INTERVIEW : WILL OLDHAM aka BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY
Will Oldham née Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billyhas been making music under various psuedonyms for a couple of decades. His is a voice that entrances and moves us, and his songwriting is that of a warlock. Will Oldham, we just can’t quit you…
Will was generous enough to sit down with us during Larry Crane’s live Jackpot! recording sessions at Ace Portland during MusicFest NW, to talk about the sensorial adventure of singing, about failed meditation attempts, about Robin Williams. In addition to our chat, Will performed and recorded with Larry and also spoke with MyMusicRx about music that makes him feel better.
You can download the four songs Will recorded with Larry, as well as from all other mezzanine performances including Hutch Harris of The Thermals, The Heligoats, Mount Eerie and a ton of other rad artists at Jackpot! Recordings Covers Portland.
Your performance in the mezzanine was really beautiful. It made me nostalgic for being 19.
Is that right? What happened when you were 19?
Well that’s when somebody first played Palace Music for me. And you know, there’s so much angst when you’re young and dumb.
And does the angst go away?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. It just made me want to quit everything and go cry in the woods for a month, you know?
Yeah. But it would be great to get paid for that.
I’m sure some people have managed it. Anyhow… So, Bonnie Prince Charlie, one of the influences behind your stage name, was also known as the Young Pretender, and was part of the tradition, if we can call it that, of “pretenders to the throne.” The semantic origins of “pretend” aren’t really about falsehood, but more about the presentation of an as-of-yet unaccepted truth. You’ve said that performing under a stage name gives people a more direct, universal, relatable persona to accept, rather than someone singing their memoirs. Johnny Cash, who covered one of your songs before he passed, seems to have had a very earnest approach to stage identity, a lack of strategy around his persona and how his audience related to his work…
Yeah. But then, Cash also, for example, wore all black and then wrote the song about why he wears black, which is absolutely a persona and is completely about doing something for the audience. So they can imagine that they’re hearing all of the songs from this accepted voice, that the audience and Cash both accept as the voice. Right? And he was born with, you know, a totally salable name.
Yeah he was. He really lucked out. He wasn’t named Sue, for instance. So in my experience as a listener of your music, and in speaking with other people who have a history with your music, it seems people feel that it’s very emotionally sonorous, and it’s, you know, speaking some truth to us. Autobiographical fictionists often get sort of interrogated about what’s “really them” in their stories, and memoirists often get taken to task about what’s “really true” as well. You’ve said that you feel you’re performing even as you write. It’s possible that personal truths get perceived as universal and vice versa when your music reaches someone’s ears. They may feel you’re finally expressing for them a truth they weren’t able to express for themselves. How does this relate to songwriting as a performance?
Well, I guess…it’s an act of witnessing. When I’m performing a song that I know really well, the advantage of knowing it really well allows you to let your guard down and be surprised as the song goes on, in terms of what’s happening in the song and what’s going to happen next or where it could potentially go. It can be new because it’s second nature. But building it in the first place in such a way that, that there are surprises built in to the structure of the song or into the lines of the song. Things that that can be said again and again and each time take on a slightly different significance, I guess.
In terms of anything maybe, it seems like nothing is true. Nothing is true that we can say with words.
Yeah, it’s almost like the drama of music is a like a fiction that everybody wants to connect to. It’s so much bigger than whatever we think of as concrete in any way.
Yeah, it’s an advantage that song has over speech, that if you’re just saying or reading, it’s pretty subtle or ambiguous, the spaces between words, whereas music fills in the spaces between words with melody and with rhythm. So right away it feels like a more truthful way of using language because it’s showing you that words don’t, can’t exist all by themselves. When we’re just talking to each other we think that the words that we’re using are sufficient, you know. That carries us through to the end of a thought or the end of the paragraph…You think, like, these words are very sufficient and we have enough language to express the things that we want to express, when absolutely that isn’t true, and music sort of says, “There’s not enough in these words. That’s why they’re being sung. That’s why there’s a beat because the words will never be enough to approximate anything that you want to say or want to try to understand. And you can vary the dynamic of something or the harmony of something to imply all the different possible or many different possible meanings of a given line or a given scenario.
I think that’s really a beautiful idea that as you’re writing a song that you intend to play… as you’re writing lyrics that you intend to sing, you realize that the writing that you’re doing is sort of inadequate in and of itself. That you’re going to have to wait to see sort of what you can build around it. That song becomes a container for experiences and surprises that you don’t even know to anticipate when you start singing. And if you know it well enough, then you can just kind of forget about it and experience it…
Yes and try to make it adequate enough that its adequacy should increase, never to complete adequacy but should, you know, gradually increase each time the song is just listened to – someone pushes play on their record player or whatever — or performed, until it is completely anachronistic.
I imagine there are songs that were recorded 90 years ago that have lost almost all adequacy just because everything valuable in it has been coopted and understood and taken for granted so that you listen to something and think, you know, “Why did this ever exist? This seems to have no value whatsoever, I don’t understand. This is a love song, you say? I can’t relate to this at all.” But at one point someone was blown away by the power of these certain love songs or comedy songs or adventure songs. And now they’re so much a part of our brains, you know… Like people have said that the insanity of a hit song by Kanye West will not sound very remarkable eventually.
Weren’t you in an alternate version of a Kanye West video with Zack Galifianakis?
Tell me about it. Did he commission this?
No, Galifianakis had made an Anita Baker video where he lip syncs an Anita Baker song, makes it like a legitimate music video but he’s the one singing, and I think he may have done another one for Fiona Apple. And I guess Kanye West saw one or both of those and asked Galifianakis to make a music video for him, and he had extended an invitation to me over a couple of years again and again to come and visit his farm in North Carolina. And at one point, I had tried to go on a Vipassana Meditation retreat, and it was…my mind sort of… uh, it was a collision. It didn’t really work. So I fled that, and this was in rural Illinois. And I just thought, “Now what am I gonna do? Where am I gonna go?” You know, my brain was all set up to be put in order and now it’s even more chaotic than it was four days ago. I thought “Oh, that’s right! I can go to Galifianakis’ farm. I’ll call him.” So I called him. “Are you there?” “Yeah, come on over.” So I drove from Illinois to North Carolina and I’m getting last minute directions: “Okay, I am at the end of this road.” “Where do I go?” “Okay, take this turn, take this turn. By the way, we’re gonna be shooting a Kanye West video while you’re here.”
Just like what my brain — yeah. My brain was like, “Okay, sounds great.”
Yeah, exactly. So I just wandered up to his cabin and I think I sat down in a picnic table, someone brought a beer over and I didn’t move from there for a long time, and then people started to arrive with their cameras and the playback system. And this video — you know, I sat in the same spot for about two hours while the video started to be shot. It was like the Lorax or something.
I like imagining that Zach Galifianakis has a farm. It sounds very calm, with the exception of the Kanye West video production. Is he calm, and well-suited to farm life?
He is still funny, but you know one thing that us lay people think, we think that comedians are…
Yeah, and they’re not.
Like if you were constantly singing.
Robin Williams is probably you know the a rare example of somebody who is just… He’s his comedic thing all the time. That’s what I’ve heard. But most other ones, they’re not telling jokes and they’re not all that funny in real life, except they have these inflections where if you’re in a room with Galifianakas or Steve Martin, everything they say, you’re waiting for the punch line. But they’re just talking. They’re just like yeah I went to the store.
And you’re doing a drum roll in your head… “Wait for it.” But you’ll wait forever because they’re just going to the store.
You also made a cartoon theme song about Lance Bang’s life in order to be cast as a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D….
Will you sing a little bit of it?
For some reason I thought that the cartoon should be called Bance Langs so it went “Bance Langs, Bance Langs…” No, I can’t remember how it goes right now, except for that part. “Bance Langs, Bance Langs…” I was trying imagine a Saturday morning cartoon theme song that would stick in a child’s head and make you look forward every Saturday morning to tuning in and knowing that the commercials were over and the fun was about to begin.
So did he bribe you to make it in order to be in his movie or…
Um, kind of. Well, he was in Louisville, because he’s been working on this interminable documentary about the band Slint, and we were just talking about what was going on in each other’s lives and he said, “Oh we’re working on another Jackass movie.” And I think I then said, “What would I have to do in order to become a part of that?” He said, “Write a theme song.” And I said, “A theme song for what?” And he said, “For my life.” So I wrote the theme song, recorded it, sent it to him and then like three days later my phone rang, and he was like, “Is this Will?” “Yeah.” “This is Knoxville. I hear you want to be in Jackass. What do you want to do? Do you want to just witness? Do you want to, you know, do something to somebody? Do you want to have something done to you?” And I said, “I’m completely in your hands. You know, whatever…”
This is what we ask people when they check into Ace Hotel too.
Is that right?
Yeah. Your choice, choose your own adventure. So, is Lance Bangs the only person that’s ever heard this jingle other than you or has it made the rounds?
I have no idea.
It was a direct e-mail.
It was directly, I sent it straight to him, yeah.
Well, lucky him. And now I have a reason to watch Jackass 3D. Okay. So going back a bit to what we were talking about with performing. Your voice is so beautiful and also very relaxed. Some singers have a beautiful voice but they really have to kind of push it out, you know. Yours sort of seems to just rest its weight on the song but also has this vibrancy to it. I was thinking that if I could sing like that I would like never want to not be singing.
Right? That’s it. Yeah.
So I was wondering if you would kind of always rather be singing?
Okay, good. And also what does it feel like when you’re singing? Where does it happen in your body? Is it different every time? Do you crave it?
Yeah. Crave it. It’s different every time and sometimes that’s very frightening because I know that it is relaxed but it’s more, like, wound up, or it’s ready for anything or ready for, ready for… ready to react. It’s a reactive performance — like reactive to the other energies that are available for the singing. So it can be very frightening because I don’t know what the strongest force acting upon the voice will be.
For example, played this show last night, and the strongest forces that I was aware of prior to walking on the stage were internal forces and they were not positive and they were not reliable. So I was just scared to death, but then the energy from the people in the theater was so strong and so positive that it completely changed everything and it made it possible to sing.
It was to the point where numerous times during the show I felt like I was at a show and hearing a singer and thinking like, “Wow I didn’t know that he could do that”… It means that the bad part about that is that there’s vulnerability.
You know, it’s so nice to sing with other people but I’ve learned that the more the other people bring the more I’m going to be there. Like, I don’t have the power to transform something without the energy from somebody else. Like, there was a dude in the coffee place downstairs just now who brought up this collaborative record that I made with the Chicago group Tortoise. It was all cover songs. And that was, you know: cover songs, put them on the table, start doing them, and then I started realizing that I was capable of entering the ring with these musicians in the way they used improvisation, experimentation and complete solid structure all at once, and that that allowed me to sing using a similar concoction or similar ratio of those things.
Whereas, I made a record ten years ago with some older, very well-established session musicians in Nashville who were part of the country music scene for decades and they had a certain way of playing. And it was not about experimentation but more about finding a traditional emotional flow and a traditional dynamic that’s really great — but all of the sudden, you know, I’m hearing this voice come out that sounds like it’s singing in the same tradition as these other musicians. And just thinking that’s what all the singing is about and that’s what all the listening to records is about: it’s an indefinable training and preparation, it’s trying to be vulnerable and confident at the same time which is — they like completely contradict each other…unless it works.
I was actually just taking this Shambhala Buddhist class for five weeks called “Contentment in Everyday Life,” so I just went to the last session on Wednesday night. We were talking about having like confidence in your life. Not confidence like you have your shoulder pads on and you can defeat the world, but confidence that you’re going to be okay and that everything is okay and everything is workable.
We were talking about that kind of balance between vulnerability and confidence— like how you have to show up and be totally vulnerable in order for the best thing to happen. And so when you’re describing coming out onto stage and how terrifying it is to have to be vulnerable in order to sing, what I’m hearing from you is that you have to be that open satellite for whatever energy is there — yours and other people’s — but if you didn’t you wouldn’t be the performer that you are…
And it wouldn’t be this experience that you were describing or this psychological phenomenon. Like, yeah I wish I was always singing – but I wouldn’t if it was more like, “Now I open the door and go into my Singing Room.” It isn’t like that at all.
Right. “I put on my Singing Outfit.”
“I’m put on my Singing Outfit and here’s how the song begins and I know where I’m going to go” – but it can’t be compartmentalized in that way. So…without those structures or securities – that’s the most rewarding kind of singing.
When you see somebody who finds through doing their work that what they create is a full-on extension of him or herself — I mean, that’s what I have always dreamed of, is having my work be a natural extension… Something like a surfer or a trumpet player or a visual artist. You know Kyle Field? Little Wings. He’s got a music thing called Little Wings. And he’s a compulsive visual artist so that if you just sit in a room with him he’ll be making drawings and when I look at the drawings, you know, it, it feels so good to look at those drawings because you feel like he’s sort of taking the reins and becoming one with, or participating in the passage of time and participating in creation rather than witnessing destruction or negative entropy or something like that. Or if you hear someone play a musical solo, like Richard Thompson, you know. He’ll sit there on stage and he’ll play a song and the song won’t be anything until he starts to play the solo section and then… For that moment — because there’s generosity going on there — for that moment, you are Richard Thompson.
That’s the gift of that kind of relationship to his ability — that he gives it to you, he’s like taking your brain, and he couldn’t do it without your brain. He’s taking your brain and saying now let’s go whoa, here, here, here. You’re like, Oh my goodness. And when you feel like you’re with the audience and everybody is being carried somewhere by this unique individual…at the end of the day his most crucial tool is your brain. It’s not his talent, it’s your brain.
Yeah. That’s really beautiful. So is it different when you’re singing alone?
Yeah, it’s different, and as the years go on I’m afraid of one day the voice… you know, it’s something that will eventually wear out, like the body wears out. I’m afraid of what might happen but as the years go on I have more at my disposal. Playing with other people, it’s like you walk onto the stage less afraid of what the energy in the room is going to be because you’re confident about the energy that you’re on stage with, these other people, and you know that they can throw you curve balls but you can feel good about it, excited about and even anticipating what curve balls they’re going to throw you. Whereas with the audience it’s not always exciting to think about what curve balls they could throw you.
Kind of reminds me of Venus and Serena Williams. You know? Venus’s health gave out and now she can only really do doubles with her sister — but together they’re even more powerful, together they’re like this crazy power team kicking everyone’s ass.
Yeah, there’s something in there… Downstairs just now, recording with Larry, it seemed so trusting. He’s such a sweet and awesome guy.
Yeah, being able to perform with him as the crucial audience — I was totally just using his energy to do that performance just then, because I knew I could trust his energy. Totally trust his energy.
And he was like right there with you interacting and just — full contact.
Yeah, and he was hearing my relationship to the microphone which was… That was an exciting thing because I knew like I could do things with the microphone with a certain dynamic and he was the only person who could hear it.
Have you ever heard of a silent disco? I’m going to one this weekend and I’m pretty excited because I’ve always heard of them, and wanted to just go and pull my hood over my face and dance in public silence with people. It would be so amazing if there was a silent disco but for a show where it’s like very quiet and you get that right in your ear buds, that kind of interaction, hearing breath and it’s just very intimate.
Do you have any synesthesia when you’re singing or writing or performing? Any association between, for instance, notes and colors? Or when you’re really spacing out and you’re in that zone even if you are in front of people, what’s going on in your brain? For me when I play music it’s like going to this area of my brain that’s loyal to an entirely different logic. What your associations are with sound?
Mine are all related to tamber and power of delivery of any given word. It’s mostly torso and throat but I’ve got all these words that come with the songs so in the song you’ve got all these lyrics and then it’s more…so instead of color it’s melodic and harmonic and tonal and energy.
Right. And kind of physical?
And physical but it’s a full landscape or it’s a full world, it’s a full universe of places to explore.
So does it feel like that when you’re singing? Does it feel spatially like everything just becomes a different kind of dimension?
Yes, it’s as if you know, as if it turns from solid and air and these things to where everything is translated into melody and tamber and intensity and harmony and rhythm. So there isn’t anything else. There isn’t any color. There isn’t any gravity, things like that.
And it’s free to do. Isn’t that insane? And it doesn’t give you a hangover.
No it makes you feel better. But it’s not entirely free.
Right, not energetically. It takes and it returns.
Yeah, I mean one of the great redeeming factors of singing is that it’s like free jazz — it’s being able to experiment fully within very solid boundaries. So, then if you can take some of that magic from that Oz back to this Kansas and say like well you know so I did have to walk through that door so I do have to do these things, but in every movement and every tiny little decision there is pretty huge amount of flexibility and surprise. Just turning the doorknob is full of potential. And that’s what the singing is like, teaching those lessons, because it’s the same, it’s a word that has five letters, two syllables but after that you know you’re going to get to the end of the world and a second and a quarter, but all the different ways you can get through that word makes it and then you can apply those to everything. It makes the days super long.
Well, it seems also like a way of really showing up, just fully, fully showing up for, like you said: for what’s going to happen. It’s pretty amazing.
Yeah, yeah, yes.
Okay so the last thing. You don’t have to do this… What’s one of the first songs you remember remembering. The first memorable song of your life. Interviewers are always asking what songs had the strongest influence on someone as an artist. I guess I’m thinking more like something really foundational. Like was there a little lullaby that you heard a lot as a kid – or what was one of your parents favorite songs? If something springs to mind will you sing it?
Trying to … First? Earliest? That’s really tough.
It doesn’t have to be first or earliest. There’s no science to this question. Like maybe your parents were cleaning the house and it was morning and there was like a song they always listened to that you remember, you learned every breath of it. You just know it.
Yeah, there’s a lot of those. There are weird ones like a song called Robin by Carly Simon. Do you know that? It’s like, “Friends are more than fond of Robin.” Uh…she’s like, “There’s no one living in our lane, oh yes. There’s still folks still living in our lane, but they’re not like Robin. Robin I never told you that I’ll be yours until we’re old. Please learn to call me in your dreams.” And then she sings a line that I’ve never… It’s one of those things that I don’t know what she says. It’s like, “The way ayayayayahmmmm…. is just as it seems.”
It’s beautiful. She had some good melodies, but that’s an incredible melody.
I’ve never asked him about it but my older brother made a record a decade ago where he said a bunch of poems by the French poet François Villon who was some sort of Baudelaireian, Bukowskian kind of writer who wrote 100s of years ago and I first heard about him in — have you ever read Klaus Kinski’s autobiography?
Not yet, but now I will.
It’s so good. And he, early in his career, would perform Villon poems before a live audience… But my older brother made a record where he set a bunch of these poems to music and one of them has some melodic lines that are similar to that Carly Simon song and I wonder if he was aware of that or not because we both would hear that song in the house just playing. Playing, playing, playing. Yeah. Or like The First Time Whenever I Saw Your Face, Roberta Flack. You know?
Yeah. Hit it. I’m just kidding. You don’t have to.
You’re not a jukebox.
Um, thank you.
That’s kind of the dream though to be a jukebox.
Sure, but you know: “Go to this room and do this and then go to this room and do this and now dance around with a little drum and…” It’s a bit much. Thank you, Will. It was so great talking with you.
Back at you.