WILL OLDHAM didn’t know what he wanted to be or do. And then he found out he could do plenty: he ap­peared in films and de­signed LP sleeves. But when he dis­cov­ered song­writ­ing he worked out who he re­ally could be. MATT ALLEN meets him to sep­a­rate the Oldha

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Ex­trav­a­gant of beard and ex­trav­a­gant of tal­ent, the ac­tor/singer-song­writer, de­signer, etc, is this month’s Mav­er­ick.

Ac­cord­ing to Will Oldham there are two, very dis­tinct sides to his per­sona. One half is the man him­self: that 46- year-old with a scrag­gly beard, greet­ing Q on the stoop of his “bor­rowed” New Or­leans stu­dio apart­ment dressed in lime green swim­ming shorts, a loose fit­ting surf shirt and brightly-painted fin­ger­nails. Then there’s Bon­nie “Prince” Billy, Oldham’s stage name for the best part of 18 years and a char­ac­ter very sep­a­rate from the per­son that con­cocted it with “no thought what­so­ever” on the re­lease of his sixth stu­dio al­bum, 1999’ s I See A Dark­ness. Both char­ac­ters, he ex­plains, are very dif­fer­ent. Will Oldham: the newly-wed who en­joys “quiet and still­ness” in his Louisville, Ken­tucky house; Bon­nie “Prince” Billy: the artist who will that night or­ches­trate an hour-long, the­atri­cal jam with re­cent stu­dio col­lab­o­ra­tors, Bitchin Ba­jas, in New Or­leans’ Mu­sic Box Vil­lage – a junk­yard fort com­pris­ing per­for­mance posts made from old tele­phone boxes and con­verted gar­den sheds. Will Oldham: the per­son who “goes to the bank”; Bon­nie “Prince” Billy, the “vul­ner­a­ble” per­former strid­ing among his be­wil­dered au­di­ence, wield­ing a wooden ba­ton. “It’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent set of rules for both,” he says, sip­ping cof­fee, hail­stones ham­mer­ing the pave­ment out­side. “I wanted to sep­a­rate the two, like an ac­tor. You wouldn’t ex­pect The Nutty Pro­fes­sor to walk in if you’d in­vited Ed­die Mur­phy over for din­ner.” This split per­son­al­ity has served Oldham well so far. A busy ca­reer span­ning 24 years has de­liv­ered a melan­cholic, 20- odd al­bum strong port­fo­lio of bleak-hearted folk, rock and coun­try, while ex­plor­ing the lyri­cal rab­bit holes of re­li­gion, death and sex­ual mis­ad­ven­ture. Mean­while, a dis­ori­en­tat­ing back cat­a­logue of cov­ers and col­lab­o­ra­tions have been pro­duced with a re­volv­ing door of sup­port­ing mu­si­cians and A-list song­writ­ers, in­clud­ing Björk and PJ Har­vey. Oldham even starred as Sgt Plato on alongside the tabloid­mag­netis­ing singer, R Kelly, in the R&B star’ s video to Trapped In The Closet – Chap­ter 15. “Dur­ing the for­ma­tive years my so­cial world was Gene Kelly, Don and Phil Everly, and Robert Louis Steven­son books,” he says. “They were the first com­mu­nity I learned to trust. I wanted to do what they did: come from all over the world. It’s about be­ing a part of that same group – go­ing to dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, dif­fer­ent places, in order to make a record to break through to a dif­fer­ent per­son’s brain. Some­times it’s quite fun.” Oldham de­scribes it as “an ir­ra­tional in­ner life”, a brief mo­ment at the age of 21 when he lived through an al­ter­nate ex­is­tence. As a stu­dent train­ing at the Walden Theatre in Louisville with “a good fam­ily, in­ter­est­ing, func­tional and pro­duc­tive friends,” he had dis­cov­ered a Mi­das touch in the per­form­ing arts. His stripes in act­ing, voice and move­ment classes trans­lated into Hol­ly­wood suc­cess when he ap­peared in John Sayles’s 1987 movie Mate­wan, star­ring as a young preacher alongside Os­car-win­ning ac­tor, and voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones.

“How could things truly be deeper, cooler, wilder? It wasn’t just that I wanted a car and big tits wrapped around my face.”

De­spite hav­ing “a big­ger bank ac­count than any­body I knew”, and re­ceiv­ing a call­back to star in hit TV show, Doo­gie Howser, MD, Oldham re­alised act­ing wasn’t for him and re­turned home. His think­ing had been skewed by suc­cess, how­ever. Life had moved “out of fan­tasies and into re­al­ity.” He ex­changed cow skulls for rare sin­gles with rock odd­ball, Glenn Danzig, and went on tour with the an­ar­chic singer’s postM­is­fits band, Samhain. Mean­while, Oldham’s friends, Todd Bras­hear and Brian McMa­han, be­gan record­ing as post-rock flag-bear­ers, Slint; Oldham shot the iconic cover im­age for their crit­i­cally ac­claimed sec­ond al­bum, Spi­der­land. “I thought that if you had good intentions and put the hard work in, amaz­ing things would come back,” he says. These am­bi­tions be­came in­creas­ingly out­landish. “How could things truly be deeper, cooler, wilder? It wasn’t just that I wanted a car and big tits wrapped around my face.” Oldham stopped talk­ing to peo­ple, “to find an­other level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” He switched writ­ing hands hop­ing it might open up an­other side of his brain. “I thought, ‘If I move to be­ing left handed, could I write let­ters and books that I never could have dreamt of be­fore?’ It was the kind of mind that maybe does well in an ad­dic­tion sit­u­a­tion.” Recog­nis­ing he was fall­ing into “in­ter­nal chaos”, Oldham’s brother, Ned, nudged him to­wards song­writ­ing. “He said, ‘Here’s some­thing solid you can do: if you write a song you’ll have some­thing at the end of the day.’” The re­sult was a series of haunt­ing record­ings, partly scratched to­gether in a wood­land cabin with friends un­der the ti­tle of Palace Broth­ers, and fea­tur­ing Oldham as singer. The gui­tars were dead­ened and dis­tant sound­ing; Oldham’s barely-there vo­cals were smoke-scorched, the re­sult of a wood stove burn­ing in­doors. When in­die la­bel Drag City later re­leased Palace Broth­ers’ star­tling 1993 de­but, There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You, Oldham’s “func­tional enough” life had been yanked back from break­ing point. “I’d fig­ured out a way of walk­ing through the world with­out be­ing of the world,” he says. “[ With mu­sic] I could find the swirl in­side some­thing, make some­thing solid out of it and put it down on a tape recorder… Mak­ing the record, it was as if I’d been kid­napped by one of those weird cou­ples – the type that lock a lit­tle girl in the back yard for 11 years and have chil­dren with her – be­fore get­ting out, rein­tro­duced to the world.”

No­body ex­pected Johnny Cash to come call­ing, least of all Oldham who, by 1999, had re­leased a series of records un­der the guises of Palace Broth­ers, Palace Mu­sic and Will Oldham, be­fore set­tling upon Bon­nie “Prince” Billy. “I just wanted to iden­tify the dif­fer­ence from one al­bum to an­other,” he says. None of his records had been huge com­mer­cial suc­cesses; Oldham’s work was very much a cultish con­cern. But Cash, and pro­ducer Rick Ru­bin, had iden­ti­fied the ti­tle track from I See A Dark­ness – a maudlin col­lec­tion of melodic but min­i­mal folk – as a po­ten­tial cover for the coun­try star’s 85th stu­dio al­bum, Amer­i­can III: Soli­tary Man. Would

Oldham like to join the ses­sion? “I didn’t have any hopes,” he says. “In my mind I thought, ‘This will be an out­take.’” He re­calls get­ting to LA, hir­ing a rental car and “pulling into phone booths” to con­tact the stu­dio. It would go to voice­mail. “I just thought, ‘It’s not hap­pen­ing.’” Then, late af­ter­noon, Oldham re­ceived the nod to meet with Cash and Ru­bin. “It was so much like a dream, hearing him singing the song,” he says. “It felt like the most per­fect thing on some lev­els. I didn’t care at all if peo­ple heard it after that.” And so, “in­ter­nally af­firmed”, Oldham ex­panded his out­put into a bulging cat­a­logue of stu­dio al­bums, sound­tracks (he re­cently sang The Dragon Song for Disney’s 2016 movie, Pete’s Dragon), guest ap­pear­ances (he re­ceives song­writ­ing cred­its on John Leg­end’s re­cent al­bum, Dark­ness And Light) and cov­ers – his 2007 EP, Ask For­give­ness, fea­tures songs pre­vi­ously recorded by Björk and protest singer Phil Ochs; in 2007 he re­leased a ver­sion of Mariah Carey’s Can’t Take That Away. “I know when some­thing’s a great song,” he says. Oldham’s lat­est ef­fort is this year’s Best Troubador – a 16- song tribute to the late coun­try star, Merle Hag­gard. “My hero,” he says. Though he’s at pains to ex­plain that the project be­gan a cou­ple of years be­fore Hag­gard’s death last year. “I just thought that while Merle was alive it would be cool,” he says. “But when he died it all shifted. Then I read him talk­ing about start­ing his Elvis record when Elvis died. He said, ‘I don’t want to re­lease a tribute record to a dead guy.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool, Merle went through the same thing.’ If he was alive and only heard the record once and was like, ‘Can we turn this shit off ?’ It’d be awe­some.”

With his lyri­cal tales of drunks at the pul­pit and damn­ing temp­ta­tion, re­li­gious metaphor has been an oc­ca­sional muse for Oldham. Not that he’ll be drawn on his per­sonal be­liefs. “I don’t think it’s a con­ver­sa­tion we could have be­cause it would take 10 years,” he says. “Re­li­gion means a dif­fer­ent thing to ev­ery sin­gle hu­man be­ing that’s ever ex­isted.” The lyrics, he ex­plains, mainly come from fan­ta­sy­land, mys­te­ri­ous ideas he’d like to ex­plore fur­ther. “I’m fas­ci­nated by Claude Rains’s The In­vis­i­ble Man movie. The idea that noth­ing is vis­i­ble, but if you ap­ply tape, you re­alise some­thing’s there. All these songs are my at­tempt at put­ting tape around an idea.” The same sense of ex­plo­ration ap­plies to sex, too. On 1996’ s Arise There­fore he recorded the colour­fully ti­tled, You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hang­ing Out. Rider, from 1997’ s Joya, graph­i­cally de­scribes as­phyx­i­a­tion by oral sex. Jux­ta­pos­ing “dis­parate” im­ages like sex and death, “but feel­ing there was some­thing sim­i­lar; ex­plor­ing their power” helped to un­der­stand them bet­ter, he reck­ons. “Reese’s had peanut but­ter and choco­late,” laughs Oldham. “They brought them to­gether and… genius was made. Sex was far more mys­te­ri­ous to me when I was younger. At the time I was re­ally try­ing to put the tape around that.” In the back of the Kin­dle ver­sion of his 2012 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Will Oldham On Bon­nie “Prince” Billy, a discog­ra­phy of al­bums, EPs and sin­gles ex­tends to 30 pages. He has since gone on to re­lease a raft of new ma­te­rial. To­day, Oldham has the nag­ging sus­pi­cion that, after two decades of writ­ing and record­ing, he might have moved into “worka­holic” ter­ri­tory. “It’s ev­i­dent that’s the case,” he says. “I think of my­self as some­body who likes quiet, but I’m fool­ing my­self. The most im­por­tant thing is that my wife and I have an hour in the morn­ing to read. Every­thing else is build­ing up to that.” Quiet time is in short sup­ply, how­ever. In ad­di­tion to his live shows with Bitchin Ba­jas and Best Troubador’s forth­com­ing re­lease, sev­eral other projects loom large, in­clud­ing a pro­posed show of Mekons cov­ers

(in sup­port of 2016’ s Fan­tas­tic Voy­age tribute al­bum, re­leased un­der the name Chival­rous Amoekons), and his newly recorded take on Nina Si­mone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. A duet with folk singer Court­ney Marie An­drews, it was pro­duced for Our First 100 Days – a po­lit­i­cal project chart­ing Don­ald Trump’s open­ing months in power. The track, ex­plains Oldham, was recorded to “keep folks’ minds, tongues and fin­gers in motion.” Most re­cently he’s found the time to per­form at a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison in Mis­souri. “It’s the third time I’ve been,” he says. “It’s more self­ish than giv­ing back. I’ll know more about what I do by be­ing able to play to a dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent au­di­ence.”

“All your think­ing, every­thing that hap­pens, is work­ing along the rules of in­evitabil­ity. But every­thing’s sur­pris­ing, and mak­ing all this mu­sic is very sur­pris­ing.”

There’s also been a re­turn to act­ing, the trade he be­came so dis­il­lu­sioned by aged 19. Hav­ing ap­peared in Jack­ass 3D as a go­rilla trainer, and an Evangelical Chris­tian in 2011’ s New Jerusalem, he’s taken on the role as “cos­mic prog­nos­ti­ca­tor” in David Low­ery’s A Ghost Story, in which Casey Af­fleck plays the un­dead lead with a sheet over his head. The dif­fer­ences in his two strands of em­ploy­ment couldn’t be more con­trast­ing. “I write a song and I have some­thing,” he says. “In act­ing you don’t have own­er­ship of (your work) once it’s done. Actors don’t have the ben­e­fit of be­ing able to re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the fruits of their labour.” Mean­while, his life as a song­writer, 24 years in, still sur­prises him, but not in the way you’d ex­pect. “Every­thing is pre­or­dained,” he con­cludes, cos­mi­cally. “In so far as the physics of things: all your think­ing, every­thing that hap­pens, is work­ing along the rules of in­evitabil­ity. But every­thing’s sur­pris­ing, and mak­ing all this mu­sic for all these years is very sur­pris­ing. You have to take it in your stride.” So say the two of them. Will Oldham: the 46- year-old man safely emerged from a pe­riod of “weird lone­some­ness” with a sidewind­ing back cat­a­logue of brit­tle, beau­ti­ful folk rock; Bon­nie “Prince” Billy: the artist work­ing through “a dif­fer­ent set of rules”. Both wav­ing farewell from the stoop of a New Or­leans stu­dio apart­ment, in the rain, hav­ing fun. Well, some of the time.

Good Will hunt­ing: Oldham at home record­ing, Louisville, Ken­tucky, May 2015.

Wrong side of the tracks: Oldham’s act­ing de­but play­ing a preacher in 1987’ s Mate­wan.

In the be­gin­ning: as Palace Broth­ers, The Border­line, Lon­don, 1992.

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