Will Oldham – aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – would rather get on with his one-album-a-year regime than do interviews. After all, as the songwriter and occasional actor tells Jim Carroll, recording albums is like boxing – the only way to keep on top of it is to keep doing it
IRASCIBLE. Difficult. Shy. Perplexing. Mysterious. Enigmatic. Bewildering. Reclusive. Evasive. Strange. Reticent. This is the Bonnie “Prince” Billy you’ll find staring back at you from most interviews and profiles of the man born Will Oldham. There is never, for instance, a mention of the artist hitting the dance floor to bop to indie classics after one of his early Irish shows. The guy you find in those interviews is someone the artist himself doesn’t even recognise.
“Years ago I stopped wondering about how I was portrayed,” Oldham says. “It’s like asking ‘why did that movie win best picture?’ It’s like when you get out of earshot of someone, the things they say are going to have less and less bearing on reality. If I started talking to you now about my brother Ned, he’s not going to recognise the representation we’re speaking about.
“I don’t read my own press. Sometimes if Domino or Drag City think to send clippings to me, I might read interviews I’ve done. Maybe I don’t have to do another interview again, but I think it’s only responsible to look at interviews in the past to see what things I’ve done right and what things I’ve done wrong, and how I’ve approached them.”
You can understand why Oldham would consider knocking the interview racket on the head. He works away at his craft, releasing an album a year, touring now and again and taking up acting gigs now and again when they sound right for him.
In between writing, recording, touring and acting, he lives in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He moved back there a few years ago, and now resides in the older part of town. “The biggest change? I find the roadways – and you know this in Ireland – weren’t built for the kind of traffic which has come along.”
It’s a good life, but every so often he is called upon to talk about himself and what he does. “They’re disruptive, because I don’t have conversations like this on a daily basis,” he says of interviews. While he could easily just say no when interview requests come in (it’s not as if he’s a pop act seeking to hawk his wares at every opportunity), Oldham still comes out to bat.
He’d probably prefer to spend his time doing more albums like Funtown Comedown,the live release he sneaked out late last year without much fanfare. Recorded with a young bluegrass band called The Picket Line, and featuring rich pickings from past albums (it opens with Ohio River Boat Song,for instance), Funtown Comedownsounds lusty, lively and charmingly ramshackle.
“That was recorded with a band my friend hooked me up with,” Oldham explains. “These people wanted me to play at a big outdoor picnic thing in the wilds outside town. They asked how much it would cost to get me to play there, and I said I’d play if they put together a great band. Over the course of rehearsals we had a pretty good time, so we played more shows together.”
It’s another addition to a catalogue that continues to expand at the rate of roughly a record a year. “I do feel pressure to try to release an album a year,” he says. “I feel the only way to stay in shape is to stay in practice and do the work. Therefore the pressure to keep recording.
“There are very few people who only make a record every five or six years whose records I feel are rewarding. It’s more interesting to hear the choices people make and the records they make when their life is about making music all the time. If you’re going to fight Mike Tyson, you have to train all the time. You can’t train just the morning of the fight. Making a record is the only practice for making a record.”
That span of material is what attracts him to other artists. “Sometimes you fall in love with someone’s work and then somehow they let you down or fail you or stop working. You’re lost. It’s like you married a woman who’s a great lay and then the day after the wedding, she’s ‘well, enough of that’ and you’re screwed by not being screwed.
“With Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen, if you’re listened to them over the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years, the incredible thing is that they keep going. The music stays interesting, complicated, satisfying, rewarding, engaging. You can’t say that about a lot of people I can think of. It’s not just about performing, but it’s also about writing. They’re writing from their particular perspectives, and are trying to stay nimble and fluent with their work.”
Then, there’s his long-noted admiration for R Kelly. “R Kelly is just a couple of years older than me and I’ve no idea how much money to put on him for the long run,” Oldham chuckles. “The last show I saw him do, last November or December, was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The last record was really good too, so we’re doing well so far. His shows are over-the-top and have great songs, and he blends the two of those things with great integrity. He is true to his over-the-topness, the music and the audience as much as he can be.”
When Oldham walks into the studio to start recording his own songs, there’s no high-falutin’ game plan in place.
“At this point in my life, when it comes to making music, I’m in a position where I trust my instincts. Making a record is somewhat reactive. I go in with just an idea of what forces I’ll be dealing with, and part of the reward from making a record is what happens when those forces react with and against each other.”
Oldham has shown a particular skill for the well-turned cover version over the years, via fond, unique takes on tunes from Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Roadto Peter, Paul Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon.
“Most often than not, if I find a song intriguing and approachable, the opportunity is taken to dive in. I love learning a song and finding out how it was constructed, and getting something different across with the song. I tend to think of it as collaboration by proxy with the writer or previous performer. You’re getting to test your abilities against those who brought the song to you in the first place.”
There’s also an idiosyncratic film career that has been on-off since John Sayles cast him in 1987’s Matewan. He doesn’t have an agent, yet the offers still find their way to him.
“Once in a while, something comes along and I go for it. I shot a film last fall called New Jerusalem,which will be heading to film festivals in the next six months or so. But I have to prioritise – music and family come before any acting work.”
In a world where recorded music has taken something of a back seat to live performance, Oldham’s faith in making records – and especially working with the same labels he’s always dealt with – is as strong as ever.
“There were a couple of offers a long time ago, back when major labels had money, but it didn’t seem like they were relationships which could have been trusted,” Oldham says. “And it turns out that they couldn’t have been. Those record labels just don’t exist any more, while Drag City and Domino are still there and still open for business. The people are still approachable and accountable. It would be entirely disrespectful for me to step away from those relationships.”
A few years ago, Oldham spoke about his wariness when it came to the internet and digital music. “I’ll have minimal contact with a world like that if everybody has to have an internet connection to get music,” he said in an interview back then.
These days, though, Oldham is a lot more prosaic about a future that is coming fast down the tracks. “I don’t feel an exceeding amount of loyalty to the future of physical records,” he says. “I would never deny the past of physical records – the musical experiences which are held in physical objects like CDs, cassettes and vinyl are not always repeatable.
“But the importance of music is how valid it is to the audience, and if the audience find all the validity in music through downloads and abstract things, then that’s the future of music. And I love music more than I love the music business or physical records.”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy The Cairo Gang play Empire Music Hall, Belfast (Tues); Whelan’s, Dublin (Wed and Thurs); Róisín Dubh, Galway (Friday, July 30) and Cork X Southwest, Skibbereen (Sat, July 31)