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.