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
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.