to be the only major label with a degree of accountability within its workings (which proved to be untenable, it turns out). So I bought some music they put out. The first Nelly Furtado record was one of the records I bought, and the only one I bought that I liked. There is no accounting for taste, I know, but her records have variety and energy and good musicians at least, as well as a devotion to old forms and crazy harmonies. Sometimes, I can listen to music and have it be about other things; I don't know if I like her lyrics or not... I honestly do not know.
*Are others shocked to hear that you even know who Nelly Furtado is much less appreciate her music?*
BPB: Probably. I almost never talk about music I listen to because it's pointless to try to explain. I do not listen to what people might like to think that I listen to, and that's all that needs to be said unless we go case-by-case.
*What is your relationship like with your fans? Is it how you've chosen it to be for a reason?*
BPB: Knowing that all of this making of music is related to audience, we are thinking with most actions about who might get lost and who might get found among that audience with each act. It would be untrue to say an audience has been chosen; the audience does the choosing more than we, on this side of the curtain, do. The people I meet and interact with are almost without exception fuel a corroboration for decisions and joys undertaken in this work. Words and works exchanged make life almost too fucking sweet sometimes.
*Do you despise fame and what comes with it?*
BPB: I don't despise it for others! Fame brings a lot of opportunities, but I prefer the notoriety within the making of things (music, movies, books) to the general name/face recognition that comes with the selling of records. Were there not some public acknowledgment, I would not have gotten to cross into the awarenesses of Nicolai Dunger, Johnny Cash, Alasdair Roberts, Bjork, Lori D, and too many others who have made my life better.
*Why did you go to Iceland to record "The Letting Go?" What did you discover there?*
BPB: We recorded there because Valgeir's studio is there. I am still realizing what was discovered there, and will go a long time doing so, I think.
*I spoke with Christoph Green of the "Burn To Shine" series on the phone this morning and he said that you recently played a song for the Louisville installment. Did you enjoy that project? What song did you play and who curated the bands for it?*
BPB: I enjoyed it. It seemed a little haphazard and not necessarily as exciting and representative as it could have been. A great guy, Ben from the band Lucky Pineapple, curated it. He did a good job, but it could have been supplemented or edited to everyone's benefit. My brother Paul Oldham and I did a version of "Then the Letting Go."
*What haven't you done in life that you madly still want to do?*
BPB: I want to witness a Merle Haggard session. I'd like to grow gills. I would like to smear tar in the drawers of our vice president. I would like to learn Portuguese. Have a kid. There's a list longer than my life, but just thinking about these things is sometimes food enough. And since I was a little boy I wanted to press my naked body against that of Farrah Fawcett. It isn't too late, I know.
*Can you tell me about your bike and how often you ride? Were you able to do more during the last half of the tour?*
BPB: The bike I had with me is a Gary Fisher Saab bike. It was a limited-edition bike that came with a certain Saab wagon some years ago. I rode one once and liked it and finally got my own. I like the Gary Fisher handlebar junction phrase: ALL WORK AND NO PLAY IS NO FUN AT ALL WORK AND NO PLAY IS NO FUN AT ALL WORK AND... It's extra-large, which is bigger than I technically need but I like the way it feels. No more significant riding for the rest of the trip. Bummer. Too much singing and driving.
*Do you consider yourself prolific or is this just how you would be no matter what?*
BPB: I do not consider myself prolific. It must be how I would be. With anything. I feel one is good at what one does. So if one does not do, one is not good.
*Does your beard ever get in your way and that's why you're sometimes found without it?*
BPB: It gets hot. Swimming is more fun beardless. And it is nice to check up on the face once in a while.