Will Oldham Talks Creativity, National Guitars, & Why Bonnie “Prince” Billie’s Enigmatic by Nathan Emerson

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Photo: Dani Canto

Will Oldham is a creative and inspiring force. He hates doing interviews; Will had a friend interview him over a period of time in hopes of never having to do an interview ever again –the work was released as a nearly 400 page book. I was lucky enough to chat with him and have a stimulating conversation over the phone. It felt as if we were downing coffee & cigarettes in the same fashion as Keraouc & Burroughs.

He makes art in a fashion that doesn’t relate to him but hopes to connect with an audience. Will Oldham’s early albums were made to be listened to with little intentions of live performances. Originally performing as Palace Flophouse he released albums under the names of Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music, & Palace before he took the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy around 1998. The albums come out of the gate one after another with no intentions of slowing down.

“If I set goals for myself its probably relatively subconscious. It’s probably a larger internal rhythm I suppose. I think at some levels with completion of each record it feels as if I have no idea if or when another record will come about and they just sort of sneak up a period of time later. The beginning of them sneaks up 6 months later, 9 months later, or a year and a half later. It’s usually a surprise how they come up. It’s nice that it coincides with this times, with this quicker media cycle that I’ve grown into, that we’ve grown into as a culture. But I think I always was thinking along the lines of you know Willie Nelson is still doing it or however, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra made a couple of full length albums a year. And it seems like that’s a method that for me that’s proven successful, and I don’t mean financially successful but I mean also its seems like a musician should be writing and working with other musicians and recording and performing in order to stay in touch with what he or she is capable of doing in order to improve. I have a hard time understanding how somebody who makes a record can say you know, every couple years, every three years –how they stay in shape I guess doesn’t really add up.”

As a teenager, Will was involved in the hardcore music doing photography & hanging out with the bands but focused on acting.  After a few lead roles he became disgusted with the culture of actors in LA. Moving back to Kentucky, while going to college he started writing music. Recording himself with friends, his music was different than the punk & metal music of his peers. It didn’t take long to for people to notice, just in time for the indie label era of alt-country, lo-fi, & freak folk in the early 90’s. Recently, DeerTick recorded one of his songs for Hell On Wheels, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine now pins him as a huge influence, & Rick Rubin had Johnny Cash record one of his songs. There is no doubt as time goes on many more artists will play the songs he penned. As Bonnie “Prince” Billie he transforms & the music is always evolving; so I asked if he was afraid of becoming pigeonholed as a songwriter versus a performer.

“I can’t imagine it pigeonholing in that way. I think in relationship between the records that I’m involved with and the audiences out there listening to the records making their way to shows in such you know as you noted in the beginning of our conversations it doesn’t rely on certain kinds of promotions. I try not to play places that are too large. I think in event that did start to happen there’s always ways to get around it. If that did start to happen, yeah that probably wouldn’t be that attractive to go out and play shows –but I don’t see it happening. And I guess the biggest way to combat that is to do our best, & if somebody does come to the show with a expectation of hearing a certain song or a certain song a certain way -it makes our goal to obliterate those expectations, without disappointing those expectations but to make those expectations become unimportant and forgotten and dwarfed by the way that we do find music and the songs that we do end up playing.”

Appreciating other art forms including film as well, I asked him where he finds the importance, beauty, skill, thought provoking ideas, or the emotion from the artist or viewer.

“What’s important for me, each person or group of people responsible for making a piece of work, that piece of work is gonna manifest those things. I still don’t believe that a computer will write a great song for example. Because each song are so specific on what makes to make that song successful and effective, beauty and craftsmanship and energy and intention but a song can get by on 98% intention and other songs def can’t (laughs).”

In the credits of his albums the musicians trade off instruments or different musicians sit in to help spur creativity and mix things up. I asked him if he writes on different instruments to invoke a different voice.

“The last couple years I focused most writing work using a Gibson, I think it’s probably about 1958 small acoustic guitar. It came with a set of strings and I haven’t changed those strings since I bought it which has been 6 -7-8 years –it just sounds good, it feels good. It’s real quiet though, it wouldn’t function if you tried to play it with other musicians or in a live setting –it’s just not a loud guitar.”

National guitars are known for their resonators & dobros, typically linked with slide guitars. The cones inside were invented before electric guitars to make the instrument louder. Puzzled about the electric side of National and seeing him play a couple different electric Nationals over the years I needed to know his connection to them.

“I used to have kind of a tomato red or slightly orangish red or reddish orange I think it was a National Resophonic electric guitar with a resonator drum in it. That one sounds good in a room, that doesn’t necessarily translate in a venue –but you still can feel and there’s something reverberant or vibrational about just holding the guitar and making a big chord. You can feel it. In a room it also sounds great when you can actually hear the resonator drum, but like I say it doesn’t necessarily come through the pickups significantly. And then there was another National that I totally love and I don’t know what it’s called. It’s just kind of a block of wood with some sort of electronics built onto it & the electronics covered in a piece black plastic. It’s got this huge thick chunky neck. It just feels solid, it feels like you could wash up on and it could survive a shipwreck and still be a beautiful piece of machinery. And I can’t remember where I found either one of them frankly–no clue where I found them. The big chunky one was probably a 1950’s guitar, the Resophonic probably a newer guitar late 90’s or 2000’s. I just love those guitars.”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a sort of enigma. There’s so much mystery & curiosity that surrounds Will Oldham and his moniker. While looking for a tour schedule I realized there has no web presence. Even his official website is a single page. Many feel that only sparks more excitement about the artist and performer.

“That’s awesome that that’s exciting, I guess it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing for one to expect from a musician for one to run a twitter account. I guess there are many things; you know we’ve been asked over the years to give up a lot of systems and practices in favor of newer modern systems and practices -without acknowledging the fact that the practices in place are fantastic. It’s interesting that people flock so quickly to things that they have not had time to be anywhere near proficient at, rather than relying upon things which that they have had lots of experience and practice. So people rush to create the online social media practices and everybody doesn’t correlate because they haven’t spent enough time to do it right. Whereas there are already ways of talking about music or playing music or listening to music or selling music or distributing music that work and that are tested. You don’t do a disservice to the music and you don’t especially do a disservice to the audience by using methods that have already been worked through and polished.”

His music videos are as eccentric as him. There are awkwardness & humor injected in almost every one. Though there no longer is an MTV, the iTunes generation turns to YouTube- but there usually aren’t visual interpretation of his songs. With a passion for film it only makes sense to use the medium as another extension of art.

“Sometimes we will make videos for the music and in general it’s a chance to work in some exploratory experimental way with somebody who has energy and resource, and a sense of humor ideally. The reward in that is mostly about making the video and some extent the end result. But what’s usually exciting and inspiring and satisfying –I don’t know if people are still doing this but I don’t know if people are still doing this but when YouTube users put their set of moving visuals to go with a song that they like. I think that gets really cool & exciting to see the kind of things that people make and post on their own.”

Over the last decade Will became active in acting again. Starring in amazing independent movies such as “Old Joy” and short films I was curious had the characters ever influence his writing.

“I’m unaware how the roles themselves may influence songwriting although I imagine that they must. Especially if it’s bigger role that I spend a lot of time with I’m sure it does. Does it share a shaping of point of view or whether it’s the character or the way that the screenwriter has written the character, you know having to find my way around saying things that the character is suppose to be saying. But uh more so, it feels like whenever I have the opportunity to play a role in a film and if the role take a fair amount of time and energy it is usually very freeing during that time because certain parts of my behavior & my psych & my discipline and the structure of my day are taken care of by other people and it allows for a little more liberty in the pursuit of song during that time. A song doesn’t feel quite as urgent and therefore it is allowed to have more of its own life. So writing songs and beginning to write songs while occupying a role in a movie has been really nice over the years.”

Will claims his music doesn’t have much personal sentiment and claims it would be strange to relive those moments on stage every night if he did.  While moderating a comedy show he encouraged the audience to heckle Zach Galifianakis  and others once. He doesn’t necessarily pump himself up to like Andy Kaufman, but has to get in the zone to take on the character of Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

“The things that are demanded of an individual on stage and performing music, you know is universes away from what is generally demanded from a human being in day to day life. It’s something akin to a role. It’s blurry as the role on the performer as the role as the performer is playing. Does that make sense? You know Christopher Walken  in the dead zone, he is, he has to enter his job of actor, know his lines, react his scenes, know where the camera angles are, communicate with the director, communicate with other actors, AND at the same time embody the character itself. So when you go onstage you are a performer who knows what it means to be a performer, knows that there’s an audience knows that there’s an audience knows the length of the show the length of each song you know what happens between the songs, what is the visual and physical things going on the stage. And on top of that being this specific performer of the specific set of songs and that is Bonnie Prince Billie.”

Transforming over the years, I had to ask if any books reflect his music & persona of the years.

“….Norwegian writer who wrote the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century. Knut Hamsun there’s a number of his books there’s one called Pan, there’s a trilogy it centers around a character named August, there’s a paired set of books that have been joined together published in English as The Wonder. And each of those that I just mentioned specifically have a lot in them that resonate about making things, about thinking, and about being among other efficient beings, and making sense of things and participating in creation.”

And recently…

Dave Egers’, “You Shall Know Our Velocity”, or “What Is The What”,  …..”You can see the way he associated himself with magazines and store fronts and styles of writing as well. There’s an attempt to instantly have foreign style be a part of the experience of reading without sacrificing at all readability. I think it’s pretty great.”

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